Like so many others, I have enjoyed Stanley Kubrick's movies immensely over the years. And like so many others, his films have had a subtle influence upon my way of looking at the world – and at movies in general. I am thinking of the way that Stanley Kubrick taught me how to "read" movies and understand what I can only describe as "the language of cinema:" the subtle use of image, sound, editing, "symbolism," and other elements to create a cinematic whole, something that cannot be done in any other medium.
The problem when talking about "symbolism" is that it's too easy to be seen as a "cineaste" – one of the snobbish Film Elite who enjoy the expression of the Motion Picture As An Art Fom, while looking down their noses at such pablum as E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial, Night of the Living Dead, or Men In Black. Because of their complex "meanings" and many-leveled interpretations, Kubrick's films in particular are often cited when engaging in conversations (online or otherwise) about the "language of cinema." The question is: how much of the varied "interpretations" of Kubrick's work truly reveal the intent of the storyteller, and how much is merely a creation and embellishment of the person interpreting the film? Is the "cosmic light show" of 2001 - A Space Odyssey really a vision of Life, Death, and Rebirth, or is it just a bunch of flashy colors moving across the screen? When Alex has sex with two women in A Clockwork Orange and the film shows it at a speeded-up pace, with the "William Tell Overture" playing as a soundtrack, is there a deeper "meaning" to it all or is it just Kubrick having fun and showing people having sex?
In Kubrick's case, I will stand for the argument that there truly is a deeper "language of cinema," and Kubrick in particular was one of its masters. This "language" is universal, and it exists in all movies in one form or another. Because this "language" exists through various interpretations of a movie, it's easy to misinterpret a movie's ideas and come up with something completely out of the blue. For example, a couple of weeks ago I attended a screening of Bill Plympton's I Married A Strange Person, and the creator/director himself was there to answer questions from the audience. In this movie, the "bad guys" of the film are an evil media corporation with its own soldiers and tanks, and one member of the audience took this as a sign that Plympton's film is actually an attack against media manipulation and corporate control of society through their control of the airwaves. Plympton himself disagreed, saying that the movie itself is actually just a story of how two people can love each other, even though they're really strange and different from normal. He disagreed with the interpretation of the movie.
What does Bill Plympton have to do with Stanley Kubrick? Not much, though my point is that Kubrick's films are indeed open to many different interpretations. These interpretations can actually increase your enjoyment of his movies, as I did when I examined Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb).
For a long time, I didn't really understand this movie. The plot is pretty straightforward: a mad Air Force general orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and the two countries have to stop the attack before it sets off the dreaded Doomsday Machine. Just as it looks as though the day has been won, suddenly an unexpected turn of events brings disaster on all, and the world ends in a fiery nuclear cataclysm.
And yet, buried underneath this Cold War suspense plot, there is one of the darkest, sexually tinged black comedies ever made. It was the "buried underneath" part that confused me. I didn't understand why, at the very end of the film, Dr. Strangelove's hand suddenly turns on him and starts strangling him, before he gets out of his wheelchair and cries, "Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!" For a while I thought the story was giving us a form of divine intervention: an unseen power of Fate (God, perhaps?) had decided that the world would indeed come to an end, and it was taking steps to prevent Dr. Strangelove from telling everyone about the plan he had to save the human race. His hand suddenly leaped up and strangled him, and then in an act worthy of Jesus' miracles, the crippled man stood up and began to walk. Divine intervention, indeed. Or at least, that's how I interpreted the movie at first.
But my curiosity about the film led me to the public library, where I checked out a book that would open my eyes to the "meaning" of Kubrick's works, and help me to "understand" movies in general: Stanley Kubrick Directs by Alexander Walker. I read the essays presented in this fascinating book, and I puzzled over the author's discovery of sexual metaphors buried within nearly every frame of Dr. Strangelove. "Sex! Sex! Sex!" the movie screams – according to the book. Sex in the form of the mad general who is impotent, and strikes back against the world, finally killing himself when he cannot achieve his orgasm. Sex in the form of Dr. Strangelove himself, who is so excited with the idea that his mad is going to be implemented that he loses control of his own body, starts jerking his arm in phallic "Seig Heil" motions, and gets out of his own chair and walks "erect!" And sex all over the place, from Buck Turgidson's secretary to Colonel Bat Guano and his obsession with "deviated preverts" and nuclear bombs with "Hi There!" and "Dear John" written on them.
Reading this interpretation of the movie encouraged me to turn on the VCR and watch Dr. Strangelove once again…and the movie did indeed begin to fall into place. I could see where the author was coming from, though much of it seemed confusing to me…until one crucial moment, when the nuclear attack has been called off (or so everyone thinks), and General Turgidson calls out for everyone to bow their heads and utter a (hypocritical) prayer of thanks. Suddenly, as the heads of state are saying their prayers, we see Dr. Strangelove sitting far away, in a corner, shrouded in light from the screens so that his image is little more than a silhouette. But despite the fact that we can barely see him, we can practically feel his emotions: disappointment, or possibly even anger. This man had actually WANTED the world to end, and when it did not occur he was disappointed…until the strange turn of events suddenly brought about nuclear catastrophe, and he realized that he would be able to put his plans into action after all!
And with that single shot, that single moment, the meaning of Dr. Strangelove suddenly clicked into place for me.
Ever since then, I've looked upon Kubrick's films with a different eye – and, I hope, upon movies in general…or indeed, upon our society in general. For I now believe that there is indeed a hidden, subliminal "language" of interpretation that exists, if we know where to look for it. And I have Stanley Kubrick to thank for this.