A Space Odyssey and Shining:
Two films rolled into one?
If one cares to take a close look at Kubrick’s wildly acclaimed (yet just equally debunked by some particularly conservative and grumpy critics) science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which in any event established a definite landmark in the anticipation film production, a few things immediately appear. First, that the story is rather second rate – Arthur C. Clarke, the author of the script, being himself a tenth-rate sci-fi writer, as his short story “The Sentinel”, which served as a basis for his script, already shows. Indeed, it is hardly credible: all that space development just by the dawn of the third millenium, when today’s “space conquerors” can deem themselves lucky when their Arianes or shuttles do not explode or crash, roasting a few heroic (or is it suicidal?) space pioneers in the process (good career move, though, in becoming a “hero”), and while NASA has utterly given up on lunar pro-jects to turn its efforts (not very successfully so far) towards Mars (but then the close-future “trick” had already been largely used – just take Orwell’s 1984)? A very so-phisticated supercomputer that becomes neurotic, paranoid, and finally psychopathic (but then Kubrick was fascinated with, and wary of, technology in general, and cy-bernetics in particular – take his last but one script, A. I., which Spielberg very un-wisely bought and turned into a mediocre, that is, more simply, a Spielberg, film)? Humanity evolving into a superhuman, Nieztschean creature, the “Star Child” (it rather seems that contemporary bipeds are turning into technologized apes, ready, eager even, to climb back up the few trees that are left)? So that it may be assumed that at least part of the huge success of the film is due to Kubrick’s genius and techni-cal brilliance.
But Kubrick also guided Clarke’s efforts (giving him quite a rough time in the process with his usual, relentless demands for revisions), and this is, ultimately, a Kubrick film. It also appears that, in spite of its title, this is a film much more about time than space (a fact which was indeed perceived by some shrewd critics): it bril-liantly jumps from prehistory (through a big bone thrown upwards and suddenly and startingly turning into a spacecraft) into the near future (for the 20th century, in the film, is, most significantly, part of the “Dawn of man” section), and ends with “Jupi-ter and beyond the infinite” (regarding both space and time). Also, the void being what it is, it seems to abolish the dimensions of space and distance / motion: the Jupi-ter-bound “Explorer I” seems (and this is certainly deliberate) to hang frozen in im-mobility. The dimension of time is, strangely enough at first sight, best represented in the film by the theme of food (a strong leitmotiv throughout, as we shall see). The latter in turn points to the larger problem of the human body (as opposed, first to the supercomputer HAL 500, then to the “Star Child”).
It begins with some pre-humans solitarily and gloomily eating raw and rather revolting scraps of meat, then switches to synthesized, and not very appetizing either, space “cuisine”, again eaten in solitude on his trip to the moon, by Professor Floyd (or should it rather be “Fluid”?), who also, inside the station, first postpones his going to the restaurant, and then declines to share a drink with his Russian collegue scien-tists, then to a TV dinner carelessly eaten by Frank Poole aboard the “Explorer I” while playing a game of chess (a Kubrickian passion again) with HAL (and signifi-cantly losing it), and finally to a refined, proper meal ingested, in solitude again, and in a mixture of 18th and 20th centuries’s atmosphere by a decrepit David Bowman, just before his death and triumphant metamorphosis into the “Star Child” – moreover interrupted and therefore never completed. There are also two birthdays, Floyd’s daughter’s and Poole’s: typically, both are presented as “fractured” events, for neither Floyd nor Poole are present to eat the traditional cake. So that we may say that, first of all, food (but also space) here is associated with solitude and not (as in Chabrol’s films for instance) with conviviality and bourgeois, or gourmet, cuisine. Indeed, the only food shared in the whole film occurs inside a shuttle during the trip to the Tycho Crater, with Professor Floyd dishing out good old sandwiches from a box and re-marking that space cuisine has made great progress! Which means that eating is not seen (or shown) as a pleasure, or a social function, but as a mere, if not base (bodily, therefore vital) need, or even chore – which was precisely Kubrick’s own attitude to-wards food: it was, in his own words, “just food”, which he used to eat very indiffer-ently indeed, carelessly mixing, say, steak with apple pie.
