I watched my first Stanley Kubrick film at the age of 13. A censored-for-television version of The Shining often played on channel 5 periodically on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, especially in the Fall months near Halloween. That first time, I watched most of the movie from behind my own hand, peaking through fingers and half-closed lids, quickly changing the channel when those creepy twins in baby blue took the screen, the repetitive “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” burned into my mind forever.
The Shining continues to terrify audiences, speaking to the basest of fears surrounding familial bonds, violence and isolation. It is the exploitation of archetypal anxieties, the use of music, color and space and the ambiguous heroes that cause Kubrick’s work to resonate with 21st century viewers and bring film geeks out in droves to see this unique display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I visited the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at LACMA , hoping to catch a glimpse of the man behind the camera. I not only came away with a greater understanding of Kubrick himself, but of the themes, motifs and inspiration behind some of my favorite films. I am intrigued by the larger connection these films share in terms of universal human neurosis as well as Kubrick’s use of a mythological template in much his work. Archetypes, or recurrent symbols in art, are prevalent in Kubrick’s films.
The LACMA exhibition highlighted the director’s repeated use of Red–the color of blood, eroticism, love and anger–an archetype symbolizing humankind’s most profound urges and impulses. From the river of crimson spilling into the hallways of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining to the spattering of Private Lawrence’s blood and brains on white bathroom tiles in Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick utilizes this archetypal symbol to create a sense of schizophrenia and mental breakdown in characters and viewers.
As I perused the Clockwork exhibition room–with the Korova Milkbar set walls looming overhead, naked mannequins with milk-white, plastic skin manipulated into sexual poses and Alex’s bowler hat, cane and droog suit on display–I felt a twinge of primordial anxiety toward that old “ultra-violence”. It is the same dread that kept me glued to the floor of my living room for 45 minutes after I popped A Clockwork Orange into the VCR the first time. It is not by chance that the cheerless black and white in A Clockwork Orange causes viewers to feel detached while observing droog violence or Alex’s psychological conditioning. Kubrick uses colors as a guide through the emotional turmoil in each of his films, masterfully manipulating visceral symbology to vividly represent the brutality and terror that run through the primordial veins of humankind. While the protagonists in his films are not always likable, audiences are attracted to the simple motif of instinct versus instruct; nature versus nurture.
In a 1971 interview with The Saturday Review about the then newly-released film A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick says, “Alex…is a character whom you should dislike and fear, and yet you find yourself drawn very quickly into his world and find yourself seeing things through his eyes…Alex’s adventures are a kind of psychological myth. Our subconscious finds release in Alex, just as it finds release it dreams… the structure of the story is very much like a fairy tale…” (Houston 1).
It is not only Alex that lives in a warped fairytale, but Humbert Humbert of Lolita, who is crazy in love with Lolita the nymphette; Jack Torrance, who finds vicious inspiration at the Overlook Hotel; Private Joker, who is thrust into the punishing world of military service and active duty in Vietnam. Each character free to indulge in his fantasy world, only slightly bogged down by morality and then, only when it suits him. Viewers find refuge in Kubrick’s dreamlike scenarios even as they play on our most intense emotions and fears. It is our collective consciousness that Kubrick taps into and the LACMA exhibition reveals, allowing audiences to safely spend a few hours wandering down the creepy hallways of our own psyche, while exploring taboo, frightening and sadistic scenarios on the other side of the glass.
- Kubrick at the LACMA (artvelocity.net)
- Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (kottke.org)
- To ‘Room 237′ and Beyond: Exploring Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Shining’ influence with Christopher Nolan, Edgar Wright, more (popwatch.ew.com)
- Stanley Kubrick The Retrospective Continues (thecubanartproject.com)