A Bit of Chomsky, A Lot More Kubrick

Noam Chomsky and Stanley Kubrick were both born to Jewish parents in 1928 in big cities on the East Coast (Philadelphia and New York, respectively). I don’t know if they ever met. Chomsky, whom Wikipedia describes as a linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist, recently gave an interview to Truthout, the non-profit news organization. These two paragraphs are receiving attention:

What is happening in the U.S., India and Brazil . . . cannot fail to evoke memories of the early 1930s . . . . One common feature is the fanatic adoration of the Maximal Leader by his loyal followers. There is one curious difference. Mussolini and Hitler were providing their worshippers with something: social reforms, a place in the sun. Trump is stabbing them in the back with virtually every legislative and executive action, and seriously harming the U.S. in the international arena. The same is true of his companions in arm in India and Brazil.

Trump’s commitment to cause maximal suffering to the American population is stunning to behold. It goes well beyond his truly colossal crimes: racing towards the abyss of environmental catastrophe and sharply increasing the threat of nuclear war. In far lesser ways, once again no stone is left unturned in ways to cause severe harm to the public.

I think Chomsky’s analysis of our political situation is too apocalyptic, except when he warns about our inadequate response to climate change. You can read the whole interview at Truthout.

I found a Washington Monthly article about my favorite director more rewarding. It’s a review of a new biography, Stanley Kubrick, American Filmmaker, by David Mikics, that apparently analyzes Kubrick’s body of work in a way that sounds simplistic but makes a lot of sense:

In America, we are in a season of political rebellion. Throughout the country, protests have become a part of everyday life. Some of them are righteous (the Black Lives Matter movement wants to end police brutality and systemic racism); some of them are not (armed conservatives are pushing states to reopen before it’s safe). . . . And perhaps no artist has more frequently captured the essence of rebellion—whether personal or collective in nature—than Stanley Kubrick. 

Consider his body of work. Spartacus (1960) chronicles the eponymous Roman gladiator who led a slave revolt. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) reaches its climax when a sentient computer tries to kill off his crew once he learns that they plan to disable him. Barry Lyndon (1975) tells the saga of an incorrigible 18th-century trickster who rejects his family of Irish farmers to ingratiate himself in the British aristocracy. The Shining (1980) shows a man’s descent into madness as he plots to murder his wife and son. Full Metal Jacket (1987) takes its biggest turn when a Parris Island Marine trainee shoots his draconian drill instructor.

It’s fitting that Kubrick focused heavily on rebels. He was one. That’s one of the major takeaways from a new biography by David Mikics . . .  Kubrick did poorly in school—was simply “not interested,” he said—and didn’t go to college, much to the chagrin of his New York Jewish middle-class parents, who owed their livelihoods to their education. Instead of college, Kubrick spent his early 20s as a photographer and made extra cash by competing in chess tournaments. . . .

The rebellions of Kubrick’s characters, however, almost always came up short. In Spartacus, the revolt fails. In 2001, HAL’s scheme falls apart. In Barry Lyndon, the protagonist’s story ends in terrible misfortune. In The Shining, Jack Torrance freezes to death. In Full Metal Jacket, the Marine trainee, Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, kills himself.

Kubrick’s rebellion, by contrast, served him well. He refused to follow Hollywood’s formulaic filmmaking clichés and was unafraid to touch on outré subjects (this is the man who made Lolita, after all). His films still won eight Academy Awards (Kubrick himself only won once, for special effects on 2001). Many were international box office hits. The most famous actors in all of Hollywood, like Jack Nicholson, would drop whatever they were doing to work with him. In the latter part of his career, he had a unique arrangement with Warner Brothers that let him make movies on all of his own terms. He is now widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers who ever lived.

In other words, Kubrick’s filmmaking life was marked by a fundamental contradiction. He was the consummate model of a rebel who succeeded, yet he spent his entire life making films about rebels who fail. 

. . . While taking photos for Look magazine in the late 1940s, he started going to movie screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, where he was introduced to foreign films. He . . . saw a lot of movies that didn’t meet his standards. “I know I can make a film better than that,” he would say. Soon, he started using the little money he had in savings—approximately $1,500—to rent camera equipment and make short movies.

His first was a 16-minute documentary on a boxing match, Day of the Fight. He sold it to RKO Production pictures for $100 more than it cost him to make it. That inspired him to quit his job at Look and turn to film full-time. He made a few more shorts before his first feature, Fear and Desire, which was a commercial flop but received enough critical appreciation that he was able to continue making movies. 

