Kubrick: An Avante-Garde approach to The Auteur Theory

DISCLAIMER: This was a piece I wrote for a film class during my one year at The University of Missouri-Kansas City. The website, Between the Frames, originally published this work on their website until the cite was unceremoniously taken down. I am now re-posting here on my personal medium page for anyone who would like to read an amateur talk about the GOAT.

Film is subjective. There are a variety of different ways to approach the aspect of how to go through the process of making a film. In that process, there are different people one needs to hire for the independent positions. Such positions include the director, director of photography, editor and so on. However, there is such a way to have almost full creative control over a project. That sort of title goes by the name of auteur, which originated in France during the 1940s. Many of the first auteur theory directors came from France, and those include Francois Truffaut, Jean- Luc Godard, Agnès Varda and the list goes on and on. Over time, many directors have taken this auteur theory to heart and molded it into their own creation, taking many forms into some of the greatest modern masterpieces. There is one director that took the idea of what an auteur theory could be and transformed it into the mainstream and created the best sci-fi/adaptation ever put onto screen: Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was able to mold these conceptions of what a film could be and turned them into what a film CAN be.

Some may say the most important film moment (or an arts movement) was the French New Wave. The French New Wave started in the 1950s and it was a form of film criticism for a certain group of french filmmakers. The wave was never a formal organized movement, but the idea of the French New Wave were all linked by self conscious rejection of the literary period pieces being made in France and written by novelists. These directors wanted to shoot more current social issues and them wanting to experiment with new film forms. During the 1950s and 60s, there was a certain conservative paradigm that visual artists were following and the French New Wave broke that mold. Without using tripods, using portable equipment with little to no time for set up, these filmmakers were a way of documentary style turned into a narrative structure. Thanks to these new commentaries on film, different area were searched and helped create discontinuous editing, and long takes, the combination of objective realism, subjective realism, and authorial commentary. Even though The French New Wave is scene as this revolutionary thing, the movement soon died out by the end of the 60s, but a theory arose from this that is still used today.

The definition of the auteur theory is easy enough to comprehend — a theory of filmmaking in which the director is viewed as the major creative force in a motion picture (britannica.com). Most of the time, this theory is applied to directors who have a very distinct style, one that i very recognizable and repeated with almost each one of their films. Auteurism first originated in the 1940s in the French Film Critics circle. The auteur theory is a value system, that cinematic theorists Andre Bazin and Alexandre Astruc coined. The concept was invented in order to “distinguish French New Wave filmmakers from studio-system directors that were part of the Hollywood establishment…” (britannica.com). The origin of an auteur director has been debated every since the inception of it in the 40s. Andre Bazin and Roger Leenhardt first presented that the “…director that brings the film to life and uses the film to express their thoughts and feelings about the subject matter as well as a worldview as an auteur” (prezi.com). An auteur director can use the lighting system, the camerawork, staging or even editing in order to help convey the ideas he or she wishes to show.

The Auteur Theory, according to those French New Wave directors, started when they first published their ideas in Cahiers du cinéma and created their own movies. For a counter argument proposed by New York University professor Julian Cornell, he asserts that the concept has been around for much longer. According to Cornell, the Cahiers simply refined the theory. During an address to some of his peers, Cornell delves deeper into his understanding of the theory. “In the French New Wave, people developed the notion of the filmmaker as an artist. They didn’t invent the idea, but they did popularize it” (indiefilmhustle.com). Further along his discussion, Cornell stated that a “…German filmmaker who started as a German theatre director, Max Reinhardt, came up with the idea of the auteur — the author in films” (indiefilmhustle.com). Cornell then singled out Truffaut and The French New Wave as popularizing it, and or redefining it. Aside from Cornell, the Cahiers du cinéma did single out Alfred Hitchcock as being the definition of an auteur film director. To help comprehend the meaning that was attached to Hitchcock and his films, the Cahiers cited his “…obsessions that showed up repeatedly in his films and the distinct imprint of his personality that appeared in all of his works made him a prime candidate for critical focus within the context of a theory that fetishizes the idea of a singular, distinctive vision that can be seen clearly throughout an entire career” (indiefilmhustle.com). To summarize, these ideas that have been laid out can be collocated with other directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and most notably, Stanley Kubrick.

Stanley Kubrick, according to many cinephiles, is the greatest director of all time. Kubrick, through many instances of psychoanalysis, was able to manipulate the viewers perception on many philosophical ideas and their perception of the world around them. For inspiration, Kubrick would adapt books but change certain plot points or character beats in order for it to fit his overall vision. Aside from his visions, he would keep a close knit crew together for the majority of his filmography. James Liggat was the casting director for Lilota, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. As for a cinematographer, Kubrick collaborated with John Alcott on A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon (in which we won an Academy Award for) and The Shining.

