The Shining: a histrionic epic horror film saved by its themes of control and alien manipulation

Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” (1980)

In most directors’ hands, a Stephen King horror novel of a family disintegrating under the impact of the husband / father’s alcoholism wouldn’t have been more than a small-scale pedestrian flick destined for weekday daytime TV. In the hands of Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” becomes an epic tale of how a small family is trapped by unseen and vaguely conscious forces that have shaped human history and led to suffering, tragedy and genocide. The film is noteworthy for its widespread use of Steadicam tracking shots, an eerie musical soundtrack, its creepy hotel setting and the performances of Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd as father and son set against each other due to external alien powers.

Writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson), seeking somewhere peaceful and isolated for his writing project, accepts a temporary position as an off-season caretaker for the upscale Hotel Overlook in a remote part of Colorado. At his interview, Torrance is told that the hotel is built on a Native American burial site and that a previous caretaker, Charles Grady, developed cabin fever and killed his family. While Torrance is being interviewed, back home in Boulder, his son Danny (Lloyd) has a premonition about the hotel in which rivers of blood swamp the hotel floors and he falls into a trance. Danny’s mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) takes the boy to a doctor and mentions that he has an imaginary friend called Tony.

Torrance gets the job and soon moves the family into its new quarters at the hotel. They meet the head chef Halloran (Scatman Crothers) who takes Danny aside and tells him that they are both telepathic. Halloran warns Danny that the hotel harbours many memories, not all of which are good, and that the boy must not enter Room 237.

Time passes, with Jack’s writing going nowhere while Wendy and Danny explore the hotel and its grounds which include a giant maze that Danny becomes expert at traversing. Jack becomes frustrated and angry over his writer’s block and his relationship with Wendy disintegrates. Danny continues to have terrifying visions of ghosts and blood but is drawn to Room 237 and enters the room where he is attacked by an apparently dead woman. He escapes with bruises on his neck which his mother blames on Jack. Jack investigates Room 237 where he also sees the apparition.

While Wendy and Danny continue exploring the hotel, Jack retreats to the Gold Room where he meets a bartender and a butler who reveals himself as Delbert Grady, the hotel’s former caretaker, among a party of phantom wealthy revellers. Delbert Grady tells Jack that his son is telepathically contacting Halloran (who is on his way to the hotel from Miami to find out what is going on) and that he, Jack, must “correct” Wendy and Danny. The stage is thus set for a conflict between two mysterious forces using humans as their unwilling pawns.

While “The Shining” may not be a great Kubrick classic, it has much in common with other films of his, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and several of his war films. Jack is a typical Kubrick man whose sense of masculinity is weak and superficial, based as it is on dominating and subjugating weaker people like Danny and the submissive Wendy. The ghosts in the film recognise Jack as a weak man reliant on alcohol to prop up his masculinity and they seize on his weakness to compel him to murder. Significantly he kills Halloran, a representative of a traditional victim group (Afro-Americans) in US society. One wonders whether the rivers of blood that terrify Danny in his visions might actually represent the blood of Native Americans butchered and thrown into mass graves – and might not Hotel Overlook be sited on such a grave? – by the US Army as it drove indigenous people into reservations so their lands could be seized by the Federal government.

The acting ranges from overwrought (Duvall) to bravura (Nicholson) and almost understated (Lloyd). While Duvall has to make the best of a role of a passive child-like woman, and Nicholson refines his almost typecast persona of a man going mad, Lloyd probably delivers the best performance in a role where he has to play an imaginary friend with its own voice speaking to Danny Torrance. Significantly the main adult characters in the film regress almost to an infantile state while Danny Torrance adopts adult qualities to save himself, if not his mother. The boy’s talent, the “shining”, is not of very much help to him and Wendy, and only his knowledge of the maze and his persistence save his life. Perhaps this is Kubrick’s way of demonstrating that humans can be more than what they come into the world endowed with, and that perhaps we can overcome our aspects of our past with knowledge and reason.

Thanks to Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, the film has a distinct look (as all Kubrick’s films do) and manages even in its most surreal and gory parts to be elegant and beautiful. This refined look doesn’t always work though as in the scene where Jack enters Room 237 and meets a naked young woman who seems more robotic than ghostly. The hotel interiors take on a palatial aspect thanks to the unusual camera angles and the scale on which the settings have been created, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them.

