Stanley Kubrick was a pioneer in shaping the way we make and view art, especially film. In pursuit of meaning, we look both backward and forward at once, searching out present questions: don’t look any further. Kubrick already provided the answers.
In previous Conversations with Kubrick blog, When Oranges Are Clockwork, I mused that if Stanley Kubrick ever held fireside chats a la President Roosevelt during World War II, he’d offer illumination on a wealth of subjects. Mr. Kubrick is coming through loud and clear on the wireless once more.
Kubrick noted people struggling with despair in his time; in how mean the human heart could be, how futile our efforts to improve things often seemed, in how close the world came to ending during the Cold War, in the costly and contentious battle in Vietnam, and in his observance of an increasing governmental grab for power. He said in response:
“We’re never going to get down to doing anything about the things that are really bad in the world until there is recognition within us of the darker side of our natures, the shadow side.”
He was referring to a relatively new idea expressed most preeminently by the philosopher Carl Jung. Jung was interested in the unconscious and in his exploration of the psyche he noted that each person possesses both darkness and light, bad and good. This is the duality of man.
Kubrick meditated on Jung’s theme via characters in all his films, but most prominently in unflinching Vietnam story, Full Metal Jacket.
The main character, Joker, wears a helmet which says BORN TO KILL, but then also dons a peace sign pin. Joker has to explain this seeming conflict of interest to a senior officer who can’t grasp its depth, but the audience watches it play out in the character on screen: Private Pyle is both a sensitive, childlike dope and ultimately the perfect killing machine; Joker is a compassionate person who tries to help the tragic Pyle, but still participates in the pillow party; Animal Mother does horrifying things but is also deeply devoted to his brothers in his unit, etc.
Kubrick’s characters are in possession of both dark and light parts, just like real people. Kubrick saw that the perspective maintained in Western culture that most people identify as good in opposition against evil was one of the chief causes of malaise. To deny the shadow parts is to deny our own nature and be at war with ourselves. As Jung disciple Joseph Campbell said, “Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves…”
Many in leadership perpetuate this conflict of the self, but the message also comes from sources within culture: movies, TV, commercials, social media. In an essay about the director after his death, friend and writer, Michael Herr, said of Kubrick’s aversion to falseness in art:
“Culture lies were especially revolting [to Kubrick]. Hypocrisy was not some petty human foible, it was the corrupted essence of our predicament, which for Stanley was purely an existential predicament. In terms of narrative, since movies are stories, the most contemptible lie was sentimentality, and the most disgusting lie was sanctimoniousness.”
For Kubrick, stories should always tell the truth, especially about human nature. Full Metal Jacket realistically depicts Vietnam without sentimentality and examines the ramifications of war on a specific group of young men.
The realism reveals Vietnam’s sad waste: A generation of young men is used badly by a government who acts not in the best interests of a greater good, but out of fear. Joker’s experience later in the story, his struggle to report the truth about the war in the paper because his superior officer has other orders, illuminates the lies. And in the final battle with the sniper, we see the full scope of the human and ecological costs: too high.
But, Kubrick also said: Be an artist, not a moralist. In his films, he asked the questions, leaving it to audience members to answer in their hearts and minds to determine progress.
As an artist, Kubrick set an example – he shined a light on numerous subjects. He was not content to make movies that would be discarded – in pursuit of good stories, he created art which aligned with a greater horizon of meaning that had the power to take audiences on emotional journeys and offer catharsis, perspective, and healing.
Hence, we who come after must carry Kubrick and his messages onward. This task is not as daunting as it sounds: His voice cuts through time and space and grows ever more prescient. He left us not only his library of criterion films, but also a respectable anthology of interviews and letters.
This quote from a 1968 Playboy interview with the director never fails to renew my purpose and reinvigorate my blood for the fight. When asked if life is so purposeless, do you think it’s worth living, Kubrick replied:
“Yes, for those who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf. But as they grow older, the awareness of death begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism, and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures he sees death and pain everywhere about him and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong, and lucky, he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent. But if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them—our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness – we must supply our own light.”
No despair is complete; seek out Kubrick through the darkness and let his light guide you.
The broadcast ends there, but I’ll report back when I hear a Bronx accent on the airwaves once more.