Single-Mindedness: on David Mikics’ Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker

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Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker
By David Mikics
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 238 pp., $26)

Some are bored by Stanley Kubrick’s amoral, slow-paced films. Others argue that he’s a genius. We can’t seem to agree about what he meant or even if we like him. Kirk Douglas, who acted in two Kubrick films, Paths of Glory and Spartacus, called him “a talented shit.” A quick Google search leads to hundreds of bloggers who seem to despise him. Steven King is famously critical of Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s novel, The Shining. New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael, who loathed 2001: A Space Odyssey, called A Clockwork Orange “an abhorrent viewing experience.” Yet it’s a testament to Kubrick’s continued relevance that still now, twenty-two years after his death, biographies and critical studies of his work are published every year. In 2012 the documentary Room 237 recounted various fan theories about The Shining, arguing that it’s about the cultural assimilation of Native Americans, the Holocaust, and the moon landing. And many are simply in awe of Kubrick’s films, especially 2001. As Martin Scorsese said, “Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountaintop. You look up and wonder, How could anyone have climbed that high?”

In Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker, David Mikics does not try to resolve the debates about Kubrick, but gushes with appreciation of his films. It’s a slim book that knows what it is, picking its lane and staying there. Mikics is particularly good at interpreting Kubrick’s work, and finding connections with other films, literature, and art. He relishes Kubrick’s complexities, never oversimplifying. The book moves in chronological order through the films, providing thin biographical context as a lens to look at each film, not trying to be an in-depth biography like Michel Ciment’s Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, or an intensive analysis of any one film, like Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey. Mikics is a professor of English at the University of Houston and a literary critic who’s written books on Spenser, Milton, Emerson, Nietzsche, and Derrida. Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker is part of Yale University’s Jewish Lives series, which includes biographies on, among others, Einstein, Houdini, Stan Lee, Proust, Trotsky, and Groucho Marx.

Mikics seems most comfortable in the critic-professor role, using his impressive knowledge of classic literature and cinema to probe Kubrick’s films. “More than any other director I can think of,” Mikics observes, “Kubrick makes us work to grasp the relationships among his films. Each Kubrick movie is a world unto itself, yet deeply and cryptically related to the others.” Even so, he finds compelling interpretive links within Kubrick’s oeuvre, as here where he refers to the children in The Shining and The Aryan Papers (Kubrick’s unmade Holocaust project):

a child decodes the dangerous adult world, then takes on the responsibility of a grown-up. Here is a key to the Kubrick universe. His films have the aura of the kid who has spent his time thinking and tinkering, trying to get things exactly right—a skill you need in both chess and photography. But when the grown-up world looms and boyhood hobbies yield their place to the facts of life, which include not just sex (as in Lolita, another movie about a child) but war and mass death, then you grow up fast.

There are, Mikics points out, precocious kids throughout Kubrick’s films. We can see the story of childhood itself in the way Danny slowly uncovers the “evils” of adulthood, violence and lust, in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. Over and over in Kubrick, boyish fantasies such as Napoleon’s conquering of Europe (another unmade Kubrick project) are enacted in the world of adults.

Perhaps Mikics’ take on Kubrick resonates with me because I love writerly texts, as Roland Barthes described artwork that doesn’t provide easy answers. Reading Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker can sometimes feel, in the best possible way, like listening to Mikics riff at a university lectern: “Strangelove is a perverted savior promising rebirth through violence. Ripper and Turgidson are manly colossi, unafraid to welcome the death of millions as the way to victory. They are Achilles, Ahab, all the mad warriors from the canon …” While Mikics might sometimes be erudite rather than straightforward, he has a knack for clarifying Kubrick’s overarching themes while still leaving room for wonder and curiosity. Kubrick’s movies, Mikics suggests, are about mastery that fails. Kubrick’s male characters live in highly controlled spaces; they plot and scheme against the power that surrounds them, but all their plans fail. American men, as Mikics points out, are hit the hardest: “Jack’s breakdown in The Shining is a catastrophic design flaw that comments on the American wish to live large, to express oneself with terrific power.”

