The philosophy shining behind the work of Stanley Kubrick

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Ever wondered what links German philosophers Nietzsche and Heidegger with axe-wielding hotel winter caretaker Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson, pictured) in Stanley Kubrick's all-time great horror movie The Shining? A book just published in France throws fresh light on US film director Kubrick's phenomenal works, including Doctor Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Full Metal Jacket, by focusing on the philosophical ideas behind the US director's fascination with the contradictions and ambivalence of humankind. Its author, Sam Azulys, tells Clément Sénéchal why Kubrick's films are "a dialectical springboard".

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US film director Stanley Kubrick died on March 7th 1999, aged 70, leaving behind him a catalogue of works of exceptional richness. They included, to name but a few, Spartacus, Lolita, Doctor Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket.

Kubrick left a corpus of work that brings into the sharpest focus the major metaphysical and epistemological upheavals that defined modern history, and the possibility of producing an artistic form within it.

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Sam Azulys, who obtained a doctorate in philosophy before becoming a writer, stage director and, more recently, a scriptwriter and film director, explores philosophical questions broached by Stanley Kubrick's works in his book Stanley Kubrick: une Odyssée philosophique (Stanley Kubrick: A Philosophical Odyssey) published in April.

In this interview with Clément Sénéchal, he provides an unusual and fertile interpretation of Kubrick's filmography. The dissoluteness of western society, the absence of meaning, the triumphant nihilism of technological civilisation are themes that Azulys renders more intelligible at the intersection of Kubrick's images and the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.

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Mediapart: What was your first encounter with Stanley Kubrick's cinema?

Sam Azulys: My first encounter with Kubrick's work was a precocious one. I can't have been more than eight years old. One day I found myself in front of a TV set, and said to myself that there was a problem. A maelstrom of colours and abstract shapes was cluttering up the screen. I was tempted to draw an adult's attention to the technical hitch, but fascination got the better of me. Stars were spreading like egg yolks through the darkness. Furrowed, iridescent landscapes followed one another. Then a man enclosed in a strange orange space suit appeared in an immaculate decor. It was the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like a lot of people of my generation, I was seduced first and foremost by the incredibly evocative power of Kubrickian images.

Mediapart: Isn't it a bit risky to reduce an artistic work to philosophical questions, and all the more so to those of a single thinker?

S.A.: The use of film to illustrate philosophical concepts is exactly what I wanted to avoid. Philosophers have already tried to link 2001 to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, but very soon realised that something was amiss: with Heidegger, language plays a critical role, while Kubrick always turns to figurative inventions situated beyond language, and of which the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey is, in a way, its quintessence. [...] I realised very fast that we shouldn't slap concepts onto images. On the contrary, my project is based on the idea that Kubrick's cinema should be considered a dialectical springboard, that his cinema can generate ideas. It's by going beneath the surface of Kubrickian images and sounds with a philosophical probe that you can tap into an interplay of ideas. And indeed it's when Kubrick's cinema contradicts the thinking of Nietszche or Heidegger that the analysis becomes really exciting.

Le labyrinthe de l'Overlook Hotel, dans Shining Le labyrinthe de l'Overlook Hotel, dans Shining

 

Mediapart: What are the major themes of Kubrick's works?

S.A.: Firstly, the self-alienation 2, of man and his moral ambiguity, his profound duality. Like a lot of major directors, Kubrick was fascinated by the contradictions and ambivalence of humankind. In Full Metal Jacket, Joker wears a hippy badge [Editor's note: with a peace symbol] on his uniform and the inscription ‘Born to kill' on his helmet. Kubrick was a director inspired by Jung. He considered that man cannot be at peace with himself if he doesn't accept the dark side that is an integral part of him. In addition, as I've already pointed out, technology is one of the great Kubrickian themes. Technology as a vector of nihilism can lead man to catastrophe, but it can also lead him to the superman. With Kubrick, there is always this battle between the animal side of man and the rational side, but these two aspects are complementary and indivisible. Civilisation is only one side of the coin, the other side is barbarism. It's totally reversible.

 

Mediapart: What are the major themes of Kubrick's works?