Special mention should be made of the music soundtrack, featuring dissonant pieces from Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti and Wendy Carlos, which becomes a character in itself (albeit a rather overbearing and screechy one) along with the hotel. The music could have been quieter in parts and allow for more space than it does to heighten the tension and dread.

Parts of the film can be very histrionic, and Duvall’s character especially is of a screaming-damsel-in-distress stereotype that does her talents a disservice, but it does display an exceptional power. The underlying themes of control, a crisis in Western masculinity, humanity being in the grip of possibly malign forces shaping its evolution and destiny, and a child embodying hope and positive transformation are the film’s saving grace.

The Seafarers: a preachy recruitment film for trade union membership with unusual historical relevance

Stanley Kubrick, “The Seafarers” (1953)

Stanley Kubrick’s first film made in colour turns out to be a 30-minute documentary promoting a trade union for crews of cargo vessels. “The Seafarers” was commissioned by Seafarers International Union (SIU), a North American union representing mariners in North and South America. As an extended infomercial, the film extols the benefits of union membership for would-be sailors, including medical benefits, scholarships and fighting for decent pay and working conditions, and stresses the union’s democratic nature. In 30 minutes the film covers everything the SIU offers to sailors who join the union in a straightforward and succinct way. Cleverly appealing to sailors’ liking for creature comforts, the narrative begins by focusing on the SIU headquarters’ cafeteria and shooting close-ups of food in bain-maries before moving to the union’s recreation room and the department that pays out member sailors’ pay cheques. The film then goes on to explain how sailors apply for jobs on cargo ships and from then on punches out a list of benefits, rights and privileges sailors enjoy through SIU membership. From that, the film waxes expansively about how the SIU provides security and stability, not just for sailors but also for their families, and in this taps deeply into treasured American values about the sanctity of the family as a bedrock for society.

The pace of the film is leisurely and the narration provided by CBS news reporter Don Hollenbeck is matter-of-fact in that dull and deadly earnest style favoured by narrators of documentaries made in the mid-20th century. There is not much room in the film for Kubrick to show individual flair apart from a scene in the cafeteria where the camera pans leisurely from left to right over the food warming in the bain-maries.

As a promotional film, “The Seafarers” is quite persuasive but its historical relevance may be limited: oddly, no historical background is given and viewers will be left wondering how and when the SIU was formed, and what historical circumstances led to its birth. What actually does the SIU’s constitution promote, what are the values of the SIU, and how well does it uphold its principles and maintain its democratic spirit – these are things viewers might want to know. How has it grown over the years, what vision does it hold for the future – the film does not address these issues.

Viewers are very likely to find this documentary quite preachy and repetitive to some extent. Does it fit into Kubrick’s overall oeuvre of work? It may well do; the bulk of Kubrick’s films deal with crises of Western masculinity and how individual men coped and dealt with attacks on their masculinity from an America that more often than not repressed individual expression, enforced conformity and sent men to fight in wars around the planet to maintain control over other countries and their wealth. “The Seafarers” suggests that men will find their full expression of manhood in being both individuals capable of responsibility and self-control, and participants and team-players exercising their democratic rights and privileges in an organisation that serves their individual and collective interests. Of course, there’s nothing about what men should do if their individual rights and responsibilities clash with their collective rights and responsibilities, and it’s in that clash that the crisis erupts … so in a sense, “The Seafarers” does have a place in Kubrick’s work.

Full Metal Jacket: how people are dehumanized by war and the culture of war

Stanley Kubrick, “Full Metal Jacket” (1987)

According to Wikipedia, a full metal jacket refers to a bullet consisting of a soft core (usually made of lead) surrounded by a harder metal shell casing. This is the clue to a major theme of this anti-war film by Stanley Kubrick: the dehumanization of men by war, in particular by the culture and organisation of war to achieve ends other than what the men themselves have been told about what they are fighting for. The movie is well made, with skilful deployment of the Steadicam camera that follows the actors quite closely so that the viewer is brought right into the action of war and is able to feel something of the sweat, exhaustion, uncertainty and sheer hard grind (physical and psychological) of being on the front-line. The cinematography is magnificent in its portrayal of the claustrophobic environment and the scale of destruction in Vietnam wrought by the Vietnam War.

