January 02, 2005

KUBRICK AS COLD RATIONALIST

A (slightly) edited discussion from alt.movies.kubrick. With contributions from Gordon Stainforth, editor of The Shining.

Shining.jpg

mark de rozario Sep 16 2002, 3:35 pm

I want to celebrate Kubrick's coldness and impersonality.

Kubrick is no Romantic: he does not buy into the overprivileging of the subjective and the emotional . Nor is he, in any sense, a humanist: human beings are not at the centre of his cosmos, and his account of humanity is, to say the least, not positive. No arguments there, perhaps.

But concluding that his rejection of these doctrines makes him a cynic, a nihilist or a remote modernist is to be misled by the humanism and Romanticism his work so effectively challenges.

Odd that someone who made The Shining should be described as populating his films with 'emotionless zombies.' Jack's homicidal fury might be many things,but emotionless? Likewise Wendy's sustained pitch of hysterical terror. 'Emotional zombies' would be a better description of Jack and Barry Lyndon --- helpless coquettes of the passions, dancing to someone else's tune ---

Kubrick is clinical, analytical, and that is his greatest service to us. There is a difference between a director capable of depicting emotions and one who is emotionally manipulative. Kubrick's films, yes, are cold, impersonal --- but we have to think carefully about why 'hot' and 'personal' are the automatically-privileged terms in our post-Romantic culture. Kubrick shifts the focus away from the subjective experiencing of emotions to the (social/ cultural/ biotic/ ...) machines which produce those emotions.

Unlike most Hollywood film-makers, Kubrick is no emotional pornographer - the point is _not_ to identify with the characters. Such identification would merely reproduce the redundant subjective narcissism upon which consumer culture runs. What if the point were to escape from this hall of mirrors? To see ourselves in these characters, yes, - but from outside, instead of from inside - so that we appear not now as passionate subjects but mannequins trapped within the hideous, remorseless machines that produce and feed upon our subjective intimacies. We are all in the Overlook -- locked into the treadmill repetition of someone else's past mistakes, the viral time of abuse-begetting-abuse ---- yet escape is possible: but such escape is precisely out into the impersonal, the emotionless, the cold of the Overlook snow rather than the heat of Jack's passion.

In this respect, Kubrick resembles Spinoza - someone who correlated passion with passivity, and who thought that freedom, far from being the default position for human beings, was something attained only when the dense accretion of repetition-compulsions and habit-programs which constitute human subjectivity was hacked through. God, Spinoza thought, could not feel hate - or love...

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mark de rozario Oct 11 2002, 6:43 pm

I wonder why it is that 'cold' and 'slow' are automatically deemed to be negative.

It is precisely Kubrick's coldness and slowness that are missed in a contemporary culture that is so obsessively 'warm' and 'fast'; ingratiating, emotionally exploitative, relentlessly fidgety. Kubrick took us out of ourselves: not via the transports of ecstatic fervour, but through the icy contemplation of what drives and traps us, and the vision of a universe indifferent to our passions. To see the mechanical deathliness of the human world from the perspective of that indiffferent universe: that is what Kubrick offered us. A vision of God (which is also an approximation of God's vision).

Kubrick returns - why deny it? - to an essentially religious sensibility, although his religion is 'atheistic' in the same sense Spinoza's was. For Spinoza, God = immanence, matter in itself, the gloriously dispassionate, desolated cosmos. Kubrick evokes the desubjectified affects of awe and dread, rather than the compulsory, socially-endorsed, 'warm' emotions of empathy/ sympathy, as homage to a universe whose indifference entails not pessimism, but freedom:
freedom from the miserable prisonhouse of the human.

Gordon Stainforth Oct 12 2002, 4:45 am

Brilliant comment, Mark, and I believe a v accurate summation of Kubrick.

I think the main characteristics of Hollywood style at the moment are: sentimentality, speed, and noise. (i.e puerile sentimentality, high speed cutting, and an excessively loud bang or explosion every few minutes). Example: Spielberg's immensely disappointing 'Minority Report' - where the audience, bombarded by technical wizardry, ends up having to watch people crying, with little idea or interest in what they are crying about.

Gordon Stainforth


10) Kubrick 2001 (bone spaceship transition).jpg


mark de rozario Oct 12 2002, 2:54 pm

> I think the main characteristics of Hollywood style at the moment are:
> sentimentality, speed, and noise. (i.e puerile sentimentality, high
> speed cutting, and an excessively loud bang or explosion every few
> minutes).

