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There's Something About Stanley: Kubrick's Strange Science Of Obsession
Jasun Horsley , December 13th, 2014 10:19

Jasun Horsley examines the impulses that drive Kubrick's formidable oeuvre and asks what it all means to his legion of obsessive fans

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Kubrick’s Gold

“The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.” —Stanley Kubrick

In the middle section of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the part closest to a conventional narrative, the super-computer HAL 9000 begins to malfunction and eventually kills all the crew except one, Dave Bowman, who disconnects HAL (after which he meets the Monolith, grows old and dies, and becomes God/the star child). In the lead-in to HAL’s “malfunction,” there is a seemingly unimportant scene in which one of the crew, Poole, plays chess with HAL, and HAL tells Poole, “I’m sorry Frank, I think you missed it.” HAL lays out a brief series of moves which apparently will lead to Poole’s defeat. Poole accepts HAL’s forecast and quits.

Kubrick was well-known to be a serious chess player; not surprisingly, the game between HAL and Poole was based on a real-life game. Only HAL misrepresents the situation to Poole, making it seem worse than it is and thereby coercing Poole to offer his resignation.

There’s some debate about the exact meaning of the scene. Is HAL lying and finding out if he can get away with it? Is he testing to see if Poole is paying attention? Whatever the case, what seemed at first like a minor scene has since been identified as a significant turning point in the film’s storyline, the first moment when HAL is seen to act autonomously — i.e., unreliably. Kubrick would have known that no one —on first viewing at least — would have spotted this; yet he chose to embed a significant plot point in the minutiae of a scene, in something as seemingly irrelevant as the pieces on a chess board. Leaving aside the symbolic content of the scene, the obvious result of this is that, when the more diligent viewers found this vital clue, they would have been immediately alerted that Kubrick films not only invited but demanded a rigorous and relentless form of attention: There was gold in them thar hills.

One way or another, it’s now an undeniable fact that Kubrick films generate obsession. As Rodney Ascher’s remarkable 2012 documentary, Room 237, amply illustrates, Kubrick films are like Rorschach blots that receive viewers’ projections and reflect their fantasies back at them. Kubrick films are enticing to intellects because they are like puzzles, games. They demand participation. What I want to suggest is that they are able to do this because, like Rorschach blots, they are empty of meaning. The viewer must put his or her soul (psyche) into the movies because Kubrick has left his own soul (his unconscious) out.

I am not the first to observe this. In an online essay, 'The Kuleshov Effect' , the (unnamed) author observes:

“When we are shown no explicit emotion, we infer it—but in order to do that, we are forced to experience the circumstances, to think and to feel the emotion ourselves. This is why the Kuleshov effect can generate such a strong reaction; it’s why Kubrick’s films are such powerful experiences.”

Simply put, what if the very emptiness of Kubrick’s films is what has made them so effective and enduring as cultural artifacts?

Cognitive Dissonance by Conscious Design

“If you can talk brilliantly about a problem, it can create the consoling illusion that it has been mastered.” ― Stanley Kubrick

Above all, what makes Kubrick’s films fascinating is that they create cognitive dissonance. The skill and the precision of the lighting, set design, camerawork, and composition is juxtaposed with the barrenness of (recognizable) human emotion and dramatic coherence, the often mannered acting and stilted dialogue, and the fragmented and oddly lacklustre storytelling. The mechanics of melodrama have broken down. There is no centre to hold. This mysteriously missing centre — the incoherence of Kubrick’s films, the lack of integrity between text and subtext — creates fascination in many viewers (especially the more intellectual ones). It causes the burning desire to find that missing centre, to crack the code and relieve the tension of not-knowing.

