The philosophy shining behind the work of Stanley Kubrick

By
This article is freely available. Check out our subscription offers. Subscribe

 

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.

Extend your reading on Mediapart Unlimited access to the Journal free contribution in the Club Subscribe