The Country of the Mind in Kubrick's Fear and Desire (1953)
by Jason Sperb
This essay is a revised and expanded version of one originally appearing in Film Criticism 29.1 (Fall 2004): 23-37. Copyright, Jason Sperb (2005)
One suspects that [Kubrick] did not find it disagreeable to know that the only traceable print of [Fear and Desire] was in private hands and not easily available for public screening.
- Alexander Walker
Nearly forty years passed before Stanley Kubrick's first film re-emerged for general audiences. Allegorical in structure, Fear and Desire is the story of four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in a nameless war. When it finally resurfaced in 1991 at the Telluride Film Festival, Fear and Desire was understandably highly anticipated; the film, however, disappointed many devoted Kubrick followers and film cineastes. Anticipating such a negative response, the filmmaker asked Warner Bros. to prepare a press release stating that Kubrick "considers [the film] nothing more than a ‘bumbling, amateur film exercise,' written by a failed poet, crewed by a few friends, and 'a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious'" (qtd. in LoBrutto 91). Despite the harshness of the words, Kubrick's self-criticism was largely justified. As a blatantly abstract war film, Fear and Desire suffers from an overriding fixation with trying to orate profound statements on life, suggesting the work of an ambitious filmmaker who had a vague sense of what social concerns he wished to tackle—war and violence—but had yet to find a cinematic and nonverbal way to explore them. Although some have kindly dismissed the movie as "an initial practice piece" (Walker 44), Thomas Allen Nelson nails Fear and Desire's faults more specifically:While the themes of Fear and Desire crudely reflect a number of later Kubrickian preoccupations, their expression resembles that youthful grabbag of 1950s bohemian negativism and existential self-congratulation that a fledging director no doubt found attractive during the period when he and his first wife lived in Greenwich Village. (22)
When the film first opened in 1953, the response was not overly negative. The New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther noted that despite the fact that Fear and Desire "is uneven and sometimes reveals an experimental rather than a polished exterior," the filmmakers still 'succeed in turning out a moody, often visually powerful study of subdued excitements" (35.2). Reportedly, legendary film critic and screenwriter James Agee even took Kubrick out and bought the young filmmaker a drink, declaring to him that "there are too many good things . . . to call [Fear and Desire] arty" (as qtd. in Phillips 18). Nonetheless, the film, for all its stylistic and thematic ambitions, still relies more on verbalizing Fear and Desire's themes than on creating them through non-verbal means. Even Crowther, for example, criticized Howard O. Sackler's script as "more intellectual than explosive" (35.2). Indeed, among other characteristics, Fear and Desire repeatedly portrays the human mind as verbalizing abstract thoughts and providing authoritative thematic meaning and narrative order to events experienced within the film.
Most scholars have been anxious to follow the filmmaker's own lead, disregarding the film and de-emphasizing its place, along with Spartacus (another under-considered effort), in the Kubrick canon. The general unavailability of the film had, no doubt, only further encouraged this critical and academic dismissal. Still, some writers have attempted to acknowledge and investigate Fear and Desire over the years--perhaps spurred on both by the auteur tendency, rightly so, to leave no film behind and by the fact that Kubrick made so few films overall. Aside from biographers such as Vincent LoBrutto and John Baxter, scholars Norman Kagan, Nelson, and Gene Phillips give the film the most scrutiny, though only Kagan devotes more than a page or two of criticism (much of which is plot summary). These same few scholars also proceed to dismiss Fear and Desire, perhaps because of its thematic weaknesses or amateur production values. Typically, the film is mentioned in passing, such as when Michel Ciment observes (almost as an aside) that with Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick "was doing a remake of his first film, Fear and Desire," an interesting possibility otherwise unelaborated and unsupported (234). Yet my intention here is not to add to the critical negligence by arguing that Kubrick should have known better than to tell a story allegorically, or to criticize him for being pretentious. Instead, I only wish to establish the strong backlash Kubrick's film faced and call attention to how the young, noted perfectionist may have been especially conscious of Fear and Desire's weaknesses and subsequently worked to refine them.
