A People with Passion correspondence
Rob Ager, film analyst and Kubrick decoder
Interview conducted October 2010
Good evening. Earlier this month, ReadJack.com recorded an interview via email correspondence with film analyst and Kubrick expert Rob Ager, at a distance of nearly 4000 miles from Chicago. It took pretty much no time at all for our words to reach Ager’s computer in Liverpool, but this time delay has been deleted from this recording.
JACK M SILVERSTEIN
You have written/produced reviews on films by many directors – Scorsese, Hitchcock, Coen Brothers, Spielberg, Tarantino, Ridley Scott, Lynch, etc. – and they are interesting pieces of analysis. But while you have not repeated any of those directors, you have covered five Kubrick films. Additionally, your Kubrick reviews have a depth and urgency unmatched in your other reviews. That is a personal opinion, but one backed up by your Youtube view counts for each “Part I” video:
Describe for me your evolution as a film reviewer, and what role Kubrick’s work played in that evolution…
How did your emphasis on subliminal messaging in cinema take shape? Did it start with Kubrick, and then did that perspective color your approach toward all other films? Did it start with an independent interest in steganography, followed by exposure to Kubrick, thus heightening your interest in both? Or perhaps your viewing experience with Kubrick and your relationship with his work was similar to mine: I was exposed to Strangelove, 2001, Clockwork, Shining, FMJ, and EWS between the ages of 13 and 18. The only one I dug full-on from the jump was Dr. Strangelove… I tended to have the standard responses to his other films (Shining was too weird, FMJ was unbalanced with a boring second half, 2001 was unnecessarily opaque, etc.), but there were elements to his films that always drew me back for another viewing… I felt an unexplainable compulsion to watch his films again and again until finally I had the one viewing where everything clicked.
So… start at the beginning: your first experience with Kubrick, your first experience in film review, your background in subliminal messaging, and the sequence of those coming together to form these powerful reviews…
Kubrick’s films have been the centrepiece of my film reviews, but my study of his work evolved alongside my studying of not just other films, but also the studying of psychology, history, politics and economics, and most importantly my personal experiences of writing, producing, directing and editing films. All those factors grew together simultaneously and merged into each other.
From childhood Kubrick was always my favourite director. The Shining fascinated and terrified me at the age of seven and 2001 had the same effect in my early teens. I had no conscious suspicion that those films were laced with hidden concepts, but they invoked many feelings and stirred my thought process. The same was also true of other films I’ve since written about such as Blade Runner.
[JACK NOTE: I originally had Rob’s Blade Runner Part I clip here, but he has taken it down in order to sell it as a DVD in part of an Ager collection. To get it, click here! Instead, enjoy Ager’s take on The Dude from The Big Lebowski.]
By my mid-twenties I’d already read a lot of psychology books with a particular interest in effective therapy and hypnotic communication, though I never originally intended to transfer that knowledge into film – I worked in mental health and social care and was simply trying to increase my understanding for that purpose.
When it came to producing my first short film, I wanted to infuse the finished piece with some of that magic from my favourite directors, Kubrick and Hitchcock. While writing the script and planning the visual direction I kept asking myself how those master auteurs would communicate what I wanted to communicate. I started picking favourite scenes by Kubrick and Hitchcock and studying them in detail to find out the most effective camera angles, lighting techniques etc. This was really the beginning of a different filmmaking path that would come years later.
After making several short films, funded out of my own pocket, I hit a financial crisis and couldn’t afford to make more films for a period of about four years. This was, in a way, a blessing. I began studying the works of the masters in more depth, because it wasn’t costly to do, and I wrote a lot of short scripts. It was around this time that I began to pick up on hidden themes in two of my favourite films – Alien and The Shining. Alien was based around the sense of horror people sometimes feel regarding the human reproduction system and The Shining was based around historical repression of the genocide of Native Americans. At the same time I was very disappointed with the onslaught of conveyor belt movies being churned out by the film industry and felt that something was being lost. Intellectual and creative standards were declining and the general public seemed to be accepting it. On that basis I wanted to do something that would enhance public appreciation of film as an art form rather than just using film and television as aesthetic escapism. So I produced a two-part video on the subject of The Shining and posted it on Youtube. At the time it was purely an experiment to find our how people would react.
The response was very interesting. View counts shot into tens of thousands within a few weeks. Ratings were very positive and thank you emails poured in. At the same time a small number of people reacted negatively and sometimes with vicious hostility, particularly those who believed I was being anti-American.
