Stanley Kubrick: The Unbearable Brevity Of Being

Kubrick’s virtuosity as a filmmaker, and the range of his subjects, have served to disguise his near-obsessive concern with these two matters—the brutal brevity of the individual’s span on earth and the indifference of the spheres to that span, whatever its length, whatever achievements are recorded over its course.

by Richard Schickel

“Life is too short.”

Is it possible? Can it be? Could one reasonably, soberly, in full command of one’s critical faculties, in full knowledge of one’s critical responsibilities when confronting a major portion of a major artist’s work, advance the possibility that from such a commonplace, there arose this uncommon sublimity—Dr. Strangelove, 2001. A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange—Stanley Kubrick’s marvelously varied, wonderfully ingenious, curiously gnomic contemplations of where we have arrived in the history of the race and where we might yet be going?

“Life is too short.” Surely all this virtuosity, technical and otherwise, has not been lavished on the illustration of so ordinary a cliche? And surely all the speculative frenzy, and all the outrage, too, that were vented on these films when they were initially released cannot be made to dance on this pinhead phrase.

Probably not. Probably the facts of the case are more complicated than that. For Kubrick is one of the few true intellectuals (as opposed to people who merely like to play that role) ever to make movies, which is to say that the range of his interests (not to mention his reading), as well as the modernist taste for ambiguity that he shares with his kind, makes one resist any attempt to understand his work too easily. Moreover, he has honed to a very high degree the intelligent artist’s capacity to cover his creative tracks with superbly misleading ex posto facto rationalizations. That, too, compels a certain caution when confronting his work critically.

But still that wretched incautious phrase keeps recurring: “Life is too short.” It bustles back time and time again into the mind that has repeatedly banished it for the sin of oversimplification, elbowing aside all the more delicate formulations. And so in the end, however reluctantly, one grants it headway. Somehow the phrase seems to link Ku­brick’s three futuristic films better than any other: It directs one’s attention away from the political, scientific, and social metaphors that have (in the order of their appearance) controlled the discussion of these films; it has textual support in statements Kubrick himself has made about his work; and, most useful of all, it has double meaning in the context of both his art and his personal preoccupations that is, I’m convinced, crucial to our understanding of the issues with which both are most centrally concerned.

Kubrick’s virtuosity as a filmmaker, and the range of his subjects, have served to disguise his near-obsessive concern with these two matters—the brutal brevity of the individual’s span on earth and the indifference of the spheres to that span, whatever its length, whatever achievements are recorded over its course. His works, whatever their ostensible themes, must always be seen as acts of defiance against this tragic fate.

On both points he has been quite specific. Here, for example, is Kubrick on the subject of individual mortality: “Man is the only creature aware of his own mortality and is at the same time generally incapable of coming to grips with this awareness and all its implications. Millions of people thus, to a greater or lesser degree, experience emotional anxieties, tensions and unresolved conflicts that frequently express themselves in the form of neuroses and a general joylessness that permeates their lives with frustration and bitterness and increases as they grow older and see the grave yawning before them.” (This was, of course, the theme of the great, and greatly misunderstood, Barry Lyndon, in which Kubrick time-traveled deeper into the past than he ever has into the future. At the end of a movie full of pointless (and chance-dictated) adventures, endless, equally meaningless duplicity, all in aid of trivial social advantage, he brings his eponymous antihero to precisely the point described in the preceding quotation. The film’s last words belong to an anonymous, narrator (godlike, as a novelist is), w’ho comments simply that the people of this long-ago tale, however they stood in relationship to one another in life, “are all equal now.” That is to say, they are all in their graves.

