“You don’t find reality only in your backyard, you know. In fact, sometimes that’s the last place you’ll find it.”
-Stanley Kubrick, 1969 [1]

A lot of ink has flowed over the contradiction that is Stanley Kubrick. He seems to be the kind of artist everyone wants to have pinned, yet slips out of every critical grasp. Interpretations of his work tend toward the extremes: Kubrick has been called a right-wing propagandist and a left-wing militant, a misogynist and a feminist, a fatalistic cynic and a quasi-religious optimist. Few directors have attracted so much vitriol, adulation, controversy and analysis. Kubrick’s own silence about the meaning of his films, combined with his notorious reclusiveness and his disregard for “social responsibility” before critic, church and state, only added to his mysterious aura.

If it is true that Kubrick’s films are rigid and cold, as many like to point out, it is also true that they are mercurial, dreamlike, and deeply personal. Their atmosphere is a necessary outcome of the filmmaker’s approach in making them. From Dr. Strangelove (1964) onward, that approach can only be called holographic. What you see in a Kubrick film is the conscious manifestation of an unconscious play of forces taking place beneath the celluloid surface. Kubrick is more concerned with psychic forces – archetypal, philosophical and cosmic – than he is with the emotional life of his characters or the diversion of his audience.

The relevance of art in society is a burning question today. In a world on the brink of annihilation or possible transformation, what role does the artist play? Should she forego the ideals of self-expression in order to create what is essentially propaganda, fuzzy New Agery or pointed didactic? Should he give up the ghost and occupy his time doing something more productive than playing the fiddle while Rome burns? Can art effect change, or can it really be relegated to mere entertainment, devoid of transformative power?

It is in response to such questions that I bring up Kubrick now. At the risk of seeming idolatrous, I hold him up as a model of how vision and conviction can make art that is relevant, spiritual and transformative. His genius, combined with his refusal to submit to the dictates of Right or Left, or even to the dark satanic mills of Hollywood, produced some of the most revelatory images of postmodern art. My goal is to show that Kubrick’s vision is as relevant today as it was when his films were released – perhaps more so.

THE GAZE

Kubrick once told Jack Nicholson, “We’re not interested in photographing the reality. We’re interested in photographing the photograph of the reality.”[2] Stanley Kubrick’s films are not fictions but psychic documentaries. Suspending our disbelief – à la Hitchcock or Spielberg – was never his priority. Nothing in a Kubrick film is supposed to feel like it’s happening in a physical world analogous to our own. Their setting is the mind itself. Kubrick’s work belongs to the Gnostic hyperreal; it aspires to direct cognizance of pure thought. As psychedelic tours of history’s dream galleries, his films are inherently political, dealing with power and the creation and destruction of values. Most importantly, their core is mystical, even shamanic. Kubrick was one of the few filmmakers to take up André Bazin on his famous ideal of the Holy Moment, which posits that the motion picture camera can extract a slice of space-time and enframe it in Plato’s hyperspace, creating a reality that supercedes the historical moment originally captured on film.

Some of the most potent Holy Moments Kubrick filmed feature the Gaze, that uniquely Kubrickian device that appears in all of the films post-Strangelove, most famously in the first shot of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and in that one-shot scene in The Shining (1980) where Jack Torrance begins to slip over the edge. Kubrick valued this posture so much that he often assumed it himself in photographs, giving us the image of a man who is seeing beyond, which is precisely what the Gaze signifies. Whether they are looking into some unfathomable distance or straight at us through the camera lens, the characters who adopt the Gaze are piercing through the illusion of conscious life to spy the deep archetypal forces that shape reality.

In most cases, characters react to the truth that the Gaze reveals by going insane. It’s as if the eyes are gateways through which the spirit world can pass into the mind and take control. The challenge is to lift the veil of Maya while retaining our humanity. There is a moment in Eyes Wide Shut when Alice, Nicole Kidman’s character, adopts the Gaze before the mirror while her husband (both real and fictional) initiates sex with her. In the seconds before the screen fades to black, she turns to us. In that moment we know that she sees everything, and that the experience will either lead her (and, as it turns out, her husband) to enlightenment, or into a deeper dark.

