Stanley Kubrick’s Calculated Rebellion

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tags: film, Stanley Kubrick

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). But they all suggest collective discontent, reflected in polling that shows that Americans overwhelmingly feel the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Of course, many people are still staying home because of the pandemic, trying to make sense of the unrest by reading and watching the news. But the real world can only take you so far. As with most mysteries of human motivation, fiction is a better guide to answering the question of why people and societies rebel. 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, Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker. 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. He got his first serious recognition, while at Look magazine, for taking a picture of a solemn newspaper salesman staring at a stack of front pages the day after Franklin Roosevelt died. By the time he became a filmmaker in the 1950s, he had already earned a measure of success as a renegade. 

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. 

Read entire article at Washington Monthly

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