The Enduring Genius of Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick - H -2001
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Fifty years since it first came out, '2001: A Space Odyssey' seems more original than ever.

Was there ever a filmmaker who liked human beings less than Stanley Kubrick?

Looking back on his extraordinary body of work, it’s striking how many of his characters range from the unpleasant to the unpalatable, from the fetid to the foul. Each of them is slightly off, whether morally, ethically or mentally. Think of The Shining’s Jack Torrance or Lolita’s Humbert Humbert or Dr. Strangelove’s Dr. Strangelove or Barry Lyndon’s Barry Lyndon.

Heroes hardly ever appear in the master’s work, and if they do, they seem curiously less intriguing than the figures around them — rather like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (a film Kubrick disowned), whose somewhat simplistic character has the spotlight stolen from him by those venerable hams Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov.

I often wonder if Kubrick simply dislikes people or if he just doesn’t find them all that interesting. Certainly, if he ever empathizes with anyone, he keeps that empathy at arm’s length and rarely chooses to explore his characters’ hidden angst, their private anguish, their subconscious motives — the rich human texture of good and bad that makes any individual, well, individual. The inner workings of the human mind are absent from most of his films, the inner workings of the human heart altogether invisible.

Ordinary life doesn’t appeal to him. As for the minutiae of relationships — love and hate, and the whole gamut of emotions in between — he couldn’t care less. Or rather, he seems to have cared less and less the older he got, before his demise at age 70 in March 1999.

The very stuff that fills up most movies, and much of our existence, is alien to him. He’s the antithesis of an Ozu, who’ll turn the ebb and flow of a few eventless weeks into a classic like Tokyo Story; or a Rohmer, who (almost) manages to make us share his middle-aged hero’s obsession with a young woman’s patella in Claire’s Knee.

Kubrick, as one of my friends reminded me, makes one think of that Peanuts quote: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” 

And yet that’s precisely why he’s so brilliant.

Nowhere is this clearer than in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Watching it again the other night, half a century after its initial release and just before a restored version opened in theaters, I was enthralled, held in awe by the sheer scope and originality of his vision. What struck me wasn’t just the technical skill (the special effects seem as imaginative today as they did 50 years ago) or his vision of the future (eerily prescient, right down to the talking computer), but the absence of any central character, or even anyone that I could deeply care about.

It’s no coincidence that the most three-dimensional character in the movie is HAL, the spaceship computer, with his dulcet tones and surface calm, who inevitably runs amok. With an ironic masterstroke, this embodiment of the future goes out singing that most Victorian of songs, Daisy: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do. / I’m half-crazy all for the love of you.”

We learn more about HAL than we ever do about the picture’s leading men (Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and William Sylvester), whose very blankness seems part of a deliberate plan. True, we know that one of them has a daughter and the other has parents who call from Earth to celebrate their son’s birthday, but beyond that, they’re ciphers. Are they good guys or bad guys, simple or complex, honest or dishonest, troubled or trouble-free? By the end of the 142-minute film, they remain as unknown to us as they were when we first met them.

Because they’re not Kubrick’s concern. Human beings have largely ceased to matter at this point in his work, or at least as individualized creatures that we can identify with or probe beyond a surface level. Emotions barely register with them; conflict is kept to a minimum, except of course in the fabulous sequence when Bowman (Dullea) takes on HAL. By the time Kubrick made 2001, psychology had vanished from his repertoire; philosophy was everything.

But it was exactly because of this that he made such a unique film.

Just to recap (spoiler alert): Kubrick begins with a sequence 4 million years ago, when a tribe of hominids discovers how to turn a bone into a weapon. He then leaves them, jumping forward to the future, when a scientist boards a space station to discuss a newly discovered artifact (the much-discussed “monolith”). After that, he hops forward a year and a half, when we meet an astronaut, Bowman, who becomes locked in a battle of wills with HAL, his spaceship’s computer. Finally, in the last part of the film, the plot becomes all but inexplicable, as the monolith reappears and Bowman encounters both older and younger versions of himself, possibly turning into a fetus enclosed in a bubble of light.

In rejecting a traditional narrative, Kubrick also rejected the central tradition of American film.

The individual is at the heart of Hollywood movies, just as he (or she) is at the heart of American society. We want a hero or antihero, someone we can like or loathe. We want characters that live and breathe and are as complex as possible, and go through a well-worn trajectory from ignorance to awareness, from innocence to experience — call it the “hero’s journey.” Along the way, we expect them to endure conflict and struggle, then resolution, ideally with a moment of revelation, the kind of epiphany we long for in our own lives, but rarely have.

But Kubrick had no truck with that. Right from the beginning of his career, he seemed uneasy with this standard structure; the more distinctive his work became, the more he stretched its framework, until with 2001 it bent and broke altogether.

Abandoning a traditional structure allowed Kubrick to abandon a traditional way of seeing. In refusing to let us think about individual people, he compelled us to think about something else — the meaning of the universe itself.

Whether he succeeded is another question. When 2001 came out, it split audiences down the middle. Some people walked out, baffled by its unfathomable storyline, others endured, spending hours, days and years debating just what the story meant.

In the end, Kubrick never tells us. If his first brilliant stroke was to break with character-driven narrative, his second was to reject any attempt at explanation. Like his poetic predecessor, Keats, he believed in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.”

In an age when we all want quick answers, that makes 2001 more meaningful than ever. It tells us not just that answers may be a long time in coming, but they may never come at all.