The film divides into two halves: viewers will be hard pressed to figure out which half features more brutality and violence. In the first half, a platoon of US marine recruits is put through its boot camp paces by the sadistic and implacable Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey, who drew on his experiences as a drill sergeant in the US Army and saw action in Vietnam in the 1960s). Almost straight away Hartman finds fault with one recruit Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), whom he dubs Gomer Pyle after a TV sitcom character because of his bumbling ways. Pyle finds keeping up with the recruits during the hard physical training very heavy going and continually attracts the ire and insults of Hartman. Hartman pairs him with another recruit “Joker” (Matthew Modine) who tries to help Pyle. Pyle makes considerable progress until he is humiliated by Hartman who then starts punishing the entire platoon every time Pyle makes a mistake. The platoon then hazes Pyle. From this moment on, Pyle suffers a slow mental breakdown, disguised as his reinvention as a model soldier, to the horror of Joker who observes his deterioration. This gradual collapse comes to a horrifying and incredibly tragic climax.

The second half of the film sees Joker, now a sergeant and war correspondent for a military newspaper, covering events as they unfold during the Vietnam War. Accompanied by photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), Joker is sent to Phu Bai where they follow a squad of soldiers, one of whom is Cowboy (Arliss Howard), Joker’s friend from boot camp. The men are involved in a number of actions that culminate in their entrapment in an unfamiliar part of an unnamed bombed-out city by a sniper who picks them off one by one. The men lead an attack on the sniper and Joker discovers the sniper’s identity. A shoot-out follows and Joker is left with a dreadful choice to make.

As the moral pivot around which FMJ revolves, the mostly passive character of Joker is important: he represents the ordinary person thrust into extreme situations where he is forced to make unenviable choices, and each and every one of these choices has the potential to cut him down as a moral being. At the end of the film, Joker is glad to be physically alive but whether he is morally and spiritually alive is another question. The men around him represent particular aspects of the human character under duress and some of them, like Pyle, become psychotic to a degree. Because Joker is essentially an acquiescent character who basically does as he is told despite a minor shallow rebelliousness, the film may seem less stronger to many viewers than it might have done had he been more assertive.

Some viewers may gripe about the film’s structure but the two halves complement each other well: the first half is ordered with a definite narrative. Hartman carries out a brutal regime of degradation in a more or less restrained and controlled environment. In the film’s second half, chaos and disorder reign. The psychological degradation is more gradual. The film’s conclusion appears banal but it is a logical summation of the brutality and violence that the US troops have brought to Vietnam. The film is actually very tight in its overall structure. Just as Joker claims to a disbelieving senior officer that he wears a helmet baptised “Born to Kill” and a peace symbol at the same time to represent the Jungian dualities that exist in his nature, so the film conveys a similar duality in its halves that reflect and comment on one another. Should we be surprised that both halves resolve in similar climaxes that test the moral strength of Joker and the audience who witness with him?

Details within the film, especially in a scene in which the soldiers are interviewed by news reporters, delineate the extent to which the soldiers are becoming paranoid and hateful towards the Vietnamese: they believe the Vietnamese are ungrateful at the Americans’ presence and what they believe is a noble fight against Communism. The extent to which the Americans and Vietnamese exist in parallel but are actually worlds apart thanks in part to the Americans having been brainwashed by their own government and media propaganda can be faintly discerned. The Vietcong enemy initially appears mysterious, sinister, larger than large, ominous and multi-tentacled yet when it is revealed at close quarters, the soldiers are devastated to discover they have been picked off by a teenage girl.

A major theme of Kubrick’s films is the cultural construction of masculinity in Western, principally American, society and how manhood can be distorted and undercut by prevailing cultural delusions about war and how it is best prosecuted. The film’s two climaxes demonstrate how fragile this masculinity is and how culture can destroy humans in just as devastating ways as war does.

On the whole, this is a very good film though it lacks the power of Francis Ford Coppola’s excellent “Apocalypse Now” with which it is often compared.

2001: A Space Odyssey – a film that explores universal human desires and the relationship between people and technology

Stanley Kubrick “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

One of the great crowning glories of 20th century cinema, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” deserves its reputation as one of the greatest science-fiction films and is one of few films that successfully combine a traditional story-telling narrative with daring experimentation in sound and visuals. It is a film that addresses universal human desires: the desire to reach out beyond one’s own comfort zone and to know one’s place and the place of humanity in a wide and apparently indifferent cosmos. It is a film that explores the relationships between humans and their technology, and how technology shapes humans and their evolution as much as external forces and internal motivations, both represented by the mysterious black monolith object that appears in the film, do.

