This guest essay is by Alfred Eaker, director of Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes!, which was voted Best Experimental Film in the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival, and the feature
“We must be cultural omnivores and raid all the art forms to enhance our own art”– Pierre Boulez; Modernist French composer.
Although, the meaning of postmodernism is replete with vagaries, one prominent characteristic of the so-called movement is that it abounds in eclecticism. Pierre Boulez’s advice for artists to mantle a mental state of being cultural omnivores seems tailor made for much that is pronounced in postmodernism. In that light, the movement had one of it’s most well-known, brilliantly driven, unofficial spokespersons in the late Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick, of course, patterned his body of film work after a Beethoven aesthetic. Each of Beethoven’s nine symphonies had an individual theme. The Eroica was Beethoven’s initial support, later renounced, bio-portrait of Napoleon. The 4th, according to Robert Schumann, was a Greek maiden between two Norse gods. The immortal fifth was THE anti-war statement. The 6th , a pastorale; the 7th, a series of rhythmic movements; the 8th, more abstract, is a favorite among modernist conductors; and, of course, the mighty Ode to Joy.
Kubrick wanted to create a work in each of the genres and it’s unfortunate he never got to make his western (Marlon Brando foolishly took over directing One Eyed Jacks, after having Kubrick sacked). Regardless of genre, each Kubrick film is filtered through his own unique sensibilities (i.e., the dehumanization of man), thus rendering the idea of applying something as superfluous as a genre akin to hopelessly trivial labeling. When it comes to Kubrick, the genre/subject is almost incidental. Kubrick defiantly stamped his personal vision onto everything he approached (as author Stephen King would discover, to his complete dismay, when Kubrick took on The Shining. Kubrick was no assignment director).
Volumes have been written about Kubrick’s body of work with wildly varying and opposing opinions, but the almost unanimous conclusion that can be drawn is that Kubrick’s films are not designed for casual viewing.
Indeed, upon repeated absorption, Kubrick’s films reveal the degree to which Kubrick was a cultural omnivore.
Kubrick’s rep as being a “supremely controlled” artist is a misnomer. He was just as apt for experimentation, improvisation, and utilizing ideas from actors, etc. Hence, Kubrick’s reason for disallowing the publishing of his scripts (which he often deviated from) and ordering the destruction of all unused footage. In it’s rough cut, Clockwork Orange was originally a four hour film.
One of Kubrick’s most compelling scenes in Clockwork Orange was, by turns, supremely controlled and experimental, yet gives compelling insight into Kubrick’s multi-hued layering and eclectic aesthetics.
Alex and the droogs appear at an ultra modernist home, which welcomes visitors with a lit sign, marked simply “Home.” Kubrick’s customary symbolic red and white design work is as heavy laden here as it is throughout the rest of the film.
Husband Patrick Magee types away at his typewrite when the doorbell rings. The doorbell sounds of the overly familiar first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth: Fate knocking at the door. However, those four notes sound deceptively innocuous here, almost tinkling.
The camera pans across the room revealing Magee’s redhead wife, Adrienne Corri, dressed in red pajamas, sitting comfortably in a white, plastic chair in the next room. Husband and wife are detached from one another, echoing the barrenness of the house. Corri answers the door to hear Alex proclaim “there has been an accident outside” and his request to use the telephone. Corri is reluctant, but Magee instructs her to let the visitors in. With the unlocking of door, Fate enters in like a Beethovenian storm.
The “Singing in the Rain” beating/dance was not scripted and was improvised, worked, and re-worked until Kubrick was satisfied with the flowing tone. Adding this element was a brilliant instinct on Kubrick’s part. Without it, the breaking-in would have felt more like a tempest than a storm.