For a supposedly consummate film artist, Kubrick put very little of himself into his films. He seemed to dis-identify with their content, even while being heavily identified with them. He famously exercised obsessive control not only over their making but over their release and marketing. (I don’t use the word 'obsessive' casually: Kubrick’s involvement with his films’ marketing went as far as measuring the size of the newspaper ads to make sure they precisely fit his specifications.) So you might say that, while Kubrick’s films are not personal works in the usual sense, his involvement in them was unprecedentedly personal. And of course they are almost exclusively talked about in terms of being Stanley Kubrick films. It could be said that the main thing that makes a Kubrick film 'great' is that it’s a Kubrick film. More delicately put, the widespread belief in Kubrick as a great filmmaker is essential to how his films are viewed (or at least talked about). Without this accepted view of Kubrick, we would experience his films quite differently. Never underestimate the power of consensus.

Jack Nicholson once commented that, whatever else you say about Kubrick films, they are always conscious. Yet normally we associate art with unconscious processes — as the means by which unconscious material comes into conscious form and expression. Kubrick designed his movies so carefully that it was as if he did everything he could do to prevent this from happening.

When it was released in the UK, A Clockwork Orange was blamed for a series of alleged 'copycat crimes.' Under pressure from the mainstream press, Kubrick managed to persuade Warner Brothers, by whatever means, to withdraw the film from circulation in Britain. Was this just an artist’s exaggerated sense of responsibility? Or did Kubrick know something he wasn’t telling? What if, like the Ludovico Technique used on Alex in the film, Kubrick’s films were designed, as part of an experiment, to have specific effects on the consciousness of audience members? What if Kubrick wasn’t an artist at all — or even a filmmaker in the usual sense — but a kind of mad scientist?

Written down in black and white, the idea sounds pretty crazy. But it does at least offer an explanation for the data, namely that Kubrick’s films — for no obvious reason — have generated an unprecedented kind of response in viewers. If you doubt it, spend an hour (or a day, or a month) looking through the many different exegeses on The Shining on the Internet. Exegesis means a critical explanation or interpretation of a religious text — and there’s really no other word for what is happening here.

Zen & the Art of Memetic Engineering

“There’s something in the human personality which resents things that are clear, and conversely, something which is attracted to puzzles, enigmas, and allegories.” —Stanley Kubrick

What I want to argue (knowing I risk the ire of a legion of exegetists) is that Stanley Kubrick’s last few movies (from 2001 to Eyes Wide Shut) do not work as conventional dramatic narratives; that this is deliberate; and that it is for two primary reasons. Firstly, it is because Kubrick was only using dramatic cinematic structure as a vehicle or outer form (a Trojan Horse) to contain scientific memeplexes and inject them into the culture. (Call this memetic engineering: it’s probably what all movies are about if you scratch the celluloid deep enough.) Kubrick’s aim was to make his movies appear like movies just enough to get past the average viewer’s defences and make them believe they had seen a more or less ordinary movie, even if a strangely incoherent and unaffecting one (that being Kubrick’s famous 'style'). This I believe is the reason all of Kubrick’s movies, from 2001 to Eyes Wide Shut, have initially been received with disappointment, and only later been accepted as 'classics.'

Secondly, the shallow clunkiness of the movies’ surface was a way to force viewers to see past ordinary narrative and into the layer beneath, where those 'obsessively' arranged details and alleged hidden meanings lurked, enticingly, just out of view. Kubrick’s goal here may have been to break the narrative flow of the conscious mind and allow it to let go of the compulsive need to follow a narrative, to maintain the linear view of existence that reinforces the false idea of a subject, an “I.” Kubrick the Zen master!

On the other hand, the answer may be less... transcendental. In the opening credits of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the celestial bodies roll into alignment, the magisterial tones of 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' reach a crescendo and the words “A Stanley Kubrick Production” appear on the screen, the planets and sun all lined up behind them. There’s no indication that this is meant as a joke. Is it evidence of artistic narcissism taken beyond the infinite? Or, since with Kubrick nothing’s a given, is it a sly nod to the audience? The title that appears before Bowman goes through the star gate, 'Beyond the infinite,' might also be meant as a joke — the implication being that Kubrick’s vision is so grandiose that even infinity can’t contain it.

The many Kubrick obsessives studying his oeuvre, like Dan Brown characters poring over the Mona Lisa or rabbis holed up with The Torah, believe that Kubrick’s films are a star gate leading to alchemical transformation.