The narrative is split into four movements in the manner of a classical music symphony, of which some famous examples play in snippets throughout the film. In the opening movement “The Dawn of Man”, two groups of early hominid primates fight for possession of a water-hole. One of the two groups, driven away by the other, finds a black monolith stuck in the desert and starts touching it. The monolith appears to radiate invisible energy that results in rapid mental evolution in the primates. They discover the use of bones as tools and weapons; with this knowledge the creatures reclaim the water-hole from their rivals and the group leader triumphantly tosses his bone high into the air. In the classic jump-cut sequence, the bone transforms into a space satellite and the film makes clear that human discovery and innovation leading to further evolution and technology which in turn enhance human life, intelligence and endeavour have brought humans from a hand-to-mouth foraging existence to the point where they are now sending ships into space to explore its outer reaches.

The second movement concerns a researcher from Earth who stops at a space station for rest and refreshment before continuing on his way to an outpost on the moon where a black monolith has been found. He and other scientists ride a bus to the object and try to investigate it but it emits an annoying high-pitched squeal drone and the researchers are forced to back away.

The third movement takes place 18 months after the second movement and involves a spaceship in which two men Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea) are caretakers of a crew of three in cryogenic hibernation. Helping them out is a sophisticated computer HAL-9000 (voice: Douglas Rain). Initially the men watch a BBC news report about themselves and HAL-9000: in the report all three are interviewed and HAL-9000 states that he is infallible, enjoys his work and loves working with humans. These statements eventually turn out to be lies.

The computer queries Bowman about the puzzlingly mysterious nature of their mission and then reports that a device outside the craft is malfunctioning. The men investigate the problem and refer to mission control who advise there may be a problem with HAL. The men withhold information from HAL who discovers it anyway by spying on them. HAL gradually assumes control of the spacecraft, kills the astronauts in cryogenic suspension and boots Poole into space by cutting his connection while he is out on a spacewalk to repair the device. HAL also tries to get rid of Bowman but Bowman manages to disconnect HAL’s functions and shut down the computer. HAL regresses to a child-like state in the world’s first known case of cyber-Alzheimer’s. As HAL dies, Bowman hears its epitaph: it’s a pre-recorded briefing made by the researcher we saw in the film’s second movement advising Bowman of the mission that so worried HAL – the mission to find and discover the true nature of the black monoliths that have been infesting the solar system of late.

In the final movement “Jupiter … and Beyond the Infinite”, Bowman takes the craft to Jupiter to investigate the black monolith found orbiting the planet. He flies a space pod out of the craft to check out the object further. It pulls him into a tunnel that in turn forces him to traverse zillions of kilometres in a strange psychedelic dream universe. Having aged rapidly during this ultimate trippy trip of trippy trips, Bowman finds himself taken into a series of worlds, described in visual forms drawn perhaps from his memories, in which he sees older versions of himself. At the very end, when he sees himself as an aged man in bed, he is pulled towards a monolith that has suddenly materialised in front of him and transforms him into a startled wide-eyed foetus to float in space and gaze down upon Earth.

Various religious and philosophical interpretations of the film have been given over the years in which the narrative has been seen as symbolic of the cycle of life, death and rebirth or of humanity’s evolution over several million years. I see the events of the film as Kubrick’s interrogation of the complicated relationship that humans have had with their technology: humans have come to rely very heavily on technologies to transport them, to communicate with others, and to measure, make calculations and report results that will be used as the basis for further research and technology developments. Our reliance on technologies leaves us vulnerable to biases and deficiencies in them as exemplified by HAL’s behaviour towards Poole and Bowman once it realises the men do not trust it. Humans also rely on technology to wage war on their own kind and to try to understand and know something with the aim of controlling it and forcing it to work on their behalf. At the same time, we often disavow responsibility for errors that our machines make, especially if they result in human deaths, and this may lead to terrible consequences further down the track. Because HAL is thwarted in its desire to learn more about the goal of Bowman and Poole’s mission, the computer resorts to subtle means to undermine it and kills when it believes it has to. The irony being that the mission’s goal has been embedded by a human engineer so deeply in the machine’s circuits that HAL does not know it’s there and so is unable to retrieve it. Had this been intentional on the engineer’s part, that HAL should never know the purpose for which it was made in case the machine should try to take over the mission and dispense with the humans, or was it an unfortunate accident arising from continuous updating of computer memory circuits and additional software and hardware being loaded onto HAL over the years by successive generations of IT scientists and engineers?

