Stanley Kubrick and Modernism

A Discussion

FMD: Stanley Kubrick's work can be seen as a continuation, or perhaps perfection, of the original "High Modernist" project. I'm thinking at this initial stage in crudely generic terms. By "Modernism" I mean the cultural matrix created in the wake of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Frazer, and the Great War [WW 1]. More particularly, I'm thinking of Pound's early formulation of Imagism. Consider its tenets:

(1) opposition to the sentimental or emotionally manipulative and mannered, preference for singular images that are sharp, clear, arresting, and immediate;

(2) opposition to traditional narrative and verse form in favor of "free verse," fragmentation, disjunction, juxtaposition, and freedom of choice in subjects and means;

(3) minimalist aesthetic, preference for economy of means, terseness, precision;

(4) all of this seen as being in the service of freeing the creative energies of the artist from the restrictions of past forms, so as to create images that are fresh, satisfying and alive, and that stimulate fresh responses in the reader/viewer.

This seems to serve rather well at least to a good first approximation to Stanley Kubrick's aesthetic. He eschews sentimentalism and the "feelgood" approach to film, and follows a broadly experimental, eclectic path with respect to means (nothing is automatically ruled out or in). He favors image over discourse or narrative, and his images have the immediacy and crispness and autonomy one associates with an Imagist aesthetic. He relies too on juxtaposition and fragmentation. Like the Modernist-Imagist classics, his films often seem to consist of several "non-submersible units" that are juxtaposed in series rather than linked in a conventional narrative form, and the elements have the minimalist sense one finds in Imagism.

Rod Munday: I think Modernism is better defined as a sensibility rather than a movement. It was an attitude so prevalent in the Twentieth Century, that its assumptions were largely intuitively felt rather than consciously thought. Modernism was predicated on the unprecedented social and technological changes brought about by the industrial revolution. Manifestos or philosophical treatises came later, as intellectuals tried to articulate the currents of change buffeting their age.

Thornhill: I'd like to add only a thing or two here. "Serious" artists following 1900, especially in literature, could hardly help from being influenced by psychoanalytic theory, as well as the war. This is why the Twentieth Century is largely connected to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Set within the milieu of the Twentieth Century, it's hard to name any films by Kubrick, Chris Marker, Buñuel, Stroheim, etc. that were not given birth by this benchmark. (in the case of Buñuel, he was in the first generation of real Paris Modernism).

FMD: Quite true. It would be wrong to say that Stanley Kubrick is the only Modernist in film. To really get down to the problem one would have to consider the huge question of the relationship of film to Modernism, which would include the question of the relationship of Modernism to popular culture, and a host of other big questions. Where does theater come in for example? In the 40s and 50s, theater seemed to be the preferred mode of contemporary art for intellectuals (Eliot's plays, Beckett, Sartre, etc.), some time during the 60s, films seems to have displaced theater in their affections. So, granting that Stanley Kubrick is a Modernist, the question then becomes, what is distinctive about his Modernism? Is it mainly in the quality of his achievement, i.e. is he the greatest Modernist in film? Or can something more elaborate be said, either about his aesthetic, formally, or in terms of theme (or both)? How does Stanley Kubrick's cinematic Modernism compare with that of some other film-makers you cited?

Fernando Burjato: I think that we can find some "Modern " characteristics in Kubrick's films, referring to form... most of the meaning in his films is given by images. This is similar to Modernism in painting... getting free of the literary elements. It's funny, even though all of Stanley Kubrick's films are based on books, almost none of them (except maybe Lolita) are "literary." Maybe the last three Stanley Kubrick films are the most "Modern " (in this sense). Somebody wrote that "The Shining ' is "about watching 'The Shining '", and I think the same could be said about Full Metal Jacket or Eyes Wide Shut . I'm not saying they don't have stories (very good ones in my opinion), but it seems that the story is secondary to the images, and not the other way around.

Thornhill: A quick dive for the "watching watching" I don't know who said it, but I believe there was a review in Film Comment which had this line (roughly): "It's about Jack Nicholson playing Jack Torrance playing Jack Torrance, King of the Mountain."

