Home » Articles » The Viewer in Kubrickland: Solving Stanley Kubrick’s Hermeneutic Labyrinth

The Viewer in Kubrickland: Solving Stanley Kubrick’s Hermeneutic Labyrinth

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The written word and the  moving  image  have  always  had  their  entwining  roots deeply entrenched in similar narrative codes, both functioning at the level of implication, connotation and referentiality. But ever since the advent of cinema, they have  been  pitted against  each  other  over  formal  and  cultural  peculiarities  –  hence  engaging  in  a relationship deemed “overtly compatible, secretly hostile”.  This  sense  of hostility  springs  forth  from  the  misconstrued  view  of  literature  being  the  superior  art form  among  the  two,  extending  to  the  apparent  artistic  inferiority  of  cinematic adaptations, which seemingly “betray” its  source  material.  But  the  idea  of  cinema  as  a potent  and  dynamic  art  form  has  successfully  invaded  popular  perception  over  the  last few  decades  –  a  phenomenon  quite  incomplete  without  the  cinematic  legacy  left  behind by  a  certain  American  filmmaker,  who  wields  immense  cultural  currency: Kubrick. Stanley  Kubrick’s  most  lauded  works  happen  to  be  literary  adaptations,  and  his cult  status as a seminal auteur ushers in the notion of reading cinema as ‘text’: hence, problematising  the  issues  of  authorship,  artistic  fidelity  and  viewer response.




It was  a  sense  of  extraterrestrial  awe,  uncertainty,  and  perplexity  which  accorded the commercial success of  ‘2001  :  A  Space  Odyssey’  (1964);  a  film  which  uncovers  layers of meaning, and mysteries, with each subsequent  viewing-  a  kind  of  “double,  triple, quadruple play”. The creative procedure that ‘2001′ underwent is  a  unique one: though loosely based on Arthur C. Clarke’s  short  story,  ‘The  Sentinel’  (1948),  the  script (jointly by Clarke and Kubrick) and  the  novel  (solely  by  Clarke)  were  written simultaneously,  where  the  latter  was  published  four  years  after  the  movie, with  significant departures. While Clarke’s ‘2001′ attempts to clear some of the film’s  grand mysteries pertaining to  the  universe  and  its  effects  on  mankind,  Kubrick’s  2001  presents to the active viewer a scope for infinite possibilities, based on his/her  visual  perception coupled  with  “an  awareness  of  cultural  and  emotional  expectations”.

Speaking  of  the  viewer  as  ‘reader’,  it  was  Carole  Berger’s  1978  essay  “Viewing  as Action : Film and Reader Response Criticism” which connected Stanley Fish’s theory of literature as “kinetic” art form to cinema for the first time.  If  one  applies  a  crude amalgamation of Rosenblatt, Fish and Iser’s theories to viewer-response at  the  most rudimentary level, one can  say  that  the  viewer,  while  engaging  in  a  transactional  process of hermeneutics,  becomes  a  member  of  an  “interpretative  community”,  where  subjective and configurative meaning  is  carved,  constituting  the  gestalt  of  the  viewing experience.




Now,  returning  to  2001,  the  responses  to  the  same  range  from  it  being  a rendition of the Greek epic Odyssey, a philosophical  piece  modeled  after  Friedrich Nietzsche’s  Thus  Spoke Zarathustra,  to  being  a  propaganda  piece  fueling  the  space Cold  War between the then superpowers,  perplexing  generations  of  moviegoers  and  critics alike  with  its  cryptic  symbolism.  The  primary  catalyst  of  2001  is  a  black, rectangular  monolith, the presence  of  which  triggers  two  significant  evolutionary leaps:  from  man-ape to human, and human to superhuman, as symbolized  by  the  starchild  at  the  end  of  the movie.

Figs. 1.1-1.6.  The  monolith  first  appears  in  front  of  the  man-apes,  triggering  a  10,000 year leap to space-age man. Then, it appears on the  first  man-made  moon-base  Clavius, leading to the covert Jupiter mission  on  The  Discovery.  The  final  appearance  of  the monolith in front of  the  last  surviving  Discovery  crew  David  Bowman,  leads  to  the  birth of  the  starchild,  the  post-human  evolutionary  stage  of man.