Curiously HAL appears the most human-like of its crew; Poole and Bowman speak and act like robots. Indeed, all the adult actors who appear in the film are emotionless and robotic in their speech and actions. This may say something about the effect that hyper-technologisation of human culture and society might have on human beings themselves; that the more we give in to our human desire to know and master the world by creating machines, the more machine-like we ourselves become. Significantly HAL speaks as though its voice, masculine as it is, might be that of a woman or an effeminate man. (I hasten to add that I don’t think of HAL as gay and Kubrick himself knocked down suggestions that HAL was intended to be gay.) Eager to please its masters back on Earth and desiring to know what it was made for, the computer displays a cold-blooded villainy bordering on psychopathy as it tries to dispose of all its human crew; but in a way that can be very moving, the machine pleads for its “life” as Bowman disconnects its circuits and reduces it to a helpless infantile state before it finally dies. Kubrick was to revisit the theme of humans and their relationships with their creations time and again.

The film’s technical virtuosity, visually and sonically, cannot be faulted: “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the most beautiful films to watch for its vistas and stunning technology, and to hear for its mix of orchestral compositional music from Johann Strauss, Aram Khachaturian and Gyorgy Ligeti. At the same time, the film can be easy on the eye and the ear: Kubrick seems to have taken care not to overload audiences too much with visual spectacle and audio clash and thunder. The film’s pace is steady and graceful. Dialogue is kept to a strict necessary minimum. There is much use of space in both audio and visual senses to convey mystery and majesty. The highlight of the film is in its fourth movement when Bowman’s pod races through time and space inside the monolith and viewers follow him through a virtual star-gate of brilliant hues and patterns.

The film’s final scenes in which Bowman wanders about in scenes derived from his memories or imagination are the most mind-boggling of all and are open to many interpretations. One simple interpretation is that Bowman has been captured by unseen aliens who keep him in a zoo made up of his memories. In this sense, Bowman is now no different from HAL who itself was made a prisoner by its circuitry and whatever data humans fed into it and how the machine interpreted it. At the end of his life, having served his purpose and knowing what it is to be at the mercy of control by technology, Bowman perhaps joins the space aliens (some of whom may also have been captured humans in previous lives) and finds himself contemplating and even guiding the next stage of human evolution.

This is one film that truly transcends the boundaries of its genres (science fiction, experimental, art house) and becomes a film for all audiences. There are slow, almost annoyingly tedious moments, very sparse dialogue and listless acting but these all serve a purpose within the film and nothing in it seems out of place. Since its making, “2001 …” has had a profound impact on other science fiction films, particularly in its visual effects and emphasis on advanced technology yet because most other SF movies have turned away from exploring philosophical themes and following them to their logical ends, and concentrated instead on spectacle and melodrama, “2001 …” retains a freshness that its imitators strive for but never achieve.

A Clockwork Orange: a political and social comedy satire relying too much on audiovisual shock tactics

Stanley Kubrick, “A Clockwork Orange” (2013)

Not a bad film but for what it is, “A Clockwork Orange” is fussy and relies too much on shock, bright colours and the juxtaposition of apparent high-brow symbols and low-brow brutality and violence to wow viewers. The main character Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is an out-of-control working-class teenager running wild in a near-future London where law and order have broken down. Leading a gang of three others, all of whom and he dress in the same outfits of bowler hats, walking sticks and bland suits, Alex fights other gangs, vandalises buildings, rapes women and breaks into the houses of rich people to trash the furniture and beat up those who get in their way. Alex’s friends eventually tire of his self-indulgence and lack of respect for them and they set him up to be captured by police. While in prison, he volunteers to undergo aversion therapy which leaves him completely broken, unable to defend himself or cope with life after he leaves prison. After a failed suicide attempt, the British government “acknowledges” that it has treated him badly and takes him back under its wing – to act as a tool of its surveillance of the general population.

