Kubrick: The humanity in a pessimistic, distancing director

By Jerry Saravia
May 27, 2004

Every passing year since Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999, I have become sadder and sadder. My sadness stems from Kubrick himself and the legacy he left behind. It is well known that an artist’s death renders the artist more exposure than when he was alive. In the face of cinema artists, this is true of the late Orson Welles, and it holds true for Stanley Kubrick. It may be some time before Kubrick’s final opus, “Eyes Wide Shut,” is seen as the masterpiece it definitely is (with repeated viewings).

Consider for a moment his vital, intellectual, influential work in the 20th century. From the noirish roots of “The Killing,” to the anti-war treatise in “Paths of Glory,” to the romantic longings of a professor and his stepdaughter in “Lolita,” to the infinite universe and beyond of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” to the antisocial behaviors and violence of youth in “A Clockwork Orange,” to the tumult of a simpleton’s rise and fall in “Barry Lyndon” and, last but not least, the Vietnam War as a folly of clockwork soldiers and political mumbo-jumbo in “Full Metal Jacket.”

But there is more than just a series of entertaining, highly troubling, disturbing, provocative films to Kubrick’s résumé – the themes of sexual dysfunction and dehumanization are also clearly focused and became staples in Kubrick’s work. His films were not films – they were events – and you couldn’t forget them. As I have discovered in the past few years, even those who hate some of his work can’t easily dispense with it and move on. The films are as much a fabric of our society as any highly personal director’s, and of the world’s. Kubrick’s films are ours – we see ourselves in his films, for better or worse.

What has bothered me about the critical reception toward Kubrick is the charge that he was a clinical, ice-cold director, concerned more with pyrotechnics and style than with humanity. This is quite a charge, something unheard of in the mentioning of any other director I can recall. Of course, with repeated viewings, we can see a humanity stamped in his films, no matter how distancing the director is.

There is no doubt that Kubrick was deeply concerned with style and craftsmanship (he even obtained a rare NASA wide-angle lens for “Barry Lyndon” to avoid the usual lighting sources found in period pieces). Style and craftsmanship are commonly every director’s concern, particularly one with an individualistic style (I mean, how less of a craftsman is Spielberg than Kubrick?) The difference is always in the execution of style and performance to suit the director’s needs and his themes, particularly his emotional attachment to his characters who are put on dehumanizing rollercoaster rides.

For instance, it is easy to dismiss Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” as an intellectually engaging film rather than an emotional one. In closer inspection, though, there is a catharsis for the main character, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a gang leader who revels in the glory of violence. He is not a sentimental creation, but he is a likable kind of guy despite his violent nature. (How can you hate anyone who loves Beeethoven?) Through the course of the film, we see the world through his eyes, but we never forget what he is. When Alex kills his victims, it is usually off screen. But when his band of droogs turns against him, something else happens. He is beaten in prison by guards and spat on, and we see what a bloody mess he has become (unlike with his murder victims). Then the Orwellian government takes over, using Alex as a guinea pig for the removal of violent behavior. We see Alex strapped to a chair with his eyelids pried open as he is forced to watch Holocaust films and sexual and violent reenactments of what almost seems like his own crimes. The man is in agony, especially when he is deemed cured and is treated to what appears to be the Theater of the Cruel, where he is again abused, kicked and tested. Out in the real world, Alex is a free man, but his parents shun him, his former droogs are now police officers who nearly drown him, and the leftist writer who was paralyzed by Alex’s actions wants his blood. No one can tell me that it isn’t wrenchingly emotional to see teary-eyed Alex in his parents’ house. Through the last third of the film, Alex has become a sorry-eyed, lost puppy – he wants affection and can’t get it.

Another film misunderstood in its emotional effect is “Full Metal Jacket,” Kubrick’s Vietnam War movie that is really just a war movie in the strictest sense. It is less about Vietnam than it is about the repercussions of the hellish experience known as war, and how it affects the soldiers themselves. There is the case of Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), the fat Marine recruit who is unable to meet the physical demands of rigorous basic training. He has an unending confrontation with Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), who imposes on his trainee and attacks him verbally and physically. Pyle is the only recruit who consistently bungles his training sessions – he can’t climb a wooden fence, he has trouble running, he is unable to do one pull-up, and so on. However, he is a hell of a marksman. But before the tragedy unfolds between Pyle and Hartman, the gleam and innocence in Pyle has eroded – he is a soldier with the instincts of a machine ready to kill. Hartman has stripped his humanity to the point where Pyle can only react with explosive rage. Even fellow recruits tire of Pyle’s screw-ups – they beat him with socks filled with soaps. We feel something for Gomer Pyle as we would for anyone who is put through the dehumanizing process of making young men into killers.