It can, of course, be argued that existence was ever thus, and for any reasonably intelligent person thoughts along these lines are, at this late date in history, only a short crawl up—or perhaps sideways—from the banal. But in fairness, one must also argue that it is in the fear of mortality that all creative work begins. Every truly interesting sensibility must entertain it, and the most interesting ones, though not very often moviemakers, tend to entertain it consciously. This is perhaps because, as Kubrick has observed, most films—even those that are made with high intent and great technical facility (Kubrick: “I mean the world is not as it’s presented in Frank Capra films. People love those films— which are beautifully made—but I wouldn’t describe them as a true picture of life”)—consciously or not, are trying to ingratiate themselves with the audience. One feels compelled to add only this: that the ingratiatory impulse remains more visible at the highest levels of film- making than it does at the highest levels of the other great narrative forms, the novel and the theater. It is demanded critically, too, which is one reason that Kubrick films so often get reviews that range from the dim to the hostile on initial release.

But the fact remains that in the modernist (or postmodernist) world the gloom surrounding the contemplation of mortality is deeper and more pervasive than it was in any earlier time. The obvious reason for this, of course, is the loss of religious faith and the consoling promise of immortality it once offered the believer. About that also little more need be said at this late date. But as the depth and breadth of the cosmos have been made ever more evident to us by twentieth-century science, our other hope for immortality—our last hope, as it were— also diminishes. In this vastness all our accomplishments dwindle to microscopic size; our best works, our proudest achievements, get lost in the stars. And man, most especially artistic man, despairs still more. Or as Kubrick once put it, “Why, he must ask himself, should he bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space?” Why, indeed? Especially when it becomes more and more clear that our universe was created by chance, is ruled by chance, and may well be snuffed out by chance.

It was the last of these matters that Kubrick spoke of first in his work, and it is the one (I venture to say on the basis of some firsthand knowledge of his way of life) that has the most effect on his day-to-day existence. About mortality and about the universal indifference one can do little except confront them with an acceptant mind. But about chance one can actually do something; one can take a few precautions that will, at least, diminish its more malevolent workings. Kubrick thus refuses to fly. Nor will he work outside the studio if he can possibly avoid it, closed environments being infinitely more controllable than open ones, especially for directors of his undisputed stature, kings in kingdoms of their own devising. He lives, too, behind gates, in well- guarded isolation, selecting those visitors he chooses to see, ordering in the books and films he omnivorously devours, reaching out by telephone and telex when he needs to get in touch with the outside world. When he sends forth his films, he does what he can to protect them from mischance. He personally inspects, for instance, every print that goes to the first-run theaters, and he keeps a file of those houses, complete with detailed descriptions, even pictures, so he can be sure his movies are not booked into environments he regards as unhealthy for them.

In this connection one thinks of his first important picture, The Killing (1956), in which a perfect crime, the meticulously planned robbery of a day’s takings at a racetrack, is undone at the last moment by chance operating at its most absurd levels. This silly woman with her stupid dog—we don’t expect to encounter such creatures in heist movies; we expect to encounter them in life, where we think of them as annoyances, not as deadly dangers to our best-laid plans. For Kubrick, of course, their sudden intrusion in his story, setting in motion the near-farcical and distinctly ironic sequence of events that results in the loot blowing away in the prop wash of what was to have been the getaway airplane, is more than a well-calculated coda; it is the whole point of the film, an expression of Kubrick’s deepest sense of how the world works—refuses to work, actually. As he sees it, the lady and her dog, or something like them, must logically put in a blundering appearance at some point in all our venturings if, indeed, it is chance that rules our universe. What he is saying is that there is nothing chancy about chance’s arrival in our affairs; the only unpredictable things about it are the form it will take and the precise moment of its appearance.

If this be so, then obviously the prudent man, the prudent society will take what precautions they can against the workings of this omnipresent force, try to minimize the damage it must inevitably wreck. This point is, in fact, so clear that even the dim-witted governments of the superpowers have, in one instance, made such prudence into elaborate official policy, surrounding those weapon systems which have doomsday capability and are most vulnerable to the mischief of chance—the atomic weapons—with not one but many fail-safe precautions. These are, naturally, as foolproof as the similarly elaborate fail-safe systems which surrounded The Killing‘s robbery scheme. As a result (to borrow a subtitle), we have all “learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.’’ Yes. Absolutely.

