This essay was written hastily in late 1998 as application material for the NYU film school. I got in, but I didn't go. Long story.
Stanley Kubrick was a man at war.
Stanley Kubrick was a man at war with Hollywood, with his actors, with the public, with his colleagues, and, most notably, with himself. He seemed an obsessive perfectionist; actors either hated him or loved him; studios cringed at his production costs, delays, and total control; and moviegoers everywhere thought he was either brilliant or extremely disturbed. However, the true nature of Kubrickian warfare was in his films, not in business protocol and audience reaction. These haunting images of conflict can be traced through many Kubrick films, but the focus here will be on three of his major films: A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket.
1971's A Clockwork Orange was a spectacle -- a pornographic, violent, hyper-technological "psychological myth." Instantly identifiable, it remains terrifying and affectingly brilliant. The main character, Alex, is a teenager whose "interests are rape, ultra-violence, and Beethoven." However, A Clockwork Orange was not Kubrick's first controversial film -- 1957's Paths of Glory was banned in France, 1962's Lolita starred James Mason as a pedophile, and 1964's Dr. Strangelove made fun of governmental hijinks -- but it was, and still is, his most controversial. The true point of this film can be debated until the sun swallows the planet whole. Was Kubrick trying to say that criminals everywhere should roam free? That there is no chance for rehabilitation? That humanity is inherently evil? Or was it a study of Pavlovian classical conditioning? Maybe Kubrick was simply trying to get away with every single thing he could. Indeed, these can all be inferred, but perhaps the truth is that Kubrick was trying to manipulate his audience. If Alex is evil, why does the audience care if he commits suicide? Why are we somewhat amused when Alex outwits the government and gets fed by the governor? Obviously, Kubrick, through his translation onto the screen of Anthony Burgess' novel, has cast Alex as the "humble narrator" for more reasons than simple entertainment. Through having the always charming, mischievous Alex relate the story to us, we are instilled with a sense of sympathy for the poor boy. Though the audience may not especially be fans of rape and ultra-violence, it identifies with Alex because he is a working-class, intelligent kid in a terrible world, and his friends turn against him. By accompanying Alex in his surreal travels, we are as shocked as he is to find his schema crumbling when his droogies leave him and he, beaten and bloody, is caught by the cops one last time. We see Alex as Alex sees Alex, the intellectual deity in a world of blockheaded police, dimwits like Dim, and fakes who are afraid of the outside world. To the point: Alex's realm is war-torn. His post-Apocalyptic home of London looks like the ruins of Hiroshima; empty buildings in shambles rise above the slums, covered in graffiti. The only escape is the Korova Milkbar that Alex and his three droogs frequent. Even the "sophistos" must imbibe the drugged milk. For Alex, one escape leads to another -- he and his lackeys must find women to rape, homeless old men to brutalize, and things to destroy. Finally, Alex's worries float away into a sea of Beethoven's music. However, things among the droogs are not as they should be. Dim ("who really was dim") was sick of Alex's bullying, and Pete and Georgie both felt Alex was becoming a dictator over the gang. When Alex gets wind of this, his forces are mounted, and he puts his boys back in line with a show of ultra-violence. The war, though, is not over. After badly executing one of his pranks, Alex hears the police arriving. When he rounds up the droogs to leave the scene, they beat him with a milk bottle and leave him, bleeding and broken, for the police. Later, when Alex will return to the real world, his boys will have become the police, and beat him again. In prison, Alex finds a new fight. The monotony of walled life (walking around in a circle) begins to grate upon him, and he, in attempts to leave, gets on the prison chaplain's good side by reading the Bible (enjoying especially the parts with the real horrorshow violence and sex scenes and imagining himself as a Roman soldier whipping a cross-bearing Jesus.) The chaplain recommends Alex for a rehabilitation experiment for prisoners (the "Ludovico treatment") and Alex gladly joins, only to find out the horror of being rehabilitated -- the treatment has left him unable to enjoy sex or the music of Beethoven, and Alex is miserable. He attempts to fight his learned disgust, and yet his mind overthrows him. Still, Alex has not been forgiven for his past. Though he has been rehabilitated, society looks down upon him, as his parents turn him away and people from his past enact revenge upon him. All the while, people remark at the horror of the experiments, and yet Alex finds not a single friend. In the end, Alex prevails by being driven to jump out of a window and be placed in a hospital, as a testament to the treatment's effectiveness. The press and public finds Alex pitiful, and rejects the reason he was jailed in the first place for what they see to be the terrible product of mind control. Suddenly, the audience, too, finds itself pitying Alex, as if Kubrick is throwing a surprise birthday party. Now the audience has its own sense of war; one within themselves about their feelings for Alex -- we know that his crimes are terrible, but, even as Alex imagines people applauding his intercourse with a woman, we cannot help but be on his side.
