The philosophy shining behind the work of Stanley Kubrick

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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.


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).

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