Stanley Kubrick’s Calculated Rebellion

In his life and in his work, the filmmaker showed that insurgents only win when they sweat the small stuff.

In America, we are in a season of political rebellion. Throughout the country, protests have become a part of everyday life. Some of them are righteous (the Black Lives Matter movement wants to end police brutality and systemic racism); some of them are not (armed conservatives are pushing states to reopen before it’s safe). But they all suggest collective discontent, reflected in polling that shows that Americans overwhelmingly feel the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker
by David Mikics
Yale University Press, 242 pp.

Of course, many people are still staying home because of the pandemic, trying to make sense of the unrest by reading and watching the news. But the real world can only take you so far. As with most mysteries of human motivation, fiction is a better guide to answering the question of why people and societies rebel. And perhaps no artist has more frequently captured the essence of rebellion—whether personal or collective in nature—than Stanley Kubrick. 

Consider his body of work. Spartacus (1960) chronicles the eponymous Roman gladiator who led a slave revolt. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) reaches its climax when a sentient computer tries to kill off his crew once he learns that they plan to disable him. Barry Lyndon (1975) tells the saga of an incorrigible 18th-century trickster who rejects his family of Irish farmers to ingratiate himself in the British aristocracy. The Shining (1980) shows a man’s descent into madness as he plots to murder his wife and son. Full Metal Jacket (1987) takes its biggest turn when a Parris Island Marine trainee shoots his draconian drill instructor. 

It’s fitting that Kubrick focused heavily on rebels. He was one. That’s one of the major takeaways from a new biography by David Mikics, Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker. Kubrick did poorly in school—was simply “not interested,” he said—and didn’t go to college, much to the chagrin of his New York Jewish middle-class parents, who owed their livelihoods to their education. Instead of college, Kubrick spent his early 20s as a photographer and made extra cash by competing in chess tournaments. He got his first serious recognition, while at Look magazine, for taking a picture of a solemn newspaper salesman staring at a stack of front pages the day after Franklin Roosevelt died. By the time he became a filmmaker in the 1950s, he had already earned a measure of success as a renegade. 

The rebellions of Kubrick’s characters, however, almost always came up short. In Spartacus, the revolt fails. In 2001, HAL’s scheme falls apart. In Barry Lyndon, the protagonist’s story ends in terrible misfortune. In The Shining, Jack Torrance freezes to death. In Full Metal Jacket, the Marine trainee, Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, kills himself. 

Kubrick’s rebellion, by contrast, served him well. He refused to follow Hollywood’s formulaic filmmaking clichés and was unafraid to touch on outré subjects (this is the man who made Lolita, after all). His films still won eight Academy Awards (Kubrick himself only won once, for special effects on 2001). Many were international box office hits. The most famous actors in all of Hollywood, like Jack Nicholson, would drop whatever they were doing to work with him. In the latter part of his career, he had a unique arrangement with Warner Brothers that let him make movies on all of his own terms. He is now widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers who ever lived. 

In other words, Kubrick’s filmmaking life was marked by a fundamental contradiction. He was the consummate model of a rebel who succeeded, yet he spent his entire life making films about rebels who fail. 

Stanley Kubrick was born in 1928. His father was a doctor and the descendant of Polish immigrants, and the family lived in a spacious Bronx apartment. His interest in cinema began relatively early in life. While taking photos for Look magazine in the late 1940s, he started going to movie screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, where he was introduced to foreign films. He fell in love with the works of Sergei Eisenstein, Max Ophüls, and the Greek American director Elia Kazan, but also saw a lot of movies that didn’t meet his standards. “I know I can make a film better than that,” he would say. Soon, he started using the little money he had in savings—approximately $1,500—to rent camera equipment and make short movies. 

His first was a 16-minute documentary on a boxing match, Day of the Fight. He sold it to RKO Production pictures for $100 more than it cost him to make it. That inspired him to quit his job at Look and turn to film full-time. He made a few more shorts before his first feature, Fear and Desire, which was a commercial flop but received enough critical appreciation that he was able to continue making movies. 

Kubrick’s filmmaking life was marked by a fundamental contradiction. He was the consummate model of a rebel who succeeded, yet he spent his entire life making films about rebels who fail.

It took his third feature film, The Killing (1956), about a meticulously planned racetrack robbery gone wrong, for Kubrick to come into his own as an artist. The noirish film follows Johnny Clay, a veteran criminal who wants to pull off a final heist and leave town. It ends with Clay trying to get on a flight to Boston with a bag full of cash. When he arrives at the airport, the gate attendant won’t let him bring the bag as a carry-on because of its weight. Eventually, Clay lets him check it. Then, while he’s on the runway, Clay watches as a woman’s dog jumps from her arms. The baggage cart driver swerves to avoid hitting it, and the suitcase falls off and opens. The money goes flying into the air, scattered away by the airplane’s propellers. Clay and his girlfriend quickly try to leave the airport but realize the futility of attempting to escape—and are met by cops at the airport entrance. 

This was the first display of what would become the classic Kubrick plot. As Mikics writes, the director was “drawn to macho revolt, and to anything else that makes well-laid plans screw up royally.” It was a subject that stayed constant even as Kubrick later became an incredibly versatile filmmaker, bouncing from genre to genre. The director went from an antiwar movie to a historical epic to a dark comedy to a sci-fi to a dystopian movie to a period drama. Then he made a horror film, a war film (not the same as an antiwar film), and an erotic psychodrama. In each of these movies, men (they were always men) rebel in some form or fashion against their reality and surroundings. 