Another vital need is that for air (or oxygen), as will be underlined by Poole’s death through asphyxiation in the void of space, while Bowman very closely escapes the same fate. Also to be noted, in this respect, is the astronauts’ heavy breathing while inside their cumbersome spacesuits. As for the three other scientists in suspen-ded life inside the « Explorer I », they are killed by HAL through the termination of their life functions – that, is, here again, their bodily functions (mainly breathing). So that the human body in the film is shown as a weakness, a liability even (thus the space hostess having to tread awkwardly in the absence of gravity, or the men trud-ging around in their heavy spacesuits, or yet again Poole slowly and cautiously wor-king in space), vitally and precariously relying on its physical environment (not to mention the « crutches » of technology) and above all prey to decrepitude and death, as opposed to the machine and the « Star Child ».
Yet it would be inaccurate to say that HAL does not have a body, that it is just an artificial and very sophisticated brain (which will be partly disconnected by Bow-man, retaining only its basic functions as a mere tool) : for the whole spaceship, in each of its parts is indeed its « body », and even the shell (or « skull ») for its pre-cious brain – and this is precisely what allows it to murder its « masters ». Indeed, it is mainly embodied (and symbolized) by a dark and red, glowing, omnipresent eye (just as Bowman, on his chaotic trip beyond Jupiter, is mostly reduced to a staring, blinking, tortured eye), which more or less equates it with a cybernetic God (even though the lip-reading episode – in profile ! – is somewhat farfetched, but then again it points to another limitation in humans : physical communication this time). So that the astronauts live enclosed (and watched, not to say trapped) inside HAL’s body, just like foetuses inside their mother’s womb – and after all this womb / tomb (which moreover, as a whole, with its round « head » and long « tail » evokes a spermato-zoid) will finally give birth to the « Star Child ». However, if it comes to biological or even Freudian overtones, HAL is not just a « mother », it is a « father » too (and an evil, jealous, and murderous one at that, which, like Chronos, ends up devouring its own children, or like Yahweh smiting them – but also like a Goliath which finally meets its David (Bowman). Another reference here could be Hegel’s theory of the master-slave relationship: the film shows that the masters, through their dependence on HAL, are actually the slaves, and even come to worse when the supposed « slave » rebels and goes beserk – a traditional theme since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, expressing a deep distrust and even fear of science and technology (Kubrick himself was paranoid about planes – he avoided flying – and even fast cars: what would he have to say about human cloning?). However, HAL’s weakness, as it were, is not its « body », but its « brain ». Which calls to mind another reference, the laby-rinth: the « Explorer I » as a maze, with HAL the Minotaur at its very core – even though HAL actually is the spaceship, the Minotaur the maze (and vice versa). Not to mention its complex and deranged « brain ». An image which perfectly suits HAL’s ambiguous nature: is it just a machine, or is it partly human already? For it can dissemble like humans (Floyd, for instance, with the Russian scientists, or Bow-man and Poole, with HAL itself), and its “extinction”, when disconnected, is explic-itly compared to a form of death. The irony being that it lacks a body of flesh and blood to be fully human. But all this nonetheless suggests the theme of “cannibal-ism”, of the destruction of men by their own creature.
Possibly the basic “lesson” in 2001: A Space Odyssey is that in order to evolve and transcend his present (animal albeit technologized) nature, man has to get rid of the material side of himself (body and machines), in order to become a purely mental (and, it is to be supposed, immortal) entity – and the sooner the better. This drastic rejection of the body and its limitations, however, is not without a certain ambiguity either. For the theme of death (or sterility at least) is ever present in the film: thus the “Explorer”, if it has the shape of a spermatozoid, also evokes, in all its prominent whiteness against the blackness of space, a skeleton, or fossil, reminiscent of the bleached bones in the first part (and even the fist spacecraft seen is, as previously noted, associated with a bone (the first “tool”, which also happened to be a weapon). Does this suggest that the machine, like the body, is already an obsolete hindrance too? But then, what will the “Star Child” do with his immortality? Explore the vast universe? But life, reduced to a mind roaming the cosmos like a homeless and ghostly space cowboy, or some cosmic wandering Jew, may be just as boring, at length, as it is here below, as summed up in Baudelaire’s famous line: “Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui.”1 It seems, after all, that Bowman’s evolution is a self-defeating process, and ultimately a dead end: what remains, therefore, is perhaps simply Kubrick’s grievances and frustrations at the basic limitations of biological man, or a fantasy (of the ultimate Cartesian dream, as it were) clothed in sumptuous technique – another final irony: this brilliant fantasy is basically the product of a technology it claims to transcend. For 2001, when all is said and done, is first and foremost a hymn and homage to film technology. Bowman’s shot is a long one in-deed. Perhaps even a mite too long.
