Home CINEMA NIHILISM AND FREEDOM IN THE FILMS OF STANLEY KUBRICK

NIHILISM AND FREEDOM IN THE FILMS OF STANLEY KUBRICK

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Stanley Kubrick during the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick during the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

by Daniel Shaw

Much critical ink has been spilled over the question of whether the worldview of archetypal auteur Stanley Kubrick is nihilistic, and appropriately so. To my mind, this is one of the most important questions we can ask about genuine artists and their oeuvres. If auteur criticism is to have any validity, from a philosophical perspective, it must address such issues. True cinematic geniuses (Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Lina Wertmüller, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Cronenberg, to name a few) have something to teach us about the meaning of life, and in uncommon instances, their explorations can be genuinely philosophical. This is the case in several of Kubrick’s films, but especially in his treatment of Anthony Burgess’s dystopic classic A Clockwork Orange (1971).1
In what follows, I examine Kubrick’s films with a single question in mind: what is his position on the issue of whether we humans have free will or are causally determined to act the way we do? This is a corollary to the much larger issue of whether Kubrick’s worldview is nihilistic, since existential philosophers and Christian theologians have long agreed that our life is meaningless if we cannot exercise moral choice. After a detailed analysis of A Clockwork Orange, this essay briefly discusses Kubrick’s other major works, focusing on whether the director depicts his major characters as deer frozen in the headlights or as moral agents with real alternatives.

Charismatic Evil

Burgess declares his own intentions in a new introduction to the 1986 edition of his novel, which he titled “A Clockwork Orange Resucked.” Though admitting that “I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy,” the author continues: “But the book does also have a moral lesson and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice.” Indeed, Burgess proceeds to disparage his novel for its didacticism in making that point.
Kubrick created such an indelible portrait of “little Alex” (Malcolm McDowell) that the film continues to spark controversy to this day. Copycat crimes were so rife in Britain after its release that Kubrick withdrew it from U.K. markets for more than two decades. The director came in for the usual moralistic condemnations for the way the film seems to valorize Alex’s rapacious taste for ultraviolence. As is often the case, the howls of execration were based on a misunderstanding of the director’s intentions.
Ironically, I find A Clockwork Orange to be one of Kubrick’s most lifeaffirming works, second only to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), its immediate predecessor. The final scene—where a chastened prime minister has an impressive sound system wheeled into Alex’s hospital room, and the chorale finale of “Ode to Joy” booms in the background while Alex fantasizes about romping with a naked young woman as a Victorian-era upper crust applauds its approval—is one of the most ambivalently exhilarating sequences in the history of cinema. Alex is granted the last word: “I was cured, all right!”
What he is cured from is the inhibitory effect of the Ludovico technique. His attempt to “snuff it” (commit suicide by throwing himself out a window) causes sufficient trauma to free him from this nightmarish conditioning process (as his hilarious responses to cartoon images shown to him by a female psychologist in a previous scene foreshadow). No longer nauseated at the prospect of sex or violence, Alex is free to resume his sadistic ways. In my view, Kubrick celebrates Alex’s recovered freedom of choice here. No matter how monstrous Alex is, even more monstrous is a state apparatus that can rob the individual of his free will. Along with free will, as Christianity has preached since Paul, comes the capacity to do evil. It is the price that even God has to pay for granting humans the dignity of moral responsibility.

Little Alex: Id Monster

A pat Freudian psychoanalysis of the behavior of Alexander DeLarge is clearly suggested by the filmic text. His father is precisely the type of weak figure that would have been unable to generate castration anxiety in his son, hence failing to trigger the primary repression from which the superego is said to result, according to Sigmund Freud. Indeed, Alex is depicted as a classic sociopath, taking his greatest pleasure from the pain of others while dealing with few pangs of conscience thereafter. Compounding his psychosexual difficulties, his credulous mother is an overindulgent woman addicted to “sleepers”; she dresses in outlandish outfits and unquestioningly accepts Alex’s lame explanations of what he does at night to bring in all that disposable income. Both parents would rather look the other way than have to deal with the serpent in their midst.
Given Freud’s theory that art functions as a catharsis of the repressed desires of the id, a Freudian reading of A Clockwork Orange would obviously focus on how identifying with Alex allows us to vicariously gratify our repressed desires for sadistic sex and violence. The opening sequences of the film, where Alex and his droogs beat up a drunk, thrash a rival gang, and break into a writer’s house, do precisely this. Burgess himself admits that “it seems priggish or pollyannaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers.”2 But the proposed Freudian reading fails to account both for the moral profundity of this work and for our palpable sense that something in the nature of an authentic intellectual inquiry is going on here.
To a Freudian, Alex’s actions are as causally determined in his original ultraviolent mode as they are in the relatively brief time during which the Ludovico treatment is effective. In this view, there is nothing to celebrate at the end of the film other than a sadist’s ability to return to his sadistic ways. Vincent Canby made a similar mistake in his first review of the movie for the New york Times when he opined that “Alex the hood is as much a product of conditioning as the denatured Alex.” To be essentially characterized as a causally determined mechanism with no free choice reduces human existence to a nihilistic collocation of its chemical properties. This has long been recognized by European intellectuals; Fyodor Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground, Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea all came to similar conclusions. One of the few things that both Christians and atheistic existentialists can agree on is that freedom is the only ground for human meaning. As Burgess puts it, “If he [Alex] can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Absolute State.”3

