New books on Stanley Kubrick
Thomas Doherty at The Chronicle of Higher Education has written a fine piece on Stanley Kubrick, partly a review of two new books on him, On Kubrick by film scholar James Naremore and The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick, edited by Jerold J. Abrams. Both volumes, especially Naremore’s, seem to be worthy in Doherty’s evaluation.
In 1997, Stanley Kubrick made a rare public appearance to accept the D.W. Griffith Award from the Directors Guild of America — not in the flesh, but in his preferred format, on screen. Speaking from London on videotape, he graciously thanked his colleagues and dutifully delivered the nostrums demanded of the occasion. Although directing a film, he said, “can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.”Belying the warm sentiments, the performance was oddly mechanical, but also familiar. The flat tonality, the affectless immobility, and the oracular manner of the bearded old man with the bald dome might have been a computer-generated talking head — were not computer animation more expressive and lifelike in the age of digital graphics. The thought calls up the obvious association: HAL 9000, an older computer model from 2001 (the movie, not the year).
Stanley Kubrick always did come off as a cold fish — sterile, analytical, reclusive, an artist drawn to icy prehistoric worlds. “The last of the cold modernists,” quipped the film scholar James Naremore during a panel devoted to Kubrick at this year’s annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. “A cold bastard,” said the actor-producer Kirk Douglas. Even the name for his acolytes — Kubrickians — sounds hard-edged.
Not that critics or moviegoers have ever been cold about Kubrick. Endlessly interpreted, passionately admired, and, in some quarters, heatedly despised, he has been brand-name fodder for polemical crossfire since at least The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 (New American Library), a compilation edited by the writer Jerome Agel in 1970. The first great American director to hone his craft outside the Hollywood studio system, Kubrick left behind a relatively spare legacy of 13 feature films in a 40-year career. But when he died, in 1999, at age 70, the hit-to-miss ratio was as impressive — and controversial — as any in motion-picture history.
Two new voyages into Kubrickian scholarship suggest the vitality of the field and the variety of its approaches: On Kubrick, a synoptic probe from Naremore, out this summer from the British Film Institute, and The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick, a collection of essays from the University Press of Kentucky, edited by Jerold J. Abrams. Both books indicate that the artist is not ready yet for a therapeutic session of warm and fuzzy revisionism.
Born in the Bronx in 1928, Kubrick was a shutterbug savant who, by the age of 17, had signed up as a staff photographer for Look magazine. By the early 1950s, he was shouldering a 35mm newsreel camera and hustling homemade shorts to the Hollywood studios, a self-taught apprenticeship that graduated to master craftsmanship with the gritty Killer’s Kiss (1955), which he directed, wrote, photographed, and edited, all without benefit of the software Final Cut Pro, and The Killing (1956), a sleek racetrack-heist film, in which the thieves lose by a nose in the photo finish. A critic in The Hollywood Reporter nailed the subversive allure of Kubrick’s technique: “Almost against your will, you are drawn in to become a participant and even an adherent of a situation and a way of life that is, or should be, highly repellent.”
MGM’s Dore Schary took one look at The Killing and backed Kubrick’s ambition to realize a project that had been kicking around Hollywood since the 1930s. Antiwar about more than the Great War, Paths of Glory (1957) showcased the graceful tracking shots and precise compositions that became Kubrick’s trademark. When Douglas, the film’s star, was later beset by a legion of difficulties on the set of Spartacus (1960), he turned to Kubrick to steady the unwieldy production and command the cast of thousands. A huge commercial and critical hit, the three-hour epic was also the grisliest of Hollywood’s postwar sword-and-sandal spectacles, with none of the glory that was Rome or the solace of redemptive Christianity.
Fed up with Hollywood, Kubrick relocated to England, a safe distance from which to waltz on the wild side. In a film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious Lolita (1962), he bumped up the age of the nymphet from indictable to barely legal and bartered away statutory explicitness for fetishistic toenail painting. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) was a cold-war touchstone that did more to discredit the paranoid style in American anticommunism than the Army-McCarthy hearings; despite its now anachronistic dateline, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) still seems futuristic and utterly prophetic; and A Clockwork Orange (1971), a darker vision of a future just around the corner, provided a picture of a teenage wasteland besotted with the lilt of language and the kinetic rush of more than “a bit of the old ultraviolence.”