Couldn't agree more. I guess what's interesting about this is the tension between the quick-cutting and the sentimentality: the quick-cutting gives films a disocciated, schizophrenic quality (I'm thinking of Jameson's observation that postmodern subjectivity is 'schizophrenic' in that it is unable to synthesize a coherent sense of time), which is so abstract that you would imagine it was evacuated of any emotion. I guess the sentimentality is what 'glues together' what would otherwise be a experience devoid of much connecting thread.


Gordon Stainforth Oct 13 2002, 3:46 am

An even sharper point. I would only disagree that the sentimentality 'glues together' the fragmented, schizophrenic form - I think it merely gives the appearance of gluing it together. It's like icing covering a hollow, emotionally evacuated, incoherent interior.

GS



Thornhill Oct 12 2002, 5:23 am

"Miserable prisonhouse of the human"? Is that the bottom line with SK? When you look into the mirror of his work, or hear the phrase, "What'll it be?," do you percieve only the human miserable? You seem to make a point, then undercut it. SK's films are, consciously, as much about his audiences as about the characters and subjects he presents. To some degree, his work seems to me as a guided tour of darker humanity by a kind of cinematic Virgil, and for the benefit of his audience, Dante. We look upon this world, often engorged with the
dreaded and awful*, fury and blood, but, with nothing more than a touch, the heart of the film says, "This is what it is to be human. Maybe we can do no better....but, it is necessary to SEE!".

I suppose this "debate" comes down to the difference between experiencing this "touch" as either cold, or as warm, and therein applying value, as it goes. Most of the other "warms" are usually, and emotionally, cheap, ingratiating, and fraudulent, and return little more than a moment's escapade. The surgeon Virgil has different business, though. The glinty cold steel implements in his case are there, necessarily, to 'hurt' _in order_ to heal. This is also the job of fine satire, which is (at the deep heart's core), a thing of warmth and decency, humility and profound caring. This simple recognition is absent for many, and that absence, particularly with regard to SK, is a great pity.

Thornhill

* or, maybe it should be spelled "awe-ful." What does awe have to do with religion, or a religious outlook? Spiritual, yes, maybe, but what need for yolking awe to "religion"? Sometimes 'ugliness' is deeply 'beautiful', and there can be awe, too.

candlelit-small.jpg


mark de rozario Oct 12 2002, 1:29 pm

cthornh...@worldnet.att.net (Thornhill) wrote in message news:

> "Miserable prisonhouse of the human"? Is that the bottom line with
> SK? When you look into the mirror of his work, or hear the phrase,
> "What'll it be?," do you percieve only the human miserable?

Not at all. I think Kubrick offers an alternative to the 'human miserable', precisely by offering a _nonhuman_ perspective upon it. And this is in part because his films - whilst often about mirroring - are not themselves mirrors. They do allow us see ourselves, but from outside.

> You seem
> to make a point, then undercut it.

How so?

>SK's films are, consciously, as
> much about his audiences as about the characters and subjects he
> presents. To some degree, his work seems to me as a guided tour of
> darker humanity by a kind of cinematic Virgil, and for the benefit of
> his audience, Dante. We look upon this world, often engorged with the
> dreaded and awful*, fury and blood, but, with nothing more than a
> touch, the heart of the film says, "This is what it is to be human.
> Maybe we can do no better....but, it is necessary to SEE!".

I'm not averse to this comparison, but how does it work? If Dante the author is also the audience in the Divine Comedy, who is the equivalent of this author-audience figure in Kubrick?

> I suppose this "debate" comes down to the difference between
> experiencing this "touch" as either cold, or as warm, and therein
> applying value, as it goes.

Yes, I think there's more than an element of this. One can either resist the familiar accusation that Kubrick is cold, or accept it and re-evaluate the meaning of 'cold.' As is clear, I prefer to do the latter.

> Most of the other "warms" are usually,
> and emotionally, cheap, ingratiating, and fraudulent, and return
> little more than a moment's escapade. The surgeon Virgil has
> different business, though. The glinty cold steel implements in his
> case are there, necessarily, to 'hurt' _in order_ to heal.

Are we 'hurt' by Kubrick though? I agree with Lord Bullingdon; I have never cried at a Kubrick film. I have been 'moved' - taken out of myself - but not in the emotional sense.

>This is
> also the job of fine satire, which is (at the deep heart's core), a
> thing of warmth and decency, humility and profound caring. This
> simple recognition is absent for many, and that absence, particularly
> with regard to SK, is a great pity.

Some satire can be as you described, but I should have thought that some (Swift, for example) can be pretty misanthropic.