I followed this up with a video about Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The film was incredibly political to begin with and had already caused great controversy with Kubrick being character assassinated by journalists such as M. Hechinger. I posted that video knowing that it would get a polarized response. As with The Shining, the negative feedback was limited to a small portion of the audience, but they were equally scathing. John Brownlee of Wired magazine wrote two pieces in response, initially praising some of the interpretations I’d made and then attempting to label me as a conspiracy theorist, even though the book and film were about a government conspiring to brainwash people, and completely disregarding the unexpected secret society themes in Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut. This was a typical example of the Ostrich Syndrome present in much of the mainstream media, in which even a person who speaks about other people’s beliefs in conspiracies without attacking them is labeled by journalists as a believer in those conspiracies. This schizophrenic mindset on the subject is summed up in the last statement of Brownlee’s article, “Yeah, it’s nutty, but despite Ager’s weirdo conspiracy theories, he does make a convincing case that Kubrick may at least have shared his theories. He points out several moments (one, in the prison yard, extremely interesting) from Clockwork Orange where the Stonemason pyramid is clearly visible.”
By this point I’d been inundated with requests for a video analysis of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I dreaded the thought as the film was shrouded in so much visual mystery. Like most people, all my viewings of the film had been tainted by my pondering over concepts of alien intelligence and the origins and future of the human species. I decided to drop those ideas and just pay attention to what was on screen. Kubrick began the film with a black screen playing a piece of music. This came before the MGM title even kicked in. I asked myself, “What’s the point of showing an empty black screen for so long?” and then the correlation between rectangular black screen and monolith hit me. A quick scan through the film revealed a bombardment of visual details verifying this to have been Kubrick’s intention. My mind was blown. Kubrick had developed a sophisticated conceptual encoding system and applied it to his film work, and the messages he’d encoded had largely remained hidden from the broader public awareness until after his death. This explained the secrecy of his lifestyle and the enigma of his perfectionist, endless takes of arbitrary shots. His entire body of film work was now open to investigation.
I quickly posted a video called The Meaning of the Monolith Revealed, which has become the most popular of all my videos – the first posting received over 100,000 viewings and the second posting on my current Youtube channel has had over 250,000 viewings. John Brownlee has remained silent on the subject of my film analysis ever since.
From there on my film analysis took two directions, Kubrick films and non-Kubrick films. The main difference is that Kubrick’s films from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Eyes Wide Shut feature distinct double narratives – the surface narrative being a rough translation of the original source novel material and the hidden narrative containing Kubrick’s personal thoughts and insights regarding the human condition. Most of the non-Kubrick films I’ve reviewed are wonderful pieces of work, featuring deeply embedded hidden themes, but few of them reach the same level of conceptual complexity and psychological insight Kubrick worked on.
A factor that has played its part in the development of my film analysis articles is that I now add a great deal more source references regarding the production histories of the films. This has made the articles much more accurate and convincing for people who would otherwise think I was projecting my own presuppositions onto a largely blank canvas, but it’s also meant that it takes me more time to produce new articles.
Regarding the view counts you’ve cited, my video analysis of The Matrix, Mad Max 2, The Exorcist and The Thing were around the 100,000 mark, being equally popular to most of my Kubrick videos. However, those videos are now only available on my DVD sets to bring in funds so I can carry on my work with the website.
At the moment I’m very close to finishing my expanded analysis article regarding A Clockwork Orange. Most of the chapters are posted on my website and I’m confident it’s the most thorough breakdown of a Kubrick film that I’ve written yet. Though the analysis isn’t finished, an article called The Great Stanley Kubrick Illuminati Conspiracy has already appeared on Cracked.com, attempting to ridicule some of the concepts I’ve proposed, while mixing them with a variety of other, not so well researched, interpretations of films and television. Several of the still shots from Kubrick’s work are lifted directly from my article, yet I am not personally named nor is my website mentioned. The interesting thing is that one chapter in my article ascribes certain visual set and poster design choices by Kubrick as being metaphors of the Great Seal of the United States, yet the author of the article, Jacopo della Quercia, tries to veer discussion of such details in the direction of The Illuminati as a justification for disregarding the notion of hidden messages in Kubrick’s films as baseless conspiracy theories. Perhaps he didn’t link to my article because it doesn’t support his “conspiracy theory” theory. At the same time, the very first link in his text on Kubrick takes the reader to chapter 8 of my 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Jacopo agreeing that Kubrick used the HAL 9000 computer as a representation of IBM. Like with the journalist at Wired magazine, Jacopo is giving conflicting messages about his personal opinion of the subject.
