3. Kubrick Focuses on External Manifestations of Internal Emotions by Exploiting Literary Concepts Developed by Brecht, Nietzsche, & Freud
By understanding these three titans, one understands Kubrick.
Brecht pioneered theories in theatercraft that constantly challenged actors and directors to break the “fourth wall” of complacency between the stage and theatergoers, which later became known as Brechtian distancing device. Nietzsche wrote about Man & the Superman and the certainty of moral supremacy versus moral complacency and quiet desperation.
Freud pioneered studies of the Id and dream-states and the willfull (or necessary?) need and desire to suppress these entities, no matter what the cost or after-effects. How often can it be said the cure is worse than the disease?!
These are the major themes of almost all of his films. These concepts inhabit the inner and outer world of his characters and form the overarching concepts and contrasting dialectic. At the center of it all is the disintegration of the family unit struggling to survive within a dystopian, fractured universe slowly ebbing away under its inexorable weight and futility. We are all alone in the vast confines of space, our minds, our actions, our fears.
By coincidence or by design, in almost every instance these characteristics manifest themselves most clearly in men. Not since John Ford has one director so focused his attention on the dynamics of the male species.
In fact, it was rare for a Kubrick film to have women in a central, much less starring, role. Only Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut, Marissa Berenson in Barry Lyndon, and Shelley Duvall in The Shining have any significant “star” presence throughout the length of the film. In Kubrick’s films, men have carried the burden, the angst, the greatest character arcs, and suffered the greatest failures. Success was elusive if non-existent, or meta a best.
The cinematic motif that clearly visualized internal evil into a palpable physical presence was the ground-level up-angle on a character’s face. A visual corollary was the forward-tilting head and eyes looking up. This became a visual leitmotif that followed in every film. It manifested the male rage, the male impudence, the male libido all in one, single, brooding moment.
Like Bob Fosse, whose inability to dance ‘traditionally’ morphed into a signature jazz style suggestive hip rolls, turned-in pigeon toes, finger snaps as a way of separating him from the pack, Kubrick constantly reinvented himself and changed audience preconceptions to overcome any deficiency. He made films differently simply because he had to.
If women were forever his directorial Achilles heel, his films will be about men in ways never heretofore seen. Audiences were challenged to accept his version, not their own, undercutting expectations, subverting the genre, and inventing new forms of story.
After achieving auteur status, but stumbling a bit with his sanitized version of Nabakov’s scandalous Lolita, from Dr. Strangelove on each film became a genre-busting, certifiable masterpiece that pandered to no one’s proclivities and limited only by Kubrick’s own intelligence and willing to push the envelope. 2001 sought to answer nothing less than the meaning of life.
The Shining was a horror film set almost exclusively in daylight. Denied Napoleon, Kubrick set his sights on Barry Lyndon as a remarkably apt substitute to show the ill effects of arrogance and hubris amongst the ruling and military elite. Eyes Wide Shut, a long-gestating project, made men’s fantasy real and reality a nightmare.
Kubrick was very lucky that his studio did not impose the four-quadrant profitability chart onto his vision. That he was considered a special enough artist to be left alone to his own devices is a significant part of his aura and further assures his spot on the all-time greatest list.
4. Kubrick is not Afraid to Employ Technology to Sustain His Vision
Kubrick’s interviews – what few there are – are extraordinary.
His Playboy interview is his most famous, and one where he was allowed to wax rhapsodic on a variety of subjects. The sit occurred around the time of the release of the film 2001: a space odyssey, so the concepts of God, advanced alien civilizations, the meaning of life, and role of man within the universe was central to the discussion.
Many directors are polymaths because of the innate nature of the profession, but few exhibited knowledge on such a vast array of subject matter that Kubrick did. In vast, rounded paragraphs, he could speak with minute exactitude and precision on large variety of subjects that amazed even experts. This ability to embrace technology gave him an edge no other director had. This affected, in no small way, every frame of film seen or unseen.