It took his third feature film, The Killing (1956), about a meticulously planned racetrack robbery gone wrong, for Kubrick to come into his own as an artist. The noirish film follows Johnny Clay, a veteran criminal who wants to pull off a final heist and leave town. It ends with Clay trying to get on a flight to Boston with a bag full of cash. When he arrives at the airport, the gate attendant won’t let him bring the bag as a carry-on because of its weight. Eventually, Clay lets him check it. Then, while he’s on the runway, Clay watches as a woman’s dog jumps from her arms. The baggage cart driver swerves to avoid hitting it, and the suitcase falls off and opens. The money goes flying into the air, scattered away by the airplane’s propellers. Clay and his girlfriend quickly try to leave the airport but realize the futility of attempting to escape—and are met by cops at the airport entrance. 

This was the first display of what would become the classic Kubrick plot. As Mikics writes, the director was “drawn to macho revolt, and to anything else that makes well-laid plans screw up royally.” It was a subject that stayed constant even as Kubrick later became an incredibly versatile filmmaker, bouncing from genre to genre. The director went from an antiwar movie to a historical epic to a dark comedy to a sci-fi to a dystopian movie to a period drama. Then he made a horror film, a war film (not the same as an antiwar film), and an erotic psychodrama. In each of these movies, men (they were always men) rebel in some form or fashion against their reality and surroundings.

A few of them deserve to succeed. In Paths of Glory (1957), for example, Kirk Douglas plays a French colonel whose unit refuses orders to invade an enemy anthill, and then stands up against the military establishment for seeking to punish his soldiers (had they carried out the order, they would effectively have been committing suicide). But most of Kubrick’s rebels are far less noble. Many, like The Shining’s Torrance, are full of a kind of masculine rage that destroys their capacity for rational thought.

Dr. Strangelove (1964) is an especially powerful example. Sterling Hayden plays a general who becomes impotent, has a psychotic breakdown, and ignores the chain of command so he can order a nuclear attack on the Soviets. He uses the bomb to replace the sexual release. This is a tale not so much of failed rebellion—his plan does, in fact, work—but of rebellion as a form of mental malfunction. 

The connection between rebellion and malfunction is also apparent in A Clockwork Orange (1971). The film is obviously about a rebel: a conscienceless youth gang leader named Alex who takes pleasure in violence and rape. But the film reaches its apex when he comes in contact with another rebel: the government’s minister of the interior, who controversially tries to reform Alex through an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico technique. . . . Once he’s released from jail, however, his former victims find him and torment him until he can’t take it anymore—and he tries to commit suicide.

Pretty soon, the news media picks up his story, civil society is outraged, and the menace becomes the victim: the subject of the minister’s brutality. The government then has to “uncondition” Alex to save face. The state’s plan completely backfires. The film ends with Alex being re-released into society just as dangerous as he was before.

Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange were clearly political. But many of Kubrick’s revolts were personal. His final movie, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), is centered around the theme of adultery. The film—the last to star Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as a married couple—follows Cruise as he ostensibly sets out on a voyage to cheat on his wife after she tells him she once considered having an affair. That includes him infiltrating a secret society’s masked orgy. Complications, however, get in the way, and he never follows through. When he confesses his adventures to his wife, she seemingly forgives him (the final lines of dialogue are some of Kubrick’s finest). But it still becomes an archetypal Kubrick story of failed rebellion. As Mikics writes, the film is essentially “a piquant fairy tale: male defiance is quickly foiled by fate, which brings the man back to where he started.”

For today’s aggressive conservative protestors—the mostly male demonstrators who march on statehouses bearing arms—Kubrick’s macho plot lines could prove prescient. Try as they might to act against others and increase their power, the rebels in Kubrick’s films are rarely able to get their way, or at least what they truly want. 

This may also be the case for Dxxxx Txxxx himself. The president already seems like a character out of Dr. Strangelove. The question is whether [his] unsteady revolt against American political institutions will end . . . like The Shining’s Jack Torrance’s revolt against his own mediocrity—in self-destruction. 

A hallmark of Kubrick’s rebels is that they almost always lose control of the situation. Johnny Clay’s heist itself succeeds, but is upended by a swerving luggage cart. The minister in A Clockwork Orange manages to reprogram Alex, but his efforts are then undone by societal backlash.

Mikics suggests that Kubrick’s preoccupation with catastrophe stems in part from his New York Jewish upbringing. . . . “Gentiles don’t know how to worry,” Kubrick once remarked. 
That may explain why Kubrick, unlike his characters, was a perfectionist. He was an exacting director who demanded dozens of takes. For the Vietnam set in Full Metal Jacket, which he filmed near his estate in England, he refused to use plastic props and instead imported 100,000 tropical plants from Hong Kong and more than 200 palm trees. He would edit and reedit his films seven days a week. . . .

