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Eyes Wide Open: How Stanley Kubrick saw humanity

Given Kubrick's eccentric, secluded genius persona, some have labeled his work anti-human. David Alexander explains why his critics are wrong.

Deep in idyllic Hertfordshire, in the last quarter of the last century, there lived an uncompromising genius. The director Stanley Kubrick was a recluse of sorts, who largely limited social interaction to phone calls. He didn’t have much time for socialising: he was, after all, a workaholic and a technophile, and a believer that only by combining these statuses could he produce great art. 

Many disagreed, and still do, when looking back at Kubrick’s not-so-prodigious output (five films in his last thirty years of work). For his critics, Kubrick’s love of private tech-tinkering was an impediment to the emotional effectiveness of his work. It led only to ever-more carefully artificial stories. Indeed, it trapped the exuberant dynamism of living in the exquisitely manicured cage of the camera-frame.

So say the critics, anyhow. But I disagree with them. I like Kubrick’s work not because it’s ‘real’ – the critics are right, it’s not. It possesses something better than realness, or at least more interesting. It distils the human experience to the fundamental impulses which compromise its core, and pushes past those shallow real-life influences which normally obscure these.

Take Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s tale of a young man’s opportunistic rise and fall through the social ranks of the 1750s has been regularly attacked for alleged emotional asphyxiation. The pace is decidedly slow, the dialogue laconic, the settings florid and orderly. But there are serious passions boiling away under the corsets. There’s impulsive, starry-eyed adolescent love. The weaselly, scurrying will to survive, too, as Lyndon deserts the various armies he fights for. And then, finally, the fall; the inexorable spiral from overindulgence to destitution. Big, universal themes, woven into a single narrative, as in life. 

And if the faces of the characters don’t show all this emotion? Well that’s the whole idea. 18th century Europe provides a society painfully restrained enough, in its social manners and hierarchies, to smash against the raw passions of the human spirit, and barely keep them under the surface. In that tension lies the drama. 

Kubrick does a similar thing with The Shining, a tale of a winter caretaker and his family trapped in a cursed hotel. Again, the human condition is pared down to its essential, self-perpetuating impulses. Unlike in other horror films, love is central. And this resolute love between mother and son endures all that the Overlook Hotel can throw at it, whether lifts erupting with blood, blow-jobbing bear-dogs or Jack “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny” Nicholson. 

Much attention has been paid to Nicholson’s possessed caretaker – predictably, given he’s the biggest star. But really he’s as much a narrative device as anything. It’s the appropriation of his tormented mind by the hotel that shows the hotel’s terrifying power. With that established, we can appreciate how monumental it is that his wife and child escape. How deep, and how resourceful, is their love.

Kubrick engaged in a similar task with his biggest ever film, and maybe his most famous. This time he highlights the endless durability of the human condition not by honing in, but by zooming out. In fact, the story of 2001: A Space Odyssey, such as it is, is nothing less than a story of humanity itself, from bone-smashing, tool-inventing apes, to cosmic star children, led into omniscience via abstract neon acid-trip. Alright, so maybe for something so silly, it’s all done a bit po-facedly. But po-faced was how Kubrick looked when he was having fun.

And the vast scale was necessary to make the point. In fact, it was the point: the specifics of 2001 don’t actually matter much. Where humanity is shown to be going isn’t really important, nor is the all-powerful force implied to be pulling us there (a humming, brooding black obelisk; if you haven’t seen the film, don’t worry, those of us who have don’t understand it either). 

The point for Kubrick, though, is that we humans never sit still, not for a moment. We’re continually dissatisfied by the immediate reality in which we live. So, we experiment and tinker and fiddle until EUREKA! And then we start again because what about that other thing, and maybe if we just… We are the forward-looking animal Kubrick seems to say. 

So, I don’t buy the idea that Kubrick was ‘anti-human’. I think that the artist’s detached private life has been allowed to colour views of his art. Surely, we like our creatives to be immersed in the world, soaking it up, then splurging it out onscreen with maximum vitality? We’re not so keen on them hovering pretentiously above it, like 2001’s space baby in its metaphysical amniotic sack.

I actually think, though, that Kubrick’s seclusion gave him an outsider’s clarity. All the intricacies of a messy social life could be chopped off, and the world reduced to the universal narratives Kubrick quietly identified in the endless feast of media he consumed at home. He was the great observer; a bearded, bespectacled HAL 9000, with a resolutely human heart. 

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