Dr. Strangelove is not to be read solely as a cautionary tale comically put, though it is surely a great comedy, one that we can see, two decades after its release, is going to hold up for a very’ long time. That is because it is a true black comedy, a comedy that proceeds from a bleak, but deeply felt, view of human nature and is not dependent for its best thrusts on its situation—the desperate attempt by the American high command to recall an atomic strike against the Soviet Union launched by a madman—or upon its satire of the already outmoded technology of the strike and the recall effort it details. What Kubrick is contemplating here are both the ironies of accident and the failure of rationalism to estimate the effects of chance on human endeavors and to build into its contingency planning compensations for these effects.

He has clearly gone far beyond the simple statement he made about the accidental nature of existence at the end of The Killing. Consider just the most obvious workings of chance in Dr. Strangelove. There would be no film if, by chance, an unstable figure, General Jack D. Ripper, had not wormed his way into the system and if, by chance, he had not been made CO of the Burpleson Air Force Base, with access to the code that can send a SAC wing on its way to Russia and if, by chance, he had not come unglued at just the moment he did, neither sooner nor later. Certainly it is chance that sends an antiaircraft burst into the radio of one bomber (instead of destroying it or hitting it in a less crucial spot), so it cannot hear and heed the recall code when it is finally found and broadcast. It is chance, too, that dictates that command of that ship rest in the hands of Major Kong, who is one of those otherwise good-natured souls whose only flaw is that he unquestioningly obeys orders, even ones that he is dubious about.

But the point of the exercise is not merely, or most significantly, to demonstrate how disastrously the law of unintended consequences can work out. It is rather to demonstrate the impotence of the rational in dealing with it. Reason is represented in Dr. Strangelove as either comically ineffectual or, when it is effective, comically perverse. In both modes, of course, it is portrayed by Peter Sellers, in his justly celebrated triple performance. It is interesting that at both the field level where, as Group Captain Mandrake, who discovers what General Ripper has done and must try to undo it, and at the highest echelon, as President Muffley, who must use the hot line to try to talk his Soviet counterpart into being sensible and patient about the whole mess, Sellers adopts the wheedling tones of a parent dealing with a child caught in the grips of the terrible twos. Whether he speaks in the false-hearty terms of commonsensical Mandrake or the false-hearty terms of a President who seems to be half Eisenhower, half Stevenson—a man of common decency swimming far beyond the limits of decency’s power to stay afloat—these speeches are parodies of reasonableness, hugely comic statements of its enfeeblement when it confronts this harsh reality: that however grown-up they pretend to be, most people, including the most powerful, remain at heart children. The alternative is the one chillingly offered by Dr. Strangelove himself. Crippled in body, bent of mind, he is presented as a living critique of pure reason, calculating how to turn disaster into advantage for whoever pays his salary’ right up to the trump of doom. Reason—for that matter, all the other human sentiments—carries no moral weight for him anyway; it has long since been drained of its human components, reduced to a set of figures in his computer’s memory bank.

But whether it presents itself as hand-wringing humanism or as a set of figures on a printout, reason, as we presently conceive it, is, in Kubrick’s view, a poor tool with which to confront the postmodern, postatomic age. What he is saying in this film is that though man is sufficiently advanced to imagine a rational world and to build intricately rational systems for governing it, he has not yet progressed far enough in his evolution to rid himself of his irrational impulses or to rid society of those institutions and arrangements that are projections of that ir­rationalism. In short, man is incapable of building fail-safe systems at a level of sophistication where they include mechanisms capable of nullifying the effects of chance or of the irrationally thrown monkey wrench (they amount to the same thing actually). He is also saying, I think, that at our present level of development we will never be able to create such systems; we re just not brainy enough. He may also be saying—though this point is both much more speculative and much more ironic—that it might not be an altogether brilliant idea to do so, since we would undoubtedly sacrifice something of our essential humanity if we managed to achieve that next evolutionary level.