Joe Berry: I think that piece was by Frederic Jameson. If not, it echoes similar observations made by Jameson around the same time ('81).

Fernando Burjato: "The Shining is really about nothing at all, (...) this is a film about the experience of watching The Shining." From an article called Resident Phantoms, by Jonathan Romney, Sight and Sound, September 1999.

Thornhill: And along this self-replicating line, the repeating of the "unit" over and over is quite the focus of great gaggles of other Modernists. Can't recall who did the film circa 1924, of the washer woman in Paris walking up the stairs but never arriving at the top: a tape loop before anyone knew what a tape loop was!

Joe Berry: It was Fernand Leger's, Ballet Mecanique (1924).

Thornhill: Resnais and Conner extended this "start now, end never" effect. What better Imagistic blast from the heart of the Twentieth Century.?

Gordon Dahlquist: I would say that from 2001 on, the manner in which the "story" is told is inextricable from the story's "content". To me, it's this coupling of form and content (or form-as-content) that marks Kubrick as a particularly Modernist artist. His refusal of irony as a legitimate end in itself, distances his work from Post-Modernism. For all the scathing insight and, yes, irony in his work, his vision as an artist is a passionate and moral one.

Vincent Pappalardo: I'm not sure I agree with you Gordon, a Post-Modernist doesn't always use irony as an end in itself. He can still have a very passionate and moral vision, right?

David Kirkpatrick: To me, Post-Modern has a definite meaning when applied to architecture, but things become blurred when I look at other arts. (I'm just as happy with a classification that subsumes "Post-Modernism" into "Late-Modernism"). In a sense, an artist's choice of film in place of theatre is a Modernist choice, as is the choice to be a photographer instead of a painter. Somewhere I got the notion that what "juxtaposition" is to Modernism, "hypertext" is to Post-Modernism.

Vincent Pappalardo: I think it depends of which movies we talk about. Some of Kubrick's movies could be called Modern ; some Post-Modern . For example in The Shining , Jack's problem as a writer is that he can't find something new to write, so he rewrites endlessly the same phrase. Maybe I feel there is less a Post-Modern side in the movie than in Jack: he is "re-playing, over-playing himself, he over parodies his madness. In this way there's a kind of present-past relationship that gives a Post-Modern feeling. Do you see what I mean?

FMD: I see what you mean with respect to Jack and the film. Leaving aside the question of whether it is "Post-Modern ," it is fascinating in itself. It is as if Jack is trying very hard to be Jack, and it reminds me of Sartre's description of "being a waiter" in 'Being And Nothingness.' The waiter he observes in the cafe isn't just waiting on tables, he is "playing at" being a waiter, and so is being a waiter in a manner that is exaggerated, intensified, and for that reason, a bit comical, but also uncanny. In the Shining Jack is already playing at being a writer; in the interview scene, the overly casual way he corrects the hotel manager's assertion that he is a teacher with one of the oldest clichŽs there is: "teaching has been just a way of making ends meet:" he's really a writer.

Vincent Pappalardo: Exactly! This interview regarding "Jack playing Jack...", has some incredible tones in Jack's acting. Like when he says at the end: "And, uh... as far as my wife is concerned, huh." If you were in this room with them, you'd think "Wait a minute, something's wrong here! Are they playing their lines or what? It's a set-up!"

These "covers" - one upon the other - appear to be what deeply inhabit the film: "covers" of forgetting hide the hotel's evil past; the different images of different times Danny sees when he's shining are "covers"; the blood from the elevator re covers us; the sheets of snow; even the walls and the doors that look like they have too many coats of paint; everything in the hotel's furniture is thick, heavy, even the Tex Avery lightning in the "Bear scene;" and the axe through the door give us the subliminal feeling of being "coated by cartoon colors"!

FMD: I do believe you're on to something here. And all these "coverings" act as subliminal stimulants of the violence that Jack eventually enacts. When things are covered up, one's impulse is to raise the curtain, pull off the masks, hack through the veneer: in Jack's case, with an axe.