STRANGELOVE, ODYSSEY & CLOCKWORK: THE STAR CHILD TRILOGY

This primacy of the eyes reveals an obsession on Kubrick’s part with clear vision. The skeptical and often ruthless attitude that he adopted with his cast, crew and co-writers is symptomatic of this obsession. Nothing can be taken for granted; everything must be broken down, examined from every angle and photographed in its most naked state. For Kubrick, film was a lens through which one can know the world. If he often spoke of the importance of objectivity, he invariably meant his personal objectivity. You can see this in the title of the dark comedy Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), in which one insane general provokes a nuclear war. The first-person title refers to Kubrick’s own disillusionment in the face of rational materialism, a doctrine whose inbuilt absurdity the movie exposes with the existential hysterics of a Laughing Buddha.

Kubrick said that his original intention was to make Strangelove a serious thriller. It was only when he realized how fundamentally insane the military-industrial complex was that he decided a comedy would better express the gravity of the post-war situation. The final film, however, went beyond the Cold War in its condemnation; it is a critique of the rational materialist doctrine of which the state apparatus of the Cold War was a direct product. How could a truly rational society give birth to such a lose-lose situation, let alone make an atom bomb in the first place? From the credit sequence showing the mating rituals of military aircraft to doomsday, Strangelove is a damning send-up not only of the military establishment but also of the governing logic of the modern world, a logic rooted in a deep denial of the irrational depths of the soul.

Dr. Strangelove set the stage for two more films, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), which complete Kubrick’s science-fiction trilogy. It also set the stage for the cinema of the mind that dominated his work until his death. As if to make it clear that nothing can be the same after the disillusionment of Strangelove, Kubrick ends the film by destroying the world. The mushroom clouds let us know that only a complete collapse of the system – be it in the form of collective awakening or of the destruction of the planet – can make possible a new appraisal of life and humanity. “We’ll meet again some sunny day,” Vera Lynn croons as the world explodes. Dark humor aside, it’s as though Kubrick were promising us a solution.

From the first shots of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story of humanity’s journey from ape to overman, it seems that Kubrick intends to keep that promise. We’re back together on a sunny day, but we’re not in Kansas anymore. The sun rises over the barren savannah of prehistoric Africa, where a tribe of frightful man-apes, our early ancestors, mingles with the plain animals. Evidently, the demon of Strangelove can only be confronted by returning to our origins. In a Joycean time warp, Kubrick’s Strangelove apocalypse “brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation” back to the Dawn of Man. Here, the famous Black Monolith will make its first appearance in history, bestowing upon us a new power.

Most critics assume that what the Monolith teaches is tool making. This isn’t wrong but it misses the point: most importantly, the Monolith bestows imagination. The film makes this clear in the scene where the man-ape smashes the skeletal remains of an animal with a bone. The magic of the moment lies in the primate’s sudden ability to imagine a connection between the skull and the living creature to which the skull once belonged. Intercut into the scene are shots of tapirs falling dead; these are taken right out of the man-ape’s mind. But the film uses the tool to symbolize imagination, and it is in the nature not just of film critics but of human beings in general to mistake the symbol for the thing. In fact, the worship of our creations is what leads the humans of 2001 into an abusive relationship with the supercomputer HAL, whose self-righteous attempt to take control of our destiny is a direct consequence of our blind adoration of technology at the expense of the visionary power that gave it birth.

2001 is Kubrick’s most overtly mystical film, and it has always seemed strange to me that his other films are only rarely assessed in light of it. At the time of its release, many people found the film too ambiguous for words. Kubrick himself thought this frustration stemmed from the literal-mindedness of contemporary filmmakers and audiences. “It’s time to abandon the conventional view of the movie as an extension of the three-act play. Too many people over thirty are still word-oriented rather than picture-oriented,” he said in a 1969 interview.[3]

To Kubrick, becoming “picture-oriented” represents an evolution in consciousness, the development of an ability to go beyond language, the source of all of those binary deadlocks and either-or’s that blind the third eye. The transdimensional “Star Child” who, at the end of the film, turns to us on his way back to Earth is a “picture-oriented” being, capable of seeing through the illusion of Maya. When it turns its Gaze on us, we are reminded of our power to imagine, to envision, and to shape our future. Here the Gaze is an invitation.

In its abandon of all but the rudiments of narrative, its use of trance-inducing imagery and its open-endedness, 2001 is not a movie but an ecstatic vision, and in conveying it Kubrick showed us for the first time the shamanic potential of cinema to induce visionary states. An example of film as entheogen, 2001 sheds the propagandist mantle cinema had worn until then (and all-too-often continues to wear today) to reveal its psychedelic heart.