Not to worry too much about that, though. As we said at the beginning, life is too short. It is clearly too short for any individual to achieve this higher consciousness; it is also too short, obviously, for the race to achieve it, since the possibility of blowing ourselves to smithereens is now upon us. Such hope as there is, in these circumstances, lies in the possibility of rebirth in a new form. It is the final irony of Dr. Strangelove that it suggests that possibility and places the suggestion in the mouth of its resident mad scientist, who proposes that he and his elite colleagues retreat to deep mine shafts, there to live and procreate until the clouds (of radiation) roll by and, in a few generations, their heirs stroll forth to reclaim the earth. Perhaps, given the elitist principles that will govern selection of the survivor population, they w’ill be stronger and wiser than we are now. Certainly Dr. Strangelove seems to imply as much when he puts forward this possibility. Maybe they will be weaker—inbreeding, you know. Kubrick himself is not saying. There is just this song on the sound track: “We ll meet again someday. Don’t know where, don’t know when….” It is certain, however, that they will be different, these inheritors; in some sense reborn. And rebirth, as Kubrick sees it, is our only hope.

Vide (to borrow a word not from the Latin but from A Clockwork Oranges droog tongue) 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, as Andrew Sar­ris said, “is concerned ultimately with the inner fears of Kubrick’s mind as it contemplates infinity and eternity.” What he is mulling here is the reverse of what he considered in Strangelove. It is not the triumph of unreason but the triumph of reason which is presented here as cause for alarm. The opening passages of the film make that painfully clear, for the everyday reality of 2001, despite the ease with which man has mastered space travel, is one in which the banalities of our own everyday life are writ parodistically large. People ride from star to star, eating the same plastic food, enduring the same plastic smiles from the cabin attendants, as we now do making the IA-NY connection. They look out the windows at space slipping by with the same bored expressions with which we watch the Middle West slip by beneath our jets. They meet with the same false cordiality, exchange information in the same bureaucratically flattened language. Even when space travelers venture deeper into the darker reaches of the galaxy’ on their quasi-military missions, their rounds are dismally like those of today’s astronauts. They tend to their physical fitness, occupy themselves with routine tasks, do everything possible to drain their adventure of a sense of adventure. Indeed, the mission of the space ship Discovery, which is to try to trace the origins of a mysterious signal-sending obelisk that has been discovered on the moon, a sign that superior life-forms visited us sometime in the distant past, though ostensibly commanded by Dave Bowman, is actually controlled by the superrational computer HAL. He is, in fact, by far the most interesting “character” (in the conventional sense of the term) present in the film. He has wit, and it would seem he is touched by something like original sin, which the human space travelers show no awareness of, so programmed into their technological routines are they.

It may be that HAL represents a “mistake” on the part of his human creators. Perhaps they didn’t understand that when they wired him up for extrahuman brainpower they were, willy-nilly, creating a creature capable of the higher speculation in realms other than the mathematical—like the metaphysical—thus capable, perhaps, of wishing to prevent these poor human specimens from coming into contact with the superior intelligences they are seeking. It may even be that he deems himself to be more worthy of that honor. He is, after all, more like them than poor man is, since he, too, represents a form of pure intelligence and thus, naturally, is contemptuous of humankind’s progress in this regard. One thing he surely is not is a “mistake” on Kubrick’s part, though he was so regarded by many of the film’s first critics, who made heavy sport of the fact that poor, foolish Stanley had made a movie in which a machine was a more entertaining character than any of the humans present. The possibility of conscious calculation on the part of the era’s most consciously calculating director never occurred to them. Poor dears! They were to Kubrick pretty much what Bowman was to HAL: capable of dismantling him, but not of following his logic.