Specifically, I argue that Fear and Desire allows us to re-chart the journey of an artist from one who believed in the power of film as a transcendent medium, showing an ambitious understanding of the world and its own story space, to one who believed that film was most effective when letting go of its own obsession with cognitive meaning in the face of the affective experience of the film itself. Indeed, Kubrick's most well-known films are not models of narrative clarity. Many of his most famous films, such as 2001 (1968) and The Shining (1980), seem as concerned with what remains hidden as what is shown, yet curiously his early films are in fact quite the opposite in their structure. This essay highlights the stylistic decisions in Fear and Desire that Kubrick's films later refined, such as the use of voice-over narration, mood music, and multiple story line--all elements crucial to constructing a narrative authority over events and their meaning within the film, elements that importantly contradict his later films' reputation for ambiguity. To this end, I argue that Fear and Desire was not merely the director's first film but also the first important Kubrick film, not because his first effort was necessarily successful but because Fear and Desire provides some crucial cues to understanding the ways in which narrative meaning can (and cannot) exist within the films overseen by Stanley Kubrick. In a celebrated career that spanned over forty years but astonishingly produced only thirteen feature-length films, Fear and Desire stands as the last exhumed text through which to better grasp the artistic evolution of one of cinema's most preeminent contributors.
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Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut, seems to take narrative ambiguity as its main subject. 'suppos[e] there is nothing more" to Eyes Wide Shut, writes Michel Chion in his perceptive book-length study of the film, 'suppos[e] there are only signifiers with nothing signified" (41). Eyes Wide Shut "tells us," he goes on to write, "that motives do not matter and that we cannot know them" (84). Indeed, the story climax of Eyes Wide Shut centers not on a moment of revelation but of resignation—the acknowledgement that little can be learned definitively of the film's true events by either the protagonist, Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), or the film's audience. When Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) confronts Bill about what may have really happened the previous night during the orgy at the Somerton Mansion, Ziegler tells Bill a story that undermines the murder mystery Bill not only came to believe but he himself constructed. Instead, Bill must accept that he does not know how or why the prostitute died, and never will. Whereas 2001, A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining each point toward the possible ambiguity of narrative events, Eyes Wide Shut takes such a failure one step further by highlighting and foregrounding a sense that no definitive meaning can ever be established over the story, while also positing a Kubrickian protagonist who may finally, if only vaguely, recognize this ambiguity. The very real possibility exists that Bill, in his solitary, asocial state, is not just attempting to impose too much meaning on a situation but that there may, in fact, be no cohesive narrative to construct; 'someone [just] died"--a random event that "happens all the time." Thus the absence of narrative meaning--making sense of Eyes Wide Shut's story world--is not just a theme, but actually emerges as the subject of Kubrick's last film. At the end of Stanley Kubrick's career, narrative authority seemed to be a failed pursuit in the face of the kind of ambiguity that pervades Eyes Wide Shut.
