Kubrick The Klown? Addressing The Perceived Lack of humour And humanity In His Ouevre

Of all the myths and stories surrounding Stanley Kubrick – his reclusiveness, tales of him wearing a crash helmet whilst driving, his fear of spiders (I may have made one of those up) – the most grievous is that his films are cold and distant, reflecting his dour personality. Kubrick was anything but gloomy, and many of his films are laced with the driest of wit.

A serious and intelligent approach to one’s craft does not mean one lacks empathy or humour. Kubrick started off as a teenaged photographer for Look magazine, shooting people from all walks of life, in all kinds of vignettes, soon having complete autonomy over his own material. People were always at the centre of his vision, never more so than in his films. He saw the absurdity of the world and revelled in the foibles and vanities of mankind. His humour was sly and sardonic, spilling over to farce in his most obviously comic work, Dr. Strangelove.

Often he would reign in his more obvious instincts. The legendary custard pie fight in the war room of Dr. Strangelove was actually shot over several days before it was discarded. Rightly, Kubrick judged it was too over the top. How could he beat the cosmic joke that was M.A.D (Mutually Assured Destruction), the crazy Cold War stand off strategy? He trusted his instincts again when changing graffitti on one of the nukes from “Lolita” to “Dear John”, judging that it was too obvious a reference to his earlier work.

The source material for the film was pulp thriller, Red Alert, by Peter George. Kubrick and writing partner Terry Southern turned it into the blackest of comedies. Essentially WWIII starts because of sexual frustration and inadequacy, a paranoid belief that the commies want “to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.” Literally, Reds under the beds. With this and Lolita, Kubrick engaged in two highly successful collaborations with Peter Sellers, judging his improvisational skills to be akin to “a state of comic ecstasy.” Hardly the words of a curmudgeon.

2001, perceived by some as Kubrick’s most soulless and serious of films, has it’s fair share of humour too. Granted, it is subtle. The joke is that mankind in the year 2001 has advanced not much more than cinema goers viewing it for the first time in 1968. Space travel within Earth’s orbit has become routine, dull. Dr Floyd sleeps, strapped into his shuttle chair, while one arm floats free – the man of profundity, reaching for the unobtainable, weighed down by mundanity.

When the scientists arrive to examine the exhumed Monolith on the moon, they gather around it for a souvenir snap, like tourists in front of the Tower Of Pizza. En-route beforehand, they discuss which sandwiches to share out, as if embarking on a picnic. The greatest discovery mankind has ever made, takes second place to appetite and mementoes.

Arthur C. Clarke denied that HAL, the querolous, fussy computer, was a joke at the expense of IBM, each letter one place removed. But Clarke and Kubrick wrote the script together, and Kubrick may have had his own agenda. Through the wonders of high-definition, it is now possible to make out the letters IBM on the brightly lit console buttons of the Pod, as Dave Bowman attempts to rescue his doomed colleague. A rescue, incidentally, that serves no purpose, other than to show that humanity, even in the technological age, will still try to do the right thing by his fallen comrades.

There is also the humour of Dr Floyd hesitantly reading the complex instructions for the use of the Zero-G toilet. Kubrick seemed to have a thing about the absurdity of human bodily functions. For Full Metal Jacket, he built a row of polished toilets (or heads, in Marine vernacular) without partitions, because it seemed “funny and grotesque.” I wonder did he know he wasn’t far from the truth. In the novel Sand In The Wind, by veteran Robert Roth, trainees are ordered to void their bowels within one minute in a similar set-up, part of the process of breaking down the individual and building the unit.

Much is made of the training segment of the film, but the second half when Pvt Joker (Matthew Modine) reaches Vietnam is as funny as it is harrowing. Best summed up by his clash with an indignant Colonel for non-regulation attire,by writing “Born to kill” on his helmet and wearing a CND badge: “ I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir. The Jungian thing, sir.” When the enemy sneakily attack during the Tet new year celebrations, Modine cheekily enquires of his Stars and Stripes superior officer: “Sir, does that mean Ann-Margaret isn’t coming?” Kubrick also encouraged Modine to impersonate John Wayne, ironically mocking The Duke’s “phoney tough and crazy brave” film, The Green Berets.

clockwork orange bts

And how about Alex (Malcolm McDowell) browsing the Chelsea drug store in A Clockwork Orange, made famous in the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, and here remodelled as a “Disk-bootick”. Kubrick made no effort to disguise the records and magazines of 1970, the year it was filmed. In fact, a few records and magazines are deliberately in frame as blink and you’ll miss it in jokes – the soundtrack album to 2001: A Space Odyssey next to John Fahey’s “fake” blues album, The Transfiguration Of Blind Joe Death, for example. One of the songs on the Fahey album  is A Bicycle Made For Two, aka Daisy Bell – the song HAL sings as he is shut down by Dave Bowman in 2001. Also on view is the Missa Luba album, a collection of gospel songs performed by an African school choir. The Sanctus track is played repeatedly by Malcolm McDowell in his breakout performance in Lindsay Anderson’s If, the film that got him the Clockwork Orange role. You can get a closer look here

The dry narration of Michael Hordern in Barry Lyndon is a knowing counterpoint to the slow moving action of Ryan O’Neil’s Redmond Barry, later Barry Lyndon, up the social ladder of late 18th Century society, and his comic encounters with various fops and popinjays – I’m looking at you, Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter cast again by Kubrick after 2001: A Space odyssey, in a more comic role).

I leave you with an anecdote from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick, who didn’t like heights, was reluctant to go up to top of the high HAL brain room set. He asked, “Is it (the top hatch) insert worthy?” i.e, good enough to print. John Hoesli, the set decorator said, “Hold on a minute” and ran off to fetch Kubrick a pair of powerful binoculars. Kubrick laughed good naturedly. A year later he was using the same glasses to check focus on his giant front projection screen. From a humourous prank, to technical scrutiny, Kubrick engaged with others in every way, to bring about his vision. Definitely not the cold, unfeeling loner of legend.

Note: An earlier form of this article first appeared on Hopelies.com

Originally posted 2012-04-10 17:39:35. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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