I used Spinoza as a comparison to Kubrick because Spinoza does very much what you suggest Virgil does, in the respect of offering detailed diagrams of the way human beings systematically trap, impede, and destroy themselves. 'Why do human beings love what makes them miserable?' is the question Spinoza - in anticipation of Freud - relentlessly poses. For Spinoza, passions are correlated with passivity; freedom consists in leaving behind emotions, and achieving
an attutment to a cosmos that is - in the best sense - pitiless. ('God
is affected with no emotion of joy or sadness.')

> * or, maybe it should be spelled "awe-ful." What does awe have to do
> with religion, or a religious outlook? Spiritual, yes, maybe, but
> what need for yolking awe to "religion"? Sometimes 'ugliness' is
> deeply 'beautiful', and there can be awe, too.

I prefer 'religious' - in the qualified, atheistic sense I presented before - because I'm a materialist and do not want to be committed to the existence of some non-material substance such as 'spirit'. I'm not particularly attached to the term, though. What I'm interested in is a cosmic perspective, beyond the human and its interests. (Interesting, BTW, that you chose to compare SK to a _religious_ text .) Yes, the ugly beautiful - isn't that the sublime? What escapes our
capacity to adequately represent it, what confounds our conceptual
categories: there's a lot of that in Kubrick, too.

hiltonredchairs.jpg


Padraig L Henry Oct 12 2002, 5:24 am

While much of what you write is extremely insightful about distanciation "within" the Kubrickean universe, are you not also, seemingly, making the same mistake so indefatigably parroted by LB of conflating Kubrick's aesthetic cinematic strategies with his ownpersonal sensibilities, his own humanity? Why do you classify contemplation of human folly and what might redeem or transcend it as "icy"?

...

>a universe whose indifference entails not pessimism, but freedom:
>freedom from the miserable prisonhouse of the human.

And, presumably, freedom from fatalistic conceptions of the human, and
from the "miserable prisonhouse" of human indifference :-)

But, again, you are invoking two apparently contradictory notions of "warm" above: one as ingratiating, emotionally exploitative, relentlessly fidgety i.e. the Hollywood mainstream, the other as denoting emotions of empathy/ sympathy, however supposedly compulsory their social endorsment may be. The latter "notion" of "warm" , though largely absent from a film like 2001 [the film upon which much of your conception of Kubrick's cinematic world rests], actually becomes central to such later work as Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut.

Are we getting "warm" yet?

Padraig


mark de rozario Oct 12 2002, 2:42 pm

Interesting comments, as ever, Padraig.

phe...@iol.ie (Padraig L Henry) wrote in message ...

> While much of what you write below is extremely insightful about
> distanciation "within" the Kubrickean universe, are you not also,
> seemingly, making the same mistake so indefatigably parroted by LB of
> conflating Kubrick's aesthetic cinematic strategies with his own
> personal sensibilities, his own humanity?

I sincerely hope not. Call me a post-structuralist, but I'm only interested in Kubrick the 'author' insofar as 'he' is manifested in the work. :-) I make no judgements whatsover about Kubrick's personal sensibilities or humanity. For 'Kubrick', read 'Kubrick's films.'

>Why do you classify
> contemplation of human folly and what might redeem or transcent it as
> "icy"?

Good point. I guess because of the association of passions with 'heat' - by icy here I simply mean 'dispassionate' (in the Spinozist sense).

> Kubrick evokes the
> >desubjectified affects of awe and dread, rather than the compulsory,
> >socially-endorsed, 'warm' , as homage to
> >a universe whose indifference entails not pessimism, but freedom:
> >freedom from the miserable prisonhouse of the human.

> And, presumably, freedom from fatalistic conceptions of the human, and
> from the "miserable prisonhouse" of human indifference :-)
:-)

> But, again, you are invoking two apparently contradictory notions of
> "warm" above: one as ingratiating, emotionally exploitative,
> relentlessly fidgety

(fidgety went with 'fast', rather than 'warm', but, yeah, point taken)

>i.e. the Hollywood mainstream, the other as
> denoting emotions of empathy/ sympathy, however supposedly compulsory
> their social endorsment may be.

Are they really contradictory, though? I agree there's a less patently exploitative rendering of sympathy/ empathy possible - but wonder if this isn't just a more sophisticated version of the same thing.

The question of empathy is a fascinating one, and calls to mind Worringer's distinction between abstraction and empathy - empathy is the emotion correlated with 'organic' or representational art (which reflects the subject back to itself); abstract art, by contrast, is mechanical, devoid of a sense of empathy (confronting the subject with something irrevocably unassimilable). The two fuse in what he calls the Northern line - essentially, Gothic art culminating in the German expressionist tradition - in which there is 'a requisition of our capacity for empathy (which is bound up with organic rhythm) for an abstract world which is alien to it.' I think there's more than a hint of a continuation of this Northern Line in Kubrick.