It’s taken thousands of hours of work over the last four years to produce the website content, but the view counts, ratings and comments on Youtube, and thousands of inspired email responses have spurred me on.
Let’s pause on 2001 for a moment, because for your film analysis work, and for Kubrick’s work as a filmmaker and storyteller, this seems to be the key picture in his oeuvre. You bring up the film’s opening black screen, and how it relates to your revised method of analysis in which you simply catalog what the viewer sees on screen and hears on the sound track. Visuals and audio — the base root of cinema. In this case, we are seeing “nothing,” and we are hearing music. A great deal of my frustration with the film when I first saw it – and, we can assume, the frustration of many viewers – stemmed from Kubrick’s total insistence to tell his story in a manner to which we are unaccustomed. Opening with three minutes of a seemingly empty black screen accompanied by unsettling music is just the start: the film is famous for its lack of dialogue, its banal dialogue (as Ebert wrote: “There are few conversations that could not be handled with title cards”), its consciously-stifling sequences, its multiple protagonists, its “non-human” protagonists, and even, as reviewer/screenwriter Todd Alcott suggests, its non-present protagonists.
I mentioned earlier my gnawing feeling that something was happening in Kubrick’s movies that I was not seeing, what turned out to be the “double narratives” as you call them. I remember first getting that feeling with the red bathroom scene in The Shining; if all Kubrick was doing was adapting a horror book to make a traditional horror film, then Grady’s use of the term “nigger” seemed way out of place. The scene of Dr. Floyd’s speech at the council meeting seemed similarly challenging and suggestive that, to quote Dylan, “something is happening, and you don’t know what it is.”
Three minutes of “nothing” was spectacularly jarring for audiences in 1968, especially on the heals of a fairly straight-forward narrative in Dr. Strangelove, yet it continues to baffle, frustrate, and even anger viewers in 2010, even some who enjoy Kubrick’s other films. I remember watching 2001 in high school and fast-forwarding the opening three minutes, and now I see that someone has uploaded the “entire” movie onto Youtube with the first three minutes chopped out. The crazy thing is that even back when I did not fully enjoy Kubrick’s work, I thought that the entire HAL sequence was brilliant, I thought that Strangelove was a work of genius, I thought that Clockwork was always potent even in sections I did not enjoy, I thought The Shining was compelling for strange reasons that I could not explain, and I thought that the first half of FMJ was as strong a piece of work as anything else the man did.
I bet there are a lot of viewers who have had similar experiences with his work, and that being the case, why do you think there are more viewers willing to fast forward through 2001’s opening three minutes (or just laugh off Grady’s racism, or just take FMJ’s second half as lazy, cliche, etc.) than there are viewers willing to work to find the meaning and value in these challenging stories? In other words, why is it easier/more tempting to assume that Kubrick is a stubborn filmmaker who “doesn’t understand humans” and who creates “pretentious and self-indulgent art house films” when it is just as reasonable to assume that he is a brilliant filmmaker who knows how to “deliver the goods” (as indicated by Strangelove, Paths of Glory, the HAL sequence, the Jack-with-an-axe sequence, and the first half of FMJ) and is thus purposefully making challenging films that will, to quote your 2001 monolith review, “inspire us to think deeply about our own origins as a species, and about where we are heading in the distant future”?
(Incidentally, it seems relevant to point out, I think that your description of 2001 that I just quoted is a reasonable summation of all Kubrick films.)
Having experienced hundreds of viewings of Kubrick films before consciously deciding to dissect them, I’d say the first reason for the willful ignorance, for lack of a better term, that you describe, is a lack of perceptual operating tools. It would never have occurred to me prior to becoming a filmmaker to actually sit with a pad of paper and write down details of individual scenes for cross-referencing. People are accustomed to films being designed in a way that accommodates their automated perceptual processing. Not only that but they, through a lifetime of reinforcement, expect films to meet their demands of perceptual familiarity. When a film challenges the viewer to break their automated code they don’t know what to do mentally and emotionally. Those whose intellectual vanity is fragile curse the film and its makers. Others are simply fascinated and will rewatch the enigmatic film, happy that they are being communicated with on a deeper level that they don’t consciously understand – trusting the filmmaker is essential in this respect. I think some people distrust unusual filmmakers as they would an advertiser who wishes to sell them a product they otherwise wouldn’t want. Without wishing to sound patronising to anyone out there, I think extremely cynical people are the ones who most resist opportunities to expand their perception through film.