One of Frederic Jameson's criteria for "Post-Modernism" is the absence of historical depth, the elimination of past and future tenses in favor of a sheer, discontinuous present. One way to do that, I suppose, is to turn the present moment into a mere repetition. Jack's past way of "overplaying" himself might contribute to something like that, from Jameson's point of view it wouldn't be parodic, because parody requires a standard that is being abused, and Post-Modernism is supposed to have no awareness of "standards," even as things to be overcome. Jameson says Post-Modernism is pastiche rather than parody.

Gordon Dahlquist: The Shining is very much conceived in reference to the genre it's obliterating, it is not a pastiche any more than Ulysses is a pastiche of Homer. The difference between the way those works build on "classic" models, is to me a telling measure of how and where Modernism and Post-Modernism part ways.

Vincent Pappalardo: I guess my blurred feeling of something Post-Modern in The Shining came more from the fact that when The Shining is parodying a "horror movie full of blood", it seems to really become at that point, a horror movie full of blood. Parody in The Shining is like a never-ending quest, which is a good mirroring of Jack's attempts through eternity to kill his family, as well as the attempts of the "best people" to hide their evil past.

FMD: I share your feeling about this film, the ending of which seems especially paradoxical in this light, because on first reading, it appears two of the good guys get away (Wendy and Danny). But then one realizes that Danny's experiences with his father at the Overlook (not to mention the abuse he suffered at his father's hands even before he got there) ensure that he will grow up to become Jack. Thus, in the climax of The Shining : Danny is running from his future self and Jack is in pursuit of his former self. One runs from his future, the other tries to catch up with his past.

Fernando Burjato: I don't think the fact that The Shining revisits the genre "horror movie" makes it a Post-Modern piece. If there is really a distinction between Modern and Post-Modern , it's not in the act of re-creating (which we find in Picasso, Van Gogh and Joyce...), nor is it in the use of parody itself, but in the meaning the art of the past has for the artist. Picasso re-creates Ingres, David, Cranach, Poussin, etc., but he viewed himself as part of their tradition.

FMD: This is pretty much consistent with what Jameson says: Modernism can be parodic, when reacting against a tradition it feels to be oppressive, while Post-Modernism is pastiche: tradition is turned into mere information to be manipulated in a pragmatic manner. So Warhol can use soup cans or de' Chiricos; Lichtenstein can paint comics or Davids... it's all the same to them; all raw material.

Gordon Dahlquist: My notion of Post-Modern film would be closer to Derek Jarman or Peter Greenaway, who use anachronism and imposed structure in personal and often quite arbitrary ways, and of course there's someone like Greg Arkari, who touts himself as a "Post-Modern filmmaker" (though in many such cases, the line between "Post-Modern " and "unable to tell a story" can get murky). This is certainly another thing that plagues "Post-Modern " work in any field: it's an easy label for the lazy.

Thornhill: Though Modernists often parodied and 're-fashioned' art that came before, the Futurists looked upon venerable art with the same contempt little Alex looks upon an old drunkie: Just as soon look at you as kill you.

The best of the Futurists, Boccioni at the top, were all "cured" in glorious war [1914-18]. That pretty well put the kabosh on the Futurists. They popped up a while later, those who survived, as Mussolini's Fascisti. What the Great War couldn't tame, the Un-Great War taught.

To some Modernists, there was respect not merely for the art of the past, but the past itself. The Futurists were talented, but rather like Droogies - Just cut off the face of the world. Many of the 'Post-Modernists' (Chris Burden, Warhol, etc.) begin to resemble their dawning century predecessors. In the sense that they begin to peel-off from resemblance to Eliot, Joyce, Woolf and other 'Modernists.'