Seen from the point of view of Alex himself who narrates the film’s proceedings in a neutral and emotionally drained voice, the film has an oddly remote style and so much of the real shock that Kubrick could have inflicted on audiences is blunted. Had audiences been forced to be complicit in Alex’s crimes, by hearing his descriptions of how he felt during his acts, the shock of the victims’ sufferings could have made a much greater impact on viewers. As it is though, viewers are more or less expected to feel pity for Alex once he has undergone aversion therapy and is victimised by the various people he has abused in the past, in a circular pattern common to Stanley Kubrick films.

McDowell puts in a great performance as Alex and the role may have typecast him as a villainous baby-faced anti-hero. Other actors play a constantly shifting parade of stereotypes around Alex; there is great political and social satire in the way these characters behave towards Alex. Alex’s former thug friends end up in the police force, people who express horror at the way prisoners are abused change their tune when they meet Alex and recognise him, and the government minister who approved Alex’s “rehabilitation” and carried it out enthusiastically later admits his error and then happily returns him to his brutal and thuggish ways in a way that insinuates the youngster will do so on behalf of the State.

The main worth of the film is that it presents a moral dilemma about social and cultural breakdown and the ways in which society deals with its consequences. None of the characters appearing in the film is at all attractive and all are mean-spirited and debased in some way. Even the intellectual writer who might be expected to show some compassion for Alex is revealed as vengeful and small-minded; ironically he ends up in the tender embrace of the British prison system which appears as an adulterated version of a World War II concentration camp. Several contradictory themes are presented: coercion and conditioning of people to make of them conformist and compliant versus allowing them to express free will and choice; the use of technical fixes to clear up problems in the short term but which create more problems in the long term; the role of violence in modern society as a tool of control and how the public views it (good when used to put away criminals, bad when inflicted on law-abiding or helpless individuals) and the issue of nature versus nurture in the making of Alex himself. Is Alex a product of the family that reared him or of the society in which he lives? Was he really born bad and should his moral compass, which inclines him towards violence and self-indulgence, be taken away from him?

For all the questions the film asks, there is nothing that questions the society itself and how it is that everybody in the world Alex lives in has ended up as selfish and self-absorbed robots in their differing ways. While the comedy template drives home the unsympathetic brutal anti-hero nature of Alex, it also has the effect of distancing audiences from the characters and action and I wonder if that was done mainly to get the film past the censors at the time than as a necessary vehicle to carry the plot and action.

 

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb: black satire on fetishisation of war and technology

Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” (1964)

Notable as the film that features British actor Peter Sellers in three very different roles, this black comedy is a satire on the Cold War that had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and which extended to the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell, and the attitudes, culture and outlook associated with that period. In particular, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in which countries refrain from nuclear war due to the fear of universal nuclear catastrophe resulting from detonation of an atomic bomb irrespective of who drops it first, is revealed as an inadequate response to a situation of deadlock which should be resolved by communication and diplomacy, both options being badly bungled by politicians on both sides. The film is outstanding for its cast of actors and their acting: Sellers has perhaps never been better before or since he made the film, and other actors like George C Scott, Slim Pickens and Sterling Hayden also distinguish themselves playing characters on the brink of mental derangement brought about by extreme fantasies and paranoia born from their military training and background.

The narrative divides into three connected strands: General Jack D Ripper (Hayden) is so hung up about the Commies contaminating America’s vitality – there is a clear theme of nuclear power being analogous to male sexuality, therefore paranoia reveals male sexual inadequacy – that he orders a sudden nuclear air strike on the USSR and four bombers take off to drop their loads far deep in Soviet territory. News of the order reaches the White House where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) frantically tries to contact and convince his Soviet counterpart that the attack is a mistake. Muffley tells his War Secretary Turgidson (Scott) to storm the military base where Ripper and his second-in-charge Captain Mandrake (Sellers) are located; Mandrake tries to stop Ripper from ordering the nuclear attack but fails so he turns instead to figuring out the recall code that will stop the bombing. The base is stormed and Ripper’s men, believing they are being attacked by the Soviets, fight back. Ripper commits suicide and Mandrake finds the recall code and phones the White House.

In the meantime the President and his cabinet are shocked at news from the Soviet ambassador Alexei Sadeski (Peter Bull) that the USSR has built a doomsday machine after its politicians read a New York Times article proclaiming that the Americans had already made one. Muffley summons his scientific advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers) who suggests that the ambassador’s statement is a ploy. Sadeski admits the doomsday machine’s secret was going to be revealed by the Soviet government in another week.