As to what the monolith and the movie, as a whole, symbolises, Peter Krämer conducted an audience response experiment named “Dear Mr. Kubrick :  Audience Responses to 2001 : A Space Odyssey in  the  Late  1960’s”,  based  on  fan-letters  to Kubrick which applaud, interrogate and criticise the film, showcasing no substantial consensus as to what 2001 actually means. These  divided  responses  range  from expressions of livid confusion and dismissal, elaborate conspiracy theories, esoteric analogies, to an appreciation of the Stargate sequence by members of the hippie counterculture who viewed it as “The Ultimate Trip…but  not  of  the  space  variety”. The reason why 2001  transcends  articulation  and  escapes  definitive attachment  of  meaning  is  explained  wonderfully  none  other  than  by  Kubrick  himself :

2001… is a visual, nonverbal experience…I prefer not to discuss it’s meaning as  it  is  highly  subjective  and  will  differ  from  viewer  to  viewer.  In  this  sense,  the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film  stirs  the  emotions  and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates … his mythological and religious  yearnings  and  impulses  …  it  has succeeded.




Kubrick’s  oeuvre  stands  testimony to his  status  among  the  highest echelon of film directors – he  is  an  “auteur  critic’s  dream”. In  the course of refashioning and deviating from the fabric of his source texts, he  re-interprets  and transforms  them  into  a  ‘text’ quintessentially Kubrickan. Two  of  the most  archetypal examples of the same can be found in ‘The Shining’ (1980)  and  ‘A  Clockwork  Orange’ (1971), based on Stephen King and Anthony Burgess’ horror and dystopian novels respectively. It is now common knowledge  that  King  absolutely  abhors  Kubrick’s  Shining,  embittered  by  how  the  characters  of  Jack  and  Wendy  Torrance  are coldly  contrived, with no notable tragic arc making its mark on the narrative. Although  he acknowledges the visually aesthetic  shots  that  ‘The  Shining’  offers,  he  calls  it  “a  big beautiful  Cadillac  with  no  engine”,  wherein  the  characters  lack personal agency. On the other hand, the  reputation  of  Kubrick’s  ‘A  Clockwork  Orange’  being  a  cause  célèbre eclipsed Burgess’ true novelistic intentions and literary  merit,  causing  tension  between  the two. Though initially praising it as “relevant and poetic”, Burgess became increasingly ambivalent towards Kubrick’s treatment of the  protagonist  Alex,  as  the  film  omits  the novel’s 21st chapter – considered integral to the character’s redemption by Burgess, hence destroying  the  novel’s  moral integrity.

While it is indeed crucial  to  take  King  and  Burgess’  criticisms  into  consideration, one must  also  take  into  account  the  idea  of  fidelity  to  adaptations  and  it’s  lack  thereof, the importance of artistic  license  and  the  excesses  it  might  engender,  and  finally  the  role of collective authorship in terms  of  audience  interpretation  pertaining  to  the  problematic areas of adaptation as a whole. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ aesthetically captures a  depraved monologue  in  a  dystopian  setting;  a  spiritual  wasteland  created  by  Kubrick  with  images of unsettling violence and satirical humor: it is a film  which  overwhelms  the  senses.  It explores  the  ethical  ambiguities  posited  by  the  question  of  moral  choice  and  free  will  – is Alex, in his natural disposition towards anarchy, drugs and ‘ultraviolence’, truer to his humanity than when he is  ‘reformed’  by  government  experiments  of  mind  control  and forced  psychological  conditioning,  as  exhibited  by  the  Ludovico treatment?




The absence of hope and possible redemption for  Alex  at  the  end  has  been accepted  by  audiences  as  the  more “authentic”  ending; many consider Burgess’ resolution  to  be  “unconvincing  and  inconsistent  with  the  style  and  intent  of  the book”.  Moreover,  Kubrick’s  reliance  on  unconventional  camera  angles  and  his cryptic employment of  literary  and  mythic  allusions  have  enriched  the  layered  intricacies of  ‘A  Clockwork  Orange’, hence preventing  it’s  evolution  into  a  “work  too didactic to be artistic”.