S.A.: Firstly, the self-alienation1, of man and his moral ambiguity, his profound duality. Like a lot of major directors, Kubrick was fascinated by the contradictions and ambivalence of humankind. In Full Metal Jacket, Joker wears a hippy badge [Editor's note: with a peace symbol] on his uniform and the inscription ‘Born to kill' on his helmet. Kubrick was a director inspired by Jung. He considered

Docteur Folamour, dans la pénombre de la salle de guerre américaine Docteur Folamour, dans la pénombre de la salle de guerre américaine

that man cannot be at peace with himself if he doesn't accept the dark side that is an integral part of him. In addition, as I've already pointed out, technology is one of the great Kubrickian themes. Technology as a vector of nihilism can lead man to catastrophe, but it can also lead him to the superman. With Kubrick, there is always this battle between the animal side of man and the rational side, but these two aspects are complementary and indivisible. Civilisation is only one side of the coin, the other side is barbarism. It's totally reversible.

Mediapart: Is it really a question of our animal side that leads us to an absence of thought, or is it our malleability, our capacity to be tamed and domesticated? Despite the humanity that surfaces in him several times, the recruit Gomer Pyle ends up completely broken by the lobotomy process exercised in the training camp.

S.A.: Yes, it is true that many Kubrickian characters seem to have to go through this: the recruit and the other marines in Full Metal Jacket, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, and Hal in 2001, for example. Understanding the meaning of these ‘lobotomies' does seem important. In A Clockwork Orange, for example, one could believe that Kubrick is simply exploring the possibility that the suppression of free will could make man good. But beyond this somewhat simplistic question, what really interests Kubrick is whether a machine-dominated future isn't both a mad dream and an irrepressible tendency of modern man. In a word, the filmmaker is wondering if we aren't all condemned to become more or less long-term ‘clockwork oranges'.

Mediapart: Is Kubrick the misanthropist often described?

S.A.: I don't think so. First of all, because Kubrick was a man of great culture, surrounded by a loving family and numerous friends. He was pragmatic and open to suggestions from his collaborators. He wasn't an obscure tyrant, but an obsessive perfectionist. Is that really a weakness when you're a real artist? In terms of his work, I'd rather define him, at the risk of shocking people, as an informed optimist. He sees the world through the eyes of a doctor and of a genealogist. Kubrick insisted on lucidity, but was never smug or manipulative. He diagnoses the forms of nihilism that humanity is afflicted with, but he isn't a nihilist himself. Why not?

Because of his humour, at times cruel, but never mean-spirited, [as in] Lolita, Doctor Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange. Because of his profound empathy for people ripped apart by history, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket. Finally, and above all, because of the measured hopes he had for humanity, 2001, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut. A man who makes us laugh about the atomic bomb and shudder before an astral fœtus is no misanthrope - he's a satirist and a visionary.

Mediapart: There are strong power struggles that develop as a result of their own inertia, validating the idea of an unshakeable determinism, but at some point their meeting always produces some failure.

S.A.: Kubrick describes systems, apparently stable, balanced systems. The 18th century of Barry Lyndon, the spaceship Discovery of 2001, or indeed the training camp of Full Metal Jacket. But entropy always ends up winning the day. Sergeant Harman will be killed by Gomer Pyle, HAL will end up exterminating the astronauts in hibernation, and Barry Lyndon will allow himself to be overwhelmed by violence when his son-in-law, Lord Bullingdon, provokes him at a concert.

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1: Self-alienation ":Trying to live within the idealized self's restrictive, rigid conception of life always involves enormous denial. We begin to avoid aspects of our own experience that do not conform to our elevated image of ideal personhood. Horney refers to this as self-alienation, which means roughly the same thing as Rogerian incongruence. We gradually become a stranger to ourselves. The actual self, consisting of our real feelings and experience, becomes twisted, distorted and stretched into a mould of the "appropriate" self. This censorship activity has the end result of self-estrangement and ignorance of our real needs, desires and dispositions toward life" (Terry D. Cooper, pg. 130).

 

Mediapart: Does Kubrick's cinema thus reveal to us how cramped, how fragile the human species is?