Part of the big mystery regarding Kubrick’s hidden narratives is “who exactly was he hoping to communicate with?” Many people have emailed me asking why he went to such efforts for so few to get the messages. There are some clues to be found in the film of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its accompanying book.
The apes leap about the monolith in confusion and fear, just as many people reacted with similar emotions to the film itself. A few apes gradually overcome their fear and one sums up the courage to touch the monolith. His fear subsides and the other apes follow by example until they all appreciate the monolith for the gift that it is. In terms of audience reaction to the film, enough of us have broken through enough of the film’s mysteries that the confusion of the wider audience is now beginning to subside in a similar way.
The descriptions offered in the book are more detailed. The monolith tests the abilities of each individual ape, partially by showing images on its surface to test the apes’ pattern recognition and processing potential. After these tests it selects a handful of key apes and works with them. The enhanced apes then use their newfound abilities to help the remainder of the apes build their abilities in turn, just as in the film a baby ape is being shown a bone (tool / weapon) by an adult ape for future use. We don’t have enough information to say for certain how much of the book was conceived by Clarke or Kubrick, but according to Kubrick’s biographies only Kubrick had the rights to declare the book finished. He also had a 60% profit claim on the novel.
In the film there is an important related sequence, in which hostesses pass around monolith shaped dinner trays while Floyd is asleep (we even see one floating like a monolith when Floyd awakens). One of the hostesses is watching martial arts training footage that is being played on a widescreen window. The sequence seems pointless, but in the context of the monolith / screen metaphor I believe this was Kubrick telling those who broke the film’s code to pass on the message to others and that as a result the monolith / film would nurture people’s abilities as it did with the apes.
I believe Kubrick’s initial target audience for the hidden narratives was other filmmakers. Without having made films myself I would still be baffled by his work. It’s possible that others in the industry have studied and understood Kubrick’s films in great detail long before I started writing about them. Certain details from Kubrick’s work have popped up repeatedly in other films, for example CRM114 and the line “see you next Wednesday.” The latter was used in An American Werewolf in London, my favorite John Landis film. AAWIL also featured a great emphasis on dream sequences, which are essential to breaking the hidden codes in Kubrick’s work. Kubrick also developed a strong enough relationship with Steven Spielberg to do something he’d never done before – pass on the directing duties of one of his projects, the underrated sci-fi epic A.I. Spielberg experimented with double narratives in E.T., which is also reviewed on my site. Not only does E.T. use a lot of Kubrick-like metaphors, a portion of Also Sprach Zarathustra (famous from 2001) is heard as the alien creature leaves Earth. Several Pixar films of recent years are packed with themes and metaphors plucked directly from Kubrick’s work. WALL-E for example.
So while I personally have been offering explicit verbal descriptions of Kubrick’s hidden code online, there may have been dozens or even thousands of professionals in the film industry who’ve quietly got Kubrick’s messages and been influenced in their work accordingly.
That’s interesting that you bring up the unspoken mystery of Kubrick’s intended audience, along with the parallels between the monolith-ape/human relationship and the 2001-film goer relationship. What you are saying, of course, is that Kubrick is the entity of higher intelligence that sends the monolith (in this case, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey) to Earth to challenge those who receive it, ultimately pushing them to a new consciousness. You are also arguing that like the monolith, the hidden narratives in 2001 specifically and all post-2001 films in general were, to quote the film, “deliberately buried.” The curious repetition of that line of dialogue by Dr. Floyd, with that strange camera angle on Floyd set up behind his colleague’s chair… the whole scene reaches a sort of overt subtlety, which is really rather fascinating.
That said, if your theory of Kubrick’s double-narratives is true (and I believe that it is), then while he was constructing his films, Kubrick must have felt that his deepest collaborators were not only his co-filmmakers in the present, but those students of his work in the future (our present) who would do the heavy lifting in terms of deconstructing his code, i.e. people like yourself. In On Writing, Stephen King wrote, (and I’m paraphrasing) “Writing is time travel.” As you progressed on this personal journey of understanding, did you feel the sensation of communication across time, a feeling of connection between yourself in maybe 2006, and Kubrick working alone in his office one night in, say, 1966?