Yet Kubrick's films were not always so ambiguous in their content--a point not focused on nearly as much by scholars such as Chion. On the contrary, his early films-such as Killer's Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Spartacus (1959)-foreground the mind's seeming potential for mapping out narrative assumptions and points of orientation through the story world. The overlapping points of view, the complicated, often nonlinear structures, the voice-overs-all these elements of earlier films suggest narratives preoccupied with, to borrow Chion's phrase, people's "motives," i.e., why heists fail and military institutions rest of the verge of self-destruction. Mario Falsetto, in his narratological study of Kubrick's body of work, points out, in relation to The Killing, how "the use of an omniscient voice-over commentary is associated with a certain kind of filmic authority" (5). His early films, as argued by Luis M. Garcia Mainar, reveal diametrically-opposed views for the possible forms (and absence) of storytelling:
Voice-over narration in Kubrick's films evolves from an element that shows the mastery of the text by itself, an element of coherence that assures the perfect fitting of each element in the first films, to a more detached, ironic relationship of narrator to text that hints at the growing feeling in the later films that reality cannot be controlled and that the text is unable to present it to us in a clear, reassuring way. This passage seems marked by the absence of voice-over narration in 2001, a reference to the organizing, clarifying function it had fulfilled in Kubrick's films up to then, which would not have been coherent with the spirit of this revolutionary film. (58)
Mainar points out the break in Kubrick's career from that of a "mastery" to that of a "more detached, ironic relationship." One could argue, however, that such a break actually occurred with Dr. Strangelove (1964) and its use of the strangely irrelevant third-person narrator. This shift in reliability is not so much that he passes along particularly inaccurate information but rather in regards to the fact that every bit of information the narrator offers about such matters as the Doomsday device and the B-52s is either redundant or unnecessary. They are nothing that either Strangelove himself or the Russian Premier will not discuss in greater detail later in the film. Indeed, the highly comic nature of Dr. Strangelove undercuts any attempt at credibility and authority that such a serious voice, in subject matter and in tone, tries to establish. This transition, meanwhile, comes one film sooner than the curious and no doubt telling decision to eliminate the third-person, omniscient and scientific voice-over in 2001. Both Falsetto and Mainar focus on voice-over narration as the key to how Kubrick's films either do or do not construct "an element of coherence"-imposing a consistent meaning on events and motives within the story world. In spite of their diligence, however, both theorists overlook the one film that best illustrates how well voice-over narration can attempt a "certain kind of filmic authority" and show "a mastery of the text by itself." There is an earlier film more dependent perhaps upon what, while researching Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick later in his career referred to as "the magic of words" (qtd. in Walker, 184). It is no small part of my project here to show how the first clues to Kubrick films" slowly evolving shift from narrative clarity and authority to "a growing feeling that reality cannot be controlled"-as well as the clues to understanding Kubrick's career more inclusively-lie not only in The Killing or 2001 but in the marginalized Fear and Desire.
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Like many of Kubrick's subsequent films, Fear and Desire opens with a voice-over narration by David Allen. Unlike the later films, however (save, perhaps, the third-person narrators who open Spartacus and The Killing), the voice-over narrator begins Fear and Desire by staking out for the audience some ambitious, if vague, philosophical ground. He intones seriously:There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies that struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. For all of them, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.
In this low-budget, once forgotten effort, the third-person narrator opens the film by declaring that the narrative structure and its characters exist in "no other country but the mind." The narrator in the film thus attempts to envision a map, charting out for us a narrative orientation to the story world. The implication is that everything which happens in Fear and Desire thus exists through the imagination of this Country of the Mind-an illusory, narratively engaged realm which presumes authority over the characters and events within Fear and Desire. The country of the mind is not the story world per se, and it is not in itself a map-the country of the mind is the understanding of a figurative or literal map, that which is marked as the orientation of a narrating consciousness to the story world beyond. The country of the mind is the narrative assumption about the story world therein charted. It is what the map orients us to within the story world. The country of the mind is an unembodied mediation between the narrator and the story world-a non-represented country expressed by, but also externalized from, the mind. It can be denoted figuratively by a voice-over, an expressionistic image, a sound-it can even be that which is denoted by the Big Board in Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick's films point to the country of the mind whenever a cinematic moment marks ephemeral narrative assumptions about the story world.
All Kubrick films situate instances of the country of the mind-what shifts and fluctuates is the rupture between the reliability and durability of these maps, the narrators, and the territories they seek to chart. The voice-over at the beginning of Fear and Desire supports the first instance of this mapping, and gives us little reason to doubt that the country of the mind varies much from the existential forest in which the battles play out. Yet in Eyes Wide Shut, events as they are mediated through the country of Bill's mind-where women are murdered in order to be silenced, and he is stalked because of his past behavior-may not be what he experiences in the story world at all. In Fear and Desire and Eyes Wide Shut (and in every Kubrick film in between), I envision the country of the mind as that which the explicit or implicit narrator sees as the story world unfolding, though it is rarely if ever synonymous with the story world itself. Nor is the country of the mind the narration itself, either, but rather a consequence of the narration, the thematic and discursive vision of the narration.
