Questioning power: a brief transversal reading of Stanley Kubrick’s work

One of the most remarkable abilities of a timeless masterpiece is its capacity of reinventing itself with each new look that is projected onto it. This derives not from its innate mutability per se, but from a constant shift in subjectivity that provides for new perspectives which are themselves only possible due to the organicity of the relationship established between the artist and its audience, with both sides also being conditioned by the ever-changing spatio-temporal context. As someone who has dedicated a master’s investigation and resulting thesis to Stanley Kubrick I’m well aware of (and fascinated by) the multiplicity of readings his work allows for; the almost infinite layers of his films make for an exciting world of interpretative possibilities whose extrapolation, even if too far-fetched sometimes, only contributes to a better understanding of his genius.

My research has always been centred in finding connecting points between his films, more particularly the ones after Spartacus and Lolita, which is when he began to draw more attention from an increasingly bigger audience, inevitably resulting in a better symbiosis between his art and the way it was perceived; my thesis was focused exactly on this relationship between creator and public in a psychological level, investigating concepts such as Lacan’s theory of the Gaze and their permanence (or not) in the apparent filmic continuity that is Kubrick’s corpus of work. However, I’ve recently realised that there’s another possible reading when it comes to the construction of a vectorial narrative transversal to his films: it concerns the existence of a theme (more of a thematic approach, actually) that is omnipresent in his work — or at least in the films from Lolita to Eyes Wide Shut, which are the ones I’ve discussed in my thesis and I’m consequently more familiar with. All Kubrick’s films seem to deal with the questioning of broad concepts or institutions that are usually regarded as solid and permanent, and the way man simultaneously influences and is influenced by them.

2001: A Space Odyssey, for exemple, deals with the concept of technology and the role we play within its evolution: where is the frontier between artificial and organic? What are the limits (moral or others) of technological expansion? And, more importantly, how does our limited perception of abstract concepts such as time and place prevent us from evolving from within, leading us to invest in external advancements instead? Such questions allow for a reading that goes way beneath the science fiction surface and places the film’s theme much closer to philosophical reflexions on human condition than space travel itself.

One of my personal favourites, Dr Strange Love or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb, seems to approach the very concept of peace — and it does so with the customary kubrickanian cynicism. Besides it openly dealing with the wicked nature of power and man’s obsession with it (which is, along with the concept of violence, a transversal theme to Kubrick’s work), the film discusses the thin line between peace and war, not only in an immediate, practical sense, but utilising a broader approach that asks a series of questions regarding the mechanisms operating behind the two concepts. Is it acceptable to embark in a war if its goal is ultimately peace? Is there an universally-accepted definition of peace with which we all agree with, or does it change geographically and throughout time? Full Metal Jacket recovers this theme by discussing war and its mechanisms as well, but it does so from a different point of view, more related to its institutionalisation and other social implications: is war a tool for acting on an external reality to it, or a concept in itself that obeys its own rules? Interestingly, the 1987 film also deals with concepts of gender, notably masculinisation, as Paula Willoquet-Maricondi duly points out on her essay Full Metal Jacketing, or Masculinity in the Making.

Another film dealing with social constructions is Barry Lyndon, the adaptation of Thackeray’s lesser-known classic that ultimately discusses the concept of class and social climbing. How perverse is class compartmentalisation, and what defines the limits of stratification? By questioning class permeability and subsequently the difficulty of belonging and/or fitting in, Barry Lyndon revolves around adaptability, and its continuous relevance obviously results from observing the role money plays in the process. Agreed, Eyes Wide Shut also deals with a theme linked to the implications behind a social construction, but it does so in a much more personal way: Kubrick’s last film — which he considered to be his definite one — is a profound questioning on the institution of marriage, exposing its innate flaws and the much-concealed rottenness of its foundations. By addressing numerous notions such as faithfulness (remember the password to the house is Fidelio), curiosity, and sexuality, Eyes Wide Shut explores the way an institution as powerful as marriage has been perpetuated throughout centuries mainly to serve the establishment — which means either the state or the church, or both, whenever the two overlapped.

Sexuality and morality are also the obvious themes of Lolita (Kubrick suffered numerous censorship-related limitations which including restricting the erotic side of the film following protests from the Catholic Legion of Decency), which not only openly questions the limits of the former but also the role society plays in the process: what part (if any) of our sexuality belongs to the public domain? To what point should we, as individuals, allow normalised morals to interfere with the way we experience sexuality? And, ultimately, which are the consequences of over-moralised actions and other sexually-related repressions in one’s interaction with the others?

The cynicism and controversy with which the sexuality theme is dealt with in Lolita is very similar to the tone chosen by Kubrick to address the concept that seems to be central to A Clockwork Orange: it isn’t violence in itself, but instead the idea of rehabilitation and punishment, and their contribution to a so-called normal functioning of modern society (even if the narrative takes place in a not-so-distant dystopic future). The film ends up being an essay of sorts on Foucault’s theories of madness and its institutionalisation, thoroughly discussed in some of his key-works such as Discipline and Punish or Madness and Civilisation. At the same time, it constantly makes us change our opinion on Alex by presenting him as the aggressor and the victim almost simultaneously — a topic Jean-Loup Bourget develops on his essay Circular Misadventures: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and that contributes to the spectator’s difficulty in identifying with him (the only character whose point of view we are presented with), ultimately resulting in what Gherke and Ercolini define as “otherness”. But the true core question is, which part of the process of rehabilitation belongs to the establishment, and what are the limits of what it can and can’t do? Who establishes those limits? When does human condition and integrity (both mental and physical) become so irrelevant to the point of its existence only being allowed if according to certain society patterns — even when these patterns are in constant mutation?

The concepts of humanity and control are also present in The Shining, but its undertones are of a much more spiritual nature than what would be initially expected from a thriller. The hotel is in itself a concept, not in practical terms but in he way it behaves like an ecosystem in which every part seemingly reproduces what has been played out before. This leads us to the themes of karma and guilt, especially since the film possesses obvious genocide connotations (the Native American issue is notably absent from the novel that originated it). The eternal return is thus discussed metaphorically throughout psychodrama, with the characters destined to being nothing more than puppets to a perpetual repetition of History (and more particularly, U.S. History), returning to the basic concept of power that is in one way or the other transversal to each and every one of the upper-mentioned films: all of them demonstrate how an organism that was once universally accepted as solid not only possesses important structural gaps, but also that the bigger it becomes, the hollower and meaningless (that is, void of concept, direction, and/or purpose) are its foundations.

If one keeps in mind that questioning seemingly universally accepted institutions and concepts is what allows humankind to move forward in its evolutionary process, it becomes pretty clear that Kubrick’s filmic work is important and revolutionary not only in a cinematic sense, but also in the way it utilises the medium to present us with a series of paradigms that will ultimately make us think about ourselves both as individuals and as a so-called advanced civilisation. In a world where ever-growing numbness keeps pushing us further and further apart from abstract thinking and social egoism emerges disguised as guilty solidarity, it’s imperative that art establishes itself as a tool that allows us reflect on human condition and our greater purpose within the universe; even if Kubrick’s films weren’t created with this specific goal, it is nevertheless the possibility of such reading that adds extra value to each and every masterpiece he crafted throughout his career. Our minds are capable of so much more than what we think — and this means both the good and the bad — , and having this potential projected on the screen might feel like a sudden awakening to a world of infinite possibilities to better ourselves by seeing and understanding our own past mistakes.

originally published on The 405 on May 23rd 2018

Paris-based trilingual music journalist. fingers in other pies include film, psychology, history, politics, social dynamics, gender issues, tarot and astrology.