The Nietzschean journey from ape to man to Star Child that shapes the plot of 2001 is in fact an exploration of man’s relationship with technology, which led to global destruction in Dr. Strangelove. However, here Kubrick seems concerned with technology’s positive potential. Echoing Heidegger, the film suggests that in technology, the process that is transforming nature and humans into “standing reserve,” mere resource to be used and then thrown away, there lies a “saving power.” Yes, technology and the capitalism that makes it proliferate are the result of a mad quest that threatens all living things, but 2001 proposes that this quest may not be as blind as we think. It may be guided by a higher consciousness. In the film, technology leads us to the discovery that it is within ourselves, not outside of us, that the solution to the problem of technology – a solution Heidegger called poiesis, or pure creativity – is hiding.

From the film, it would seem at first that interplanetary travel is the key to that discovery. This is where 2001 becomes allegorical. In reality, technology’s saving power has nothing to do with spaceships or space travel but with cinema itself. The Black Monolith that appears at the Dawn of Man, on the moon, in space and in the astronaut Bowman’s psyche at the moment of death, is not simply a throwback to Masonic symbolism or the Philosopher’s Stone. The Black Monolith is the movie screen.

This is the big secret of 2001. I’d never thought of it until it was pointed out by sources on the Net.[4] During the prologue and interlude, where we are made to stare at a black screen for several minutes while Ligeti’s alien choirs howl, we are actually looking at the Monolith. We are invited to transform ourselves, to become “picture-oriented,” to break out of the prison of language. Kubrick drives this secret thesis home in his subtle cameo appearance. In the scene where the astronauts gather for a photo-op in front of the lunar Monolith, we can see Kubrick holding a camera in the reflective visor of a space helmet. By gazing at us like the Star Child at the end of the film, Kubrick is showing us that the saving power of technology, that new poiesis made possible by industrialization, is the cinema. Never before its advent was humanity more capable of transcending language, of thinking in visions.

A Clockwork Orange picks up where 2001 left off. Now that the Star Child is born, it is necessary to determine how and if it can be integrated into society. Here, Kubrick’s optimism seems to fade. The story of the criminal Alex’s encounter with the sinister state apparatus of a kitschy dystopia forms the last chapter of the story that began with Dr. Strangelove.

The last shot of 2001, of the Star Child gazing into the camera, and the first shot of Clockwork, of Alex doing the same thing, are a conscious juxtaposition. Alex is the Star Child, the Nietzschean overman come to earth to expose society’s entrenched hypocrisy through a rejection of obsolete values. His love of music, his use of dramatic language, his costumes and posturing make him a kind of artist, a mercurial trickster dancing on the ruins of history. His pet snake – a classic shamanic symbol – and his ability to trance out and receive visions of violence make him a shaman. But this is the shaman as sorcerer rather than healer. The complete failure of the tribe to integrate Alex has resulted in his using his power to control, dominate, rape and destroy. Horrified by his instinctive disregard for the consensual trance of traditional morality, society reacts first by imprisoning him and then by reprogramming his mind. After undergoing the Ludovico treatment, Alex’s violent soul is put in a vice, yet in an ironic twist the treatment also stifles his love of music. Kubrick is telling us that in denying our shadow, though we may eliminate that part of us that we do not wish to face, we are also denying the visionary power that makes us human. In the end, only a suicidal leap provoked by his revulsion at Beethoven will enable Alex to transcend the vicious dialectic of his situation.

The common view is that after his suicide attempt, Alex essentially reverts to his old self, becoming a violent sociopath once again. I think this view is incorrect. Though the film understandably skips over his coma, Alex’s narration describes it to us as “a long, long black gap of what might have been a million years,” a literal dark night of the soul that changes him profoundly. When the psychiatrist comes to his bedside to test him by having him fill in the word-bubbles in a series of suggestive comics, his answers are irreverent but not psychotic. When the Minister of the Interior plays Beethoven’s Ninth for the state’s new golden boy, Alex goes into a trance just like he used to, but whereas his earlier visions were of historical violence (a woman being hanged in the Old West, WWII explosions, a tribe of cavemen crushed by an avalanche), his final vision is completely different. He sees himself having sex with a woman, but for the first time the sex is consensual, the woman on top and in control, and a crowd of bourgeois are applauding the act. The film is telling us that revolt against old values isn’t enough – the mystic eye and the evil eye are the same organ bent on different ends. Only by recognizing and accepting our shadow will the cancer ravaging civilization go into remission.