S.A.: Indeed, Kubrick's films can be seen as so many rigorous and implacable demonstrations, through the use of the absurd, of the inanity of efforts made by our species to transcend its nature and fulfil its ambitions. On the one condition that we don't forget that Kubrickian man can, at one and the same time be melancholic and exalted, a creator and a criminal, a builder and destroyer, an animal and an astral foetus.

Mediapart: With Kubrick, destruction is always, however, accompanied by savage laughter. What is the meaning behind this laughter, which can seem so out of place?

S.A.: Kubrick uses laughter as a way of distancing himself. Laughter is a means of obliging us as spectators to take a step back from the situation. The ballet of nuclear bombs at the end of Doctor Strangelove wouldn't produce the same impression if they didn't explode to the sound of Vera Lynn singing ‘We'll Meet Again'. Kubrickian humour allows the multiplication of interpretive points of view. When Alex murders a woman with a work of contemporary art representing a phallus, we are terrified and yet unable to suppress a smile. The distance tinted with humour that Kubrick suggests to us doesn't prevent his making us empathise with certain characters, but he forbids our assigning an ideologically or morally determined message to the work. It is also this absence of didacticism that gives the work its strength.

Une femme à la mode s'apprête à être violée par Alex Une femme à la mode s'apprête à être violée par Alex

Mediapart: In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick also seems to mock contemporary art, for example all those sculptures Alex plays with.

S.A.: Kubrick had an ambiguous relationship with contemporary art. His films even had an experimental aspect, and he was himself very familiar with the artistic trends of his era. And yet he was wary of avant-gardes and the obsession with novelty that, according to him, often had the consequence of harming real creativity. This is very clear in A Clockwork Orange, where contemporary art is derided, and comes across as snobbish and vulgar.

The parents' apartment is hideously kitsch, the Catlady's house is full of aggressive, pornographic work. But the critique runs even deeper. Alex has nothing of the ordinary criminal. He is a performer himself and his crimes resemble happenings. Art has itself become a vector of A Clockwork Orange's dystopian society's nihilism. It's therefore not surprising that the scientists in charge of Ludovico's treatment combine Beethoven with images of ultra-violence.

Mediapart: In your book, you give three different faces to nihilism, three faces that come together in Kubrick's work. What are they?

S.A.: The first is that of passive nihilism. It's the nihilism of what Nietzsche calls the ‘last men', men governed by petty pleasures and narrow individualism. They suffer from their lack of spirituality but, ironically, are unaware of suffering. Indeed, they experience what Heidegger calls ‘the distress of the absence of distress'. Who are these ‘last men'? We are, that's to say all those of us who live in the consumer society and the society of the spectacle.

This idea of passive nihilism was taken up by Heidegger, who was particularly interested in its relation to technology, not in the sense of what gives us better planes, cars and so on, but technology understood as an ensemble of rational procedures responsible for making the world uniform. It's globalisation at its worst. But there are also two other types of nihilism, active nihilism and ecstatic nihilism. The active nihilism and ecstatic nihilism of the creator.

 

Mediapart: What is the historical cause of the advent of nihilism?

S.A.: For Nietzsche, the event directly linked to the advent of nihilism is the famous ‘death of god'. But which god died? Nietzsche's answer is unequivocal. It is the Judeo-Christian god, the one to whom was given an absolute right to oversee everything we do, the one who even followed us into the toilet to judge our conduct. But careful, saying that the Judeo-Christian God is dead doesn't mean for Nietzsche a profession of atheism. It simply signifies confirmation of the fact that western societies have become secularised, and that all the old values have been devalued.

Mediapart: Beyond faceless destruction, what is the role played by death in the work of Kubrick?

S.A.: In Paths of Glory we watch, powerless, the execution of three soldiers unjustly condemned. Kubrick manages to individualise the horrors of war by showing us the different reaction of each soldier in the face of death. You experience existential vertigo. The same thing happens in the duel scene in Barry Lyndon. Nobody dies, but Lord Bullingdon is made aware of his mortality. It's probably in this scene and in the unplugging of HAL in 2001 that fear of death is best portrayed in Kubrick's work.

L'astronaute Bauman lutte contre l'ordinateur HAL L'astronaute Bauman lutte contre l'ordinateur HAL

Mediapart: In the exploration of these different forms of nihilism by Stanley Kubrick, what is the importance of the narrative environment through which the characters move?