After A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick, never one to punch a clock, worked at his own meticulous pace. In 1970, when Hollywood was frantic for talent with a pipeline into the youth market, he had secured a sweetheart deal with Warner Bros. that gave him unprecedented control and autonomy. Thereafter, his legend grew as his public presence receded and his work product dwindled. Sometimes the hiatus was worth the wait, sometimes not.
The languid, painterly costume drama Barry Lyndon (1975), a rigorous formal exercise in 18th-century time, space, and lighting, failed in the laboratory of commerce. The pulp-horror writer Stephen King proved a more congenial matchup than William Makepeace Thackeray for a real horror show: The Shining (1980), a supernatural Oedipal drama. Full Metal Jacket (1987) was Paths of Glory without sentimentality, a combat film split between the twin Hobbesian jungles of a boot camp at Parris Island and a painted-black tour of duty in Vietnam, both fueled by lethal levels of testosterone. Then: silence, for over a decade, broken only by whispers of a long-gestating science-fiction project called A.I., ultimately brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg in 2001, and a film based on a Freud-addled novella published in 1925 by the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler that became Eyes Wide Shut (1999), released posthumously. In the interim, so complete was Kubrick’s avoidance of the public eye that a flamboyantly swishy, vodka-swilling con artist named Alan Conway was able to successfully impersonate the director and to bilk the celeb-struck before being busted by none other than Frank Rich, then drama critic of The New York Times. (The tale is told in the 2005 British film Colour Me Kubrick, released stateside, sans the first “u,” this year.)
From Dr. Strangelove forward, Kubrick’s artistic stride was in perfect sync with the rise of auteurism and the establishment of academic film studies, a career coincidence that was not an unmixed blessing. Unlike the geniuses of the old Hollywood system, he was put under a critical lens that was as liable to scorch as magnify. “Kubrick is a misanthropist and particularly a misogynist,” the film critic Molly Haskell seethed in her well-known feminist work From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, in 1976.
In the elegant critic and peerless scholar James Naremore, Kubrick has found, if not a purblind advocate, then at least a pro bono admirer. A professor emeritus at Indiana University at Bloomington, Naremore is a veteran of the pre-film-studies generation of scholars who cut their teeth on high-modernist literary theory and close textual criticism rather than semiotics and deconstruction. On Kubrick adds to the proof that Naremore’s erudition knows no brow, high, middle, or low. Discussing Barry Lyndon, he can draw upon more Thackeray than just the source novel; he can also report that the duel sequence from the film was parodied in Cheech and Chong’s The Corsican Brothers (1984).
Naremore adopts an admittedly discursive and idiosyncratic approach — not deigning to explicate Spartacus, which Kubrick directed but did not conceive, and lavishing a chapter on A.I., which Kubrick conceived but did not direct. Yet he is a sure-footed and engaging guide through the Kubrick canon, tracking the production history, critical reception, and marketing of each entry. Best of all, he locks his own critical intelligence on-to a body of work “inflected by the grotesque, the uncanny, the fantastic, and the blackly humorous.” Not surprisingly for a critic who confesses to shedding real tears over the mother-and-child reunions in A.I., Naremore prefers the gentle brush strokes of Barry Lyndon to the violence in A Clockwork Orange.
In a key insight, he locates Kubrick at the intersection of “Hollywood and the twilight of international modernism,” two traditions not often conjoined. “Kubrick was a total filmmaker who combined the sensibility of a literary intellectual with the technical expertise of a photographer/editor and the instincts of a showman,” Naremore argues. If the artistry of Hitchcock was concealed behind the mask of the showboating ham, Kubrick’s showbiz chops have been overlooked because of his patent artiness. But more often than not, the chilly director with a penchant for the avant-garde was also an authentic crowd pleaser.
The main reason revivified close-textual critics latch on to Kubrick is the sheer formal control evident in his every frame and in every note on the soundtrack. In that sense, Naremore’s “cold modernist” tag captures an ethos as well as a style — one that seems a cinematic expression of the poetics of T.S. Eliot, wherein the artist, far from being a wild-eyed Romantic channeling intimations of immortality, works with the scientific detachment of a lab-coated researcher — “indifferent, paring his fingernails,” in the famous phrase of that other avatar of cold modernism, James Joyce. If all that seems a stretch, Naremore reminds us that Kubrick “was an avid reader of the Anglo-European and largely modernist literary and philosophical canon of dead white men that was established by midcentury (plus a good deal of pulp fiction and scientific literature), and he maintained a lifelong interest in Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung.”