Free Will and Operant Conditioning

Kubrick focuses on the free-will issue in his treatment of the story, his most literal adaptation of the many original literary sources from which he drew. The resultant screenplay often transposes whole chunks of dialogue and narration from the novel. In a 1972 interview for Sight and Sound, Kubrick comments:

It was absolutely necessary to give weight to Alex’s brutality, otherwise I think there would be moral confusion with respect to what the government does to him. If he were a lesser villain, then one could say: “Oh, yes, of course, he should not be given this psychological conditioning; it’s all too horrible and he really wasn’t that bad after all.” On the other hand, when you have shown him committing such atrocious acts, and you still realize the immense evil on the part of the government in turning him into something less than human in order to make him good, then I think the essential moral idea of the book is clear. It is necessary for man to have the choice to be good or evil, even if he chooses evil. To deprive him of this choice is to make him something less than human—a clockwork orange.4

In the same interview, Kubrick also validates the Freudian reading (first proposed to him by Aaron Stern, practicing psychiatrist and former head of the Motion Picture Association of America rating board) that sees little Alex as giving vent to our unconscious instincts, as “man in his natural state” driven by Eros and Thanatos: “I think, in addition to the personal qualities I mentioned, there is the basic psychological, unconscious identification with Alex. If you look at the story not on the social and moral level, but on the psychological dream content level, you can regard Alex as a creature of the id. He is within all of us. In most cases, this recognition seems to bring a kind of empathy from the audience.”5
Kubrick’s own view of the “natural man” is in sharp contrast to JeanJacques Rousseau’s vision of the noble savage, which had regained a degree of popularity in the late 1960s. The controversial director also gives credence to the catharsis theory: “There may even be an argument in support of saying that any kind of violence in films, in fact, serves a useful social purpose by allowing people a means of vicariously freeing themselves from the pent up, aggressive emotions which are better expressed in dreams, or in the dreamlike state of watching a film, than in any form of reality or sublimation.”6
But to focus exclusively on this psychological aspect of the film is to discount the significance of the social and moral implications to which Kubrick refers.  Like Burgess, Kubrick has a profound appreciation of innate depravity (otherwise known as original sin), an aspect of the human psyche that has fascinated American authors since Nathaniel Hawthorne. For Hawthorne (as is clear in the short story “The Bosom Serpent”), depravity is so profound and universal an aspect of the human condition as to seem innate, and he grapples with faith in a God who would instill such depravity in his most beloved creation. The modern age has transformed the problem of innate evil into the causal explanations of genetic or environmental determinism, which rob individuals of the ultimate moral responsibility for their actions (B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity remains the locus classicus here). Either criminals are born with genetic disorders, or they are made into criminals by flawed parents or by our racist, classist, sexist society (or both).
But to reduce Alex to a collection of drives, and to believe that his actions are as fettered before the Ludovico treatment as after it, is to miss the real point of the film, which is stated explicitly by the prison chaplain. Troubled by the Ludovico technique from the start, the chaplain’s is the only dissenting voice at the demonstration of its complete effectiveness (which involves teasing Alex with a naked woman whom he cannot touch without retching, and forcing him to lick the boot of a male tormenter): “Self-interest, the fear of physical pain, is what drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. . . . He ceases to be a wrongdoer; he also ceases to be a creature capable of moral choice.” Kubrick claims to be following Burgess in making the chaplain the voice of reason. By the end of the sequence, it is the prime minister who is being ridiculed when he responds with a pat utilitarian justification for the procedure (“The point is, it works!”).
In the novel, the chaplain asks Alex (as he considers whether to submit to the conditioning process) whether it might not be better to choose evil willingly than to do good unwillingly. The answer to that question (which the uplifting ending of the film underscores) is that indeed it is better to be capable of doing evil than to do good unwillingly. As the minister points out, Alex still wants to engage in sex and violence, but he is compelled by aversive conditioning techniques to do otherwise.
The ending of Clockwork Orange is the most exuberant sequence in the film since its opening crime spree. There, we identify with little Alex not just as the embodiment of our repressed desires but also as an immensely dynamic force of life, albeit one put to evil ends. Kubrick stacks the deck early on by making Alex’s victims as unsympathetic as possible; in chronological order, they include a sodden street bum, a gang about to rape someone, a rich bleeding-heart liberal and his snooty wife, Alex’s own derelict droogs, and the bony old ptitsa with a hundred cats, so we feel little sympathy for them when they are abused (in contrast, in the novel the gang’s first victim is an academic coming out of the university library with a load of books). In the end, we rejoice that Alex has recovered his will, though we expect him to return to his old, depraved ways—this time, as a protected member of the establishment.
It is comparatively easy (or at least it was in Hollywood’s golden age, a much less cynical time than our own) to affirm human existence by depicting the triumph of good over evil. It is much more difficult to convincingly affirm being in the world in the face of some of its greatest challenges. Tragedy, to my mind, is the most profound theatrical genre precisely because of its ability to be life affirming despite the injustice of the fates of its protagonists. Although the tale of little Alex is not a tragedy, A Clockwork Orange is a similarly profound film that celebrates human freedom while highlighting some of its most distasteful consequences. It is hence a moving and passionate artistic denial of the desolate nihilism that is implicit in mechanistic determinism.