Stanley Kubrick had a very distinct method to his madness. With having a very distinct and recognizable style, Kubrick used cold colors in order to create a bleak atmosphere (prezi.com). Due to the coloring, this gave his films a sense of isolation because the cold can be associated with “…locations like the arctic” (prezi.com). Furthermore, another constant stylistic approach Kubrick takes towards filming are the long shots/steadicam shots. These are used to make the audience feel a sense of uncomfortableness, which also lead into a common theme in his movies which is fear. Kubrick wanted people to fear mankind, where mankind was “…going, where it is currently or how it got to this point” (prezi.com). Kubrick may be considered a great Auteur in the sense, but what makes him stand out from the rest is really disobeying the normal conventions that are faced with genre type movies. He (Kubrick), subverts from genre theory and produces films that have been discussed for years and years since their release, and no other film of his has been deconstructed as much as 2001: A Space Odyssey has ever since its release on April 3rd, 1968.

At face value, 2001: A Space Odyssey revolves around the evolutions of mankind and how one has to adapt to their surroundings in order to survive. However, according to Kubrick himself, 2001: A Space Odyssey revolves around “…the deepest psychological level… the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God” (theguardian.com). Kubrick took the minimalism of what sci-fi was at the time and transformed it into a spectacle of avante-garde scores to an overzealous piece of filmmaking. Kubrick never wanted a linear story with the structure of 2001. For the audience, Kubrick believed that such people would have a hard time following this movie if they were raised upon linear movies. Most films have a beginning, middle and end without leaving much imagination to the viewer. In such movies, you never have to ask questions like why John Wayne wishes to kill all those Native Americans. On the contrary, Kubrick has questions that are hard to answer, like what of the monolith?

A gigantic pock faced moon which is glorified by Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra drifts down the cavernous screen. Sonn, a sunrise appears on the crescent of Earth. Thus begins the journey into 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film consists of four “episodes: or segments — The Dawn of Man, venturing into a man made satellite which orbits in space, the Jupiter Mission and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. The beginning sequence, depicts the beginning of man and the use of tools. A tribe of apes live in the wild, and one such ape takes command of the tribe, and then learns that old bones from dead animals can be used as a form of weapons against opposing forces. However, before this segment is over, a monolith appears before the apes. This is where, I believe, Kubrick starts to change what was previously thought of auteur theory and combines it with art house.

The monolith in this film is a tall, 3 dimensional rectangle chrome colored object that stands up without making any visible moves. Ever since the appearance of this perplexing object, many of attempted to fully understand the meaning behind it. Audiences wanted a simple answer to this question — even is this monolith and what does it symbolize? As an easy scapegoat, Kubrick could have had tiny green men lower the object down and make it a little clearer on what it all meant. 2001 does not wish to do that. One such explanation came from Roger Ebert, who saw the film on multiple viewings and came to a somewhat conclusion on April 21st, 1968. In this small essay, Ebert asks “Does everything need an explanation?”(rogerebert.con), pointing to the fact that some things are better left to the imagination. Ebert then changes direction to the ending bedroom scene. He defends the decision by Kubrick, saying that

“My intuition is that it came out of Kubrick’s imagination; that he understood the familiar bedroom would be the most alien, inexplicable, disturbing scene he could possibly end the film with. He was right. The bedroom is more otherworldly and eerie than any number of exploding stars, etc.” (rogerebert.com). Further specifying this claim of not fully explaining scenarios, Ebert brings up the notion of no one asking why Poets always put their lovers underneath trees. The bedroom, might just symbolise a bedroom. Alison Castle, who edited The Stanley Kubrick Archives, stated that 2001: A Space Odyssey is “…not merely ‘Art for the sake of Art’ — but vastly more important, ‘Excellence for the sake of Excellence’” (Castle 442). Kubrick was able to mesh together the auteur of filmmaking and art house along with a pinch of sci-fi to create the purest sense of filmmaking. Stanley Kubrick is an auteur director, but he takes the simplest ideals of what one can do with those and transforms them into a radical approach to movies by adding substance and choosing quantity over quality, mind over matter thus making audiences question to this day what it means to understand what a movie can become.

In the 1962, am english novelist by the name of Anthony Burgess published a rebellious, dystopian psychoanalysis novel by the name of A Clockwork Orange. A few years later, while starting pre-production on his next feature about Napoleon Bonaparte, Stanley Kubrick’s wife lended him her copy of the novel, and it left an immediate imprint on the director. With regards to the novel and the enthusiasm surrounding it, Kubrick stated “I was excited by everything about it: the plot, the ideas, the characters, and, of course, the language” (Castle 491). The language, it consists of rhyming slang, a bit of gypsy talk. But most of the roots are Slav propaganda according to Burgess. For the film, Kubrick had a lot of different angles to work with, so he made the screenplay as faithful to the novel as possible.