In 1980, Kubrick re-entered the movie world after a relatively short hiatus; he had not made a film since 1974's Barry Lyndon, an Academy Award-winning period piece. Though Barry was devilishly Kubrickian in its treatment of the main character, it was not the twisted film many had come to expect from Kubrick. In response, Kubrick released what may be his most popular and widely-known film to date, The Shining. The Shining is based on the Stephen King novel of the same title, though King purists disown the film. To be fair, Kubrick did change the story a bit, but the film's plot is more enthralling and intelligent anyway. Jack Torrance has taken a job as the off-season caretaker of the Overlook hotel, a grand, spacious 19th century edifice. Jack, a writer, says he will use the solitude to complete the work on his new novel, and brings his family along for the long winter stay. However, Jack has other motives for closing himself off in this veritable palace; he has a bad history of alcoholism and apparently hit his son, Danny, on one occasion. Ever since, he says, he has been on the wagon, but the temptations, sometimes, get unbearable. Here is the first of this film's warlike structure. Jack, a man of violent tendencies, struggles to keep a marriage and family together through his periods of alcohol abuse. Though he feels comfortable and sober, he does not fully trust himself, and the best way to cancel out his abuse is by placing himself in an environment devoid of liquor -- "not a drop." However, later in the film, Jack begins his drinking again. However, it is not real alcohol that Jack drinks, but rather the illusion covers Jack's willingness to give in to his desire. Jack is, indeed, a man of weak character. Jack feels, though, that he must prove himself to his wife, Wendy. Their relationship seems awkward and forced, as if the events of recent years have pushed them apart and yet they stay together for Danny's sake. Wendy probably fears Jack's weaknesses and vulnerability. Jack has lost Danny, for Danny's fears of Jack now run deep; once a child has been injured, no amount of coaxing can remove that horrible memory. Therefore, Jack is left alone in the hotel, as he loses the war to keep his family on his side. Jack's battle with his emotions proves unwinnable, as the hotel possesses Jack and takes advantages of his deficiencies for women and for wine. When Jack embraces the disgusting hag in room 237, we know he is far gone. Soon we see the effect of Jack's fall upon his family. Danny has spastic, psychic fits of "Shining" and is possessed by "Tony," and Wendy becomes a nervous wreck due to Jack's bizarre, dangerous behavior. Soon Jack will either die inside of this murderous beast, or he will come out in full force, if there is a difference. Jack's battle with the Overlook -- the battle for his soul -- will push him to the brink, until nothing is left. A final thought: it is especially interesting to note that Kubrick completely abandoned King's mushy ending -- "Happy Father" Jack's ghost returns to visit Danny on his graduation day, proud that his son seems to be doing extremely well in life, regardless of his father's death and the horrible events that preceded it. As a matter of fact, every film Kubrick made after Killer's Kiss has a devastating or utterly baffling ending, for life in the twisted (is it?) Kubrick universe is not so simple.