Figs 1.7-1.19. A seventeen year old Alexander Delarge  exercises  violent  delinquency along with his “droogs” by indulging in physical and sexual violence.  Figs  1.10-1.12 Alex’s love for Beethoven is used against him when he is  subjected  to  the  Ludovico reform treatment, the failure of which leads to attempted suicide. In  the  end,  Alex ironically  muses,  “I  was  cured  after all.”

In his  ‘A  Cinema  of  Loneliness’  (1980),  Robert  Kolker  calls  ‘The  Shining’  a conscious mockery on Kubrick’s part of the  horror  genre,  which  deals  more  with  the gradual unfolding of derangement and it’s intensification in a supernatural setting -The Overlook Hotel- where Jack Torrance acts as caretaker along with  his  family  during  the winter of 1980. The cult status enjoyed by the film stems from its ingenious sense  of ambiguity,  and  its  capacity  for  accommodating  a  sweeping  range  of interpretations,  mostly in relation  to  Kubrick’s  apparent  coding  of  subliminal  messages  embedded  across the film narrative. This need for scavenging and investing  meaning  has  reached  rather obsessive heights; the primary reason behind which might be  that,  unlike  ‘2001′,  or  ‘A Clockwork Orange’, King’s novel offers no answers – so utterly different and divergent is Kubrick’s reinterpretation of the same, that one doesn’t resemble the other in any way whatsoever. Artist  Tim  Doyle  pays  tribute  to  this  phenomenon  in  his  classic  horror painting aptly titled “The Death  of  the  Author”  (2014),  reinforcing  the  point  that  ‘The Shining’  is  a  “vast,  open  canvas”  ,  where  the  author’s  intention,  (be  it  King  or  Kubrick), is remodeled in accordance with a viewer’s subjective perception, which might clash with another’s  and  still  be  deemed  equally valid.

Fig.  1.20.  The  Death  of  the  Author (2014)

This “Rashomon effect” found its culmination in a 2012 documentary directed by Rodney Ascher, encapsulating the wild conspiracy theories and perceived interpretations surrounding ‘The Shining.’  Christened  ‘Room  237,’  the  documentary  spans  five  major theories, including the film being a critique  on  the  Native  American  genocide,  a  theory based on  a  recurrence  of  relevant  symbols  and  images.  Another  theory  accuses  Kubrick of faking footage of the historic Apollo 11 moon  landing,  wherein  the  film  is  a  thickly veiled  apology  for  the same.

Figs.1.20-1.23. Danny talks to his finger which symbolizes his imaginary  friend,  Tony, possibly indicating a psychological manifestation of parental  abuse.  Jack  eyes  the  hedge maze  aggressively  which  is  connected  to  the  Minotaur  myth;  Danny  wears  an  Apollo 11  USA sweater, and finally, a photograph of Jack appears in the hotel  in  a  Baphomet  like posture  from  the  July  4th   Ball  of  1921:  is  Jack  the devil?

‘Shinologists’ have also experimented by playing the film forwards and backwards simultaneously, where the overlapping shots create “bizarre juxtapositions and startling synchronicities”.  Admittedly, while some of these  theories  can  be  considered  plausible, others point toward gross over-readings which seem ridiculously farfetched  –  Kubrick’s personal assistant ,Leon Vitali, who  worked  closely  with  him  on  the  set  of  the  film, recently debunked ‘Room  237′,  as  “pure  gibberish.”  So,  can  ‘The  Shining’  be  considered  as an exemplar of the pitfalls  of impressionistic reading, where the viewer excavates  chasms  of  “indeterminacy”  instead  of  simply  filling  the  preexistent  ones ?

