Always Record 103: Kubrickon



One way or another, Kubrick films generate obsession. As Room 237 amply illustrates, they act like Rorschach blots that receive viewers’ projections and reflect their fantasies back at them. My view is that they are able to do this because, like Rorschach blots, they are empty of meaning.

Kubrick films are enticing to intellects because they are like puzzles, games. They demand participation. The viewer must put his or her soul (psyche) into the movies because Kubrick has left his own out.

What makes Kubrick’s films fascinating is that they create cognitive dissonance. The skill and the precision of the lighting, set design, camerawork, and composition is juxtaposed with the barrenness of human emotion and of dramatic coherence, the often unnatural acting and stilted dialogue, and the fragmented and oddly lackluster storytelling. The mechanics of melodrama have broken down. There is no center to hold. This mysteriously missing center—the incoherence of Kubrick’s films—creates fascination in many viewers (especially the more intellectual ones) and a burning desire to somehow find that missing center, to crack the code and relieve the tension of not-knowing.

From Kubrickon: Stanley Kubrick & the Architecture of Immersion, a work-in-progress by Jasun Horsley, due in 2015

17 thoughts on “Always Record 103: Kubrickon

  1. Stan, Leak Uber-Ick !

    This is the secret homophonic command that Stan surely heard when he heard his own name. And he did just that. I feel like I need wash the Uber-Ick off of me after I’ve allowed one of Stan’s films to leak on me. He sure did love to leak on people, it seems.

  2. Each artistic field has at least one unquestionable genius who is not a genius, but rather a litmus test for how willing the “newcomer” is to play along with the artifice and politics of that field.

    The emperor’s clothes are quite fabulous, don’t you think?

    The businessmen of art stand on every bridge between one social position and another.

    On the other hand, perhaps he’s awesome and I just don’t get it. I don’t consider my taste in films to be particularly refined, I’ve seen far fewer films in my life than anyone I know.

  3. “… they are empty of meaning.”



    Makes me wonder: WHAT exactly is meaning? And WHERE is it? And HOW do we find / lose it?

    My own take on this – work in progress (!) : there are different categories of meaning, for example factual information, poetic imagination, religious feeling.

    (1) factual information : Kubrick hides / reveals (eyes wide shut) an intelligence secret (like the purported faking of the moon landing).

    (2) poetic imagination : Kubrick hides / reveals something about the human condition (like genozide, pychopathy).

    (3) religious feeling : Kubrick hides / reveals something trans-human (like technology as quasi-divine revelation).


  4. I don’t think it’s incoherent, the themes are usually just misunderstood (Shining) or story is misinterpreted (Clockwork). Shining is obviously about WASP etc. oppression over North America (Jack is an abusive white husband and father trapped in a hotel on Native American lands). There’s a theory about Clockwork that the conditioning never worked and that Alex was faking it the entire time but then redeemed himself later (the end scene with him imagining consensual societal-accepted sex).

    • I agree there is a surface kind of coherence, that Kubrick’s films can just about be seen/experienced as movies (ie, dramatic narratives), at least till the last two. But what if this is only a kind of artifice on Kubrick’s part, similar to how coded messages are conveyed in wartime, so that the casual listener believes they are hearing a regular radio broadcast, only those with the cypher know to isolate certain words and phrases to find the actual message.

      This is a subtler form of incoherence than say, a David Lynch film like Lost Highway, because the apparent coherence of Kubrick is only a means to an end, which is to transmit a different signal entirely.

      • Right but then what’s the critique? Having a hidden message etc. would show that Kubrick was a good artist at least in terms of craft (one could argue they’re harmful message much like the overt messages in Birth of a Nation). I was under the impression that the critique was that Kubrick was a fraud because the technical details and odd “intentional” choices didn’t reveal anything so that everyone becomes obsessed in finding a deeper meaning that isn’t there.

        If the critique is harmful messages I’d disagree. Kubrick takes on an ironic distance to usually take on class and political control (PoG, Barry Lyndon, Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, The Shining etc.). I think he is the directorial equivalent of Bret Easton Ellis in that he cynically presents the problems without a solution. But that’s far from saying he’s embracing/promoting those things.

        • I wouldn’t say I am involved in a critique of Kubrick, more like an exegesis, but not even that, since as you probably know by now I am not really interested in decoding the messages he embedded in his films but deciphering the intent behind doing so – the long term goal. Looking at whether the films are potentially harmful (I think they definitely are) doesn’t count as a critique, in my view, because works of art are also often potentially harmful, so even if you could prove that Kubrick films were deliberately harmful, that wouldn’t prove he wasn’t a “great artist.”

