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Darth Vader of Modern Film:
Stanley Kubrick and His Aesthetically Beautiful Ultra-Violence
To the creator of films as well as other forms of literature, the dark side of human nature has often proved more rich and interesting than the bright. Films and books on the lives of saints have not been as popular as murder mysteries and works of horror. While we may have no desire to experience them in our own lives, terrible deeds and evil people exert their perverse attraction on our psyches. We who consider ourselves moral and upright are often fascinated by the behavior of the pitiless, merciless, and guiltless psychopath. Like a magnificent Black Panther: powerful, dangerous, and alien, the psychopathic character can have a dark, perfect beauty that simultaneously attracts and repels us. We will explore the use of such characters in the films of Stanley Kubrick, the 20th century film auteur as it relates to his view of the nature of both individuals and human institutions. (Banks)
Stanley Kubrick was born in the Bronx, New York, on 26 July 1928, to Jacques L. Kubrick, a doctor, and Gertrude (Perveler) Kubrick. Kubrick had one sister, Barbara, now Mrs. Robert Kroner. As a child, Kubrick was fascinated by the extensive collection of books in his father s library and was attracted to stories and novels at an early age. During his years in the Bronx, Kubrick spent many of his after-school hours attending movies at local theaters such as the Loew s Paradise Theater. His fascination with film and fiction was the outgrowth of these early childhood experiences. He became interested in photography as a hobby and was presented with his first camera on this thirteenth birthday. During his schooling at William Howard Taft High School, Kubrick was an indifferent student and attained low grades in many of his subjects, including English. As the high school newspaper photographer, Kubrick had the opportunity to expand his interest in photographic techniques and found it to be an interesting and challenging hobby. His earliest experiment in still photography was a series of pictures of his high school English teacher, Aaron Traister, reading selected passages from Hamlet. During his junior year at Taft, Kubrick (at age 16) sold his first photograph to Look magazine for $25. The photograph depicted the grief-stricken reaction of a newsstand dealer reading the headlines of Franklin D. Roosevelt s death. Following his graduation from Taft High School in 1945, Kubrick attended evening classes at the City College of the City University of New York, but left in his freshman year to accept a full time position as an apprentice photographer for Look. During this period at Look, his fellow workers recalled that he would carry his photographic equipment in a paper bag to avoid being considered a tourist in New York City. At age nineteen, Kubrick married Toba Metz, A Taft High School classmate. Kubrick and his friend Alex Singer became interested in the short documentary films that were used as fillers at the local movie houses in New York. Kubrick decided that he could make a film like them for about half the cost and decided to try his hand at the project. Kubrick began spending all of his free evenings at the Museum of Modern Art film screenings of the classic directors works. He was especially attracted to the film techniques of some of the most famous directors including Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Max Ophuls, and Orson Welles. These were to be the most important influences on his work as a director. Kubrick (at age 22) purchased his first 35mm Eyemo camera and begotten work on his first short film, Day of the Fight. (Coyle 1, 2)
That marked the beginning of his legendary career. In almost fifty years of filmmaking, Kubrick had only made 16 films, including three short documentaries, with which he began his amazing career, and his last motion picture, Eyes Wide Shut, is scheduled to come out this summer. Kubrick was a perfectionist, shaping every little detail in each of his movies with the utmost craftiness and devotion, causing his films to take a long time to complete. Among his masterpieces are Dr. Strangelove, 2001: Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket. Whether it s a comedy, a science fiction project, or a psychological thriller, all of Kubrick s films try to explore animalistic aspects of the human personality. Kubrick died on 7 March 1999, in his sleep, of a heart attack. One day before his unfortunate departure, he declared that Eyes Wide Shut was his best movie ever. Kubrick was seventy years old when he died.