Maybe it was bad timing, but “Full Metal Jacket” followed the coattails of Oliver Stone’s powerful “Platoon” and several other Vietnam pictures. “Full Metal Jacket” was a modest financial success but critically a disaster. Roger Ebert wrote that it was like parading around Kubrick’s own little Vietnam, easy to find where you are because he keeps going in circles to the same place. “It was too little, too late,” he added, as if yet another Vietnam movie was an error in judgment. What did people have to say about John Ford’s numerous westerns when the genre was exploited for all its worth during the ’40s and ’50s? The other criticism was about the disconnected two-act structure that makes it seem like we are watching two movies. Kubrick was always experimenting with narrative, and the associations and connections between the two acts can be found if one looks closely. In the end, it was really about war as an apolitical phenomenon, taking no sides and showing that it is maddening and senseless. This may have bothered many critics.

“Eyes Wide Shut,” Kubrick’s last hurrah, is quite possibly the most emotional of all his films – a moving illumination on marriage and sex as told through the point of view of a private doctor. The doctor is Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), who has a private practice in New York City, a beautiful wife named Alice (Nicole Kidman) and a young daughter who loves to go window-shopping at the nearby toy store. A night after a big party, Alice wonders about Bill’s own feelings towards other women, particularly his patients. What is instigated is immediate jealousy from Bill when Alice tells the story of a handsome sailor she almost had a liaison with. Bill goes out in the streets of New York, looking for sex with hookers and patients’ relatives, and embarks on a nightmarish journey into a secret orgy held in a mansion on Long Island. But Bill never gets laid and further discovers that sex can be an animalistic act devoid of emotion. This realization is at the heart of “Eyes Wide Shut” – everyone has their eyes open except him. And the ending furthers this idea when Alice breaks down, saying she loves him but can think of only one thing: sex.

Most critics panned Kubrick’s Sex Odyssey for reasons relating more to Kubrick, the man, than Kubrick, the director. They felt he was behind the times, completely de-eroticizing the film’s subject matter and teasing us with prospects of fornication. Had Kubrick been so isolated that he had no notion of how human beings behave anymore? Again, quite a charge to make of a director whose sole interest has always been human behavior. The New York Observer’s Rex Reed wrote, “It is a film made by a man who didn’t get out much.” It may be Kubrick’s own fault for teasing the audience and critics, who thought they were going to see Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in their birthday suits. Nothing could be further from the truth. The advertising campaign and media hype showed proof that the director was toying with our expectations all over again. Think back to “Dr. Strangelove” and “Lolita” with their cunning use of wit to deliver sexual innuendoes. Did anyone really think Stanley Kubrick was going to make a full-scale blue movie, a porno flick with NC-17 pretensions a la “Last Tango in Paris”? I knew that was not the case, especially when the screenplay was adapted from “Traumnovelle,” a novella written by Arthur Schnitzler, a good friend of Sigmund Freud. The film is also an attempt at understanding the meaning and need for sex in people, and every person Bill meets has a sexual connotation.

The other night I watched “The Shining” for the umpteenth time and was struck by how emotional I felt for Shelley Duvall’s Wendy, who is consistently crying and in shock over Jack Nicholson’s psychotic Jack Torrance. Mind you, I never felt much for Wendy, so this came as quite a surprise to me.

Kubrick’s films grow on you like moss, and you never forget them because they are so focused on the characters. He had the habit of distancing himself from the material because he wanted to be the observer, the omnipotent god who looks down at the situation and analyzes it. But make no mistake, he had an emotional center.

Let’s not forget Barry Lyndon’s own tragic downfall, from a simpleton to a bastard who weeps for his son’s death and his amputated leg. The loneliness of space travel and the destructive supercomputer, HAL, who develops more emotions than any of the astronauts in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” James Mason’s Humbert Humbert’s severe emotional breakdown, knowing he is losing the life he wanted to have with the sexpot title character in “Lolita.”

Stanley Kubrick cared about his characters, and he showed pathos without ever sentimentalizing their responses or their situations. He was a humanist but also a pessimist. The controversy continues.

Related link:, a comprehensive Kubrick fan site
Related link: The Authorized Stanley Kubrick Web Site
Related link: Kubrick Multimedia Film Guide
Related link: Stanley Kubrick's filmography @ IMDb