Let’s suppose that the many Kubrick obsessives sifting through every frame of his movies with a fine tooth comb are right. Let’s suppose that the reason there’s only the semblance of coherent narrative in Kubrick’s movies is that they are artifacts that attempt to imitate the structure of the Universe. Suppose they are designed mathematically, according to ancient principals that recognize the equivalency of the major scientific disciplines, the correspondence between the musical scale, the colour spectrum, geometry, planetary arrangements, and so forth. Edgar Allan Poe attempted to write poetry according to mathematical principals (his most famous example is 'The Raven'), so why not a man like Kubrick (with his rumored 200 IQ) making movies in the same way?

Just suppose. Humor me. The question I want to ask is: to what end?

The Quest For Meaning

“The book can also be a hat.” ― Stanley Kubrick

The many Kubrick obsessives would have us believe (if I have read the various exegeses right) that Kubrick’s art and science is a means to encode information into his films. But if the films are attempting to replicate the physical Universe, surely any information found in them would be arbitrary? Wouldn’t the idea be to contain all the information in the Universe? This would explain why half a dozen radically different interpretations of The Shining (as seen in Room 237) are all compelling, and even persuasive, because they could all be 'correct,' even while all of them miss the mark. Some people (such as critic Armond White) thought Room 237 was making fun of a bunch of crazy losers, but that only goes to show how wide the spectrum of possible interpretations is, and does nothing at all to address the curious phenomenon of Kubrick-exegetists.

The clues in Kubrick’s movies may literally be endless. If the films interact with the viewer’s own consciousness in some hitherto insufficiently-grokked, quantum-mechanistic fashion, then the viewer would be putting the clues into the work before finding them — or rather, via the act of finding them. Mirrors within mirrors (and no wonder The Shining is the ultimate object of obsessions here). Unlike the chess game with HAL, most of the clues the participants of Room 237 discover, and the interpretations they come up with, are highly subjective; they also frequently contradict each other. It may be highly questionable that many of them were placed there intentionally by Kubrick; but does that necessarily make them meaningless?

What we have ended up with is a middle way. Somewhere between blind belief and blind denial. What if the real clue to the Kubrickon is not in the content of the films but outside them, in the real world? What if the most meaningful clue is not in anything that the Kubraphiles are proposing, but in the fact that they are looking, and what if Kubrick intended this to happen? Allowing that it was more than just the deluded bid for immortality of a cosmically inflated ego, what might the end game be here?

As I suspect every good Zen master will tell you, the nature of such a many-layered puzzle is that it’s not the answer but the experience of finding it that leads to understanding. This seems to be the ultimate meaning of Kubrick films—that meaning arises (like the star child out of the Monolith) only from a vacuum of meaning, through a burning desire to find meaning.

Which means what? That the only suitable solution to the Kubrickon puzzle is, in true Kubrick spirit, another puzzle — a question in lieu of an answer?

Consensus is the agreement about what things mean. There’s a critical consensus that Kubrick is a great filmmaker; there’s also a growing 'underground' consensus that he was something more, a keeper of secrets, a dark master alchemist.

But if even a super-computer can lie, isn’t it better to ignore what anyone else thinks? What do the pieces on the board say?

For more of Jasun on Kubrick go here

Dec 13, 2014 3:37pm

I'm not sure this article is as contrarian as its author thinks it is: the second half of Eyes Wide Shut has its audience surrogate go on a futile search for answers. He's told more than once that a hunt for meaning and explanation is useless... and that's it.

For me Kubrick works because whatever meaning one chooses to see in his films, they remain great aesthetic experiences. Everything he did since 2001 looked and sounded intoxicating. They succeed on a level everyone into good cinema can appreciate, the rest comes later. Ditto for David Lynch.

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Jasun Horsley
Dec 13, 2014 6:23pm

"They succeed on a level everyone into good cinema can appreciate"

This may be just the sort of circular reasoning, no-logic logic which (I argue) is one central result of Kubrick's cinematic science (conditioning via images).

I don't agree that his films succeed in the usual aesthetic sense at all. According to the above "logic," that its because I am not into "good cinema."