Rod Munday: I find a strong Modernist sensibility in Kubrick's work, as well as an equally strong scepticism of what might be termed the 'metaphysics' of Modernism. By which I mean the way Modernists put their faith in certain truths; science as a means of understanding the universe, an unquestionable faith in progress, etc. Modernists' relationship to truth was pragmatic, unlike the pre-Modernist's belief in religious truths being for the glory of God, the Modernist's truths primarily served the Modernist, improving the quality of his existence, or cancelling out his need to believe in anything greater than himself. This inward-looking "faith" was present in much of the work of the Modern art movement, with its emphasis on "subjectivity," and the importance of the artist in his own work. Kubrick, it seems to me, was always on the down side of the Modernist movement, mounting a sustained criticism of its hubris. His films magnify flaws in human nature. But behind the obvious pessimism, lurks a very powerful humanism. This means all Kubrick's work, on one level, can be viewed as a cautionary fable. However, this rather trite conclusion should be set against his tendency to favour ambiguity of meaning in his work. I think ultimately, his personal sympathy for certain theories and approaches was subordinated by an instinctive grasp of the truth of an emerging situation, even as the cameras rolled perhaps.

David Culpepper: I recognize the empathy for humanity in Kubrick's films. But Humanism, as I understand it, in essence replaces God, fate, the Tao (whatever) with the Self.

"I am the captain of my own ship."
"I am the master of my own destiny."

I see very few masters of their own destinies in Stanley Kubrick's films. Certainly characters make transcendent choices at crucial moments, Barry at the duel, Wendy and Danny, Joker killing the sniper, Dr Bill at various junctures. But the larger scheme is beyond their control. I suppose Humanism is yet another classification that becomes more ambiguous as we examine it closely.

Rod Munday: I think Stanley Kubrick is part of the humanist tradition, because the message I get from his films is that he believes humanity has nothing greater than themselves to rely on or to guide them. But, I believe he also saw the unbearable psychic pain inherent in such a realisation. And the defences we erect to protect ourselves from that pain: hate, in the final analysis, banishes fear does it not? I think Kubrick was interested in mapping out the other alternatives, hence his strong interests in myths as a way for humanity to vicariously experience something greater than ourselves. I think he saw the need for us to extend the boundaries of possibility around ourselves. That was perhaps his artistic project. So that we would not think ourselves to be at the centre. So we would not see the horizon as a boundary and stop moving towards it.

There was a distinct lack of agreement in this thread when it came to labelling Kubrick wholly a Modern or partially a Post-Modern artist. Certainly many of his films speak to us directly of the conflicts and obsessions of the late Twentieth Century. The nuclear arms race and the Moon landing, are just two of the more obvious examples. But in the case of Barry Lyndon, his intentions seemed to the opposite of those of a Modernist (or a Post-Modernist), as the film references works of art by Gainsborough, Hogarth, Watteau, Zofffany etc.

There is a view that artistic and philosophical movements such as "Modernism" can only be properly defined posthumously: when they have effectively run their course and been replaced by something else. After all, every act of definition implies the imposition of limits; difficult to do when something is still evolving. This is why, when we talk of things being "Modernist," it can be argued that we do so from the perspective of the Post-Modern. I might add that we can now also talk about Post-Modernism in the same posthumous sense, but from what vantage point? It is (as yet) difficult to say.

Every definition fundamentally attempts to "name" something, so it can be discussed in conjunction with other "named" things. This is easier to do with real-world objects, because their complexity is already apparent:- you only need to look at a tree to know that all its nuances could not possibly be encapsulated by the word "tree." But things get less straight-forward when definitions are extended to abstract things, like Modernism and Post-Modernism. Any definition of an abstract concept is inevitably going to be saddled with a large degree of subjectivity and play. In a way, the more convincing the definition is, the more suspicious we should be of it, because the act of defining anything involves the discarding of information as much as it does the retaining of it. So definitions must be closely scrutinised and continually re-examined. Ultimately there is a sense that applying a label like modernist or Post-Modernist to an artist like Stanley Kubrick can be helpful up to a point, but after that point is reached, it might actually start obscuring they very thing we were trying to illuminate.

Related links

For more information on Modernism, provides an exaustively detailed timeline

The tenants of Imagism, including quotations from the Imagist Manifesto can be found at

For more information on Frederic Jameson, go to Jameson's essay Historicism in The Shining is available on the Kubrick Site (see "Essays and Articles" on the index page)