A few of them deserve to succeed. In Paths of Glory (1957), for example, Kirk Douglas plays a French colonel whose unit refuses orders to invade an enemy anthill, and then stands up against the military establishment for seeking to punish his soldiers (had they carried out the order, they would effectively have been committing suicide). But most of Kubrick’s rebels are far less noble. Many, like The Shining’s Torrance, are full of a kind of masculine rage that destroys their capacity for rational thought. 

Dr. Strangelove (1964) is an especially powerful example. Sterling Hayden plays a general who becomes impotent, has a psychotic breakdown, and ignores the chain of command so he can order a nuclear attack on the Soviets. He uses the bomb to replace the sexual release. This is a tale not so much of failed rebellion—his plan does, in fact, work—but of rebellion as a form of mental malfunction. 

The connection between rebellion and malfunction is also apparent in A Clockwork Orange (1971). The film is obviously about a rebel: a conscienceless youth gang leader named Alex who takes pleasure in violence and rape. But the film reaches its apex when he comes in contact with another rebel: the government’s minister of the interior, who controversially tries to reform Alex through an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico technique. This consists of strapping him to a chair, clamping his eyes open, and forcing him to watch sex and violence on a movie screen while injecting him with drugs that make him ill. By the time the trial is over, he can’t do any of the things he used to do without getting sick. Once he’s released from jail, however, his former victims find him and torment him until he can’t take it anymore—and he tries to commit suicide. 

Pretty soon, the news media picks up his story, civil society is outraged, and the menace becomes the victim: the subject of the minister’s brutality. The government then has to “uncondition” Alex to save face. The state’s plan completely backfires. The film ends with Alex being re-released into society just as dangerous as he was before. 

Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange were clearly political. But many of Kubrick’s revolts were personal. His final movie, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), is centered around the theme of adultery. The film—the last to star Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as a married couple—follows Cruise as he ostensibly sets out on a voyage to cheat on his wife after she tells him she once considered having an affair. That includes him infiltrating a secret society’s masked orgy. Complications, however, get in the way, and he never follows through. When he confesses his adventures to his wife, she seemingly forgives him (the final lines of dialogue are some of Kubrick’s finest). But it still becomes an archetypal Kubrick story of failed rebellion. As Mikics writes, the film is essentially “a piquant fairy tale: male defiance is quickly foiled by fate, which brings the man back to where he started.”

For today’s aggressive conservative protestors—the mostly male demonstrators who march on statehouses bearing arms—Kubrick’s macho plot lines could prove prescient. Try as they might to act against others and increase their power, the rebels in Kubrick’s films are rarely able to get their way, or at least what they truly want. 

This may also be the case for Donald Trump himself. The president already seems like a character out of Dr. Strangelove. The question is whether Trump’s unsteady revolt against American political institutions will end like the general’s—in unfathomable catastrophe for the world—or like The Shining’s Jack Torrance’s revolt against his own mediocrity—in self-destruction. 

A hallmark of Kubrick’s rebels is that they almost always lose control of the situation. Johnny Clay’s heist itself succeeds, but is upended by a swerving luggage cart. The minister in A Clockwork Orange manages to reprogram Alex, but his efforts are then undone by societal backlash. 

Mikics suggests that Kubrick’s preoccupation with catastrophe stems in part from his New York Jewish upbringing. One of the most Jewish tendencies, after all, is to fear that things can go wrong even when they are seemingly going well. “Gentiles don’t know how to worry,” Kubrick once remarked. 

That may explain why Kubrick, unlike his characters, was a perfectionist. He was an exacting director who demanded dozens of takes. For the Vietnam set in Full Metal Jacket, which he filmed near his estate in England, he refused to use plastic props and instead imported 100,000 tropical plants from Hong Kong and more than 200 palm trees. He would edit and reedit his films seven days a week. 

Today’s progressive protesters have momentum on their side. But Kubrick’s message is that there is always a need to think methodically through the ways in which things can boomerang.

Toward the end of Kubrick’s life, this neurosis became as talked about as his films themselves. He rarely left his Hertfordshire mansion. Gossip columnists wrote about him breathlessly as a recluse who was destroying the lives of everyone around him. (People close to him have always disputed the rumors of his mental descent.)

But Kubrick’s perfectionism was an indelible part of his filmmaking identity. In essence, it was a manifestation of his belief in hard work—that the way to successfully overcome adverse odds when rebelling is through carefully considering every little thing. This was one of the reasons he loved chess. He once said the game “teaches you . . . to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good,” but to “think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.” 

Perhaps that’s the message for today’s progressive protesters. They have all the momentum on their side: Trump’s polling has hit the rocks; they have already affected societal change (after decades of resistance, the Washington football team has finally changed its name); and state and municipal governments are, in fact, altering their laws and policing policies. But there is always a need to think methodically through the ways in which things can boomerang. 

That hardly means they should give up. Kubrick, after all, wasn’t anti-rebel. Rather, he loved telling cautionary tales of how rebels can go wrong. In a speech during the final months of his life, the director paid tribute to Icarus, the great rebel of Greek mythology, who tried to fly higher than his father by creating wings with wax and feathers but who plummeted to his death when the wax melted in the sun. 

In most classrooms, the story is taught as a lesson on the dangers of overreaching and needless ambition. But Kubrick shared a different analysis. He said, “I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘Don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as: Forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.”

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Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is the Investigative Editor of the Washington Monthly.