>The latter "notion" of "warm" , though
> largely absent from a film like 2001 [the film upon which much of your
> conception of Kubrick's cinematic world rests], actually becomes
> central to such later work as Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut.

Good point. 2001 is the film which most obviously fits the description of the Kubrick oeuvre I gave; not so much, I think, because of its absence of sympathy/ empathy in it, but because of its awestruck vision of the cosmos, which isn't quite so evident in any of his other films, before or after.

I think we must distinguish the depiction of emotion in a film from the emotion it stimulates in the audience - and from a film's emotional ethic (the kind of emotion a film, implicitly or explicitly, recommends, privileges or endorses). In 'Hollywood', the first two tend to collapse into each other, and the emotional ethic is usually an invitation to wallow in a drippy sentimentality. With Kubrick, there is a clear distinction between the emotions his films depict and the reaction the audience has: the distanciation-effect you talked of before, which not only happens within the films, but between what the film is showing and how the audience responds to it. _All_ of Kubrick's films depict passions, but none of them is 'passionate': they are _about_ emotions, not 'emotional.' This is as true of EWS and BL (and TS, for that matter) as it is of 2001. BL, TS, and EWS all anatomize human emotional folly; all three are about problematics of empathy/ sympathy; but it's not clear that they make us _feel_ sympathetic or empathic. It's not clear, for instance, that we _identify_ with Dr Bill or Barry.

The fascination lies in the ambiguity of Kubrick's emotional ethic: what does 'he' want us to feel? This isn't clear, to say the least, since, thankfully, the films refuse to corral us into a simple response . Evidently, that's why some choose to read the films as cold (in the 'normal','bad' sense), pessimistic, or disdainful and misanthropic: I prefer to read them as attempts to simulate the dispassionate perspective of the Spinozist 'God' - a perspective which, because it feels 'neither joy nor sadness', can liberate us from our own 'joys and sadnesses.'

> Are we getting "warm" yet?

Let's hope not. :-)

barry-sky.jpg


Gordon Stainforth Oct 13 2002, 3:59 am

> > On 11 Oct 2002 18:43:46 -0700, m...@diskontent.net (mark de rozario)

> > wrote:

> > While much of what you write below is extremely insightful about
> > distanciation "within" the Kubrickean universe, are you not also,
> > seemingly, making the same mistake so indefatigably parroted by LB of
> > conflating Kubrick's aesthetic cinematic strategies with his own
> > personal sensibilities, his own humanity?

> I sincerely hope not. Call me a post-structuralist, but I'm only
> interested in Kubrick the 'author' insofar as 'he' is manifested in
> the work. :-) I make no judgements whatsover about Kubrick's personal
> sensibilities or humanity. For 'Kubrick', read 'Kubrick's films.'

Mark, I think you are absolutely correct here, yet again! Stanley certainly believed that he as author/artist should only be judged by his work, and that it had little or nothing to do with his personal humanity. The irony,of course, is that he was a surprisingly warm man at a family/domestic/social level. (In my experience, almost like a different personality once we were outside the cutting room)


> > Are we getting "warm" yet?

> Let's hope not. :-)

I think we are actually getting very warm here! - in that this Spinozistic analysis of Kubrick's view of the cosmos is, I believe, about as close as we're going to get to his true position (IMHO). A very, very useful reading, Mark

GS


s_o_keefe Oct 13 2002, 4:26 pm

I think a great deal of the ambiguity relies on SK's hesitation, possibly disdain, for theatrical & subjective cinematic devices in his films. One could take the "Shining" discussion between Danny and Hallorann, reframe with some slow zoom-ins, layer some synthetic haze, put some John Williams music underneath and composite a few rays of light beaming down and have the typical Spielberg scene, no? SK used handheld and Steadicam viewpoints for occasional subjectivity, but the majority of his films are formally composed still photography...thephotographer's view, the observer's view, the "God's eye" view - withbrilliantly chosen, and many times "canned" music playing with certainscenes. There's a phrase I sometimes think of with SK.."style is a result of limitations". This may provoke uproar, but I feel that SK may have had no idea what would be there with the finished film....until it was finished. A dedicated artist, he worked on instinct and self-discovery with the material, constantly revising and amending through every stage of the project, with his passion for the the source story and exhaustive research his primary guide. Just my $0.02.

Regards,

Steve

Posted by mark at January 2, 2005 08:13 AM | TrackBack