Stanley Kubrick certainly is an authority on depicting the dark side of human nature. In each and every one of his films there is a significant amount of negativity in almost every human or (non-human) character. The abundance of violence – sexual, physical and psychological – is an essential and constantly reoccurring element in Kubrick s films. But unlike many modern directors, Kubrick does not deliberately try to nauseate the viewers of his films with non-stop violence. In fact, violence is only a surface of his films. However, Kubrick was an artist, and for someone who creates, art and entertainment do not redefine each other. So despite the fact that his movies were highly entertaining, Kubrick managed to enrich them with social criticism. Moreover, Kubrick made violence on the screen not only enjoyable but also aesthetically beautiful. He accomplished that through the use of camera angles, color, and, most importantly, powerful language. He made art out of violence, delineating violence as something fascinating and beautiful.
The two works that define Kubrick s art are A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket. The plots and settings in these films are absolutely different but the key elements, such as visual and mental violence, accompanied by poignant language and very particular camera movement and color, remain similar. In both films, Kubrick strikes the audience with visually unsettling images, haunting viewers minds forever. I will start in chronological order, analyzing two key scenes from A Clockwork Orange and complete my analysis by discussing two pivotal scenes from Full Metal Jacket.
When A Clockwork Orange came out in 1971, it was widely bemoaned by the critics around the globe. But despite its initial X rating and banning in various countries, the movie quickly became a fan-favorite and started a cult following.
In the beginning of the movie, Alex, the main character, and his droogs, brake into an apartment and rape a woman in front of her helpless husband, who is held by two hooligans while the other two perform the good, old in-out, in-out on his terrified wife. The colors in the apartment are bizarre. They are extremely bright and, as the camera circles the room slowly portraying the futuristic furniture, we get the feeling that we have entered a circus. The scene is extremely repulsive and vile but the most disturbing part is not the actual act of raping. To me, the most demoralizing aspect of the scene is Alex s singing. As he s raping his victim and kicking her husband with his heavy boots, he sings the very calm and kindly Singing in the Rain. He does it with great ease and enjoyment. For him, destroying a happy home is like smelling a fresh rose: easy and pleasant. The brutality of rape itself is absolutely devastating but when it is combined with a happy song and cool joy, it is insane. Also, it s important to know the reason why the hoodlums broke into this happy abode in the first place. Certainly, obtaining goods was not their incentive. They physically destroy the woman and psychologically murder her husband for no particular reason. Actually, they did have a goal and their goal was to have a good time while displaying a bit of the old ultra-violence. Raping, beating, abusing, and eventually killing were the activities that Alex and his friends did for fun and recreation. Another aspect which adds brutality to this scene is a close-up of the writer s face, as he is about to witness his beloved wife being savagely raped, unable to help her. From an odd angle, the camera fixes on his face to augment our perception of mortal terror in his eyes. And after this notoriously depraved scene, Alex cynically remarks, We were all feeling a little shagged and fagged and fashed, it having been an evening of some small energy expenditure, oh my brothers. (Kubrick, 1971) This statement emphasizes the powerful language, omnipresent throughout the film. The words Alex utters during and after the rape scene seem to fit perfectly into the gruesome context. Hence, the severity of ultra-violence ubiquitous in Kubrick s films is somehow smothered and turned into spectacular by the dominantly brutal slang used by the main characters.
Unlike the last scene, the violence is displayed within the gang. In this scene, Alex tries to reestablish himself as the leader of the band after being criticized and taunted by his unexpectedly rebellious droogies. Clearly, Alex is the smartest of the four and under no circumstances will he let his mindless bulldogs take away his power and topple him. As they walk along the flat block marina, he contemplates what to do. The camera is right in front of their quartet, and we can clearly see each one s facial expression. The entire scene is in slow motion and there is a great abundance of light to give it angelic quality. The gangsters are wearing white clothes that camouflage their dark thoughts and actions. As they slowly approach the camera, Alex suddenly hears Beethoven playing from someone s window. Ironically, this vicious prestoopnik is very fond of and greatly inspired by Ludwig Van, so right away his voice in the off screen narration tells us that thinking is for gloopy ones and acting is for oomny ones. (Kubrick, 1971) He swiftly takes out his cane, and starts pummeling his disobedient subordinates. Then, to make sure that he makes his point as clear as an azure sky of the deepest summer, he cuts one s wrist. As he punishes his defiant gang members, the camera fixes on Alex s devilish face to underscore his overflowing joy with which he afflicts great pain on his so-called friends. To underscore his absolute power, the camera is looking at him from below. His friends are in the water and he is on the pier. He has always been above them. He has always been in the center and nobody can take his position. He is Alex de Large (Alexander the Great.)