However, if one turns to a subsequent Kubrick film, namely The Shining
(1980), one will make some quite interesting discoveries. Many critics
at the time wondered why Kubrick had chosen to make such a film in the first
place: Stephen King is no Nabokov or Burgess or Thackeray (far from it), his
book is too long, mud-dled, and ultimately tedious, and Kubrick’s treatment
of it apparently does not help either. Yet, looked at closely, it appears that
its themes and structure are practically similar to those of 2001: the Jupiter-bound
“Explorer I” is replaced with the snow-bound “Overlook Hotel”
(as ambivalent as the spaceship, and like it associated both with life and death:
a holiday resort in summer, it becomes a kind of tomb during the winter –
not to mention the “dead” woman rising from the bathtub in the “forbidden”
room), demented HAL with crazy Jack Torrance, Poole its victim with Jack’s
victim Halloran (who also, like Bowman, happens to barge in from the outside
to thwart Jack’s rampage), the “Star Child” with “shining”
Danny, and the spheres with snow-cats (Jack sabotages the hotel’s one,
just as HAL had turned Poole’s sphere into a murderous weapon). There
is to be found the same entrapment within an isolated place, and the theme of
the labyrinth figures too, prominently this time, in both the evil Overlook’s
garden (and its model inside the hotel, which is itself rather labyrin-thine)
and Jack’s tortured mind (which is explicitly associated with the labyrinth
through the model). It is also about a father, mother and child, and a murderous
struggle between father and son, the stake of it all being Danny’s “gift”.
And this time too, the father will be defeated by the son (yet not through his
“gift”, but with a simple, clever trick). The main problem this
time being getting out (of the evil hotel and the murderous father’s clutches),
not to get back in (into the spaceship monitored by demented HAL) – however
it is interesting to note that Danny, before rushing into the labyrinth, hides
inside a cupboard, just as Bowman first had to re-enter the air chamber before
confronting HAL. Finally, as if to confirm the parentage between the two films,
the same colours dominate in both: white (“Explorer”, Bowman’s
final “residence” / snow), black (space / night) and red (spacesuits,
HAL’s omnipresent eye / blood, Grady’s evening suit), just to mention
So that The Shining, at one level, appears as a mere transposition of 2001, from the vastness of the cosmos to that of America, and from the (near) future to the pre-sent – but actually mostly to the past, as we shall see, in another voyage through time: both films indeed use a calendar in the form of inserts (moreover, The Shining’s very fastidious one strongly evokes The Killing’s, 1956, minute schedule). It is also about minds, but souls as well. And, just as HAL is identified with the spaceship, Jack Tor-rance gradually fuses with the hotel (whose “caretaker” he is and always has been, according to his predecessor Grady, who too got beserk and butchered his whole family). Indeed, the film shows the process of his mental regression to a primitive brute (Jack Nicholson’s acting here is particularly explicit, to put it mildly): during the final chase, first through the hotel and then the labyrinth, his sluggish and limping progres-sion strongly suggests one of those pre-humans in the opening of 2001. Similarly, the brief, startling shot of his frozen corpse evokes a crouching caveman trapped in ice.
Yet, beyond these obvious similarities, there are also numerous differences be-tween the two films. At one level, the later one is about America’s violent history: the hotel was built on Indian sacred grounds (a graveyard, more precisely), not far away a group of pioneers (the “Donner party”) had got snowbound and had had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive, and the hotel witnessed quite a few ugly deeds during its career, which, according to Halloran, another “shiner”, leave “traces” in time and space – so that the present is haunted by the past, which, as America’s collective unconscious as it were, returns with a vengeance.
But it is also very much about present day America: the breakdown of the cel-lular family, and more precisely the American male’s devalued status and frustra-tions: sterility yet again, so to speak. For Jack is a failed writer (Bowman too was associated with art, being quite a good draughtsman – that is, significantly, a visual artist, like a film maker, for instance) and reformed alcoholic, who has to do odd jobs to support his family, and consequently resents them for his failure in life (“white man’s burden”, as he calls it – and it is no accident, nor any question of Holly-woodian quota either, that kind and generous Halloran is a negro who falls victim to mad Jack’s axe). Hence, too, the latter’s fascination with the hotel, and the glamor-ous life it symbolizes (as represented in the photograph at the end – the “roaring” twenties: those were the good old days – except that we all know what they led to): Jack is the other, and rather dark, side of the “American dream”. Kubrick turned what was mostly paranormal claptrap into a powerful, if complex, social and histori-cal fable. Grady’s running amok was explained to Jack as a case of “cabin fever” by the hotel manager: but Kubrick suggests that actually the whole of American society and civilization may well suffer from “cabin fever” – or worse.