Kubrick was often the first to adapt technology into the physical act of making films. This, plus his unending literary curiosity, put many tools into his quiver. One can never forget the slit-scan “journey to the stars” in 2001; his astonishingly accurate depiction of airborne nuclear bombardment in Dr Strangelove, especially the interior of the B-52; the use of the camera lens from NASA for the candlelit sequences in Barry Lyndon; the use of the Steadicam in The Shining, and on and on.
It wasn’t so much that he used the technology as a means to an end, but his genius at integrating technology into the fabric of the film and turning something coldly mechanistic into a visual leitmotif that lent meaning and significance to the character’s state of mind that made these technical trasformations so extraordinary.
It’s a hard trick to keep it relevant and not gimmicky, and 2001 represents the apotheosis never to be equaled in science fiction film again – in depth, in harmony, in drama, in vision, in purity of purpose. In the decades since, only Blade Runner in the 80s, and recently, Ex Machina in 2015, can even come close to matching dystopia with filmic poetry, and making the end of man somehow evolutionary and a desirable end.
5. Kubrick’s Use of Black Comedy in Non-Comedic Films
Kubrick was a very funny man. No one could make the likes of Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, Lolita, 2001, or even A Clockwork Orange, without a very wicked sense of humor.
2001, even though it’s a science fiction film, could be seen as one of the darkest satires ever made, and Full Metal Jacket, a Viet-Nam war film, was nothing more than a 2-hour riff on the sadistic violence of humor and ironic detachment. The entire first set piece on Paris Island is one, long assault on the increasingly violent juxtaposing of words and action, and would be rip-roaringly hysterical if the stakes weren’t so dire or the delivery so Brechtian.
The war was incidental to the sing-song-slangy dialog spoken by the “phony tough and the crazy brave” that is as black as pitch. Even the main character’s name is Pvt. Joker! We all remember the non-stop, over-the-top pyrotechnics of Dr. Strangelove, but few moments in any film match this quieter moment as a lamenting HAL 9000 singing “Daisy” while being “unplugged” – in effect murdered(!); or Alex de Large singing “Singing in the Rain” while brutally assaulting a man before he rapes his wife; or, again in Full Metal Jacket, the thorny-horny troops singing the Mickey Mouse song after killing an assassin which saw many lose their life in the process. But hey, it’s okay, we got Mickey on our side!
I could on for ages but space limits. Brutal humor is an operative word here, from the quiet moments to the loudest – humor as bullets, as an attitude, as a mission statement.
Of Kubrick’s contemporaries, perhaps only Marty Scorsese is as sadistically funny.
6. Kubrick’s Use of Music
Kubrick is hardly the first to use classical music but he is certainly the most unique – preferring to eschew the typical, Hollywood scored-through style (Spartacus was the last) in favor of classical passages from various sources to augment the story. Full Metal Jacket broke the style, not the mold.
It is important to note, 2001 was fully scored in a traditional manor by Alex North. At the last moment, unbeknownst to Mr. North, Kubrick swapped out the scored music with all the previous temp tracks that were used during post-production. Imagine Mr. North’s surprise and consternation when he heard the first strains of Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra opening the film and not his own intro.
From 2001 on, Kubrick owned this space. What he did for Strauss, he did for Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange. Krzystof Penderecki was next on the list (few, outside a very small group of modernist classical enthusiasts, knew of this talented Polish composer).
Suddenly, everyone was whistling Dies Irae and his works became the go-to piece for unrelieved horror or fear for many other directors. Full Metal Jacket went period rock-and-roll in parts, but fully half of the score was composed by his own daughter, Vivian Kubrick (who was also the young tyke in 2001 wanting a bushbaby), on a synthesizer in a sort-of reducto/revisionist deconstruction of post-modern classical style.
Barry Lyndon’s music is extraordinary in simplicity and powerful in effect – a beautiful, haunting amalgam of classical, early, and authentic folk and military influences that clearly tells its own, sad, parallel story.
No director other than Wes Anderson – a clear Kubrick imitator (but in a good way!) – comes even close to this style. Anderson’s masterpiece, Moonrise Kingdom, is a tour-de-force homage to Kubrick in every respect, and freely uses of many pieces from Benjamin Britton and Camille Saint-Saëns in loving, affectionate tribute to the Master that started it all.