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.”

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director and 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie. That was reason enough to read this detailed account of its creation. The book was interesting enough to keep reading, but it wasn’t really worthwhile. I already knew Kubrick was creative and intense. There were some interesting facts about ways the movie might have been different and why certain choices were made. The main thing I learned was how important Kubrick’s many collaborators were (it’s apparently true that it’s a “collaborative medium”). But there was also too much about Arthur C. Clarke, his personal life and the process of writing the novel that went with the movie. I also found the technical descriptions of various parts of the production hard to follow. What the book mainly did was make me want to watch 2001 again. Maybe I’ll see it somewhat differently now that I know more about the effort that went into making it. It might be dangerous if I see it too differently.

Kubrick and Sellers Collaborate for the Second Time

Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers first worked together on Lolita. According to Wikipedia, Columbia Pictures demanded that Sellers play four roles in Dr. Stangelove: the title character, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and Major T. J. “King” Kong, the B-52 pilot eventually played by Slim Pickens. 

Sellers died from a heart attack at age 54. His last movie was the classic Being There, which looked and sounded like a Stanley Kubrick movie, although it wasn’t. Kubrick died at the age of 70 after he made Eyes Wide Shut, not one of his best but still worth watching, as all his films were.

Sellers was great and died too young. But off hand I can’t think of any artist whose death was as much of a loss as Kubrick’s, even though he’d already had a long career. 

These are two of my favorite scenes. The first is Group Captain Mandrake with Keenan Wynn as the wary Colonel Bat Guano (“if that really is your name”). The second features President Muffley on the phone while Peter Bull as the Russian ambassador and George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson make faces. 

(Now, back to writing “A Guide To Reality, Part 10”.)

Revisiting the Overlook Hotel, Again and Again

Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director. Like Roberto Clemente, John Lennon, Andy Kaufman and many others, Kubrick died too young – even though he was 70 when he finished his last movie.

If you’re a Kubrick fan, or if you love what he did with The Shining, or if you enjoy a good cultural mystery, or if you are a student of human psychology, you should consider watching a documentary called Room 237

Did you know that people have spent a whole lot of time looking for hidden meanings in The ShiningDid you realize that there are 42 cars and trucks in the parking lot of the fictional Overlook Hotel? Have you ever thought about watching The Shining backwards and forwards at the same time? Have you pondered the possibility that the astronauts bounding around on the moon were actors in a government-sponsored, made-for-TV movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, who later used The Shining to spill the beans? 

Room 237 covers all this and more. Even if you don’t find any of the theories convincing, the clips from Kubrick’s movies and many others are fun to watch. It’s a documentary that will make you laugh and also make you think.

And remember, whatever you do, stay out of room 237.