When    Kubrick  unleashed  his  final  cinematic  work  ‘Eyes  Wide  Shut’ in  1999, like all his previous films, it  was  grievously  misunderstood  by  audiences  and  critics  alike. Based  on  Arthur  Schnitzler’s  1926  novella  ‘Traumnovelle’ (Dream Story),  Kubrick upholds a psychoanalytic parallel between the two, as  the  source  story  heavily  borrowed from Freud’s  theory  of  life  (Eros)  and  death  instincts  (Thanatos).  The  task  of transporting the overall historical, cultural and artistic context from the 1926 Viennese decadence to the postmodernist world  of  New  York  City  was  no  mean  feat  –  an adaptation  requires  functioning  like  a  successful  organ  transplant,  and  Kubrick  succeeds in creating a hermeneutic labyrinth with multiple  exits.  Derek  O’  Connor  terms  it  as  a “saga of  marital  deception”,  a  “black  valentine  to  the  world”,  where  the  mysteries envelop themselves in  further  mysteries.  Despite  being  consistently  faithful  to  Dream Story,  contemporary  re-interpretations  of  ‘Eyes  Wide  Shut’  are  rife  with over complicated  theories  indicating  Kubrick’s  use  of  subliminal  references  to  myth,  religion,  art,  and secret  societies;  along  with  the  debate  whether  the  entire  experience  was  indeed  a dream.




An essentially Kubrickan sense of ambiguity makes its  presence  felt  in  ‘Eyes  Wide Shut’, demanding an in-depth scrutiny by the ‘active’ audience, who by now, have trained themselves to string together the breadcrumb  trails  scattered  across  the  film’s  visual  and aural  structure.  In  the  opening  sequence,  we  witness  the  lavish  extravagance,  along  with  a  sense  of  civilized  charm  exuded  by  Victor  Ziegler’s  party,  which  is  quickly revealed  to be a façade concealing the ugly depravities and fetishes harbored by the  elite  : foreshadowing the Somertonville Mansion orgy  later  in  the  film.  The  presence  of  an unusual eight-point star as  a  Christmas  decoration  in  Ziegler’s  party  has  been  interpreted by some as the star of Ishtar,  the  Mesopotamian  goddess  of  fertility,  love,  sexuality  and their  perilous  manifestations  –  a  dominant  theme  which  engulfs  the  lives  of  Alice (Nicole Kidman) and Bill Harford (Tom Cruise). The egoistic wound nursed  by  Bill  is inflicted  by  his  wife’s  confession  of  an  act  of  almost  indiscretion,  propelling  him  to exact revenge through a series of  fantastical  sexual  encounters  which  are  repeatedly thwarted, acting as  instances  of  stagnation  or  death  in desire.




Based on yet another subtle visual cue (a strategically placed book : Introducing Sociology), ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ can be read as a  sociological  document  of  class-based oppression, wherein the mere  attempt  of  invading  the  space  “where  the  rainbow  ends” will  inevitably  result  in  social  ejection,  accompanied  with  a  sense  of  constant danger.  The nexus of Bill’s adventure is his infiltration  into  and  subsequent  discovery  and humiliation  at  the  masked  orgy  (an  event  solely  accessible  to  the  members  of  the elite),  wherein the password  for  entry  is  “Fidelio”  –  a  Beethoven  opera  about  ritual  sacrifice  – is  it  a  deliberate  foreshadowing  or  a  mere coincidence?

Figs. 1.24- 1.32. These visual clues spread across ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ invite a range of religious, psychological and sociological explications, including conspiracy theories surrounding  occult  secret  societies  and  their  covert practices.