But then, one may wonder at the strong similarities between the two films: why make The Shining a kind of 2001 in disguise? True, the former is more about the American (sick and distorted) psyche than about any haunted hotel (thus the allusions to the Indian graveyard and cannibalistic pioneers are red herrings, up to a certain point, just like Danny’s false track in the maze). The real cannibal in this case is the hotel as symbol of the “American dream” – or nightmare, rather. It could simply be that The Shining is the other side of 2001, its reflection in the past: the theme of food, though still present (Halloran is explicitly associated with it, being a hotel cook in the first place, and so is Wendy, as the family cook), is more generally superseded by that of (frustrated) greed (for sex, money, fame) as embodied by Torrance. Wife Wendy, son Danny and Halloran (women, children and blacks) then become the victims of that frustration, the “white man’s burden”, that is the WASPish imperative as much as wish to succeed, to get wealth, women and fame. Which in turn leads to an-other possible question: is not the “Star Child” himself the expression of a certain greed too, the greed to conquer the universe? Or, if one prefers, of a Nietzschean “will for power” (underlined by the Zarathustra musical theme)? In the light of The Shining, its predecessor appears to be even more ambiguous than previously noted. And the same question arises: what future for little “shiner” Danny in such a dreadful world? So that the nostalgia in The Shining, all things considered, appears as hollow as the final triumph in 2001: the past is just as dubious as the future, not to mention the present.
There may be another, more subtle link between the two films. It has been said that Andrei Tarkovski’s Solaris (1971), based on a Stanislaw Lem’s novelette, was meant to be the “anti-2001”: Tarkovski (who had violently disliked Kubrick’s futuris-tic film with its resolute rejection of the past) responded with another sci-fi film about the preciousness of past and memory in establishing identity (indeed a favourite theme of his). It may be, then, that Kubrick’s The Shining, in turn, was meant as an “anti-Solaris”, through its unsentimental and rash depiction of the past and the effects of memory on the present2.
A few more remarks, to conclude, concerning the two films made by Kubrick between those studied here, A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975), and the other two after The Shining, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (2000), which tend, unsurprisingly, to indicate a strong continuity and unity in Kubrick’s works.
A Clockwork Orange is primarily about the dual nature of man (Alex is both a violent hoodlum and a potential artist), but also about manipulation, especially of minds (the “Ludovico technique” used by Dr Brodsky is not without reminding one of famous American psychologist Skinner and his theory of behaviour control through electrodes implanted in the brain). The theme of greed reappears in Barry Lyndon (simply, money has replaced food at gambling tables), as well as that of soli-tude (the Chevalier, Barry’s mentor and substitute father, eating alone at a small table in a vast room, and later Barry and his son huddled together at the end of a long sofa in another vast room) and conflict (the duel as a leitmotiv, leading to the final, grim confrontation between Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullingdon). Both films, then again, are concerned with the family pattern and father-son relationship, as well as self-defeating greed.
Full Metal Jacket deals with manipulation too (turning ordinary young people into first-rate killers, with instructor Hartman succeeding only too well), and with the fickleness of machinery and human (best-laid) schemes: war seen from the Paris Is-land training camp is a far cry from the reality in Vietnam. Also, the marines’ soli-darity (which compels them to try to rescue their wounded comrades with dire re-sults) reminds one of Bowman’s near-fatal attempt to bring back Poole’s body in space. In short, man’s ambitions to monitor reality or control their own lives always fail in Kubrick films, from The Killing (1956) onward. As to Eyes Wide Shut, the last one (which Kubrick inexplicably considered his best – well, at least he died happy), it is once again about a family and distorted minds. But this time food and money have been replaced with sex (the orgy scene in the manor is strongly reminiscent of the gambling scenes in Barry Lyndon, suggesting the same boredom and decadence across centuries and continents). Also, man’s delusion about reality is even stronger here, for the protagonist is not only confused by it, but also “invents” (and above all stubbornly misconstrues) it, in true paranoid fashion.
But all this should not come as too much of a surprise from a rather misan-thropic, possibly paranoid American film maker who was once a professional chess player, and who chose to retreat to a golden exile and haughty solitude in an English manor, from which, like a kind of human HAL, he relentlessly strove to control every aspect of his life as well as of his films, with the entire planet as his own private “Ex-plorer”. The body of work he left is also deeply autobiographical, after all – in more ways than one.
D. , MCF,
Université de la Réunion