Kubrick’s perfectionism was an indelible part of his filmmaking identity. In essence, it was a manifestation of his belief in hard work—that the way to successfully overcome adverse odds when rebelling is through carefully considering every little thing. This was one of the reasons he loved chess. He once said the game “teaches you . . . to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good,” but to “think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.”

. . . He loved telling cautionary tales of how rebels can go wrong. In a speech during the final months of his life, the director paid tribute to Icarus, the great rebel of Greek mythology, who tried to fly higher than his father by creating wings with wax and feathers but who plummeted to his death when the wax melted in the sun. 

In most classrooms, the story is taught as a lesson on the dangers of overreaching and needless ambition. But Kubrick shared a different analysis. He said, “I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘Don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as: Forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.”

Bookmarking Our National Transgressions

Going through old bookmarks, I found Eric Foner’s review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist. Professor Foner is a leading historian of the 19th century. From the review:

Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system….

The cotton kingdom that arose in the Deep South was incredibly brutal….Violence, Baptist contends, explains the remarkable increase of labor productivity on cotton plantations. Without any technological innovations in cotton picking, output per hand rose dramatically between 1800 and 1860. Some economic historians have attributed this to incentives like money payments for good work and the opportunity to rise to skilled positions. Baptist rejects this explanation.

Planters called their method of labor control the “pushing system.” Each slave was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased steadily over time. Baptist, who feels that historians too often employ circumlocutions that obscure the horrors of slavery, prefers to call it “the ‘whipping-machine’ system.” In fact, the word we should really use, he insists, is “torture.” To make slaves work harder and harder, planters utilized not only incessant beating but forms of discipline familiar in our own time — sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation, even waterboarding. In the cotton kingdom, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.” When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his Second Inaugural Address of the 250 years of “blood drawn with the lash” that preceded the Civil War, he was making a similar point: Violence did not begin in the United States with the firing on Fort Sumter.

Foner concludes:

It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of “The Half Has Never Been Told” are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.

Reading this review again reminded me of another book review. It was easy to find, although it was published eight years ago. Janet Maslin wrote the review. The book was Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II. Maslin says it’s a corrective for those who think slavery ended with the Civil War:

[The author] is not simply referring to the virtual bondage of black sharecroppers unable to extricate themselves economically from farming. He describes free men and women forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture. That plight was horrific. But until 1951, it was not outside the law.

All it took was anything remotely resembling a crime. Bastardy, gambling, changing employers without permission, false pretense, “selling cotton after sunset”: these were all grounds for arrest in rural Alabama by 1890. And as Mr. Blackmon explains in describing incident after incident, an arrest could mean a steep fine. If the accused could not pay this debt, he or she might be imprisoned.

Alabama was among the Southern states that profitably leased convicts to private businesses. As the book illustrates, arrest rates and the labor needs of local businesses could conveniently be made to dovetail. For the coal, lumber, turpentine, brick, steel and other interests described here, a steady stream of workers amounted to a cheap source of fuel.

It’s hard not to think of contemporary practices that mimic the “pushing system” or the cruel exploitation of prison labor. Today, we read about corporations like Amazon that set ever-increasing production quotas. If you don’t meet your quota, you’re fired. If you do meet your quota, you’re quota goes up. Then there’s the way towns and cities like Ferguson rely on fines for their funding. If you can’t pay your fine or miss your court date, you’re hit with a bigger fine or thrown in jail. And, of course, we now have a huge prison-industrial complex that’s devoted to mass incarceration as a way to lower the unemployment rate while increasing corporate income.

After writing the above, I looked at another bookmark. It was to a New York Times interview with someone who isn’t quoted very often in newspapers like the Times or on television: Noam Chomsky. I’d forgotten that he cites both The Half Has Never Been Told and Slavery By Another Name. His subject is “the roots of American racism”:

There is … a common variant of what has sometimes been called “intentional ignorance” of what it is inconvenient to know: “Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.” The appalling statistics of today’s circumstances of African-American life can be confronted by other bitter residues of a shameful past, laments about black cultural inferiority, or worse, forgetting how our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which we are the beneficiaries and they remain the victims….

Jefferson, to his credit, at least recognized that the slavery in which he participated was “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” And the Jefferson Memorial in Washington displays his words that “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Words that should stand in our consciousness alongside of John Quincy Adams’s reflections on the parallel founding crime over centuries, the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty…among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgment.”

The entire interview is here.