The last shot of A Clockwork Orange ends the science-fiction trilogy. From the mechanical sex that opened Dr. Strangelove we have come to the dream of a fully cognizant union of male and female. This image of union suggests that in order to evolve, our patriarchal culture must embrace the feminine, a feat we will accomplish only once we have let the shadow of our civilization, where the feminine has been repressed, reveal itself. Full Metal Jacket (1987) echoes this theme in the scene where the sniper who guns down three chauvinistic and immature Marines turns out to be an adolescent girl. But it is not until Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Kubrick’s final film, that the theme of the feminine in the modern world is given its proper treatment.

FROM ALEX TO ALICE

The Star Child makes at least two more appearances in the three films following Clockwork. It appears as Danny in The Shining and as Matthew Modine’s dualistic Joker in Full Metal Jacket. In both those films, the Star Child can only see reality; it cannot do anything to help the situation. In order to do so, it must take on a different avatar. It must manifest as a female.

As Tim Kreider argues in his essay “Introducing Sociology,” Eyes Wide Shut is first and foremost a condemnation of the repressive and decadent patriarchy that continues to govern us:

“The slice of that world [Kubrick] tried to show us in his last – and, he believed, his best – work, the capital of the global American empire at the end of the American Century, is one in which the wealthy, powerful, and privileged use the rest of us like throwaway products, covering up their crimes with pretty pictures, shiny surfaces, and murder, ultimately dooming their own children to lives of servitude and whoredom.”[5]

The film tells the story of Bill and Alice, a married couple that embarks upon a dream journey to the dark heart of modern sexuality after Alice admits to lusting after other men. There they discover that society is enmeshed in a web of lies in which sexuality is used as currency by the rich and powerful while common mortals struggle to live up to the tyrannical ideals of sexual “decency” and pasteurized love.

In the fin-de-siècle Manhattan of Eyes Wide Shut, the clumsy totalitarianism of Clockwork Orange has grown omnipresent, cunning and decadent. In fact no one notices it anymore. The behavioral science of B.F. Skinner and company, still theoretical in 1971, has now been applied across the board, turning the global microcosm of New York City into a rat maze of luminous marketing and complacent Christmas trees. While the husbands and wives of the middle class do their damnedest to hide their true nature from each other, the reigning elites, portrayed as members of an international Satanic cult, reap the rewards of absolute power at masked orgies where women are subjected to ritual hypnosis, brutal sex and, in one case at least, murder.

Kubrick showed all of this to his audience but, judging from the reaction of critics and the public, his audience remained unmoved. Programmed to expect sexual fulfillment to come vicariously through the pornography of sex films and family TV, most viewers sat in the theatre feeling ripped off. The movie seemed to promise some kind of thrill, but when Dr. Bill, played by Tom Cruise, begins to suspect that all is not well with the world, the elite Victor Ziegler comes to the rescue with a cold shower of boring common sense. The orgy, the rites, the murder… it was all a charade, he says, threatening but ultimately harmless. It’s almost as if Kubrick appeared at the end to remind us that we are only watching a movie.

The problem lies in our susceptibility to the hypnotic mechanics of plot. The typical viewer’s acceptance of Ziegler’s explanation at the film’s anticlimax signifies that we as a species have yet to evolve out of “word-orientation,” so much so that we are still perfectly ready to dismiss what we see with our own eyes if it is casually denied by some arbitrary figure of patriarchal authority.

Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick’s most scathing critique of the modern world, but it does offer hope. The hero of the story is not Cruise’s Bill but Kidman’s Alice, whose name resembles “Alex” for good reason: she is the Star Child reborn as a woman. For the first time, it is a woman who gets the Gaze into the unconscious, and the consequences are drastically different. Throughout the film, she keeps up the image of the good modern woman. As a wife, she is sexy, intelligent and serviceable. As a mother, she works hard to pass on to her daughter her submissive qualities. Still, she is unable to shake off the feeling that she is living a lie. Her memories and dreams tell her with increasing urgency that the world she has been brought up in is false. Repressed archetypes of the feminine surge up inside her, seeking entry into the world. The Gaze into the beyond makes it impossible for her to keep pretending that her husband’s chauvinistic self-delusions have any substance. When she tells Bill how she was willing to throw away her entire life for a single night with a naval officer she’d never seen before, she opens up the floodgates to the unconscious so wide that it swallows her up along with her husband, who spends the rest of the film swimming through her mind, where she manifests in the form of various Other Women, until ultimately she lets him out again, summing up the wisdom of the ages in a single word.

