On Mapping Kubrick

Still from The Shining (1980)

When San Francisco’s Castro Theatre began their week-long Stanley Kubrick retrospective last month, I was excited enough at the prospect of a synoptic overview of Kubrick’s work to cancel some pre-existing plans and rearrange my work schedule to view the films. The excitement, however, originated less in a promise of pleasure at viewing the films than from a desire to finally come up with a definitive opinion on Kubrick and his films. For a long time I’ve had mixed feelings about Kubrick. His films have often struck me as uneven, inconsistent, occasionally of low production value and often pretentious. Even more maddeningly, I’ve never felt like I was able to pin down exactly what is consistently Kubrickian throughout his entire oeuvre, to trace the shadow that manifests itself in such a myriad of forms throughout his films, and I looked at the retrospective as a chance to do exactly that.

If anything I ended up more confused. Finding the fingerprint of Kubrick within the unique genre of each of his films, from the murky comedy of Dr. Strangelove to the gleaming coldness of 2001, from the synthesized horror-film aesthetics of The Shining to the dainty plucked notes of Barry Lyndon, from the hardened jungle of Full Metal Jacket to the surreal ribaldry of Lolita, feels nearly impossible. Often it seems as though Kubrick’s greatest interference in his films is the overwhelming sense of nothingness seeping into them, that underlying analytic coldness beneath the surface of so much of his work. His films are not of one world but are each worlds unto themselves. As such it makes sense that nearly all of his films are of a uniquely different genre — each defined by its own aesthetics; and as such they must invent an aesthetic of their own.

If each of Kubrick’s films is its own planet, then they are linked by a network of tunnels and corridors that riddle each scene and landscape. They are the World War I trenches heaped with bodies of dead soldiers; the long hotel corridors leading to one horrific scene after another; the halls of a gloomy erotic mansion hosting bizarre sex rituals; the canals under a bridge where futuristic gangs prey on the drunk and the homeless; the wheel-shaped control-room of a quietly orbiting spacecraft. They link us from one scene to another, each often filled with isolated, unique groups of people. Their deliberate slowness and roaming effect encourage our minds to drift and encourage us to view each scene not as a vessel catering to our pleasure but as a mute, self-operating planet we are being allowed to witness. There is always a strange, awkward space around his actors, and there is never a sense of life existing beyond the scenes and people we are witnessing.

What is consistently inspiring about the films is their ability to move freely, uninhibited by convention. Often it seems they are structured and chaptered as novels, and they frequently suggest literary underpinnings. Behind the veil of his films are slow-moving cosmologies and ill-defined empires that only graze the aesthetic surface. For instance, when we watch Leonard Lawrence in Full Metal Jacket slowly alienated and punished for his faults, we are watching the roots of antagonism and subversiveness, which are then magnified to their logical conclusion in the film’s hellish Vietnam-based second half. When we watch Jack Torrance slowly collapse into insanity in The Shining, we are watching the breakdown of the classical American family, and when we see David Bowman turn into a giant planetary infant in the end of 2001 we are witnessing the very cycle of life itself. At the same time it often seems as though meaning is hidden and secreted instead of clearly structured into Kubrick’s films, as though every Kubrick feature mutely moves in its own orbit, simply enacting its own cosmology, independent of meaning.

Yet despite their underlying complexity, on the surface level Kubrick’s films frequently feature what I would consider low production values, particularly in regards to his actors. Jack Nicholson and Vincent D’Onofrio’s turns as crazed villains both belong in the pantheon of schlocky B-quality horror movies, and despite its sense of celestial wonder most of the human dialogue in 2001 is delivered with an undeniable, surgical dryness. At times,Barry Lyndon plays like an educational TV movie, while the sex scenes in Eyes Wide Shut, cut to dirty blues music or shot in grainy slow-motion, frequently resemble the kind of softcore pornography that used to play late nights on HBO when I was a kid. Much of the soldierly dialogue in Full Metal Jacket (and at times in Paths of Glory), while meant to conjure an air of camaraderie and authenticity, is delivered with the subtlety of a high school play, and many of the slangy, profanity-laden lines fall flat and cold as soon as they are spoken.

If there was a singular benefit of my viewing of the Castro’s retrospective it was my greater ability to accept these touches as part of Kubrick’s analytical distance from his work. The dully-delivered ruminations in Full Metal Jacket or 2001 perhaps only serve to highlight the words being spoken rather than the people speaking them, and to add to their overall sense of otherworldliness. After all, is it not easier to coldly analyze that which is foreign to us? And the more I view them, the more Kubrick’s films seem irreparably and perhaps deliberately alien and unwelcoming. They are mutely, translucently built, and always self-operating. Words are separate from speakers, bodies are separate from people, and what we see is separate from what is. They are bold, simple blocks of cinema, documents of alien planets.

Ultimately, I will never be able to label myself as a genuine Kubrick fan, for what exactly is definitively Kubrick in each picture remains elusive to me. Each of his films is a singularly unique sibling in a strange family, and watching them one gets the sense that Kubrick has not so much birthed them himself but facilitated their birth. As such my hope of getting a definitive grip on the world of Kubrick was sadly left unfulfilled by the Castro’s retrospective. There is no definitive Kubrickian universe but instead a number of badly damaged smaller worlds left in his wake. Perhaps our best work as viewers is to try to document, if not navigate, their complex and fractured geography. TC mark

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