Absolutely. I’m quite saddened that I’ve never met Stanley and never will, but at the same time the process of decoding his films feels very much like having an in-depth private conversation with the man himself. He converses on many different subjects, he tells jokes, he challenges you to learn the hard way as he did – through research and cross-referencing. As I’ve written more in depth studies of his work I’ve gradually found myself able to reverse engineer many of his work methods on both the large and small scale. For example, in researching the expanded Clockwork Orange analysis I challenged myself to predict in advance which details of the film would and wouldn’t be in the book. My expectations were frequently matched. That kind of experience almost feels like getting to know Kubrick on a very personal level.
There’s an interesting paradox now at work. Though Kubrick frequently spoke of the universe and humanity in aetheist terms, he has ironically been resurrected at a symbolic level – not as some supernatural spirit, but as an artistic and intellectual force that communicates through millions of copies of his films that are sitting on peoples DVD shelves across the globe. The singing monolith is the mind of Stanley – a doorway to a new creative enlightenment for those willing to walk through it.
Also, I’m glad you raised the topic of Stephen King’s book On Writing which I also read and enjoyed. Although it can be viewed that Stanley’s use of King’s novel The Shining was a manipulative, or even disrespectful, tactic to use someone else’s literary work as a cover story for one of his own hidden narratives, I like the idea that the emergence of The Shining’s hidden narrative to a wide audience will break those illusionary chains – allowing King’s novel to co-exist on its own terms without having to compete with a largely unrelated film that shares the same name.
We are headed toward some pretty significant questions, then, concerning Kubrick’s purpose for his double-narratives. The alien/higher intelligence plot of 2001 suggests that the life forces responsible for the monolith’s placement were using it as a guiding beacon for human intelligence and evolution. The monolith points the ape toward using the bone as a tool, and later plants a monolith on the moon to point Man toward Jupiter, and still later, uses the monolith more ambiguously as a guide into the stargate and whatever else is going on in the film’s final 20 some minutes. (Let’s leave that untouched for now.)
The monolith is basically leading mankind toward its own evolution, or, if you want to be less definitive since we are dealing heavily with symbolism and hidden meaning: The monolith is a cinematic device, a physical representation of the mystery of evolution and, in turn, the universe/God/fate etc. Without exploring the tangent of why Mankind would even need a guide to evolve, let’s just point out that there is a very simple formula here: a life force of greater means and intelligence is using a mysterious instrument to push its inferiors toward its own evolution with, ultimately, the lower life force developing until it can join the higher one in a more powerful state of existence. (We can assume that whatever sent the monolith is closer in evolution to the “star child” than to Man.) If we accept your monolith-as-cinema screen theory, and the even more specific extension of the monolith-as-2001 theory (and I’m willing to roll with you on those), then we have to ask what portion of Kubrick’s intelligence/existence did he consider to be “higher”? Where was he taking us? It could be that Kubrick’s monolith (2001) is simply a puzzle for puzzle’s sake – that the monolith leads Man from ape to star child, while 2001 leads viewers from simple viewers to master viewers. I suppose this is a reasonable parallel, since the difference between ape and man or man and star child is merely the manner of existence, not the state of existence.
But based on the political and social content of his films, even in the surface narratives (warfare, class, sexuality, relationship of nations…), I have to suspect that the “puzzles for the sake of puzzles” theory is false, and that he is giving us these code-breaking abilities in order to deliver some sort of information that he deems valuable. It is here that we come to the “conspiracy theory” portion of this discussion, but again, I refer back to my new reading of the “deliberately buried” scene: once you start to crack the code (and I believe you have stated this somewhere in your work), seeing the patterns seems almost TOO easy. They become, like I said, overtly subtle.
The terms “Illuminati” and “New World Order” are tossed around quite a bit online, and obviously they are prominent in your reviews of Clockwork and EWS. These terms tend to hide the main issues at work here by sparking debates on the existence of the Illuminati – of this secret society or that one – rather than the larger ideas represented by the Illuminati, whether that particular group exists or not. And when people start debating the existence of the Illuminati, it is much easier to pass Kubrick off as a “nut,” because all you have to do is argue that “secret societies don’t exist” or “the Illuminati don’t exist,” or whatever and Kubrick is kaput.