Active and Passive Nihilism

An observation made by Kevin Stoehr in the journal Film and Philosophy is helpful in framing my analysis of the director’s intent here: “Given Kubrick’s comments in rare but revealing interviews throughout his career, it would be fair to say that he dwells upon the nihilistic condition of contemporary culture in order to point beyond such a condition, in the spirit of Nietzsche’s active nihilism. In good dialectical fashion, he highlights the negative in order to indicate our positive capacity for creative and individualistic selfcreation.”7
Nietzsche condemned passive nihilism, which accepts the meaninglessness of existence and “blinks” indifferently, and he valorized active nihilism, which declares the hollowness of all the proposed idols of the marketplace in order to herald the superman. In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick confronts us with the immoral monstrosity that is little Alex, the better to affirm the inviolability of the human will. The “Ode to Joy” at the end tells us how to read the meaning of the sequence; it would be much worse for society to rob such an individual of the capacity to do evil than it is to be forced to continue to deal with the consequences of his choosing to do so.

The Kubrick Vision

Unwilling to boil his films down to univocal interpretations, Kubrick has always been wary of engaging in conceptual analyses of them. Indeed, he hated it when interviewers asked such interpretive questions, and he would, for the most part, refuse to answer them (the Sight and Sound interview was a notable exception). His work has been variously described as misanthropic, misogynistic, fatalistic, technophobic, and downright antisocial. But a brief survey of his most prominent films offers a mixed bag of diverse plots and characterizations.
Killer’s Kiss (1955), Kubrick’s second feature (his first, Fear and Desire [1953] has been largely unavailable due to the director’s determined efforts), is a gritty and realistic study of a romantic triangle involving a boxer, a nightclub dancer, and her gangster boss. Notable for the innovative shot compositions and dynamic editing that were to become Kubrick’s trademark, it also permits its loser protagonist to survive in the end, in contrast to the ill-fated protagonists that generally populate films of this genre.
The Killing (1956), in contrast, is pure film noir fatalism, with protagonist Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) destined to fail at the end. When his overstuffed suitcase bursts open on the tarmac and the heist money blows away, his defeat could not have been more crushing. A spellbinding racetrack caper, the film grabbed the attention of Hollywood and led to Kubrick’s collaboration with Kirk Douglas on Paths of Glory (1957). It also initiated the director’s reputation as a bleak and cynical filmmaker. I contend, however, that this reputation is undeserved.
Kubrick made no fewer than three profoundly antiwar films, and such films are pointless unless one believes that we can make some headway in resisting our warlike tendencies. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) in Paths of Glory is a heroic and extremely sympathetic officer, fighting the lunacy of trench warfare and the sociopathy of his commanding officer. General Mireau (George Macready) orders the artillery to fire on his own men (who are pinned down inside their trenches when the attack proves to be impossible) and then court-martials and executes three of their number to cover up his treachery. Dax’s principled refusal to assume Mireau’s command when the truth is revealed is depicted as noble, and his return to the troops in the trenches is valorized as well. Letting his men linger in a café to listen to the famously touching song (sung in German by Kubrick’s future wife) with which the film ends, Dax is depicted as an officer with a heart. A moment of humanity and fellow feeling is privileged as possible in the midst of such madness.
Kubrick took over from a faltering Anthony Mann during the shooting of 1960’s Spartacus (called in by a desperate Kirk Douglas at the last minute), but his next personal project was Lolita (1962). Humbert Humbert (James Mason) is a moral monster that both novelist Vladimir Nabokov and Kubrick choose to portray sympathetically—the director’s first sociopath as protagonist. Humbert’s preference for young girls may have been consciously cultivated, but his obsession with thirteen-year-old Lolita (Sue Lyon) is depicted as out of his control. It is also what ultimately destroys him. My guess is that Kubrick was drawn to Lolita precisely because of Nabokov’s sympathetic portrayal of a character who is essentially a moral monster and a pedophile. Like Nabokov, Kubrick had a taste for offbeat protagonists and a knack for making their motives believable. One feels for Humbert when Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) snatches his little nymphet away, leaving him to have a massive heart attack in the hospital where he seeks to retrieve her.