Before production even began, Kubrick was fiscated on the project. He researched meticulously, pouring through thousands of photographs that “…he took of different locations that could have been used for filming” (Castle 491). Like the film before this, A Clockwork Orange is left up to the imagination of the viewer, with the subtextual meanings and the effects it has on the psyche, along with the actions of Alex and the representation he has through his music and actions.

The first shot of the movie, an extreme close up of Alex with a sinister grin on his face while the camera slowly dolly’s back where we see him surrounded by his other droogs while sitting in a black and white room, we realize that they are the epitome of evil. The scenes that follow, we see them assault, fight, rape and steal all and make a night out of all these horrible events in which Alex calls it “ultraviolence”. Most likely, the most horrific standout of these events is that Alex and his gang enjoy doing this. They embody everything wrong with that society that Kubrick brought to life. However, Kubrick with the total control he had over the production, wanted us to see Alex painted in a better light as the movie progresses. Kubrick wants us to know that Alex’s actions are horrendous and reprehensible, but there is a certain likability of charisma that Kubrick sprinkles onto him. Kubrick makes us connect and feel sympathy towards Alex. To begin with the sympathy we feel, Kubrick started with the use of language. As previously stated, Alex uses a combination of different slangs and interpretations in which he uses to speak to others. His utter defiance for usage of modern english, he’s appreciation for the spoken word showcases he has power over most (as seen in other pieces of work from a variety of different artists). With that power, it showcases the separation that Alex has from his other gang members. Dim struggles to form a cohesive sentence, Alex combines languages to show his mental superiority.

There is beauty in everything, and Kubrick exploits Alex with that through his appreciation of Beethoven. We as the audience are able to further connect to Alex because of this through the uniqueness and having a passion for something. What he finds in Beethoven’s work is the (remaining) good in the world. Juxtaposed to the score, Beethoven’s music is alive and well while Wendy Carlo’s score is “…mechanical, cold and inhumane” (Castle 493). Aside from the two previous traits listed, Alex’s last character trait that Kubrick uses is his aggression.

On paper, Alex’s antics are seen as wrong and dreadful, but Kubrick draws us even closer to Alex by romanticizing the violence. Corresponding with Pixar’s 22 rules for better storytelling, we as an audience member must “..admire a character for trying more than for their success” (http://pixar-animation.weebly.com). On a much darker level, Kubrick applies this to Alex. Action is greater than inaction, and we admire Alex more for that, even if his actions are heinous. Kubrick strips away the humanity in the world, and through these actions that Kubrick had Alex portay, is what makes him human.

Lastly, in order to really penetrate the minds of the viewer and make us feel for Alex, Kubrick uses existentialism to feel my sympathetic. In many ways, Kubrick portrays Alex as a victim. For instance, his parents are uninterested in him, they replace him while he serves jail time, through subtle actions, one can assume Alex has faced many sexual advances from his probation officer. Outside of his immediate self, the world around Alex is just as inauspicious. The police force are corrupt, crime runs rampant all while humanity evolves to the lowest common denominator. In a way, Kubrick develops Alex as a product of his environment. Alex isn’t, persay, bad, but the society around him, is. After the film was released, Kubrick, on Alex, said “…is plainly evil…and yet because he is operating on this unconscious level, makes you aware of things of your own personality, which you then identify with him” (Castle 945). Is Alex better than those around him? It is highly suggested that Kubrick wants Alex to seem he is very well aware of the world around and what his actions mean. Alex acts on his own free will, commanding those around him who all follow his orders. In A Clockwork Orange, Stanley again takes the idea of what an auteur theorist can be and applies it to his main character, Alex and, in a world that is inhumane, makes his anti-hero seem like the only human through a psychoanalysis of sympathy for him. Afterall, the name “Alexander: does mean defender of man.

Stanley Kubrick is an enigma wrapped in a riddle. His body of work has been dissected and attempted to be replicated for years upon years. Some label him a proteinous filmmaker, others go with the greatest of all time. Kubrick utilized the auteur theory that was “popularized” by The French New Wave directors and transformed it into a transcendent piece of history, one that many directors still struggle with today. Most importantly, Kubrick was a revolutionary. He challenged the existence of film and what a film COULD and CAN be. Stanley was able to bend reality and raise the eyebrows of everyone around him with each frame he painted onto the big screen. Kubrick gave his film life, meaning and metaphysical intellectual standards. There is no good way to end a paper with regards to a provocative genius, however I will add onto it with a quote from a man who wrote about films better than anyone else: “Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer ‘to’ anyone or anything, but prayer ‘about’ everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.” -Roger Ebert.


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