Rainbows  are  traditionally  associated  with  dissociation from the    illusory world, (Fig.1.26), revealing the dark underbelly which lies beyond– a world inhabited by the participants  of  ritual  orgies,  riddled  with  dangers,  threats  and  deceit (Figs.1.27-1.31). These  events  are  not  far  from  reality,  as  conspiracy  theorists  have  connected  these parties to that  of  the  Rothschilds,  who  wore  similar  Venetian  masks  and  held  masked balls  thematically  rich  with  occult  symbolism  (Fig.1.28).  Bill  learns  about  Mandy’s death  in a paper headlined “LUCKY TO BE ALIVE”  (Fig.1.30)  and  his  mask  inexplicably appears next to a  sleeping  Alice  (Fig.1.30);  indicating  the  couples’  narrow  escape  from the clutches of the elite. But the final scene (Fig. 1.32) hints at their daughter, Helena, following two men who  were  formerly  present  at  Zeigler’s  party,  permanently disappearing from the  shot,  while  her  parent  appear  nonchalant  and  self-absorbed  –  is this Kubrick’s way  of  pointing  out  the  grim  reality  that  awaits  Helena,  who  is  doomed to  retrace  her  parents’ footsteps?




The history of adaptation theory has perpetually been problematic. This  can  be attributed to the presupposition of assuming literature as the vantage  point  for  qualitative artistic comparison, hence relegating cinema to  the  realm  of  “a  re-heated  meal”;  a  pale, stale,  imitation  of  the  “original”. To  accept  novels  and  films as divergent, autonomous vehicles of meaning, and  artistic  worth,  in  their  own  right  is  instrumental  to the understanding of adaptation politics and the  problems  it  can  pose  –  to  what  extent should  narratology  and  intertextuality  be  adhered?  Who  is  the  author  of  a  text  like ‘Lolita’, and  which  version  is  worth  consideration:  Nabokov’s  scintillating  prose  style (1955), Kubrick’s saga of censored passion (1962), or Adrian Lyne’s highly romanticized tragedy (1997)? Is a faithful adaptation  the  only  desirable  version  of  a  text,  and  if  so, where does the contemporary filmmaker stand today?  These  questions  do  not  pinpoint towards a simplified,  objective  explanation,  but  rather  remain  perplexingly  open-ended  – but concurrently, one  cannot  sieve  the  fluid  nature  of  adaptation  and  authorship  through the grains of audience response, where the latter accommodates  all  the  versions  of  ‘Lolita’ under one giant, all-encompassing umbrella of subjective aesthetics and interpretation, destabilizing  the  concept  of  “intentional  fallacy”.

However,  with  regard  to  an  auteurial  sultan  like  Stanley  Kubrick,  can  we  afford to completely disregard his authorial intention? If not, to what extent can an unobjective dissection  be  sanctioned,  minus  the  risks  of  wayward  impressionism  –  how  much  is too much?  Speaking of  excesses, Kubrick’s obsession with authenticity and perfectionism, and  his autocratic attitude during  filming  had  turned  into  an  actor’s  nightmare  :  unending retakes of a single scene lasted for months, causing Tom  Cruise  to  contract  ulcers  in  the course of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. Similarly, on  the  sets  of  ‘The  Shining’,  actress  Shelley Duval started to lose clumps  of  her  hair  after  Kubrick  pressurized  her  beyond  limits ;  and  the most iconic Ludovico scene from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ had rendered  Malcolm  McDowell almost partially blind. These instances are evidence  to  Kubrick’s  deliberate  intent  of provoking  a  certain  audience  response,  but  of  also  allowing  a  viewer’s  personal  context to  construct  the  philosophical  meaning  behind  his/her  cinematic experience.




Is there a Kubrick’s  Code? It  is  no  easy  task  to  solve  this  elaborate  labyrinth, which is rife with apparent exits and sudden dead ends. But Kubrickan cinema has been successful in breaking down  the rigid boundaries of artistic mediums, uplifting cinema  as a synesthesia of the visual, literary, oral, and aural,  in  the  minds  of  the  masses.  Current events testify the same : ‘Loving Vincent’ (2017) is set  to  be  the  world’s  very  first  fully painted feature film; a tribute to Van Gogh  through  the  recreation  of  62,450  handmade frames  in  oil  paint.  Though  a  tiny  step  towards  the  integration  of  the  subjective aesthetics of painting and cinema, this will  take response  criticism and literary adaptation to heights never achieved before, by opening stunningly colorful stargates of experience. Meanwhile,  the  rest  is  “rust  and stardust”.

Links : IMDb, Wikipedia

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