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is Kubrick’s only foray into comedy (though black comic touches abound in his later films), but that was not his original intention. The madness of mutually assured destruction was such a perfect topic for satire that he dropped plans for a literal interpretation of the novel Red Alert (ultimately produced as Fail Safe [1964]). The satirical tone of Dr. Strangelove redeems what is ultimately an apocalyptic vision of weapons that have outstripped their makers’ ability to control them, embodied in a Doomsday Machine that the Russians cannot disarm. That device is triggered when U.S. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) sends his bomb wing against the Russians because he is convinced that his impotence has been caused by their fluoridation of our water.
One of the myriad reasons it is difficult to characterize Kubrick’s vision is that so many of his films are intentionally ambivalent. On the one hand, Dr. Strangelove seems to be saying that nuclear Armageddon is inevitable. On the other hand, it is one of the most effective antiwar films ever made. Satirizing the madness helped us step back from the brink (the nuclear option was seriously considered during the Cuban missile crisis of 1963). The film entered the national zeitgeist and made nuclear conflict less thinkable (and more obviously laughable).
The 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey traces a Nietzschean arc of human evolution from ape to human to Übermensch, all to the accompaniment of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Thus Spake Zarathustra. The advanced alien race that sent the original monolith to earth and buried the second monolith where only a much advanced human race could find it fulfills a benevolent and almost Godlike role. This is most clearly symbolized when the ape’s contact with the monolith (like the Sistine Chapel’s depiction of God touching Adam) leads to his realization that a femur bone can be used as a weapon, thus ensuring the survival of the species.
Shattering decades of science fiction cliché, Kubrick chooses to depict aliens that are far from hostile and that literally redeem the human race at two critical junctures in our history. The major antagonist here is HAL, the all-too-human computer that develops an instinct for self-preservation and has murderous designs on the crew. The machine has the equivalent of a nervous breakdown due to the stress of being the only conscious entity that (who?) appreciates the true significance of their mission. The Star Child, the reincarnation of crewman Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) after his trip across the universe, triumphantly makes its return to earth just as (the Arthur C. Clarke novel informs us) the human race is about to destroy itself in an allout nuclear war. Able to exert the power of mind over matter, his horizon seems limitless. The celebratory feel of the ending is much less ambivalent than that of A Clockwork Orange.
Kubrick next turned to nineteenth-century satirist William Makepeace Thackeray and Barry Lyndon (1975). Irish ne’er-do-well Redmond Barry (a perfectly cast Ryan O’Neal) always takes the back stairs to social success. Neither hero nor villain, Barry goes from being a deserter to impersonating an officer, fighting duels for a gambler, and finally marrying the widow Lyndon (and treating her like dirt) and becoming a lord. Yet he loves his son (who dies in a riding accident) and unexpectedly chooses not to shoot his stepson in a duel when he is clearly at an advantage; as a result, Barry loses his leg, his wife, and his title and slinks out of the country broken and penniless. This is a picaresque and curiously moralistic tale for Kubrick (only Humbert Humbert is punished more severely), and Barry receives his comeuppance in full by the end. Neither noble nor completely ignoble, he is somewhat unpredictable and never a mere determined mechanism.
The Shining (1980) represents Kubrick’s only explicit foray into the horror genre. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is unambiguously insane and completely out of control, and as he descends into madness, he shifts from protagonist to antagonist, from tormented alcoholic to psychotic monster. His assault on wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) is compelled either by his own inner demons or by the spirits that possess the Overlook Hotel. Yet even here, in one of his bleakest tales, Kubrick depicts Wendy as a resourceful heroine who surprises us, and hotel cook Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) is a truly caring person who drops everything and flies from Florida to Colorado in a fruitless (and fatal) attempt to respond to Danny’s psychic call for help. The Shining also fulfills one of our most fundamental expectations for the genre: that the monster will be killed in the end.