The smart approach – and you have touched on this as well – is taking a broader view of the effects of a group like the Illuminati, or simply the structure needed for one to exist. That is, the pyramidal societal hierarchy that is maintained by warfare, be it physical war between nations or class war or social war from a government to “its people” or the war on information or whatever else. That basic structure – as defined by Orwell as the inner party (around 2% of the pop.), the outer party, and the Proles (around 85%) – is pretty obviously present in our society, I would say, as is the fact that we as humans, and Americans in particular, (I said it, not you…), reside in a state of near-constant warfare. (To take it back to Orwell and 1984again, the great quote: “It’s all wars.”)
This critique of war-structured societies in general and the United States in particular existed in his earlier work, most notably in Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, though it is reasonable to say that he “got away with them” because the former was, on the surface, skewering the French and German, while the latter was a comedy, and one about a highly public concern.
But if we assume that Kubrick meant his work to challenge all people to look more critically at themselves and their society, and specifically at the function of organized warfare within that society, then it makes sense that he would code his films to provide himself with plausible deniability concerning his work’s true meaning. And yet Kubrick’s surface narratives regularly worked within the very subject matters that he seemed to be disguising. Strangelove, 2001, Clockwork, and EWS all contain official cover-ups; Strangelove, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket are war stories; EWS has a secret society; and each movie from Strangelove onward depicts European/American/Christian-based societies as violent and decadent.
The implication here seems to be that it is okay to make a movie arguing that “war is hell,” but not okay to make a movie arguing that war is anything other than a fixed-state; okay to say that warfare is “us vs. them,” and not okay to say that warfare is a leader vs. his people; okay to depict the killing of an enemy sniper, not okay to depict the gang rape of a prostitute. Going along with this, Kubrick is actually asking us to take a closer look at our own base-level assumptions about what war is, about what violence is, about what poverty is, about what racism is, etc. Or, in other words: state-sponsored warfare is no more acceptable than a man attempting to murder his family with an axe.
It makes sense, then, that Kubrick would use 2001 to transition his career from the overt to the hidden, from these grand, traditional Hollywood pictures to these ornate, complex puzzle films. He must have sensed as his life went on that he was not always going to have the comedy of Strangelove to disguise his intentions, and that if he wanted to tell the stories he wanted to tell without risking his own life or well-being, that he would have to code them. Kubrick’s coding seems also to simply be a reminder that people should examine their own lives, world, assumptions, and the surrounding structures with as much attention, skepticism, and wonder as they save for the symbols and events in cinema, and that if that were the case, much of the horrors of the world would be eliminated…
I guess there isn’t a question here… my mind started going on Kubrick and parallel meanings and hidden meanings and the purpose of the monolith, and as I started to ask you questions I realized my mind was filling them in, so a lot of statements above were originally questions.
That said, there is still something troubling about this thesis of monolith as 2001. While the monolith inspires the ape to use the bone as a tool, the ape then turns right around and uses that tool as a weapon to dominate his fellow apes. In your writing, research, and thinking, you must surely have come to this question, so I am curious to hear your thoughts on what you think Kubrick thought about humanity. After all, if we follow this line, then Kubrick is suggesting that he is giving us this monolith known as 2001: A Space Odyssey (and his body of work as a whole) to help us reach a higher intuitive intelligence and to push us to examine the social constructions inherent in our society, and yet based on that parallel, he suspects we will use this new power as a weapon against our fellow beings. If (and I realize we are now working in many assumptions), but if Kubrick wishes to use his films to guide us toward a deeper understanding of our war-structured, police-state society, yet also believes that we are destined to use these new tools as weapons against “ourselves,” why then (in your mind) would he even bother giving us this “monolith”? Why not say “fuck it, that’s where we’re headed with my help or not,” and spend the rest of his life in peace reading and writing and thinking? I can’t believe this happened, but I’ve kind of brought us right back to the “puzzle for puzzle’s sake” argument, haven’t I.
I definitely agree that Kubrick’s films aren’t just puzzles for puzzle’s sake. He wanted to affect the psychological trends of society as a whole, which isn’t unusual for artists. Art is basically communication through metaphor (multiple meaning) and communication is simply a tool for instruction and influence. Films are one of the most complex yet accessible forms of art and every film, regardless of the creator’s intention, will have some psychological influence on its viewers. A carefully constructed film can have many specific and intended influences that manifest in behavioural change, if the creators are that way inclined. To various degrees of sophistication, we find this in advertising and propaganda and even on the base level of assembly line, profit-motivated studio production.