Three of the four US bombers are eventually persuaded to turn away but the fourth, headed by Major Kong (Pickens) heads for a ballistic missile complex in remote Soviet territory and in spite of various technological malfunctions in the plane – malfunctions deliberately installed so as to make the job of dropping bombs difficult and so enforcing caution on those who would use the bomb – Kong manages to get it going in a spectacular scene suggestive of sexual penetration and the adolescent schoolboy reaction to “getting it up”. On receiving the news that a nuclear bomb has been released, Muffley and his dejected cabinet begin discussing how they can protect the American population from the inevitable radiation fall-out once the US and the Soviets begin trading inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in earnest. The weird Dr Strangelove, struggling with his atavistic Nazi tendencies, finally stands up and the feared doomsday machine is triggered as suggested by the film’s repeating coda to the tune of Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll meet again’.

The various characters in the film draw their effectiveness from the real people who inform them: Strangelove is based on famous German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, physicist Edward Teller, futurist and strategist Herman Kahn, and mathematician John von Neumann; President Muffley is based in part on US politician Adlai Stevenson; and Mandrake is based on British airforce officers Sellers had known during World War II. Mandrake is played fairly straight though it is not difficult to see Sellers’s most famous role of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther notoriety in the character and Muffley is also quite a straight, non-comic character in spite of the hilarious lines he sometimes has to deliver. Bureaucracy and political ineptitude are targets for satire through these characters. The sinister Dr Strangelove is a metaphor for Nazi scientists and others who fled to the US from Germany while the latter country was descending into flames and hell in 1945, and whose loyalties to America might still be in doubt despite the passage of time. Strangelove worships science and technology and the capabilities and range of opportunities these offer; his character might be said also to satirise those who fetishise technologies of annihilation so much that they rejoice even in the alarming number of deaths the weapons are certain to cause.

Sexual innuendos abound in the characters’ names, the language they use and their actions (Strangelove’s behaviour at the end of the film being an example) and in much of the film’s visuals and the images employed, especially near the end. This suggests that the competition to build up armed forces and military weapons with no thought for their consequences is a puerile fantasy that can only end badly.

Cinematography is employed in ways that enhance the film’s claustrophobic paranoia: the bomber aircraft is cramped, the President’s war room looks bunker-like, sealed off from public scrutiny, the headquarters at Ripper’s military base is made bunker-like as well due to the attacks on it. The film’s climax and conclusion are dominated by scenes of the bomber flying to its definition, all flipping backwards and forwards among themselves, to create a feeling of growing tension as viewers become convinced that the bomb will be dropped in spite of the White House’s best efforts to stop it.

While the film has dated in nearly 50 years as of this time of writing, what with military technology having changed dramatically to the extent that aerial bombing has all but ceased, the point that reliance on technological balance between enemies is fragile at best and dangerously unstable at worst remains and that there is no technological substitute, however seductive, for openness, accountability and diplomacy.

 

 

Eyes Wide Shut: style wins over substance

Stanley Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Shut”, (1999)

I saw this movie ten years ago as there’d been a lot of hype about it featuring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman who were the Brangelina hit couple in the late 1990’s. From what I can remember, there’d been numerous hitches and delays in filming and post-production and then Kubrick died suddenly so it became his swansong in a small legacy of 13 films, each very different from the others and many of them quite significant at the time of their original release to the extent that people still remember them, though the ideas and themes expressed may no longer be relevant in popular culture at large. Myself, I’ve only seen “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr Strangelove: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” and in their own way they can be disturbing as well as entertaining, mixing comedy and serious issues together.