Once again, the violence is presented in a very peculiar light. It s ironic that while Alex is regulating his friends through the use of rudimentary violence, we hear Beethoven in the background. Also, the background architecture has a light and floating quality, adding more beauty to this nefarious scene. And this is a reoccurring theme of the movie. Whenever a gory event takes place, beautiful music, dialogue or background accompanies it. This is also true about Alex himself. A shameless and ruthless thug should listen to something ugly to match his personality, and his reprehensible activities should be accompanied by music equally distasteful to his demeanor, but in A Clockwork Orange, and generally with Kubrick, only one thing is distasteful: convention. Violence is beauty, violence is art, and very few individuals are capable of mastering it. Kubrick was one of the few.
The next film landmark of Kubrick s career is Full Metal Jacket, which is no less distressing, repulsive, and exquisite than A Clockwork Orange. The main difference between the two is time. A Clockwork Orange takes place in the vague future whereas Full Metal Jacket is a movie about a specific epoch: the Vietnam War. Considered the greatest war movie ever made, Full Metal Jacket is not a typical war movie. Once again, we cannot forget that it s directed by Kubrick, which by definition excludes the word typical. This Vietnam War movie is not at all about Vietnam.
Full Metal Jacket was based on author Gustav Hasford’s own wartime experience alongside of his own efforts to compose a surrealistically-influenced novel about the war, but Kubrick apparently desired to use the story in an effort to explore what turns people into the killers they frequently become. (Siano)
About the psychological horrors of any soldier before and during any war, the film is unusual because it is split into two stories, connected by its protagonist. To say that the plethora of violence is the reason why Full Metal Jacket stands out from the rest would be inaccurate. Yes, the movie is violent but not nearly as violent as many other war movies today. What makes this not-so-violent war film outstanding? It is the realistic depiction of the mental demise of a soldier amplified by incisive language, unorthodox camera angles, and bleak but vivid colors that make Full Metal Jacket stand out from any other movie of its genre.
The first scene I will discuss is the finale of the first part of the movie, which takes place in the boot camp on Parris Island. Every soldier is asleep, except Private Joker, who wakes up because he overhears someone talking in the bathroom. He gets up to see what s going on, wondering who is up, convinced that every soldier should be in bed. As Joker walks into the bathroom, he encounters mentally precarious Pyle, having a philosophical conversation with his rifle. As Joker enters the bathroom, the camera fixes on the long hallway of empty toilets, only one of which is occupied. The echoing emptiness of the bathroom represents the loneliness and desperation of Private Pyle and any other soldier, who does not belong in this worthless war. The shot is almost perfectly symmetric with one row of empty toilets on the left and another row on the right. Sitting on the toilet, Pyle breaks the perfect symmetry. He should not be there, but he is. There should not be a war, but there is. The camera heavily moves around and finally closes up on Pyle, driven to madness. The camera angle is straight, capturing every little detail right from the doorway. The lighting of the scene is unusual because in the entire room there seems to be a single, small source of light; yet, we can clearly see the movement of every feature of Pyle s body. This chiaroscuro effect makes the scene even more eerie dramatic than it already is. When Joker sees Pyle, right away he realizes that he has gone insane and something tragic is bound to happen. Having endured enormous verbal and physical abuse, Pyle has locked himself up in his own world very distant from reality, and by his mindless grin and vacillating voice, he lets Joker understand that he will no longer obey. Joker suggests that if their superior Hartman catches them here in the middle of the night, they will both be in the world of shit, and as though ordained by some invisible force, Pyle gets up and loads his gun very properly, just as he was taught at the training. Then, in an eerie, monstrous voice, he exclaims, Full Metal Jacket! (Kubrick, 1987) And when their superior Hartman comes in and tries to condescend to Pyle, without hesitation the mad private awards Hartman with a bullet through his chest, then sits down on the toilet, puts the rifle to his mouth, and lets the trigger go. During the shoot out, the camera frantically goes back and forth from Pyle to Hartman to horrified Joker. This snarled camera movement increases the tension and enhances the feeling of hellish eternity of this scene. The last image we see before the scene closes is Pyle s brains splattered all over the wall. It is their last day on the island and tomorrow Pyle was expected to go to war and fight the Charlie, but he simply could not become a killing machine. The scene is violent but what makes it superb is not the actual violence and blood, but rather the austere language used by Hartman, which defines the scene and creates perfect psychological tension. The bland, gray colors also embellish the severity of the soldier s state of mind, suggesting that war and bright colors don t mingle. The outcome of the whole scene completely defies human logic. What really killed Private Pyle? Why is he on this desolate island training to become a killing machine, when he should be home becoming a person? Kubrick does not explicitly answer those questions and that only adds complexity to his works and differentiates it from most others.