Personally, I don’t find any pessimism in Kubrick’s work. He was highly motivated and clearly enjoyed making his films. He was full of passion, but not in the sense of blind optimism. His films explore the psychological factors that are destructive to the human race, which includes pessimism and cynicism, but they aren’t endorsements of those traits. For example, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, despite exploring the subject of conflict, both end on optimistic notes with uplifting music.
In a way it can be said that pessimistic acceptance of war and other forms of mass destruction is ultimately the factor that allows conflict to continue to plague humanity. War and destruction of the kind we’ve witnessed in the last couple of centuries isn’t natural. It requires a combination of precision technology, industrial infrastructures, massive financial support, political intention and a large degree of public support. Those last two factors are the psychological component, without which the technology for war would be inoperative.
Kubrick’s films particularly explore how the pursuit of personal advancement within power hierarchies is driven by base sexual and egotistical impulses, hence we find in films such as Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, Dr Strangelove and Barry Lyndon that protagonists seeking to advance their wealth and stature are actually trying to secure themselves easy access to multiple sexual partners. Those ambitious characters may be intelligent and manipulative on the surface, but they’re emotionally immature. Stanley didn’t just talk the talk in this way. As a talented and incredibly respected director, he could have engaged in the excesses of Hollywood stardom, but he was a devoted family man instead.
Regarding the dismissing of Kubrick’s work as conspiracy theory, I believe that the people most likely to form that judgement are the pessimists and cynics – those who are disinterested in truthful exploration of the human condition because they’re afraid of what they’ll find out about themselves and the hierarchies within which they seek to climb. They’re the type of people who wholeheartedly buy into establishment conspiracy theories such as the WMD lies that got us into the Iraq War or the insane fears of communist infiltration underpinning McCarthyism and the cold war, when in fact the pathology of the capitalist, fascist and communist establishments are virtually identical (a key theme of Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove). Admittedly, I’m turned off by the terms “illuminati” and “new world order,” but have been content to mention them in some of my Kubrick reviews because to avoid doing so would be an exercise in semantic avoidance, considering the widespread modern use of those terms. One thing that cannot be denied is that the pyramid and Eye of Providence does appear on the dollar bill, but its association to the term “illuminati” is speculative as far as I can tell. As with many religious symbols, which partially develop as a result of biosemiotic factors, the Eye of Providence doesn’t historically belong to any single group or ideology. It has been adopted many times by groups often having no direct connection to each other, just as the Swastika has. Kubrick’s visual depictions of the pyramid and Eye of Providence may just refer to the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, which can’t be classed as conspiracy theory because we all know the Fed exists. It’s also an excellent visual metaphor of the basic concept of elitism in all its forms, be they religious, corporate or political.
People with truly pessimistic views of humanity don’t become great artists as Kubrick did. They become self-centred, materialistic, career climbers – licking the boots of those who provide their pay cheques and those who guard the ladders of pecking order advancement. Not only must they develop a false exterior of good moral intentions to win a succession of promotions – by taking such a dismissive view of humanity in general they’re dismissing their own humanity and are subject to ongoing subconscious conflict with their suppressed selves. They become empty vessels like the slave mannequins of A Clockwork Orange or the masked ball room figures of Eyes Wide Shut.
There is obviously tons more that we could discuss, and we’ve certainly touched upon many threads of thought that we could explore further. But we shall save all that for another hypothetical day. For now, I want to close this particular exchange with two final questions, though one is really a list request, (and a two-part list request at that).
First, while I love your work and your explorations of Kubrick’s work in particular, there are other writers whose dissection of Kubrick has influenced my own interpretations. I have mentioned Ebert and Todd Alcott, and I believe I mentioned Alex Jackson to you some time ago, a film reviewer who has done a wonderful job exploring and illuminating parallel themes and characters across Kubrick’s body of work. I particularly like the Kubrick framework he presents in his Eyes Wide Shut review, that begins: “I see 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as the Rosetta Stone in figuring out Kubrick. He depicts savage apes evolving into the comfortable sleepiness of modern civilized man and then evolving again into Star Children, angels, the great next step. Unless guided upon the right path by space aliens, Kubrick seems to believe, we’re perpetually stuck in our comfortable sleep.” There are also some wonderful books by Michel Chion, one on 2001 and one on EWS, both of which have deepened my appreciation of Kubrick, filmmaking, and the power of artistic storytelling.