Compared to these films at least, not to mention other Kubrick efforts I’ve heard about but have never seen, “Eyes Wide Shut” seems an insubstantial effort. Kubrick may have been aiming for something akin to the films that the Spanish director Luis Bunuel made in the 1950’s and 1960’s about the foibles and hypocrisies of upper middle class people who have more money than they know what to do with: films like “The Exterminating Angel” in which a group of dinner guests find they are unable to go home and have to stay at their host’s place in conditions that become ever more filthy; and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, a series of dream sketches about seven people who try to organise a dinner occasion several times but always fail. There are scenes in “Eyes …” that are very surreal and dream-like with often very lurid shades of red, and the line between reality and fantasy, comedy and drama is deliberately blurred. Into many of these scenes blunders main character Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) who as the movie progresses takes on the air of a stunned tourist in a Locus Solus amusement park. There may be no complicated machines creating mosaic artworks with coloured teeth or dioramas of animated corpses performing the same actions over and over but many of the sexual activities Bill observes have a similar mechanical or ritualistic aspect and turn out as either comical or asexual. Bunuel himself might have approved of “Eyes Wide Shut” as a worthy movie project but not necessarily of the way Kubrick has done it.

Initially we meet Bill Harford and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) as a middle class couple, married for some years now and living in a plush apartment in a wealthy neighbourhood with a young daughter on whom they perhaps lavish piano and horse-riding lessons, and a private school education. Bill is a medical practitioner with a wealthy clientele while Alice is a stay-at-home mum, though she used to have a busy and creative job, and maybe there are times when she feels being a wife and mother just isn’t enough fulfilment. In other words, they’re comfortable, too comfortable, and their marriage has got a bit stodgy. Bill and Alice go to a party hosted by a businessman, Ziegler (Sidney Pollack), where Bill drifts off with a couple of female guests and Alice starts guzzling champagne. During the party, Bill is called to attend to a female guest who has overdosed on cocaine and passed out; an elderly stranger finds Alice, alone and drunk, and chats her up. Next evening when Bill and Alice are both at home, they quarrel over their flirtations at the party and Alice boasts about making eyes at a sailor she saw a year or so ago. At that moment Bill is called out to another medical emergency; while he tends to the sick man, the man’s daughter blurts out her love for him. King-hit by his wife’s apparent willingness to be unfaithful to him and the woman’s confessions, Bill leaves for home but is side-tracked by a prostitute and this encounter is the start of his bizarre adventures in a sexual underworld where everything and everyone he thinks he knows and understands is turned on its head. The apparent climax occurs when Bill gatecrashes a bizarre Hellfire Club sex party at a mansion with hints of conspiracy and danger: he is exposed as an intruder and is about to be punished but a masked woman he has met earlier offers to sacrifice herself instead. Next day when Bill is back home safely, he discovers this particular woman – the guest he treated at Ziegler’s party – has died.

The whole movie plays out like a comedy of manners: the sex party and the supposed conspiratorial elements circling it turn out to be unconnected to the woman’s banal death, and Alice’s confessions of sexual infidelity turn out to be fantasies on her part. Bill gives little indication that he learns anything much about himself, his sexual needs or those of his wife during his journey, and though he and Alice reconcile, I have the feeling that they’ll be going through their sexual jealousy routine again and again throughout their marriage. If Bill has learnt anything at all from his odyssey, it’s likely to be the lesson that no matter how hard he works, how much money he makes or how good his reputation is, he and Alice will never be accepted as equals by the wealthy people who come to them for medical advice and help: Ziegler makes that quite clear to Bill while explaining the events of the sex party and warns him not to investigate it further. Now that’s a worthwhile lesson both Bill and Alice could take to heart: they will always only be seen as providing support to the elite society they aspire to be part of and nothing more.

I remember “Eyes …” being rather insular and sterile with unattractive, selfish and hollow characters. Kidman does rather better acting work than Cruise but one has to remember they’re playing recognisable stock characters: the husband absorbed in his work, not given to thinking or reflecting on other matters, and assuming all the world is in order; the wife with all she wants and desires yet lacking excitement and an outlet for her energy. Both have lived sheltered lives and so far have seen no reason to break out and live otherwise. If Cruise seems unable to muster anything more than a shell-shocked reaction to the things happening around him, to me that’s being in character for Bill. Having seen other films by Kubrick, I don’t think he was a great director of actors, he was more concerned about the technical aspects of the film – lighting, sets, production – and though “Eyes …” looks good, it turns out in its own way to privilege style over substance.

If there’s irony at all, it is that while Alice fantasises about having a sexual adventure, the real sexual adventures Bill encounters are as bland and stodgy as what Alice might imagine their life currently is. A bigger irony is the couple is in a rut because they aspired to have the kind of ultimately self-absorbed and morally empty lifestyle personified by Ziegler and in a way, already achieved it.