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Hold It Against Me

The United States of Stanley Kubrick – 

Aspects of ourselves that we don’t know how to care for give rise to the complex patterns of distraction that we call our personalities. This notion came to me courtesy of Brittany Spears in a small burst of insight that happened also to illuminate the closing moments of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a film that has always haunted me. I was surfing around on Facebook and I happened to catch a clip of some Marines from the 266 Rein Division lip-synching Brittany’s song Hold it Against Me on a supply base “somewhere in Afghanistan.” One of my characteristic distractions is to locate something conservatives (or the military) are doing, and use it to climb up on my tub and start thumping. This is a habit-of-distraction I picked up as a child of the 1960s, and because conservatives have been ascendant ever since, it has served me quite well. I found it interesting to track how this critical impulse of mine reacted to the immediate vitality of the 266 Rein Division dancers.

Watching these homesick kids bust all those familiar music video moves will strike you as adorable or annoyingly vapid depending on your mood. I suspect, however, that the Corps is only too happy about this kind of R&R activity – these frisky youngsters will make many want to sign up and ship out right away. I got into trouble in the comments section on Facebook when I gave voice to some qualms about the context of this little piece of social media – an armed conflict we have no business waging, a conflict defined by staggering high-tech violence and civilian casualties. I also mentioned the fact that these kinds of fun-loving, extra-curricular video antics have been forever tainted by the depravity of Abu Graib. And yet I found myself honestly conflicted. Homesick kids having fun and expressing a kind of erotic joy in a collaborative performance piece; a surreal expression the infantilizing effects of American culture in an era of global capitalism – both statements embody equally valid responses to the video.

I’ve often had a kind of delayed reaction to the films of Stanley Kubrick, who is an anomaly in the pantheon of great American directors. Without question a major artist, Kubrick distilled the psychological and cultural contradictions of our time into a series of intellectually intricate and formally brilliant, multi-million dollar, studio-sponsored art films. From The Killing 1956 through Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, Kubrick’s films explore the kind of double-bind Freud laid out in his late work Civilization and Its Discontents. Man is the creature who must repress his libidinal energies in order to co-exist, but doing so makes life into a pointless charade. Our sublimated energies give rise to technologies that only amplify our disconnection from experience, leaving us as dissatisfied as ever, especially when our repressed violence returns in the form of devastating conflicts. The best we can do, given our situation, the story goes, is to endlessly distract ourselves, and here, at least, technology is our friend.

The visual motifs Kubrick deploys to explore this fertile set of ideas retain a remarkable consistency – the Classical architecture of the chateau in Paths of Glory returns in the statuary of Claire Quilty’s home in Lolita…and in the ornate décor of the eerie after-world that closes 2001…again in the theater fight in which Alex and his droogs wage war against Billy’s rival gang in Clockwork Orange…throughout the 17th century European settings of Barry Lyndon…the Colonial buildings of Saigon in Full Metal Jacket…and the Boschian mansion where the oddly non-erotic orgy takes place in Eyes Wide Shut. The “Ophuls-ian” tracking shots through the maze of trenches in Paths of Glory repeats in the chase through the labyrinth of The Shining, Nicholson’s Jack Torrance limping after his son in an Oedipal rage that shows up somewhere in every Kubrick film, chin tucked, eyes gazing up in a rictus of primal aggression.

Kubrick’s work is devoid of lyricism and he was uninterested in dramatic narrative, or character as it’s usually understood. Kubrick’s interest was the formal beauty of his films, which often achieve the internal integrity of a work of plastic art. They are art films, truly, and they achieve the object-ness of a painting or a sculpture while playing with the temporal and performative aspects of cinema. I wish Kubrick’s films seemed dated, but I can’t count how many times the lurid characters who shuffled through the corridors of power in the Bush-Cheney regime reminded me of Strangelove’s primitive Generals Buck Turdgison or Jack D. Ripper, or the smug Joker from Full Metal Jacket, or the self-satisfied yuppie doctor played by Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut or even, in rare cases, the noble but deluded Colonel Dax who Kirk Douglas brought to life in Paths of Glory.

If Kubrick is vulnerable to criticism it’s that his work is almost autistic in its chilly formalism – he’s all shell, no mollusk. But if you want to write him off you must at least consider his continued relevance. This relevance was cemented when I saw a report on the infamous meeting in June of wealthy conservatives in the Rocky mountains. Hosted by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire Hardy Boys of the American right, the group gathered at the Ritz-Carlton Resort at Bachelor Gulch, a dead ringer for the Overlook in Kubrick’s masterful 1982 horror film The Shining. The Koch brother’s faux grassroots Tea Party movement strikes me as the sociological embodiment of Jack Torrance, played memorably by Jack Nicholson. In thrall to the ghosts of oligarchies past, and driven crazy by an indolent paranoia, the Tea Party limps after poor Barak Obama through the frozen labyrinth of our political discourse dragging an axe.