The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick
That kind of intellectual lineage means that the essays corralled in Abrams’s The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick meet a laugh-test threshold that would not be passed by a volume titled The Philosophy of George Lucas. Abrams, a professor of philosophy at Creighton University who has also pondered the metaphysics of James Bond, Woody Allen, and (oops) George Lucas, brings together 14 pensées, mainly from academic philosophers, for a critique of pure Kubrick that testifies to the stature of an artist taken seriously not just for his images but also for his ideas. Film scholars who thought it was finally safe to put down their copies of Jacques Lacan’s Écrits may now need to pick up Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.
Abrams discerns a coherent philosophy in Kubrick’s varied filmography. “It has the distinctly architectonic quality of any great philosophical system,” he says. “It takes all the differentiated sides of reality and unifies them into one rich, complex philosophical vision that happens to be very close to existentialism.” In Kubrick’s films, when the end credits roll, Abrams explains, “Each individual is fated to die alone, without any basic sense of meaning in a cold and heartless world.” Yep, sounds like existentialism all right.
Appropriately for a philosophical inquiry into the director who in 2001 rocketed Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra“ into the Top 40, Nietzsche pummels Kierkegaard in the index and chapter headings (to wit: “Nietzsche’s Overman as Posthuman Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Chaos, Order, and Morality: Nietzsche’s influence on Full Metal Jacket“). Elsewhere Philo 101 perennials star in featured roles or pop up for cameo appearances. The Killing registers “a striking parallel between Stoic philosophy’s view that providence operates through a deterministic causal nexus”; Spartacus evinces a “surprisingly distinguished filiation reaching back to Plato’s model of the tripartite soul”; and Eyes Wide Shut gazes into “a kind of Sartrean pessimism about our inevitable dissatisfaction with romantic love.”
The Aristotelian mean between film studies and philosophy is achieved when the idea of Kubrickness is tethered to a concrete cinematic apparatus. In a film-smart discussion of Kubrick’s reliance on the “reverse zoom” in Barry Lyndon, Chris P. Pliatska, a philosopher at Creighton, shows how the camera movement (a slow pull-back from a tight close-up to an extreme long shot) encourages the spectator to meditate on the meaning of the shift in perspective and “to reflect on how human beings suffer from the inescapable philosophical form of absurdity.” Despite the name-dropping overcompensation that probably comes with the Kubrickian territory, the director’s odyssey offers plenty for the epistemologically impaired reader to mull over. Wait until Abrams and his posse sink their chops into ABC’s Lost.
Sooner or later, every Kubrick commentator must stare into Eyes Wide Shut. To most moviegoers, Kubrick’s long-awaited swan song was dead on arrival, a pretentious masquerade that played like an overlong episode of HBO’s kinky Red Shoe Diaries. Lucky for them, the philosophers can sidestep aesthetics while squabbling over the message. “It is one of Kubrick’s most optimistic films,” says Karen D. Hoffman, of Hood College. “It is one of the most nihilistic of his works,” counters Daniel C. Shaw, of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. For his part, Naremore refuses to blink, deeming it “a remarkable last testament.” Among the orthodox, the film has come to serve as a litmus test separating the true believers from the heretics. At the Kubrick panel at a cinema-and-media-studies meeting, the English professor Susan White, of the University of Arizona, rattled a roomful of rapt Kubrickians when she casually called Eyes Wide Shut “unwatchable.” I think I heard gasps.
Whether one runs hot or cold on the films of Stanley Kubrick, it is impossible to be lukewarm about the power of his hypnotic imagery. The most haunting portraits in his gallery are outlined in his signature shot: a low-angle close-up of a face lit by madness, eyes wide open, seconds away from an explosion of cathartic violence — the smirking thug Alex in A Clockwork Orange, the blocked novelist Jack Torrance in The Shining, the chubby misfit Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, and — the irony here has never struck me as cold — the glass orb that fronts the sentience of the HAL 9000 computer, by far the most warmblooded and human character in 2001.
Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University. His book Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration will be published this fall by Columbia University Press.
Be sure to read our assessment of the Stanley Kubrick bibliography in print.