The roots of the voice-over in Kubrick's early films-the continuing need to chart out a way of receiving story events-can be traced all the way back to Fear and Desire's declaration that the film exists in the "country [of] . . . the mind." There, we see the cognitive ambitions for the country of the mind. Such a quest was often mapped out during the opening moments of Kubrick's other early films. The Killing began with a third-person narrator discussing how one of the film's characters "had as much effect on the final outcome of the operation as a single piece of a jumbo jigsaw puzzle has to its predetermined final design. Only the addition of the missing fragments of the puzzle would reveal whether the picture was as he guessed it would be." In this quote, The Killing returns the audience to the same abstractions used to frame Fear and Desire, which explicitly reminded the audience that everything that happened occurred "outside history." Later, The Killing reinforces the idea of a narrative-as-jigsaw puzzle when introducing Johnny Clay, the heist's mastermind, as "perhaps the most important thread in the unfinished fabric [and who] furthered its design." Paths of Glory, moreover, opens with a similarly omniscient narrator declaring that 'successful attacks [during the trench warfare of WWI] were measured in hundreds of yards and paid for in lives by hundreds of thousands." Though not an allegory or outside history, Paths of Glory's opening voice-over-like that of Fear and Desire-aspires to tell audiences what they should think and feel. As though the general horror of war (as well as the images of war that Paths of Glory depicts shortly thereafter) were not sufficient by itself, the narrator explicitly reminds audiences of the terrible toll suffered in armed conflict. Spartacus's opening voice-over, meanwhile, similarly lectures about how "the [Roman] Republic lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in the shadows for the event to bring it forth." As with Fear and Desire, Spartacus shows no interest in allowing the film's own themes to develop dramatically through the experience of the film. Whereas Fear and Desire tells the audience about humanity being at war with itself, Spartacus talks about the "disease" of slavery, as though such a human tragedy could not speak, had not already spoken, for itself.
In Eyes Wide Shut, decades later, Bill Harford represents Kubrick's final (failed) narrative consciousness-a subjectivity far removed from Fear and Desire, The Killing and Spartacus's respective third-person narrators (who were omniscient and all-knowing), and whose attempts at narrative authority are constantly undermined by other characters in the film. When Bill goes to identify the woman's corpse in the morgue, we hear a voice-over of the woman saying, in an aural flashback from the earlier scene, that their behavior could cost the lady her life and possibly his as well. We get here a sense of the country of the mind at work. A product of Bill's mind, this voice-over-again, an instance of a narrator attempting to impose meaning and identify motive-explicitly foregrounds how Bill is taking two fundamentally separate events (her words from one scene and his image of her body in another) and constructing a story of murder and sacrifice to connect the two. Thus, the film highlights an increasingly rare use of voice-over narration as an arbitrary reconstruction of the human mind, and not as an authoritative narrative understanding of his experiences. We hear an implicit instance of Bill as an attempted storyteller (the black and white expressionistic images of his wife, Alice [Nicole Kidman], engaged in a sexual act with an anonymous naval officer being the other instance). Importantly, this is the only instance of voice-over narration in Eyes Wide Shut, an increasingly irrelevant, even nonexistent device that most clearly began to lose its prominence at the end of the first half of Barry Lyndon, when the film literally tunes out the third-person narrator halfway through his speech to the audience. By the time Kubrick came to make this last work, he had stripped away many of the overt nondiegetic devices so first prevalent in Fear and Desire, moving further away from any explicit notion of authoritative narrating-"the mastery of the text by itself"-in both the structures and the characters of his films, confining the foolish quest for narrative clarity to his consistently contradicted and undermined characters. Later films-such as Eyes Wide Shut-demonstrate the inability for a narrative consciousness to understand the events in a way Fear and Desire self-evidently mastered.
