“THE MOST TERRIFYING FACT ABOUT THE UNIVERSE,” said Stanley Kubrick in 1968, “is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent.” It was a cold fact, he argued, we would be wise to face. For, “if we come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
I've been rereading this and any number of Kubrick's remarks in the wake of his death last Sunday on March 7 — feeling anything but indifferent. Books about him fill my library. A Clockwork Orange opened a month after I entered film school in 1971, and I saw it over a dozen times that year, eager to understand everything about it, and Kubrick. His technique was jaw-dropping in its precision — I knew just enough about lenses, cameras and film stocks to see in a lightning flash that he was as much in command of his technical musculature as a great dancer. Moreover, his world-view at age 43 meshed seamlessly with my own at 18 — a hatred of authority so passionate it overturned church, state, right wing, left wing, pomposity and propriety of every stripe. News articles about Kubrick said he was five years younger than my father, but as I caught up with Paths of Glory that spring, revisiting Dr. Strangelove and 2001, I felt I was in the presence of someone ideally my own age. A fellow student not of the university, but of the universe, a grown man who shunned haircuts and wore one of seven identical rumpled suits every day, a recluse tinkering with state-of-the-art gizmos and pondering the fate of the world. That's the life for me, I remember thinking — and now that I'm in my mid-40s, owner of two rumpled suits, I can see how profoundly Kubrick molded my world-view. What's more, when I see his films, I feel 18 again. Not immature, but exposed to an all-powerful nucleus in my own psyche that can melt God and government in one gust — a molten core with which Kubrick, in his genius, never lost contact.
“I thought the men died well today,” says a pompous general over dinner, at the climax of Paths of Glory — seven words that sum up the insanity of war without need of further embellishment. “Gentlemen!” hollers the flustered U.S. president in Dr. Strangelove. “You can't fight in here. This is the War Room!” History repeats itself in Kubrick, first as tragedy, then as farce. “Perhaps you should relax, Dave,” says HAL, the malevolent computer, softly pleading for its life in 2001. “Perhaps you would like a nice cup of coffee.”
The death of HAL is one of the most poignant and disturbing in movies. The astronaut dismembering him breathes loudly as he goes about his work, a minute galaxy of colored lights twinkling in the curve of his visor. One by one, the tiny rectangular slabs that contain HAL's consciousness and, thus, life spring forth from their smooth sockets — discreet, deliberate visual echoes of the monolithic slab driving the story. HAL fades into imbecility by plummeting degrees and ends life singing, “A bicycle built for two.” It's typical of Kubrick's wit that a Victorian love song should be transformed into a creepy hymn to technology. What's fascinating, ironic and still more disturbing is that this act of murder sets the stage for enormous transcendence. Having disposed of his mortal enemy (a man-made enemy, at that), the astronaut passes through a psychedelic star gate and emerges reborn, a new creature. Is Kubrick saying that murder is next to godliness? That our creations are disposable playthings, even when they take on lives of their own? Or is he suggesting that all of us are playthings, infinitely disposable, our killings and our own deaths a question of blind choice vs. blind chance? None of the above?
“I tried,” Kubrick once famously told Playboy, “to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content, just as music does.” The astronaut's transformation is so nonverbal, so provocative to our imaginations (we never see the extraterrestrial beings, only sense their presence) that one doesn't “watch” 2001, one lives through it. You can search all day for a single meaning in A Clockwork Orange — or Barry Lyndon, or The Shining, or Full Metal Jacket — only to come up against a viper's tangle of tensions and disturbing agonies that can never be reduced to any one idea. Ideas are what proliferate in arguments with friends once the films are over. This is why even the most sympathetic admirers often warm to his work only on repeated viewings.
CRITICS REFER HABITUALLY TO KUBRICK'S “COLDNESS,” but I think the word is misplaced. His passions are sublimated — again and again, Kubrick strives to face the universe in its indifference, organizing people and events not to manipulate feeling, but to reveal that which feels true. Like Jean-Luc Godard, like David Mamet, Kubrick distills abstractions into concrete dramatic moments that don't advertise emotion so much as let it breathe. The beauty in Kubrick's work is born of a fierce desire to break new ground, to score not emotionally but viscerally, at a primal level where the mind, heart and viscera connect. To come upon Jack Torrance as he pinballs through the frozen corridors of The Shining, bullying his wife and child and destroying himself from within, is to inhabit him, hypnotized, trapped in the heart of a civilized explorer who took a wrong turn at the abyss and came back an ape. Kubrick's legendary endless retakes are efforts to get at the truth, to push his actors through an inner gate where they cease acting, make unforeseeable discoveries and, like the astronaut, become new creatures.
This is a fairly mystical agenda for an avowed atheist, but it's a paradox Kubrick embraced with a contagious passion. 2001 may be the greatest religious epic ever made, precisely because it so refuses to cheat the physical nature of the universe with the trick footprint of a ready-made deity. “The God concept is at the heart of 2001,” Kubrick said. Once one accepts that the universe is so vast, he suggests, it's possible to conceive that if we met a life form superior to our own we might easily mistake it for a supreme being, and nothing in our limited senses or intelligence would allow us to contradict this perception. On one hand, Kubrick offers us a contemporary model of transcendence. On the other, by being so faithful to the natural laws of physical reality, he invites us to be skeptical of all authority, even when it appears to be divine. Ironically — owing to his astounding creative autonomy — it's been fairly easy these past 30 years to mistake Kubrick himself for a species of deity.
It's hard to believe he's dead. Couldn't he have at least stuck around until 2001? True to his often breathtaking clarity of purpose, he died within days of delivering his newest and perhaps most ambitious film, Eyes Wide Shut: a project he has talked about since 2001 — I mean, 1968 — and once described as an effort at detonating narrative altogether.
We shall see. At the very least, we shall experience it viscerally. In any case, bless Kubrick for having been, and long live what he lived for: art. Passionate, precise, consciously realized, uncompromised. The universe may be indifferent, but nature answers with genius.