Be that as it may, the future, as Kubrick projects it from the evidence of our shared present, is dismally without resonance—romantically, intellectually, culturally. It is an engineer’s future, not an artist’s. And 2001 is, finally, the story of a microcosmic rebellion by the one human being who survives HAL’s murderous depredations among the rest of the crew. He begins by lobotomizing the computer, then proceeds, in effect, to shuck off the shell in which civilization as he knows it has encased him. He leaves his spaceship in a smaller auxiliary vehicle, proceeding toward Jupiter and then, when moons, planets, suns, and Bowman’s ship are in alignment with a monolith orbiting in space, Bowman enters a “stargate” and is eventually transported into a room where the decor is half that of the eighteenth century’ (the Age of Reason), half moderne. There he confronts his aged self, dies, and is reborn as the “starchild,” a fetuslike creature, with enormous brain and eyes, who is last seen whirling through space toward some new, unimaginable destiny.

For a film that was so puzzling to its first critics (mostly because it insisted on telling its tale in the one language movie reviewers, with their unacknowledged literary bias, do not understand, the language of images rather than words—another reason Kubrick fares badly with this crowd) the meaning of 2001 seems in retrospect very clear. It is, in fact, less ambiguous than that of any other works of Kubrick’s maturity. It says, quite frankly, that our present “lines of play” (to borrow a chess expression Kubrick himself likes to employ when discussing his work) are used up, without creative force or possibility. Again, our opening phrase recurs to mind: “Life is too short”—that is to say (in this context), the individual does not have time, in the space of a brief lifetime, to await patiently the arrival of circumstances that might be helpful in his efforts to evolve upwardly. Nor can he expect much help in that regard from society, which is bent on routinizing him. Nor, finally, can he put much faith in that old liberal hope, the idea of progress, the notion that somehow, automatically, technology’ and our developing social institutions are edging us upward toward a higher plane of being. No, Kubrick seems to be saying here, nothing short of the most daring rebellion, a rebellion that takes us to the threshold of the unknown, and then propels us over that threshold, will do. Somehow, like Bowman, we must will ourselves toward the higher consciousness, open ourselves to it. It is no accident that the film’s principal musical theme is from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, music inspired by Nietzsche.

But one cannot leave this remarkable movie without speaking of its history since its release in 1968. Opening to puzzlement, outrage, dismissal, and the worst kind of criticism—contemptuous dismissal on the one hand, mystified awe on the other—it has become, in the few years since, one of the major milestones on the postmodernist path— so far the only movie that has achieved that status. Its imagery is now burned into almost everyone’s consciousness, is almost universal in its familiarity, so much so that people refer to it in the other visual media without seeming to be aware that they are quoting it. And that leads one to yet another interpretation of the film’s central symbol, those monoliths scattered about the universe by the superior race on their long-ago star voyagings. The Arthur C. Clarke short story’ from which 2001 evolved was called “The Sentinel,” and it posited the possibility that these enigmatic creations were just that, warning devices to tell the superior beings when a new race evolved to a point where its consciousness might be of interest to them. They perhaps function similarly in the film, but I think Kubrick means us to see them in another way as well, as art objects which signal us aesthetically as well as electronically across the millennia, suggesting the possibility that there are present among us superior beings, beings capable of creating works that, even if they are buried and lost in the short term, may speak to the beings of the future, whether or not they are shaped like men, may indeed speak more clearly to a reborn race than they speak to us. It would be characteristic of a man oppressed as Kubrick is by time’s fleeting quality’ and the fragility of man’s works to suggest this faint hope, and to express it enigmatically, as a nonverbal sign amidst his more voluble pessimism.

His next film, A Clockwork Orange, also takes up the matter of creativity just as it takes up some of the other themes of its two immediate predecessors: the limits of rationalism, for instance, and the possibilities of rebirth. Lacking the antic spirit of Dr. Strangelove or the soaring optimism of 2001, it is a grimly comic piece, more bitterly ironic in tone than any of Kubrick’s other films. It is also, in terms of sheer technique, Kubrick’s most arresting work as well as his most morally ambivalent one.

