Kubrick the idealist

Diane Johnson, novelist and co-author with Stanley Kubrick of the screenplay of The Shining, writing just after the director’s death:

Kubrick had a strong, offended sense of the ridiculousness of the human being, and the futility of human endeavor. He returned to these points again and again — with the recruit in Full Metal Jacket, everyone in Dr. Strangelove (the characters associated with Terry Southern), the victims in A Clockwork Orange. He assailed married life and artistic pretension in The Shining, which was also to have assailed racism (the Overlook Hotel had been built on an Indian burial ground), a theme that fell by the way. The new film may assail psychiatry, another subject he was skeptical of. 

His pessimism seems to have arisen from his idealism, an outraged yearning for a better order, a wish to impose perfection on the chaotic materials of reality. This impulse is behind much art, after all, and Kubrick was above all an artist. His art was an expression of his view of things through the complicated medium of film. Like any artist, he felt an interest in controlling as many aspects of his medium as he could — set, music, costume, take — an attitude that unfairly earned him the reputation of monomaniacal difficulty.

But he thought of art as fun. Art in his view was also moral. People have tried to enlist him in the cause of hip nihilism, but this is to mistake his orthodox Sixties but rather conservative views. What was A Clockwork Orange — which he withdrew in England after some copycat killings — but a diatribe against violence? What were Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket but antiwar films? 

It is very strange to me to hear the co-author of the the movie’s screenplay say that The Shining “assails” “married life” — a thought that has never occurred to me and still, despite her statement, refuses to occur to me. But in other respects I find this meditation interesting, because I have at least some sympathy for David Thomson’s view of Kubrick — in writing about The Shining, he says, “A masterpiece. How wonderful that this straining, chilly, pretentious, antihuman director should have stumbled into it.” 

Thomson utterly despised 2001: writing in 2008 or thereabouts, he stated, as if giving testimony in court, “I believe now, as I did in 1968, that 2001 was a lavish travesty and an elaborate defense of vacancy or the reluctance to use real imagination. Of course, space can still work on film — we have had Alien, E.T., and others — but the lack of humanity is a dead end.” I think the “lack of humanity” is one of the chief points of that movie, and therefore it needed to be directed by someone whose style could fairly be described as “straining, chilly, pretentious, antihuman”; but Diane Johnson’s comments — along with those of people who knew Kubrick well — suggest that the apparent antihumanity is a mask for something deeper and more tender.

But it’s telling that if Kubrick did indeed have that more richly humanistic side — and I believe he did — he was never able to find a way to express it directly in his films. It’s something evoked by its absence, as when Shakespeare writes of “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”