Mankind will destroy itself. Tomorrow, next year, or sometime in the decades to come, humanity will follow its leaders over a cliff and just plummet into oblivion. We all sense this, but its truth is constantly hidden by these self-same leaders. At times we become more aware of the peril, usually in periods of crisis or through the work of truth-tellers, individuals brave enough to expose society’s falsehoods.
Truth-tellers include activists, journalists, novelists, poets, musicians, and even, though rarely, Hollywood movie-makers. One such tinsel-town movie-maker is the late great Stanley Kubrick, whose best films tear away that thick web of myths, falsehoods, and lies surrounding our war leaders and the wars over which they preside. Between the years 1957 and 1987, the Cold War Era, Stanley Kubrick released four amazing anti-war films. These films (Paths of Glory, Doctor Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, and – believe it or not – 2001: A Space Odyssey) reveal, as no other films in cinema history, the greed, murderousness, and utter insanity of the political and military leadership of the 20th Century.
What makes them especially unique are those signature and easily identified techniques which define Kubrick’s filmic style and delimit his civilizational role. These techniques include the deranged and inhuman close-up; the endless, or perhaps endless-seeming, extended shot; and the purposely paired/ parallel scene. All of Kubrick’s masterpiece anti-war films share these three techniques, and his use of them half a century ago is as revelatory today, during The Third Cold War, as in that period long ago.
The first technique Stanley Kubrick uses to lay bare the criminal, or even psychotic and essentially alien, traits of our leaders is the deranged close-up. Like its more ordinary counterpart, this technique frames the head and face of the subject. Supposedly, this reveals character, but in truth nothing guarantees such a thing. Close-ups can be used for any purpose at all, as proven by the glossy, sentimental close-ups used to garner pity for the poor victims of official enemies. Kubrick, however, tells the truth.
He reveals the power-lust of General Broulard in Paths of Glory and the glassy-eyed fanaticism of Jack D. Ripper in Doctor Strangelove. This Wing Commander orders B-52s armed with thermonuclear weapons to bomb Russia in revenge for their theft of his male essence via water fluoridation. He reveals the psychosis of Leonard Lawrence in Full Metal Jacket. This last is the most famous of Kubrick’s deranged close-ups – with Lawrence, slightly off-center, glaring from under his brows like some horror pic slasher – but it is not the most powerful.
The most extreme and ultimately profound example of the deranged close-up appears at the closing of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This shot centres on the informally termed ‛Star Child’. The foetal Star Child, glowing eerily from within its birth-sac, tracks slowly to the left with Richard’s Strauss’ climactic symphony Thus Spake Zarathustra playing in the background. Strauss’ music, and the Friedrich Nietzsche tract which inspired it, tells the audience all it need know: the Star Child is the übermensch Nietzsche predicts, all powerful, completely cold to human interests, and focused upon goals beyond the primate understanding of mankind. Furthermore, it was hunger for power, bloodthirstiness, secrecy, and irresponsibility (values that animal man well understands) which brought on the Star Child’s advent. In foolishly attempting to gain alien weapon technology with which to break the dead-lock among its Cold War rivals, the Americans of 2001: A Space Odyssey have lost themselves and all of mankind.
Here is the true meaning of this inhuman close-up and also the deranged close-ups of Kubrick’s human characters: humanity will, at some point, lose itself and be destroyed.
The second technique Stanley Kubrick employs to expose, in a visceral way, the myths and self-congratulatory lies about war and war leaders, and mankind in general, is the endlessly extended shot. Ordinarily, individual shots in movies last between five and fifteen seconds; an extended shot lasts longer, it can last an entire scene of many minutes in fact. This extension crumbles audience expectations, causes discomfort, and pushes viewers to abandon assumptions, claw for meaning, be critical thinkers, and finally arrive at Kubrick’s bitter truths.