          As I said on the show, the only place we can test this is in the lab of our own psyches and bodies.

          I don’t see Kubrick as a fraud except I don’t think he was what he convinced people to see him as being (a Great Artist), but that this idea/framing was part of a larger “operation.”

          This is the puzzle I am presenting: I don’t think Kubrick films were that great as art and I don’t think they are especially meaningful either (I certainly don’t find them especially entertaining). AND YET, they have engaged all of my attention. How did this happen, and, having I think determined the how of it, what is this attention grabbing for, both from my own perspective and – a leap of imaginative logic – that of SK?

  5. Some random responses to the conversation:

    I had the exact same thought as you. The idea that all his films leading up to 2001 were laying the groundwork in various ways for that film and everything he did afterwards was a kind of afterthought.

    I think Strangelove may be the ultimate puzzle to get to the bottom of and deserves further investigation and analysis.

    It was hinted at in the convo but I think its possible that Kubrick with his later films , 2001 and onward were an attempt to deconstruct and expose the medium.

    I can’t help but think of Bob Dylan and the pressure that he experienced when reporters would ask him how does it feel to be the spokesman of a generation and wonder if Kubrick struggled with a similar albatross.

    I thought David made an excellent point near the end of part one of the convo that Kubrick’s films should be viewed in terms of psychoanalytic works but I thought you made an excellent counterpoint that if these are purely intellectual abstractions then we are more or less trapped in the mind. This point in particular deserves to be explored in further detail.

    I didn’t like the way Mark kept referring to you as Mr. Horsley. It felt unnecessarily formal and off putting.

    Perhaps you oversold your position by promising to bake their noodle. It reminds me of Charles Grodin’s character in King Kong when he radios back to corporate HQ that he’s “bringing home the big one” before the oil has been tested.

    • The idea that all his films leading up to 2001 were laying the groundwork in various ways for that film and everything he did afterwards was a kind of afterthought.

      I never said they were an afterthought. I said that together they made a larger, only secondarily cinematic exercise or experiment, “phase two.”

      It was hinted at in the convo but I think its possible that Kubrick with his later films , 2001 and onward were an attempt to deconstruct and expose the medium.

      I see this also as coming under “means” and not “end.”

      Perhaps you oversold your position by promising to bake their noodle

      I laid myself open to attack and also put the opposition on guard, so to speak. It was a strategic choice, possibly in error. But it was also a way to intensify the level of attention/expectation. The thing is when you enter a paradigm with something that has the power to change the paradigm, it is basically invisible – by definition that paradigm-changing element does not ‘exist’ within the paradigm it is about to change.

      This is why I couldn’t say it outright: because everything I say about Kubrick from within the Kubrickon gets turned into Kubrickanelia. Jack Torrance (i.e., the Kubrick-obsessive) can only see his own projections. By entering the dream of Kubrick’s followers, I become an element of that dreamscape. I can say “This is all a dream” as many times as I want, but since I am seen as a feature of the dreamer’s imagination, who will listen?

      It is an interesting challenge. Perhaps it mirror’s Kubrick’s own struggle to use narratives to break the spell of narratives?

  6. I don’t particularly like either Lynch or Kubrick, I just don’t.

    Lynch is very masturbatory, his films are like his own self-therapy or something. His films are technically brilliant with colors and all that, but I’m just put off by something I can’t articulate. It’s like eating too much Bacon… or something.

    As for Kubrick, the only film I actually enjoyed was my first viewing of The Shining, the rest never hit me. I agree that the Kubrick Obsessed will Con you into thinking that you are somehow missing something brilliant, but they don’t have a smoking gun that they can point to. They’ll take you for a ride with their analysis and stoner whimsy, but it doesn’t ultimately deliver anything, or get you anywhere.

    You sound fairly confident about your ‘Trump Card’, and hope you don’t tease it for too long.

  7. Honestly the tease is not intentional, at least, I may be playing up that side but my reluctance to spill the beans is genuine, not feigned. When a scientist makes what he thinks may be a new discovery, he checks everything thoroughly before publishing the results. But if he’s human he might not be able to resist mentioning that he’s onto something big.

    I plead over-excitement, caution, and a pinch of “showmanship.” There’s another factor, for which see next post.

  8. A Hot Electric Thumb-Ride Up My Ass: HAL, Kubrick, and Me

    I would like to recommend this as a title for Mark LeClair’s auto-biography , whenever / if ever he writes one.

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