Like the later Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket (as well less overt anti-war films such as Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon), Kubrick's first film takes a moral stand against war; however, unlike his subsequent anti-war movies, which focus mostly on military establishments-the definitions of "cowardice" and "desertion," boot camp and the ominous War Room-Fear and Desire attacks war more generically, as a crime against humanity, and pays almost no attention to the institutional forces at work within the military unit (conversely, Kubrick's other anti-war films often become so pre-occupied with the inner workings of the military that their respective wars, such as WWI and Vietnam, seem secondary). Within Fear and Desire's relatively brief running time, these soldiers kill other enemy soldiers and kidnap an otherwise innocent country girl (later killed by one of the men, who lusts after her and subsequently lives in guilt for his actions), before eventually confronting more enemy soldiers, who proved to be doubles to themselves (played by the same actors). After killing these men, their symbolic "twins," the soldiers finally escape on a raft to their home territory. The themes of Fear and Desire would seem transparent enough, such as war being nothing more than humanity battling against itself with soldiers struggling to fight their internal demons. For example, Paths of Glory's court-martial proves more subtle and effective than Fear and Desire's method of twin casting as a harbinger for the theme of war as self-defeating.
The dramatic, booming score of Gerald Fried plays over the film's credits, indicating early on Kubrick's tendency to allow explicit narrative elements to establish Fear and Desire's tone. Fried, meanwhile, would continue this type of mood music in Killer's Kiss and The Killing. Alex North would assume such duties for Spartacus, and his overt, potentially intrusive score for 2001 was also deleted, like the planned voice-over, from the later sci-fi epic. Later in Fear and Desire, as the four fleeing soldiers march through the forest, the film overlays their respective voice-overs, as each man discusses his own anxieties about being trapped behind enemy lines. Such lines as "nobody's safe here," "are they watching me?," "they"re all scared," "we"re gonna hang from the trees tonight," and "I"m so scared" emanate from the men's minds, echoing in rapid succession over a montage of them working their way through the forest floor and giving form to "the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt." This particular kind of intense, multiple first-person subjectivity would never again be deployed by Kubrick. Even the highly subjective narrative structure of A Clockwork Orange serves to critique Alex's (Malcolm McDowell) hatred and self-absorption rather than win him sympathy or allegiance. Moreover, the "interviews" in Full Metal Jacket, where characters answer questions to the camera, do not attempt to explain the emotions of the latter film's soldiers in the way that Fear and Desire's voice-over had earlier. On the contrary, they may even further dehumanize the soldiers by portraying them as generic and uninteresting in their discussions. Fear and Desire, however, relies on the ability for each man to verbalize his mental and emotional state rather than to display such anxieties dramatically or between the lines of a standard military interview.
When the tense music returns in the next scene, as the soldiers approach the river, Fear and Desire yet again reminds audiences of the emotional tension being represented within the story. This kind of mood music resumes shortly thereafter when the four men unexpectedly spot an enemy cabin; the music suggests that this location soon will be the sight of a dramatic confrontation, an emotional setup much like the drums that always play in the background, counting off the moments leading up to the executions at the end of Paths of Glory. As they approach the shack, the music becomes even louder and more forceful, building up the anxiety while awaiting their violent attack on the enemy soldiers inside (a similar musical build-up occurs when Sidney [Paul Mazursky] is left with the girl, and the sequence leads slowly, but deliberately, to an attempted rape). The soldiers kill the men in the cabin, after which the voice-over narrator returns, again attempting to put the themes within Fear and Desire into words, as Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp) looks out silently over the murdered enemy soldiers:We spend our lives running our fingers down the lists in directories, looking for our real names, our permanent addresses. No man is an island? Perhaps, that was true a long time ago, before the ice age. The glaciers have melted away and now we"re all islands-parts of a world made of islands only.