In all of the great director’s four anti-war films these appear. There are the long takes of Leonard Lawrence being turned into a monster in Full Metal Jacket, and the endless phone conversations between President Merkin Muffley and the Soviet Premier in Doctor Strangelove. In Paths of Glory, extended shots contrasting General Mireau and Colonel Dax compete with those comparing soldiers advancing toward the enemy, and toward their own execution, for brutal, agonizing revelation.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the scene of Haywood Floyd travelling to the American moon base is a tour-de-force. This scene’s purpose is not, in fact, to narrate the American official’s advance toward the moon, where alien technology has recently been discovered. It is to establish 2001: A Space Odyssey as an anti-war film.
With the peaceful and pleasant music of Johan Strauss’ Blue Danube playing underneath, an international space station waltzes through the void. In further scenes this locale is confirmed as a site of tension, intrigue, and deception (of Cold War, despite the neutral claims of science). Partnered with the station in this dance of death far above the Earth are Floyd’s sleek and expressly military-looking government shuttle and four orbital nuclear weapons platforms. Each of these flies the flag of a different Cold War rival. Each carries multiple warheads, all precision-guided (the film is famous for having worked closely with NASA and aerospace to predict twenty-first century technology), and contains enough destructive power to annihilate a whole region. No image could discomfit audiences more greatly than that of their trophies of scientific advance being revealed as nothing more than crude cudgels for battering and bludgeoning foes.
The final technique that Kubrick wields in order to raise awareness among people threatened by the insanity of their leaders, especially those with their thumb over the nuclear trigger, is that of purposefully paired scenes. In films, scenes are often paired (this is what intercutting is about), but Kubrick’s scenes are blocked similarly for a specific reason. He amplifies contrast and comparison in different pairs to emphasize his revelations. Parallel scenes before and after “the blanket party” in Full Metal Jacket show Leonard Lawrence turning into a psycho. In Paths of Glory, the trial and tavern scenes demonstrate the mercilessness of leaders in comparison with common soldiers, the latter scene being one of the most moving in film history.
A seemingly distant pair of scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, however, carries incredible thematic weight in that film. These are the post-transformation scenes, the first involving Moonwatcher the ancient hominid, the second involving the Star Child (formerly the astronaut David Bowman). The novel 2001: A Space Odyssey makes it clear that, having been altered by the alien monolith, David Bowman feels no compunction about detonating nuclear weapons and bringing human history to an end. His purpose is to be The Sentinel (the title of the short story by Arthur C. Clarke that was the initial basis of Kubrick’s film) preventing humans from challenging the film’s vastly enigmatic aliens. As Clarke himself says, one day mankind will meet his “masters among the stars”.
Likewise, having been mentally rewired by these same aliens some four million years previously, Moonwatcher, the ancestor of modern man, feels no compunction about exterminating the rivals of his hominid troop and bringing his former species’ history to an end. Whatever he was before, after his encounter with the monolith Moonwatcher becomes Australopithecus afarensis, tool-using and meat-loving man. As Clarke says, and Kubrick depicts, he emerges as “master of his world” (so too does the Star Child).
Kubrick’s immensely frightening message is this: mankind can be utterly transformed. It can be made monstrous. Audiences recognise the Star Child as some kind of an evil entity, but upon reflection they must also recognise that – at least to the other hominids who settle disputes without murder – Moonwatcher is every bit as much of an alien as the Star Child. And if Moonwatcher is thus, then it must be that 20th and 21st century man is just as alien to his fellows.
Keenly and powerfully using the techniques of the deranged or inhuman close-up, the endlessly extended shot, and the purposefully paired scene, Stanley Kubrick pries open society’s eyes, making it see that its leaders are just as cold and murderous in their thinking as General Broulard, Colonel Jack D. Ripper, the generals who oversee Leonard Lawrence’s “rebirth” into a killer, and the aliens who initiate David Bowman’s apotheosis so that he becomes the Star Child. No black monolith is necessary to cause this transformation in modern man, just plunder and power and high position. We all realise that these things alter people. Having had them, leaders cannot ever again do without. Furthermore, they take insane risks to safeguard or even to increase them. These risks build up, until eventually something goes wrong, some little thing, and mankind tumbles down into destruction. Ordinary citizens cannot trust leaders to make them safe; again, leaders are icily distant from their ken. Our only surety lies in facing reality, as expressed by truth-tellers like the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and then in open and committed resistance.
— David Adrien Lemire