I will end my analysis by discussing one of the last scenes of Full Metal Jacket. Like the previous scene, this scene is also eerie and surreal. Although it takes place during the actual war, the colors and camera movement indicate that this chaos is not much different form that of the boot camp. In this final scene, Joker and a few other soldiers are being haunted by some evil, Vietnamese sniper, who keeps killing them one by one. The farther they advance, the more people they lose, but human casualties are a minor concern, for these brave soldiers are serving their country. At last, they figure out the building the sniper is in and they are ready to storm it. When they shoot the sniper, who relentlessly killed their people, they are stunned to find out that the ruthless sniper is a young Vietnamese girl, who gives up her life to protect her liberty. She is fatally wounded and she twitches on the floor, she murmurs something in her funny language. The camera closes up on her from the top. This camera angle magnifies her emaciated body and face, so any spectator can only feel pity for her. Brown color dominates the scene. To evince their exhausted faces, the camera slowly circles the group of soldiers surrounding the young girl. They are puzzled. Obviously, they didn t expect the sniper to be a teenage girl, so they re waiting for answers. What the hell are they doing there? Then, the camera circles the remains of the room they are in, indicating chaos and destruction of the war, searching for answers, but unable to find any. After praying to her G-d, the girl indistinctly mumbles, Shoot me shoot me (Kubrick, 1987) Joker, who could not shoot her in the first place, contemplates, then, takes out his gun and grants her the favor she asked for. Is it because he can t stand the poor girl s suffering, or is it because it s too easy and too tempting to be in charge of someone s life? Only Joker knows the answer, but it does not really matter. He has officially become a killing machine. Yet, we still sympathize with him, just like we sympathize with pitiless, murderous Alex of A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick transforms violence into something holy, something that s necessary to our survival. Violence attracts most of us, and when it s delivered in Kubrick s, spectacular style, we worship it.
The ending of Full Metal Jacket is very similar to the ending of A Clockwork Orange and other Kubrick s films. The light we are so eager to see and constantly search for may be well out of our reach, and we, human beings, are fierce creatures. We do not mind living in the world of shit, as long as we are living. Thus, despite our belief in the evolution of human mind and soul, Kubrick suggests that we are still at the fundamental level motivated by our basic drives. And Kubrick s mastery of camera and color amplify our perception of these very unpleasant, innate characteristics from which we will never be free. More disturbingly, Kubrick points out that not only we are unable to get rid of those negative traits but also we do not want to get rid of them. We love ultra-violence, on the screen and in real life, too much to give it up, and when someone like Kubrick comes along and puts it in the right light, we idolize it and consider it art.
From the beginning, he has struggled to control both his work and his world, as if the uncertainties of the human condition would rip him to pieces if he relinquished his hold for even so much as a second. But it is precisely this inexhaustible drive to orchestrate even the smallest details of his life and his art that has made Stanley Kubrick the most provocative and brilliant of today s American directors. (Newsweek)
Banks, Gordon. Kubrick s Psychopaths. 23 April 1999
Coyle, Wallace. A Guide to References and Resources. 1980
Zimmerman, Paul D. Kubrick s Brilliant Vision. 3 January 1972 Newsweek
Siano, Brian. Regarding Full Metal Jacket. 21 April 1999
A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Brothers, 1971.
Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Brothers, 1987
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