S.A.: In The Shining, for example, the Overlook Hotel is, like Hal, a ubiquitous, panoptic entity. This place is, in appearance, invested with passive nihilism, it's a luxury hotel where planning and organisation of resources reign for the wellbeing of guests. But the hotel empties and soon its lift starts to belch hectolitres of blood. Where does all this blood come from? We know the hotel was built on an Indian cemetery. It could therefore be that all this blood belongs to the corpses of the former inhabitants of the North American continent. It could also be that this blood belongs to all the peoples sacrificed on the altar of western civilisation. Genocides are regurgitated by the hotel, and Jack becomes a vector for this overflowing horror, an agent of active nihilism.

L'ascenseur de l'Overlook Hotel L'ascenseur de l'Overlook Hotel

 

Mediapart: In 2001: A Space Odyseey, does the narrative confusion expressed through the enigmatic presence of the black monolith allow us not only to grasp our inability to envisage time and space beyond our earthly experience, but also confront us with the limits of human reason?

S.A.: The indifference of the universe has always scandalised humanity. By mocking his own species, or by allowing it to see a possible transmutation, Kubrick encourages us not to feel this indifference as a metaphysical betrayal. This is perhaps one of the possible interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Does the astral foetus not represent a new beginning and newfound innocence? Kubrick seems to tell us that our species, which has only just come of age, shouldn't be vexed by the fact it is only just taking its first steps, and has yet to even leave its maternal planet.

Le singe découvre l'outil (2001) Le singe découvre l'outil (2001)

 

Mediapart: The meeting of the primate with the tool goes hand in hand with murder in 2001, since the monkey that finds the bone will use it to slaughter the species it previously lived with in peace. The moment the bone is changed into a space ship, centuries later, hasn't violence disappeared?

S.A.: What concerns the monkeys once they've discovered the tool is effectively war. One might have thought that in the civilised world of machines, this warrior stage had been overcome. But not at all, it's perpetuated by other means. The Americans and Soviets dispute the discovery of the monolith just as the monkeys disputed the territory around their swamp. As in Full Metal Jacket, language is, in 2001, a weapon of war, as was the bone.

Mediapart: With Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's work seems to come to an end on a lighter, milder note, with the reconciliation of Bill and Alice around the future of a child.

S.A.: "Fuck" is the last word pronounced by Alice, the last word of the film, and the last word of all of Kubrick's work. It is significant that the film ends on such a trivial word. Eyes Wide Shut is like those Hollywood comedies about remarriage, where a couple separates and ends up, after a series of adventures, getting back together again. It could be considered the ultimate variation on the genre. There is a return to normal after a long detour. At the end of his journey, Bill abandons the nihilistic values of the traditional patriarchal system. He finally accepts that his wife can have an inner life richer than his own. As for Alice, she is revivified by the tragic pathos of a marital crisis triggered by the irruption of the Dionysiac into the daily life of the couple, Alice's fantasy and then the story of her dream. The ordinary is a disturbing strangeness that is revealed in the deepest recesses of intimacy, and which we have to accept as an incomprehensible but obvious fact. It may not be necessary to be a superman to conquer passive nihilism; maybe it is enough to accept being simply human. But that isn't as easy as it may seem.

Des images du rêve d'aldultère d'Alice, qu'elle raconte à Bill Des images du rêve d'aldultère d'Alice, qu'elle raconte à Bill

Mediapart: Is it possible, in the end, to distinguish a political position in the work of Kubrick?

S.A.: Difficult to answer that question. In his films, Kubrick puts progressives and conservatives back to back. The moral progress and better tomorrows that he promises are discredited by his pessimistic view of history. On the other hand, Kubrick's defiance regarding all forms of authority leaves no doubt, Kubrick was a free thinker and a poet, like that other great filmmaker he admired so much, Fellini.

  • Sam Azulys' book Stanley Kubrick: une Odyssée philosophique, (Stanley Kubrick: A Philisophical Odyssey) is published by les Editions de la Transparence, currently available in French only, priced 28 euros.
  • Video extracts of Kubricks films and a filmography can be found by clicking on the 'Prolonger' tab top of page.

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English version: Chloé Baker

(Editing by Graham Tearse)

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