Is this critical thinking, or is it cultism?

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Dec 14, 2014 11:47am

In reply to Jasun Horsley:

Hmm. 'Cultism' is a bit presumptuous. On a purely compositional and aural level, yes, I believe Kubrick was 'good cinema.' I've no idea what you mean by the 'usual aesthetic' which is a disconcertingly vague term, I just know that even when I watched his films for the first time without a clue what they were really about it (if, as you say, they were about anything at all) I was swept away all the same.

With respect it sounds like you're out to start an argument that's already been argued - in a post Room 237 world there's nothing controversial about suggesting that Kubrick was merely playing with his audience and a bunch of people are crazy enough to run in a million directions with it.

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Dec 14, 2014 3:17pm

In reply to Jasun Horsley:

Do the films have to succeed in the "usual" aesthetic sense in order to be great aesthetic experiences?

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Jasun Horsley
Dec 14, 2014 8:48pm

In reply to Halloran9000:

That's an interesting question. What would a great aesthetic experience be that was independent of a corresponding aesthetic stimulus? I think there's a thin line between making oneself believe that a Kubrick film is aesthetically great because we WANT to believe that (because there's a consensual view that tells us to believe this and we all want to belong to the group at some level), and succumbing to the experiences of watching a film that is in some sense "aesthetically challenged" (and challenging) and allowing our own unconscious to bleed into the experience and somehow transform it into, as you say, an aesthetic experience. This is why I feel compelled to question the idea that Kubrick was an artistic genius, or even an artist, because it may be that "art" as such is as much created by the observer as it is by any object outside of him or her. Maybe more so. Raising up an individual, or even any individual work, as "genius," denies this possibility and hands over all the power to that outside authority - the royalty that decrees what is real-ity.

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Jasun Horsley
Dec 14, 2014 8:49pm

In reply to Matt:

Is that all I'm suggesting though?

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Dec 14, 2014 10:31pm

Interesting 'exegesis'- I'm a big fan of Robert Pirsig and I think the idea of 'quality' as something inherently regonisable but not necessarily definable is pretty relevant here. The ideas of genetrative discourse as well - that out cultural conversations are creative and generate new possibilities through a process but withouty the nec4essity of an answer. Kubricks films are as much an 'idea' of a film as an artefact (Cesi n'est pas une filme?) continuously transient in the nature of how they are percieved - 'becoming' new with every cultural perspective, I think Deleuze would also have something to say on this - that Kubrik managed to create something that, through a constant fluid discourse is always moving and changing - in a sense 'alive' and (in a Zen way) even though you argue that there is no Kubrick in Kubrick movies (possible?) that the soul of the movie (a pattern of images obsessively constructed by Kubrick) is a kind of immortality - a pattern that continues to effect change in the world, long after he dies. I can imagine this is an idea at the heart of many filmmakers desires...

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Jasun Horsley
Dec 15, 2014 12:01am

In reply to DEM:

Oh yes. And it's a strange quirk of fate that, though for me Kubrick was always "less" than a "real" artist, I find myself weaving a narrative about how he may have achieved this "post-mortem effect" through his movies in a very specific way, and for a very specific end, and how the exegeses are not only the proof of it, but the carrying forward of a scientific legacy. An idea of a film - that is, unfinished, because only the seed of some future techno-organism at the time unimagined, because unimaginable. Maybe this is why the deficits in Kubrick's films, which for me are both legion and prodigious, were my "way in"?

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Greg Tramel
Dec 15, 2014 8:45pm

In reply to Jasun Horsley:

Kubrick is a filmmaker which is a cadre of artists

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Jasun Horsley
Dec 16, 2014 11:10pm

In reply to Greg Tramel:

"I believe that a work of art is truly successful when you can see the artist in it."

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Dec 17, 2014 3:26am

In reply to Matt:

"Matt" summed it up perfectly (also regarding Lynch, I am in agreement).