The third installment in Kubrick’s antiwar trilogy, Full Metal Jacket (1987), scathingly deconstructs the John Wayne myth (one imagines it paired with The Green Berets [1968] on the perfect double bill). A jarring mixture of riveting battle scenes and increasingly broad satire, Full Metal Jacket, though not as comedic as Dr. Strangelove, is rife with black humor and exaggeration. Private Joker (Matthew Modine) embodies the Jungian duality of the human spirit, as represented by his wearing of both a peace sign and a “Born to Kill” slogan. His distanced and humorous take on the proceedings allows us to appreciate the peculiar forms of insanity inherent in the Vietnam conflict.
The first forty minutes of the film depict yet another conditioning process, Marine Corps boot camp, which in this case is designed to rob the men of their individuality and mold them into a fighting unit. The necessity of this type of training is explained and celebrated in such John Wayne vehicles as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), but here, the production of thoughtless killing machines is condemned. Private Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) is an overweight goof that Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey, a former drill instructor himself) decides to focus on as an example. He hazes Lawrence—whom he has nicknamed “Private Pyle” (as in “Gomer Pyle”)—mercilessly, then punishes the entire platoon when the poor guy continues to screw up. Lawrence absorbs abuse from everyone (even from his only ally, Private Joker), but he gets better at soldiering the closer he gets to insanity and ends up blowing away both Sergeant Hartman and himself. Private Joker becomes a war correspondent and has to deal daily with the official double-talk and inflated enemy casualty reports that were so characteristic of the Vietnam War. Joker is the most admirable Kubrickian protagonist since Colonel Dax. He tries his best to help Lawrence be a marine and is constantly looking out for his photographer, Rafterman. He mocks the John Wayne image with hilarious impersonations but is brave in battle and ultimately administers a merciful coup de grace to the teenaged sniper who gunned down several members of his patrol and failed to kill Joker only because her gun jams.
Full Metal Jacket is more insightful than either Apocalypse Now (1979) or Platoon (1986) about what was really at stake in this war. The grunts point out that the South Vietnamese care little about democracy and make their American allies feel unwelcome. A squad leader remarks sincerely that he respects the Vietcong more than the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. A general matter-of-factly proclaims that inside every gook is an American waiting to get out, perfectly capturing the virulent synthesis of racism and ethnocentrism that motivated our involvement there. The impact of these comments is heightened by the fact that many of them are delivered in explicit interview situations in full-face close-ups, with cameras rolling in the frame.
When Joker’s platoon breaks into a rousing chorus of the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club, on their way back from the climactic battle, Kubrick’s message is clear (all too clear, according to some critics). Though I found the sequence jarring when I first saw the film, I now consider this ending to be a stroke of genius. The nascent fascism of the Disney empire blooms in the Vietnam War. The self-righteousness of our culture, which has blithely permitted us to impose our political system on so many recalcitrant nations around the world, stems from the unambiguous moral certainties of the Disney universe. Give me the Brothers Grimm any day.
Throughout it all, Joker retains his sense of humor, as does the director. This is crucial to the distinction noted earlier between active and passive nihilism. Antiwar pictures such as Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket get us to see the black humor in the situation, the better to facilitate our realization of the madness of war. They move us to recognize and deplore the madness, and they leave us with the feeling that a greater degree of sanity is possible because we have been alerted to these dangers.
It was predictable that Kubrick would never retire. His last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), was completed four days before his death. It is one of the most nihilistic of his works, embodying a kind of Sartrean pessimism about our inevitable dissatisfaction with romantic love. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre attributes this to the contradictory aims we are pursuing. On the one hand, we want our beloved to freely choose to love us, with the attendant recognition that such a radically contingent choice can be withdrawn at any moment. On the other hand, we wish to be secure in that love, so we tend to reduce our beloved to an object with essential characteristics, one of which is his or her love for us. Sex only complicates the equation, because sexual gratification is at its best when we have a diverse array of sexual partners and when the other is reduced to an object to be used for our pleasure.
Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) are an attractive upper-class couple who clearly take each other for granted at the beginning of the film. Readying themselves for a Christmas party, Alice asks Bill how she looks, and he responds “perfect” without even bothering to glance in her direction. Part of the power of the sequence comes from the contrast between Bill, who takes Alice’s beauty as a given, and the viewer, who has just been ravished by the sight of Kidman’s naked torso during the opening credits. The couple’s complacency is soon shattered, however. After flirting with others at the party, they conclude the night with a passionate lovemaking session. In a later scene, they share some marijuana and engage in an engrossing conversation. First, Alice grills Bill about the two models he was flirting with at the party. When he will not admit to having a jealous reaction to his wife’s flirtation with an exotic European gentleman at the party (“You’re my wife, and you would never do anything like that”), she relates a fantasy she once entertained of leaving Bill and running off with a handsome naval officer she saw in a restaurant. Her admission triggers a jealous rage that either sends Bill on a sexual odyssey of epic proportions or causes a nightmarish dream. Although the final line of the film (Alice says, “You know, there is something we need to do as soon as possible . . . fuck!”) seems to promise a reconciliation, there is little doubt that the Harfords will never be totally secure with each other, despite Bill’s protestations that he has been woken up “forever.” Their “adventures” were not constructive; rather, they seem to point to the crumbling of the foundations of their marriage (Bill notes, “A dream is never just a dream”). One might hope that the totally unfulfilling nature of Bill’s nightmarish odyssey (where sexual gratification is desperately sought, often promised, but never forthcoming) will deepen his appreciation of his wife as a full-blown human being and not a possession. But even near the end, he still seems obsessed by visions of her making love to the naval officer and by her dream of being gangbanged. Bill has come to the realization (in Sartrean terms) that Alice is pour soi and not en soi (that is, she exists as a being for itself, with a self-consciousness that grants her radical freedom, and not simply as a beautiful object that he owns). This remains an unsettling realization at the end of the film.
Although it is pessimistic about the prospects of romantic love, Eyes Wide Shut foregrounds the radical freedom of the individual to choose not to love the beloved, a theme that Sartre made much of. It is precisely because we are free that love is such a frightening prospect. We put so much of our self-esteem in the hands of the beloved that we would like to know that his or her love will last. But we can value the beloved’s recognition only because it is freely (and contingently) granted.
So, to summarize this brief survey, Stanley Kubrick depicts out-of-control psychopaths from time to time, including General Ripper, Jack Torrance, and Private Pyle. But the vast majority of his protagonists, including Colonel Dax, Dave Bowman, Redmond Barry, Wendy Torrance, Private Joker, and Bill Harford, are resourceful individuals who clearly exercise choice at crucial moments in their respective films. This fact, coupled with my claim that A Clockwork Orange makes sense only if it is a celebration of human freedom, adds up to the conclusion that Kubrick affirms the existence of human free will. Dehumanization is a central theme in many of Kubrick’s works, and in Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket, what dehumanization amounts to is the loss of control over our lives and the absence of choice between real alternatives.
One of the last projects Kubrick worked on was an adaptation of Brian Aldiss’s short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” which he bequeathed to Steven Spielberg shortly before his death; the script became the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001). Although I am sure that Kubrick would not have played up the Pinocchio parallels as heavily as Spielberg did, his interest in whether machines can feel emotions, make choices, and truly approximate human existence shows that he was still obsessed with the theme of free will and determinism right up to the end of his life.

Notes

An earlier version of this paper, entitled “Kubrick Contra Nihilism: A Clockwork Orange,” appeared in vol. 9 of Film and Philosophy, the 2005 Special Edition on Philosophy and Science Fiction.

1. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1963; reprint, New York: W. W. Norton, 1995).
2. Ibid., iii.
3. Ibid., ix.
4. Stanley Kubrick, interview with Philip Strick, Sight and Sound, April 1972
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Kevin Stoehr, “Kubrick and Ricoer on Nihilistic Horror and the Symbolism of Evil,” Film and Philosophy, special issue on horror (2001): 90.

Published in The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick, pp. 221-234

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