As Kubrick's films grew farther and farther apart, fans began to wonder what facet of the cinema Kubrick had not yet touched his golden finger upon. With the definitive films in the genres of apocalyptic black comedy (Dr. Strangelove), sci-fi (2001), and horror (The Shining), Kubrick had nowhere to go but back. Returning to the cinema after seven years, Kubrick's next feature (and his last feature before Eyes Wide Shut) was the Vietnam drama Full Metal Jacket. A story of several Marines and their journeys through boot camp and into war, Full Metal Jacket was like no other Vietnam movie. The actual battleground is a bleak, bombed-out city, perhaps Kubrick's attempts at displacing the audience into the rubble of places like Dresden and London in WWII. This is not a movie specifically about Vietnam, but rather about all wars. Of course, even the wars in one's soul. In what is commonly called "the first half" (or "first third," depending on whom you ask) of the film, the young, freshly shaven recruits begin to learn the harshness of military life by enduring boot camp training on Paris Island. The drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, is a heartless piece of military stone, swearing by the "sound-off" chant and turning everything militaristic into a sexual metaphor (as if it needs any "turning".) He proves rough to most of the "maggots," but he mistreats one in particular; he verbally abuses the overweight private dubbed "Gomer Pyle." Pyle's refusal to give up is constantly thwarted by his own ability and by Hartman's incessant cruelty. Their battle is a thing of beauty, as they trade mental blows back and forth: Hartman constantly ridicules Pyle, and yet Pyle may cry his eyes out, but he never stops trying. Eventually, Hartman punishes the entire group for Pyle's misgivings, and the group attacks Pyle in his bunk. The following day, Pyle has obviously changed, as he has given up on compassion, even from those he trusted most, fellow privates Cowboy and Joker. Becoming obsessively organized and neat, Pyle demonstrates a psychotic manner. He has lost the battle with Hartman and with those around him, and has decided to be the very best Marine he can be. His ability increases, as he pieces his weapon together in record time and finally defeats the obstacle course. However, the audience feels no pride that Pyle beat the torture, for now he is so disconnected and dark that his torture seems to be endless, that he feels he deserves it. So it comes to no surprise when Joker finds Pyle sitting on a latrine in the Head with a loaded weapon. Hartman enters, and, screaming at Pyle, tests him for the last time. Pyle rises, begins arms presentations, sits back on the toilet, and shoots himself in the head. In Act II, as it were, Joker is working for the war press as a reporter, and is assigned to follow a certain unit in its campaign. The commander of this unit is none other than Cowboy, who became friends with Joker back on Paris Island. In the unit is the brutish Animal Mother, a veritable killing machine. Animal Mother embodies Kubrick's vision of a perfect product of the military's brainwashing. Animal's philosophy seems to be that the mission is bigger than the man, even though he seems to be quite egotistical. In him the battle for humanity is lost. Joker, on the other hand, evinces that he is "born to kill," and yet he wears a peace symbol on the same helmet on which that battle cry has been scrawled. When questioned what he means by displaying both insignias, Joker remarks that it says "something about the duality of man, sir!" Though this is slightly humorous, it indeed speaks for Joker, for, in the finale, when he finally shoots the VC sniper that has killed Cowboy and several others from the unit, Joker finds that killing is hardly as worthwhile as it is made out to be. This battle, between Joker's humanity and what the military has attempted to instill in him, that killing is right in the name of one's country, defines what Kubrick seems to be saying with this film. Joker staring down into the dead eyes of the female sniper shakes a viewer to his core and makes him realize the futility of it all.
Stanley Kubrick, a man of great passion and art, of great skill and diversity and who now belongs to the ages, had one major factor controlling many of his films (those excluded from this article were only done so for the sake of brevity): the essence of war; of man versus man; of man versus himself. In a struggle to define oneself in this world, Kubrick seems to be urging his audience to overcome its weaknesses, its uncertainty, and simply be. Had a hypothetical interviewer asked Kubrick what his body of work served to say about man, we can assume that he would have remained silent and averted his eyes, or perhaps walked away. But inside, the true Kubrick may have been shouting: "Something about the duality of man, sir!"
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