So I am wondering which Kubrick-related writing and criticism you find most compelling and engaging, and then, going back to your earlier statement that “I believe Kubrick’s initial target audience for the hidden narratives was other filmmakers,” which filmmakers do you feel have exhibited a knowledge of and enthusiasm for the hidden narrative techniques that Kubrick employed?
Second, as final thoughts on this entire discussion, how has your continued exploration and thorough study of Kubrick’s art (and approach to art) influenced your own perspective on the world, on your own behavior, on your own work ethic whether film-related or otherwise? In one sentence, if possible, what do you see as Kubrick’s lasting legacy on YOU?
When I first started writing about films I took some time to read other reviews, but these days I specifically avoid other articles when starting a new film analysis so I can keep it fresh; and based primarily on facts taken from the film’s production history and the sensory verifiable film content.
I get many email requests asking for comment on other film analysis articles that conflict with my own, but I try to avoid doing so. I respect the efforts of other writers and prefer to let readers compare and form opinions of their own. It’s unfortunate, but we live in a society that attempts to distort every field of endeavour into a meritocracy (a hierarchy of supposedly qualified “experts”). Some people expect this of film analysis too and several fans of my work have described me online as being an “expert” in film and/or psychology, yet I’m not an academic. I may have written many articles that a lot of people largely agree with, but that doesn’t give instant credibility to whatever I write next.
Outside of the physical sciences (where physical safety is paramount) and perhaps certain legal professions, the notion of meritocracy is frequently misapplied. Specifically in the arts and in psychology, there is little merit in meritocracy, so to speak … and what better example than Stanley Kubrick? He wasn’t an academic, but he was a genius in many respects, pushing artistic and technical boundaries of cinema in a way that dwarfed the achievements of “qualified” artists and technicians churned out by the academic system.
Kubrick’s effect on the minds of other filmmakers is incredible, even before we get into the hidden narratives. James Cameron has cited 2001 as the film that drew him into filmmaking. Star Wars wouldn’t have been the same if 2001 hadn’t pushed special effects boundaries before it. Many pieces of classical music have become synonymous with images from Kubrick films and are used by other filmmakers wishing to either pay homage or evoke similar emotions in the way Kubrick did.
As for the overall effect of the hidden narratives on other filmmakers, I don’t think there’s any reliable measuring device to be found, but there are instances that strongly suggest direct influence. David Lynch has used unannounced dream sequences in many of his films. As far as I can tell, he and Kubrick are the only ones who’ve done this. His three-hour epic Inland Empire uses music from The Shining in combination with a fractal narrative. The Pixar film WALL-E is full of references to both the surface and hidden narratives of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and seems to operate a double narrative of its own. Blade Runner and the first Matrix film contain social and technological themes very much in line with Kubrick’s hidden narratives. A.I. is a combined Kubrick / Spielberg, double narrative effort in which there has to have been mutual influence. More recently, I was amused at watching Starship Troopers 3 (along with the original, it’s an excellent satire of modern imperialistic war ideologies in the west) to find that a character who leads opposition to the war on bugs was a dead ringer for Shining-era Stanley Kubrick.
In the larger context, many filmmakers will, and probably already have, be influenced by Kubrick’s thematic encoding methods. Like the baby apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they may not directly touch the monolith, but the skills and knowledge will be passed on by those who already have. In other words, as more double narrative films emerge, those unfamiliar with Kubrick will learn his craft indirectly.
Personally, I can’t reduce Kubrick’s lasting influence on me to a single sentence, but something worth commenting on is this. The starting point in breaking through the code of Kubrick’s work for me wasn’t just about understanding his filmmaking techniques. I was already moving along an artistic and philosophical path of my own that happened to align with a path Kubrick had already taken. To my surprise, many themes and communication styles I was developing in my own fiction film productions were already to be found in Stanley’s films. He’d developed a precision cinematic communication system that I had been aspiring to create in my own work. Rather than merely apply that system to enhance my own artistic output, I felt equally compelled to take on the laborious task of verbalizing it, to the best of my ability, for the benefit of like-minded people who may otherwise have missed out on Kubrick’s genius.
Rob Ager is an independent filmmaker, film analyst, psychology enthusiast and social activist based in Liverpool, England. He posts his work on his multi-themed website CollativeLearning.com.