It is difficult to pinpoint just what exactly the narrator is talking about while "running [his] fingers down the lists in directories." The metaphor Kubrick and Sackler employ here does not seem to fit the context of the massacre, other than as an understatement about each human's violent inability to connect with other people-"we"re all islands." This idea, though, establishes what would go on to be perhaps the dominant theme of Kubrick's films. Characters-all the way to Bill Harford-cannot relate to the people around them and must therefore fall back on their own mostly faulty assumptions of the world and its meaning, thus mapping out their arbitrary and often asocial forms of narrative order over an experience that cannot otherwise make sense of. This line highlights Fear and Desire's tendency for vague abstractions, which are also common to the dialogue in the film, where the distance for the men to the front lines is "only a short distance, the distance between life and death." Fear and Desire also returns to this idea of people as islands at several other points, such as when Sidney begins to lose his mind and mumble incoherently. Positioning humans as being "islands" lays out a major theme of alienation within Fear and Desire (and many Kubrick films). Such imagery also again foregrounds a narrative authority, one that projects an understanding of events and characters. The subtext rises to the surface, just like Mac who floats down the river in a raft-literally his own "island" in this country of the mind. More generally, rivers long signified, ironically, social stagnation and estrangement in Kubrick's films, if we pair the events along the river in Fear and Desire to those moments later on in A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, where each film's protagonist retreats to gazing contemplatively by a river, both having been shut out from their respective societies and met with-as the latter film's third-person narrator suggests-"coldness . . . and resentment."
After Sidney is left by the other three soldiers with the kidnapped girl, multiple story threads begin to emerge in Fear and Desire, and the elusive narrative consciousness that first "call[-ed]" these characters "into being" now begins using montage to draw explicit meaning about such themes as sanity, compassion, an animal instinct for survival, and basic human desires such as jealousy and lust, from the parallel sequences. The film cuts between Sidney and the girl by the tree and the other soldiers down by the river (these sequences are also highlighted by mood music). This use of multiple story threads (echoed by both Davy's flashback and Iris's flashback-within-a-flashback in Killer's Kiss) reached its highest form in The Killing's extremely complicated juggling of events and chronology leading up to the heist (well documented and dissected by Falsetto); this intertwining of conflicting storylines was prominently displayed in Kubrick's first few films and then seemingly rejected in later films. These subsequent films focus linearly on single protagonists (Alex, Jack, Bill) and confined groups-such as Full Metal Jacket's two military units and The Shining's snowed-in family.
Once Sidney kills the girl (then runs off in hysterics as Mac [Frank Silvera] watches, understandably befuddled), the three remaining soldiers regroup and decide to try to kill the enemy colonel. Mac goes down the river in a makeshift raft, while the other two prepare to assassinate the leader. At this point, the film adopts its most complicated narrative structure, as the narrative moves between Mac on the river, Corby and Fletcher (Steve Coit) outside the enemy headquarters, and the Colonel himself inside his office. As Mac rides down the river, his own first person voice-over emerges:It's better . . . it's better to roll up your life into one night and one man and one gun. It hurts too much to keep hurting everyone else in every direction and to be hurt with all the separate hates exploding day after day. You can"t help it. The curse buzzes out of your mouth with every word you say. And no one alive can tell which is which, or what you mean. Yeah. You try door after door when you hear voices you like behind them. But the knobs come off in your hands.