BILL: What do you think we should do?

ALICE: I think we should be grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures whether they were real or only a dream.

BILL: Are you sure of that?

ALICE: Only as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone a whole lifetime, can never be the whole truth.

BILL: And no dream is ever just a dream.

ALICE: The important thing is we’re awake now. And hopefully for a long time to come.

BILL: Forever.

ALICE: Forever… Let’s not use that word. It frightens me. But I do love you, and you know, there is something very important that we have to do as soon as possible.

BILL: What’s that?

ALICE: Fuck.

Like the closing shot of A Clockwork Orange, the final scene of Eyes Wide Shut places the woman on top, only now intercourse has been replaced by the formulation of a new social contract. As she walks through the toy store with her daughter and husband, Alice seems completely detached. When her daughter points out a toy baby carriage, she replies that it is “old-fashioned,” meaning that the illusion of the nuclear family as the elemental unit of the World Order has expired for her, leaving in its wake the ever-burning energy of human instinct transmutable into creative power. By “fuck” Alice does not mean “making love” or “making babies.” She means that it is time we reclaim that power from those who have taken it away from us.

The last scene of the last film represents a historical passage out of the world in which Kubrick’s stories were set – the patriarchal world of rational materialism –into a new state where the feminine has been restored to its proper place on the earth.

ART AND THE EARTH

At the end of 2001, the Star Child is shown returning to Earth rather than drifting deeper into the cosmos. Indeed, as the overman of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the Star Child is “the meaning of the earth.”[6] What Kubrick’s films call for is not a return to the abstract spirituality of the heavenly spheres, but the (re)spiritualization of the earth and of earthly life. His mysticism was not transcendent but immanent, his religion not priestly but shamanic. Kubrick’s overman is not the eugenics monster of the ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove and his technocratic disciples, but a human being capable of transmuting unconscious shadows into conscious light. Though human beings have been given the gift of creative vision, fear of and detachment from our own nature have prevented us from assuming our role as the co-creators of reality. It is only natural, then, that control over our fate and our world has landed on the laps of the most deluded and hypocritical among us, the dreamers of the nightmare of history. Kubrick’s entire work was a call to awake from that nightmare.

Having said this, I don’t think Kubrick went into any project seeking to deliver a specific message. Unlike most of what’s out there, his filmmaking never told us what to think about the images on the screen; he knew that to be didactic was to contribute to the cultural and intellectual disenfranchisement of the species. As his classic quote goes, “I have found it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself.”

The ideas I have drawn from Kubrick’s films are also present in the work of artists such as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Blake or Nietzsche. Art made with openness to the mystery of being and trust in the imagination produces Heidegger’s poiesis, sacred art, and the “message” of sacred art is always the same. Joseph Campbell said that the two sides of “true” art are beauty, which lifts the soul, and the sublime, which shatters the ego.[7] This kind of art, the kind Kubrick was making when he was at his best, is by its very nature essential, useful and transformative, especially in times like these.

The artist’s role, then, is to shape the chaosmos into figures that inspire us to create the world. As I write this, the marketing and advertising industry continues its tireless work of populating our minds with the myriad logos, concepts, lies and clichés of universal capitalism. Only art – independent, democratized and shared,– can save us from this final chapter in the story of world colonization.

Bibliographical Sources:

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. HarperCollins, 1993
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Viking, 1966
Kreider, Tim. “Introducing Sociology: A Review of Eyes Wide Shut“. Film Quarterly vol. 53, no. 3. University of California Press, 2000 (Article available at the Kubrick Site: www.kubrick.com [1])
Gelmis, Joseph. “An Interview with Stanley Kubrick” from The Film Director as Superstar. Doubleday, 1970 (Article available at the Kubrick Site: www.kubrick.com [1])

Endnotes:

[1] Joseph Gelmis, “An Interview with Stanley Kubrick” (www.kubrick.com [1])

[2] Interview with Jack Nicholson in the Warner Bros. documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001), directed by Jan Harlan.

[3] Gelmis, op. cit.

[4] Most notably Rob Ager’s analysis of the film, available at www.collativelearning.com [2]

[5] Kreider, “Introducing Sociology: A Review of Eyes Wide Shut” (www.kubrick.com [1])

[6] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 13

[7] Campbell, “”The Way of Art””: http://www.rawpaint.com/library/jcampbell/jctwoa.html [3]
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