Stanley Kubrick and The Deconstructive Film
Societies, made up of religious, cultural, military, and economic institutions, codify the most beastly aspects of humanity. However, these activities are, in fact, often the most specifically human. The act of intercourse is seen as savage hedonism if not in the context of reproduction, but it is the desire of human sexuality that distances it from the simple mechanistic function of animal mating. Violence, similarly, makes man into a mindless boar, yet sadism has little benefit in natural selection, and the greatest acts of violence are always facilitated through the same societal institutions that decry them. These themes echo throughout the oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick, a man who repeatedly undermines the conventions of typical existentialist storytellings in order to lampoon the society around it. I will specifically address two of Kubrick’s most respected films: 2001 A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, in order to show Kubrick portrays humanity embedding and cultivating the same behavior it condemns.
2001 is a movie all about the evolution of man, and especially is evolution alongside his drive for violence. The monolith allows the proto-humans to evolve psychically, only for their new tools to immediately be used to dominate a rival group. The famous shot of the bone juxtaposed with the floating satellite visually implies that no meaningful progression has been effected between the two points in human history. Humanity is still basically violent, its technologies are still basically weapons, and these facts have only been obfuscated, complicated, and amplified by time. HAL 9000 later on in the film confirms this, for as he says he is the perfect tool, the height of human technology. HAL does not malfunction, he acts totally in accordance with his programming, and, as such, he becomes a weapon against the humans he perceives as impeding his mission. Perhaps this is why the ascended form of Dave, the next level of evolution, is a baby; as in transcendentalism the child is basically innocent and has at least the potential to escape the cycle of violence.
A Clockwork Orange takes a magnifying glass to this cycle of violence from the macroscopic scale of 2001. Alex is not a brute, he is a man whose sexuality and philosophy are totally a product of his society, yet he believes in his own essential freedom and that he is entirely his own man. Alex is a man thinking himself of high class, and as such the institution of culture imparts upon him a glorification of sex, violence, and the intertwining of the two. Throughout the film, art is placed in the background of scenes with explicitly phallic shapes and objectification of the female form, giving off the implicit that women are objects for one’s own pleasure. Similarly, the musical motif of Ode to Joy is diagenetically associated with brutal, visceral violence, including the institutional violence on Nazi Germany. Alex himself is victimized by the society around him for victimizing others, but the cycle began with society shaping him this way. Many shots throughout the film are framed in a triangle, with those at the top having the highest hierarchical position. When Alex is enacting violence, he is at the top, but when he is in the presence of government officials he is always near the bottom. The film reinforces that violence must be utilized by the state to be “legitimate,” as with Alex’s former droogs becoming cops, and the basic plot is simply Alex learning and conforming to this fact.
The work of Stanley Kubrick is an exercise of deconstruction and subversion to the conventions of storytelling and the assumptions of the society he is a part of. 2001 is a reconstruction of both the science fiction genre and humanity itself, implying that abandoning the glorification of violence will be a massive improvement to us both artistically and as people. A Clockwork Orange is much more bleak, as it implies that human freedom is basically inconsequential in the face of society and its institutions, and that the individual is both shaped by society and can do very little to affect it on his own. Kubrick uses his films to reveal that many aspects of ourselves that we push into the shadows often form the foundation of our society and how we think of ourselves as people. Whether we can follow Kubrick’s message and succeed despite ourselves is something that I cannot say, but the transgressive sentiment and pure skill of filmmaking this director possessed should echo through the medium of film and art itself.