After Magee is tied up and beaten, Alex and the droogs turn to Corri. They take her in front of painting on the wall and begin to rape her. The visuals in this vignette reveal a homage narrative, akin to developing patterns in an unfolding puzzle. The design of the painting on the wall has a pronounced familiarity. In it’s colors and forms, it is a homage to Gustav Klimt and bears striking resemblance to Klimt works like “Farmhouse with Birch Trees”. Corri appears as a Klimt model personified. She is Klimt’s mysterious red head, pale and thin (i.e., “Hope 1”). She and the scene call to mind imagery from Klimt’s “The Beethoven Frieze” (especially in the sections, “The Longing for Happiness Finds Repose in Poetry” and “Hostile Powers”). In essence, Kubrick is paying homage to Klimt paying homage to Beethoven.
Kubrick is always at his most provocative when employing aesthetics. Indeed, this is what will give Kubrick his longevity, since shock value alone, naturally, dissipates with passing of time. The provocative aesthetics of cinematic works like Luis Bunuel’s 1930 L’ Age D’ Or or Maya Deren’s 1943 Meshes of the Afternoon are just as provocative now as they were when they were new, the same applies for Kubrick films such as 2001, and even Disney’s Fantasia.
Kubrick’s The Shining was initially a disappointment to many Stephen King fans and King himself voiced his complaints regarding the film, but the decisions Kubrick made in filming The Shining elevated it well beyond it’s initial pulp source.
The character Danny has an imaginary friend named Tony, who lives in Danny’s mouth and reveals psychic visions to him. In the novel, Tony is revealed to be Danny’s future self. This revelation warrants the predictable cynical groan of “Oh, I saw that coming a mile away!” Wisely, Kubrick dispensed of King’s revelation and chose never to explain the presence of Tony. The Danny/Tony relationship hints at something akin to the imagined, haunted relationship between Irene and Amy in the Val Lewton/Robert Wise Curse of the Cat People (an unjustly underrated film). Another Kubrick deviation from the novel concerns the Scatman Crothers character of the cook, Dick Hallorann. In the novel, Hallorann returns to the Overlook Hotel, a bit like Mighty Mouse proclaiming “Here I come to save the day.” Again, Kubrick made a wise decision in not going for that bit of drama. Instead, Kubrick sets the situation up and then pulls the rug out by having Jack kill Hallorann almost instantly.
However, the most haunting and provocative element of Kubrick’s “The Shining” is in the nearly hidden aesthetics.
Kubrick repeatedly utilized the aloof, detached conducting of Berliner Herbert Von Karajan, albeit, pre-recorded. Kubrick was one of the few directors who favored pre-recorded music over a new film score, adding a collage-like element to his films. He pre-assembled the score at a fairly early stage, often choreographing a scene to the music, hence his fear that a new score would seriously compromise his vision.
Kubrick had previously used Karajan’s recording of Johann Strauss in 2001, juxtaposing “The Blue Danube” against the image of two spaceships, essentially having intercourse in space (an image repeated from Dr. Strangelove). He chose Karajan’s supremely controlled recorded performance of Bela Bartok’s “Music for strings, percussion and celesta” to create one of the most under the skin, disturbing narrative elements of The Shining.
Kubrick used the music’s adagio movement to emphasize dramatic patterns and contrasts repeatedly. The symmetry of the hedge maze, Danny riding his big wheel (first against static carpet, then hard tile, then static carpet again), Jack bouncing a ball against the wall (improvised) and Jack repeatedly typing page after page of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” (eachtyped with individual structures) are juxtaposed against the patterns and contrasts found in Bartok’s music. These elongated, almost static moments are well suited to the music chosen. The psychological terror, like the music, builds slowly, inexorably. These moments evoke something far more disturbing than an image of blood flowing from a wall, or ghostly girls in the hallway.
Pablo Picasso once said “I do not find, I steal.“ Kubrick would certainly have related to that remark, but like the painter, what Kubrick stole wound up being a mere tool, a kind of metaphoric diving board from which he sprang, only to re-emerge from the pool awash in his own individuality.
These are but a few meager examples of the rewards reaped during the discover of Kubrick’s riches. His body of work will continue to provoke debate and discussion for years to come. It is almost impossible to overrate him.