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Dec 20, 2014 2:29am

For 2001 A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had far more information that would have helped explain the plot/narrative of the film to the viewer, indeed I understand Clarke's first draft screenplay is far more explicit - and as always with Clarke the science had a ring of truth to it with the minds of some top physicists utilised to help him with the plot (which I won't spoil here but yes it does make perfect sense - google self-replicating robots/spacecraft if you don't know and want to). Kubrick chose to not share all of that in order to make the film more open to interpretation and more of a mystery - the audience going on a journey literally into the unknown.

Kubrick's "science" - or the essential Kubrickian quality that make his films so re-watchable are two-fold: that eye for detail in framing scenes (and dressing sets), drawn and developed from his time as a stills photographer as well as making his scenes flow with a musical pacing that makes everything feel so cohesive and unforced to the viewer (and I swear it's not just musical timing - I reckon the wily bugger actually cut to well known music even for scenes that had no score, so that something familiar would resonate on a sub-conscious level with the viewer) - and secondly, his knack for knowing what to leave in and what he could leave out, asking his audience to think and fill in the gaps.

Where other film-makers try to bring you inside their stories, their universes by all manner of tricks Kubrick was content - in-fact quite determined - that you stayed outside and watched.

His detached style insisted upon it. The more you watch, the more detail you see, the more you are certain there is more to discover. And back you come for another viewing...

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Jasun Horsley
Dec 20, 2014 6:14pm

In reply to Gizmo:

Those who do come back. Others (like Pauline Kael, who almost never saw a movie twice) never do and so never "get" what Kubrick's doing . I only came back because I wanted to figure out what compelled so many others to do so. I enjoyed Room 237 in a way I was never able to enjoy The Shining (until now, post-Room 237), so that has paved my way back down the yellow brick road, to see what is behind the curtain.

I now exist in a liminal space re: Kubrick. I still find a film like Full Metal Jacket (just rewatched) to be somehow empty, without soul or substance, a kind of beautiful machine of a movie (or as DEM put it, an "idea of a movie") with only the clever semblance of human feeling to animate it. And I think this is sourced not only in some cunning Kubrickian science but in a profound lack in Kubrick himself.

I listened to Matthew Modine's Full Metal Jacket audio diary recently (recommended) and there's a point somewhere in the year-long shooting schedule when Modine has to take the afternoon off to be with his wife while she has a cesarean for their first born son. Kubrick tries to prevent Modine from going, telling him that the baby won't even know he's there, that it won't even want him around for the first year of its life! All this just to prevent his precious movie being interfered with (half a day out of over 300!). If that's not an abuse of power/intelligence then I don't know what is.

I think this emotional lack - this lack of humanness - shows in the films (none more so than Clockwork Orange, which has a pathology beyond its being a treatment of pathology: it IS the thing it exposes). And I think this is what draws some viewers back to the films: both a desire to find that missing human thing but also an unconscious affinity for the cold comfort of emotional deadness. It's the absent father, an under-explored theme of Kubrick's films which I'm currently seeing is central to the whole "Kubrickon"... (

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Jasun Horsley
Dec 20, 2014 9:49pm

Post-Room 237 movie, people are finding every last mistake Kubrick made and citing it as evidence for his genius.

Now THAT's genius!

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Jan 9, 2015 11:55pm

Uh oh... someone not doing their due diligence... the quote you took, it must be assumed, from Goodreads, "The book can also be a hat," was likely a tongue-in-cheek addition to his quotes page sourced from Peter Griffin of Family Guy fame. Unless this was all a very subterranean way of proving your "anything attributed to Kubrick is assumed to be genius" argument, perhaps you've fallen for the very thing you're pointing out... may I suggest as replacement "Consider the pigeon just a pigeon" - Haneke?

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Dec 17, 2015 5:39pm

In reply to Jasun Horsley:

"I think there's a thin line between making oneself believe that a Kubrick film is aesthetically great because we WANT to believe that (because there's a consensual view that tells us to believe this and we all want to belong to the group at some level because there's a consensual view that tells us to believe this and we all want to belong to the group at some level)"

I believe it because I can compare his aesthetic to thousands of other filmmaker's aesthetics that I've seen over a lifetime of watching cinema. The consensus is my own.

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