There’s one camera move in particular that seemed to unlock The Shining for me. It’s about two-thirds of the way through. Wendy goes looking for Jack and she finds his psychotic “work” all typed up beside his typewriter. As she looks at the one line of prose Jack has repeated for page after page, we cut to a SteadyCam shot that pulls out from behind a pillar. The camera moves forward subjectively for a few steps and then the figure of Jack detaches itself from the field of view. The subjective shot has shifted into something quite eerie and odd – we have become the “Overlook” hotel. And this begins to explain quite a lot. The scene unfolds and Wendy knocks Jack unconscious and drags him into the walk-in freezer. A short while later one of the “ghosts” unlocks the freezer. Again, something has shifted. We, in our ghostly form within the film, have become corporeal, able to do things like open freezers so that the “horror story” can continue towards its climax. What Kubrick is commenting on directly here is the aggressive bloodlust that drives audiences into theaters to see “horror” films. Our concealed sadism wants to be satisfied and Kubrick wants to draw that out and capture it in the act, so to speak, in order to show us what lies beneath this particular form of distraction.

What is it, finally, that we are so intent on avoiding? If my own experience is any guide, beneath our distractions we can usually locate an amorphous unease, an undefined feeling of lack. As I’ve noted before in this column, writers like the historian David Loy view this feeling of lack as a major player in the course of history, appearing as the Original Sin of traditional Christian cultures, the alienation cited by Marxists, and the dukkha or “suffering” described by Buddhists as our fundamental challenge. If I resist the impulse to disengage via my characteristic distractions and instead allow my attention to settle down, I often discover that this feeling takes somatic form in some specific part of my body. If I rest there long enough a shift happens, the sense of lack opening out into a kind of quiet but expansive feeling of joy. What had been a source of visceral fear, a dark ground common to jealousy, hatred, greed – all the contracted states that reach up and seize us in the course of daily life – now becomes a portal to a vibrant immediacy.

I think again of Full Metal Jacket, which examines the process by which a human being is transformed into an agent of destruction. The film is loosely based on the book by Gustave Hasford, but as usual, Kubrick has taken the script in unexpected directions. The first half of the film is devoted to the institutional sadism of Marine Corps training, complete with an Oedipal murder and suicide. In the film’s second half we find ourselves in Vietnam on the eve of the Tet offensive. Mathew Modine’s Joker, who has secured a cushy job with the press office, finds himself on the frontlines with a platoon that is gradually reduced as it battles to regain lost territory from the Vietcong. Like the Marines in the Brittany Spears lip synch, these characters do not come off as deluded in any special way. Kubrick has gone to great lengths to establish their humdrum humanity. They find themselves in Vietnam for a complex of reasons (including the draft), many of them economic, as do the Marines in the Rein Corps video forty years later.

The film closes on an extended sequence in which Joker’s platoon gets pinned down in a warehouse district by sniper fire. As man after man gets picked off, it becomes clear that Kubrick has crafted this sequence to incite our aggression toward the unseen sniper. After losing several soldiers, Joker and a marine named Animal-Mother gain entry to the building and discover that the sniper is, in fact, a Vietnamese girl. Wounded, chased to ground, the girl lies on her back, plaintive, utterly vulnerable. The shot is eerie, intimate, and almost unbearably sad, the two Americans gazing down as the girl writhes in pain, begging for death. Our galloping aggression has suddenly been met by an equally powerful, equally primal compassion, and the resulting dissonance is what completes the “full metal jacket,” our slippage past any possible structure of stable, coherent values, any mental construct that distracts us from the full vulnerability of the immediate moment. Kubrick then cuts to a shot of the surviving marines marching through the night across the rubble that once was a city singing, in unison, the Mickey Mouse Club song. The rubble the Marines march across is the final ruin of Western culture, that elaborate cityscape of intricately justified distractions and evasions keeping dark oceans of lack at bay. The ruins are the work of a freedom long denied and pushed away, as implacable as the blankness of the supply base of the 266 Rein Division. With Kubrick, we have gotten more than we bargained for, those of us who are so accustomed to using our values as the basis for distraction.

Comments

  1. Chris Kelley says:

    The connection between the jaunty, fun loving marines “somewhere in Afghanistan” and all that’s wrong with these on-going wars simply can’t be undone, regardless how innocent the dancing or removed the boys are from the others; having fun in an unjust war just looks ghoulish. It’s the same inherent vulgarity that exists anytime we behold the makers of war taking pleasure in the midst of the horror. Whether it’s the officer class waltzing at Golipoli, photos of the commandant’s family picnics at Treblinka, or the guffawing, “thumbs up” images from Abu Ghraib.

  2. Guy Zimmerman says:

    I don’t really disagree with you, Mr. Kelly. What gives me pause is how an Afghani civilian would view my own qualms about the video as a part of the same oppressive entity as the dancing youngsters. I’m not sure that’s true, but the notion is haunting me.

  3. Guy,

    I don’t really have a debate hat on, because I agree with, and find myself edified, by your analysis of the unique Kubrick films. I’ve seen all the films you comment on and generally agree with you, so sorry for no smashing fists of “no no no” here. As for the PR efforts by our modern army, staffed with innocents and manipulated by careerists, it make me too sad to comment. There’s a loss of direction there. I thought about you when I ran into Wes and Hank at Sharon Yablon’s (very groovy) stagings this week at theatre/NOTE –

  4. Hmmm, might be my favorite of your TQ pieces. I want to take this in a different direction. I haven’t seen an American film is quite some time that even attempted a subconscious exploration. It’s almost like our films reflect the current anti-science, anti-intellecualism of the right. It truly is what you see is what you get. The thing about Kubrick is even if you are a ding bat you kinda know that some shadow of your psyche is being illuminated. Its why they have such staying power. He gives us what we want but he makes us hold the gun.

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