Like the third-person narrator in Fear and Desire, Mac's first-person voice-over attempts to stress his emotional state as well as the general ideas behind the film-the desire for soldiers to stop fighting and killing, and how these desires subsequently slowly eat away at a soldier's sanity. These are emotions never explicitly stated in Full Metal Jacket, where the desires of the soldiers are no clearer than the constant blank look on the face of Leonard Lawrence, "Pyle" (Vincent D"Onofrio). The colonel's speech, meanwhile, reiterates this parallel descent into madness as he lectures about waiting to kill and to die. In one of the narrative's most visually explicit moments, Fear and Desire cuts between Mac and the enemy General's respective speeches about self-loathing and awaiting death, clearly attempting to strike a thematic connection between the two men as equally disgusted with, and exhausted by, the act of war (echoing a similar parallel between the speeches of Spartacus [Kirk Douglas] and Crassus [Lawrence Olivier] years later). During these moments, Fear and Desire intersplices the story thread of the other two soldiers, Corby and Fletcher, as they approach and eventually attack the enemy compound, with these men's "doubles," the General and his aide, subsequently gunned down. The film's final moments-through dramatic mood music, the various speeches on war, and the parallel editing-work the audience deliberately towards Fear and Desire's violent conclusion.
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Released two years later, and also co-written by Sackler, Killer's Kiss has a much less ambitious narrative and thematic plan than the earlier film; instead of a meditation on war and humanity, this later film seeks only to tell a relatively simple tale about a boxer, his crush on a beautiful neighbor, Gloria (Irene Kane), and his run-ins with the New York underworld. Killer's Kiss also begins with voice-over narration, though this time the dialogue is in the first-person, that of the film's protagonist, a boxer named Davy Gordon (Jamie Smith):It's crazy how you can get yourself in a mess sometimes and not even be able to think about it with any sense and yet not be able to think about anything else. You get so you"re no good for anything or anybody. Maybe it begins by taking life too serious. Anyway, I think that's the way it began for me.
On one level, Davy's words read as little more than standard noir fare from the 1940s and 1950s-a recounting of regret and loss that opens the door for the rest of the film to be told primarily in flashback, illustrating how the character arrived at where he is. However, the opening voice-over narration also crucially hints at a kind of personal confession from Kubrick himself, as though the filmmaker was implicitly aware of the way Fear and Desire took the cinematic representation of life "too serious"-that is to say, fixated excessively on "the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death." If Killer's Kiss lacks the thematic ambition of Fear and Desire, however, the later film does show a greater interest in breaking away from allegory and in telling a story more realistically, setting itself in the streets of the city rather than in an existential forest and relying heavily on cinema-verité-like shots and montages, depicting New York in all its liveliness. Almost undoubtedly influenced by Kubrick's earlier documentary work, much of Killer's Kiss seeks a realistic representation of the city surrounding the primary characters.
Thus we can see Kubrick beginning to refine the stylistic voice of Fear and Desire by way of this shift away from the mastery of the filmic text by itself. Yet, subsequent films-The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Spartacus-still, to varying degrees, rely on a narrative authority to chart out a country of the mind through voice-over narration, multiple story threads, and mood music. However, by the time we arrive at Lolita, less than ten years after Fear and Desire and before Dr. Strangelove and 2001, a change has clearly occurred. Lolita also depends on voice-over narration; however, unlike every film up to this point (including Spartacus and Paths of Glory), Lolita does not open with a voice-over narration. In this respect, the beginning of this latter film indicates that the audience sits in much less comforting territory as the film frame follows a lonely car through dense fog-as though, for the first time, there may initially be no narrative authority to frame the story. The fog which seems to follow Humbert down that lonely road in Lolita may likewise serve as a possible avenue for envisioning the country of the mind, symbolically situating itself between the narrator and the story world. Thus, the fog becomes an embodiment of the narrative vision from the narrator of the story world. It similarly recalls the fog on display in the opening of Fear and Desire. It may not be a bit of a stretch to argue that the fog which covers the opening terrain of Fear and Desire and Lolita signifies the country of the mind or some other artificial barrier, clearly obstructing our view of the story world as much as something can (much like the way a voice-over narration actually impedes our experience of the story world). If Lolita's world will reveal anything-or verbalize abstract thoughts-such revelations will be leaked out in pieces, or in the experience itself, not blatantly stated in the opening seconds. Of course, ironically, Lolita does give away the film, in a sense, when the story's conclusion (the death of Quilty [Peter Sellers]) is moved to the beginning of the film. Also significant here is that having this knowledge of Humbert Humbert's (James Mason) future, knowing he will eventually kill someone for sexually abusing a minor (and for jealousy), orients the audience to the story prior to his eventual voice-over narration (the first first-person narrator in a Kubrick film since Killer's Kiss), which will offer Humbert's own perspective on events. Moving Quilty's murder to the beginning establishes events within the film's world as separate from this particular narrative presence, the introduction of whom follows that opening scene. Humbert's first-person voice-over narration certainly suggests another narrative consciousness within the film, but the shift in temporal order points to these forms of narrative authority as increasingly weakened in later films and proportionally unable to understand the story world in such manner as the authority previously had. Humbert's first voice-over words come later in the film, just after the murderous prologue in the discourse and four years earlier in the story.