We feel that Mikics’ passion for the films is genuine. His contagious excitement finds its culmination in what might be Kubrick’s most famous film, 2001, with which he has personal history: “I first saw 2001 at about age twelve, a few years after its premiere. From the beginning, the movie possessed me completely.” Mikics’ exhilaration, as he describes the astronaut Dave’s psychedelic hyper-speed scene, is palpable:

First we see time moving at superspeed, with dashes of radiance slipping past, and then a viral sublimity, as if from an electron microscope. Suddenly there’s a gaping maw out of Francis Bacon, then a glowing blood-red embryo-like shape, bursting volcanoes of light with cascading lava, desert ravines, and mountains, all in febrile, supersaturated colors. We are truly beyond the human. The lights flickering on Dave’s face in the Stargate scene replace the range of emotions we observed during his duel with HAL. Dave, like Alex later in A Clockwork Orange, is being splayed open, operated on through the optic nerve. And so are we: Kubrick’s avant-garde invasion of our sight is no mere display, as so often in sixties experimental cinema; instead, it seizes the viewer. We are swallowed up, taken over by this new cinematic divinity.

As Mikics writes about HAL the computer, for almost seven pages, one has the feeling that this is why he wrote the book. With great care he relates the chess-like showdown between HAL and Dave, in which humans come out ahead, but both computer and human have evolved. “Kubrick’s computer,” Mikics says, “becomes a person by knowing, and then fiercely reacting against, his own closeness to humanity. With the apes, killing was freedom, the key to a bold new era. But HAL, a high-tech, twenty-first-century mind, kills in a shrewd, underhanded fashion …”

Pauline Kael, Mikics tells us, referred pejoratively to Kubrick’s “arctic spirit.” Mikics responds, “The charge is misguided.” His book humanizes Kubrick and his films. Mikics paints Kubrick as a man who loved the quiet domestic life, and adored his wife Christiane, his two girls, and his pets. Though an eccentric recluse with the public, Kubrick could be funny, warm and caring with the people close to him. His films, as portrayed by Mikics, are never sentimental, or even exactly humane, but do frequently sympathize with certain characters. The children in his films, like Danny, don’t evoke Spielberg-esque pathos, but can be vulnerable and open, and we wish them well. While adults like Alex are crushed by the orderly spaces around them, we feel for them, even if they seem to deserve it. And occasionally—like Bill in Eyes Wide Shut, who retains his humanity and his marriage—they find redemption. I admit I’ve always enjoyed what I think of as Kubrick’s coldness. At the end of A Clockwork Orange, Alex, triggered by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, hurls himself out the window, while we, through Kubrick’s cold lens, watch helplessly. The cinematic “eye” that captures the scene is unsympathetic, objective, unblinking. Kubrick does not appear to care about Alex as a human being. We might wonder to ourselves how unkind Kubrick was, but it’s hard to argue against the powerful results.

Aside from Kubrick’s personal life and his films, there remains the problematic figure of Kubrick on set. On the positive side, Mikics describes the ex-bohemian Kubrick, directing movies in a sloppy jacket and drooping white socks, playing chess with actors, joking with the crew. Mikics’ book also reveals the negative side: Kubrick the control freak who demanded complete power over every area of his films. Mikics cites examples of Kubrick asking his crew to do endless takes of a scene without providing clear reasons why, just repeating “Let’s go again.” One scene in The Shining, in which Scatman Crothers explains the shining power to Danny, took 148 takes. Apparently at one point the 70-year-old Crothers broke down in frustration: “What do you want, Mr. Kubrick?” he cried, “What do you want?!” Mikics quotes Dan Richter, who played Moonwatcher the man-ape in 2001, saying, “What would be compulsion in others is single-mindedness in Stanley.”

Certain artists indelibly alter the way their art form is understood. Nobody can write or even watch a play without the ghost of Shakespeare hovering nearby. Did Kubrick make us think of stories on film in a new way? In the mid-60’s, while the original Star Trek series was on the air, with its papier-mâché set pieces and cheesy-looking aliens, Kubrick was creating his most mind-bogglingly innovative film, the visionary 2001. To Spielberg, Kubrick’s longtime friend, Kubrick made films in a way “antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories.” Is single-mindedness necessary to create works of greatness? Mikics—who admires Kubrick’s dazzling films, rather than judging the actions of the man—seems to think so. In Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker, biographical details, however problematic, are secondary. Mikics is most excited about Kubrick as a once-in-a-generation talent, who “changed what movies look like.”