Alex, its central figure (superbly played by Malcolm McDowell), is a projection into a future not much more distant than 2001, of the contemporary spirit of juvenile delinquency, amoral and anarchistic, yet with a certain cheekiness as well. His style is also a projection of the contemporary’ punk manner, which Kubrick presciently caught practically at the moment of its birth in London. Alex and his three droogs (friends) devote themselves almost entirely to mugging and rape, and—no other way to describe it—they have a flair for these activities. In the dismal world of the future—all telescreens, cellblock housing developments, and a dispassionate, institutionalized, welfare state liberalism—Alex in particular represents the life-force. He has energy’, a twisted creative intelligence, a strangely compelling charm. And one saving grace of a traditional kind: his obsessive passion for the music of “Ludwig Van” (Beethoven).

The scenes in which he leads his gang on their depredations— most notably the invasion of a country’ house, where a writer is savagely beaten and his wife savagely raped (to the tune of “Singin in the Rain”)—are among the most shockingly perverse in all cinema, for they are shot and edited and played to stress not the victim’s horror but the victimizer’s pleasure (more Nietzsche). They are, in short, extremely erotic—and imaginative, even darkly humorous in their vicious way. Another way of putting it is that they are emotionally expressive—however unpleasant the emotions expressed—in a way that nothing else is in the society Kubrick presents.

But of course, that won’t do. Civility, if not civilization, must be served. Apprehended for his crimes and jailed, bold Alex volunteers for a radical new reeducation program being advanced by a “progressive” minister for home affairs. He, too, believes life is too short. Society cannot afford to wait years for prison to accomplish the moral regeneration of its inmates, which mostly it doesn’t do anyway. In the new program drugs are used to open up the subject emotionally, so he can respond with proper loathing to documentary film footage recounting man’s inhumanity’ to man. And the program works; it turns Alex into a perfect wimp, docile, passive, a good citizen. But remember, crime is his form of creativity’, and when the impulse to crime is programmed out of him, so is his capacity to respond to any of the other higher impulses. Now he will retch at the thought of committing a rape in his born-again state. But he will also lose his capacity to love Ludwig Van, too. The irony is superb.

And prepares the way for a new and final irony. For the reeducated Alex now becomes, in the eyes of the liberal-humanist party’, a victim of the state’s technocratic and bureaucratic impulse to meddle with psyche and spirit. Such an outcry is raised that the state must now agree to reeducate the reeducated, and the film ends with a close-up of Alex’s wickedly glinting eyes as he contemplates a return to a life of crime.

A Clockwork Orange is obviously cautionary in the same way that Kubrick’s other probes of the future are, in that it offers a radical critique of contemporary’ society—its politics, culture, and moral values. It also forms a coda to 2001 by making manifest the point that rebirth cannot be achieved on the cheap, through simple technological or chemical means—a point that the earlier film’s prime audience, sixties youth, responding to the film through a haze of pot and self-indulgence, mostly missed.

Taken together, these films form a sort of intellectual trilogy. The first of them mourns the failure of rationalism as we have, until now, understood it. The second of them proposes a redemptive myth, something to live for in place of conventional rationalism and, for that matter, conventional religion. The superior beings of 2001 are superior not only intellectually, not only spiritually, but in both respects. And Kubrick is surely saying that the development of our powers in one of these areas at the expense of the other would grant us only a false and illusory power. Finally, in the last film, he is again reminding us—his main theme—of the awful brevity of man’s span, that salvation, rebirth of the kind he has proposed, is not a matter of hasty reform, not something to be easily achieved, as our present society with its addiction to self- help books, pop psychologizing, and the quick political fix likes to think it is. Rebirth is, to put the matter simply, a millennial matter. In the meantime, though, he is saying that short of the millennium, the good society will in some measure be a violent society, if only because questing and adventuring—even if they are merely intellectual—are violent enterprises. He is also saying that only a tumultuous society is capable of leaving its mark on the centuries or, to put the matter properly, is capable of nurturing individuals who, needing to defy their mortality, must try to leave their marks on society—some obelisks to guide and goad, whoever, whatever come later, reminding them that some superior beings, an unhappy few, preceded them.

Source: Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinema (1984)


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