Halfway through Lolita, Humbert leaves Beardsley with Lolita to attend to a "Hollywood engagement." Humbert claims he "was to be . . . chief consultant in the production of a film dealing with existentialism, still a hot thing at the time." The exact film title within Lolita remains a mystery, yet the film Humbert works on could just as easily have been something such as Fear and Desire, a possible reference also posited earlier by Nelson (22). In this respect, Lolita implicitly shows both a clear understanding of the thematic and dramatic shortcomings of Kubrick's first film and a creative willingness to detach from the trap of taking cinematic life "too serious" and to work out that artistic self-consciousness within the narratives of his later films. A shift in stylistic tendencies was already underway in Lolita where Humbert loses a grip on his narrative authority, and the hot topic of existentialism, which quietly pervades the narrative structures of many early Kubrick films, is called to attention and mocked.
By the time we reach Eyes Wide Shut in the late `90s, instances of the country of the mind, as mentioned in the beginning, have ceased to offer any form of authoritative storytelling. Having been further undermined in his attempt to find order and meaning in the world outside his marriage, Bill once again returns home. Shocked even further by the sight of his orgy mask lying next to Alice-painfully realizing the unavoidability of counternarratives he cannot control-Bill finally breaks down in tears and opens up to his wife. "I"ll tell you everything," he confesses, something he should have been prepared to do the night they both got high and Alice told him about her secret sexual desires. This willingness to confess, meanwhile, perhaps points to-without certainly solidifying-the possibility of Bill finally emerging as a relatively successful narrator, recalling to his wife neither his foolish desires nor faulty assumptions but merely his own limited experiences. Thus, Bill is willing finally to talk with her about "what . . . you think we should do," as though struggling to construct a new narrative together. Alice reasserts her own perceptions-in her most focused counterpoint to Bill's previous attempts at narrative order-that "the reality of one night [both Bill's perception of events, as well as presumably Alice's fantasies], let alone that of a whole lifetime, can never be the whole truth," negating the significance of many of the film's events and thus reaffirming narrative ambiguity as the primary subject of Eyes Wide Shut. Bill, meanwhile, responds by stating that "no dream is ever just a dream," indicating a willingness to listen to Alice's concerns while also voicing his own. Unlike the failed marriages at the heart of Barry Lyndon and The Shining (where divergent narratives remain isolated in mutual misunderstanding and contempt), Alice and Bill have found some kind of agreed meaning, on some level. Both are "awake now and hopefully for a long time to come." At this point, Bill again attempts to impose narrative order by suggesting that they will be happy together "forever," but Alice cautions him not to think in those terms. Alice's warning highlights how the marriage here is by no means saved, but that the union at least understands the dangerous potential for some, like Fear and Desire and a young Stanley Kubrick, to take life too seriously-for placing too much meaning on events and thus being marooned on islands in the country of the mind.
I wish to acknowledge the help and guidance of Thomas Nelson and Robert Mayer in the earlier stages of drafting this project.
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