Kubrick in embryo
In July 1999, I went to the cinema to see Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a film that struck me as a minor, late work by a major figure. However, Eyes was not only Kubrick’s first release in twelve years; it also debuted four months after the director’s unexpected passing. Thus, I watched with the knowledge that it would be the last new work under Kubrick’s director’s credit that I would see; a poignant realization about a figure who had substantially advanced my interest in the medium of film. Numerous moments registered in a mental inventory of Kubrick’s oeuvre as I absorbed Eyes Wide Shut: the majestic tracking shots, scenes of formal/ballroom dancing (Killer’s Kiss, Paths of Glory, The Shining), the donning of helmets and masks (The Killing, 2001, Clockwork Orange), and the importance of plot happenings in the bathroom (Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket). Since Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire, was out of circulation at the perfectionist director’s behest, along with two documentary-short films referred to fleetingly in the literature on Kubrick (Walker 1972), it was safe to assume in 1999 that there was effectively no more to see from this auteur.
However, inside of ten years, “new” work from Kubrick was at hand. The source was the pirate ship YouTube, which, for the moment, has defiantly sailed in plain sight around copyright restrictions onto screens everywhere. Via YouTube, unanticipated at the time of Kubrick’s passing in 1999, interested viewers have been able to engage with the two documentary short films from 1951: The Flying Padre (8 minutes) and Day of the Fight (16 minutes), both 1951 releases.1
How may one begin to unpack the Kubrick oeuvre that unfolded across a half century (from the early 1950s to 1999)? The auteur theory posits that a filmmaker’s oeuvre may be characterized by the director’s signature (stylized use of formal technique) and by thematic motifs that arise across the body of films (Goss 2009: 39-57). Where the former is concerned, Kubrick’s penchant for fluid mobile framing has been long noted. Where the latter is concerned, Kubrick’s work is marked by its critical gaze on authority and the elaborate latticework of ostensibly rational procedures that support it for sometimes fanatical purposes. In Kubrick’s world, “legitimate” authority is an almost transparent veneer for aggression and anti-social impulses with its attendant discipline over the body (notable during the gladiator training sequences in Spartacus and, almost 30 years later, in the extended Parris Island sequence of Full Metal Jacket). Moreover, subjects in the Kubrickian world are often strikingly split between affiliative and aggressive tendencies, with the latter uncomfortably cabined in the former. Male homophilia is another tendency in Kubrick’s work since, across his long career, important female characters were notably scarce.
In this article, I will attempt to fit these broad claims about Kubrickian themes around a couple of judiciously chosen examples before tracing them backwards in time to the most “primordial” texts. In particular, I will suggest that the two docu-shorts from 1951 – Flying Padre and Day of the Fight – are surprisingly prescient with respect to Kubrick’s themes as they were more fully elaborated in later feature films.
Flying Padre is set in a sprawling rural New Mexico farming/ranching community. The other docu-short, Day of the Fight, plays out in the urban environs of New York and its metropolitan area. Despite the juxtaposition in settings, the shorts anticipate the variety of Kubrick’s relatively small but genre-diverse body of work that spanned prehistory (2001), 18th-century Europe (Barry Lyndon), WW I France (Paths of Glory), 1960s Viet Nam (Full Metal Jacket), the present (Eyes Wide Shut), and into the near future (Clockwork Orange, 2001). Nonetheless, as tempting as hyperbole may be, the belated discovery of the two docu-shorts is not like finding the private notebooks of a young Kubrick in which the keynotes to his later works are evident in a scribbled hand. At the same time, the degree of consistency from the docu-shorts to the subsequent features seems to present more than a case of observer reification under the sway of auteur theory.
The Flying Padre appears to be the less interesting of the two films, although its Kubrickian characteristics were apparent on first viewing. Padre concerns a Catholic priest, Father Fred Stadtmueller, in rural Harding County, New Mexico. Stadtmueller deploys a small propeller plane in order to emerge from the heavens and minister to a “flock” dispersed over hundreds of miles. It is, nonetheless (and in spite of some dodgy moments of acting among the principals), a deceptively polished work. A tight narrative spine organizes the eight-minute runtime as the breakdown of sequences in Table 1 suggests. In other words, despite the documentary genre, it is evident that most (or all) of the short has been staged for the camera; moreover, a narrative arc has been installed to shepherd the resultant footage into a story. The fact that there is a garnishing of diegetic sound (e.g., propeller noise) but no audible dialogue underlines the degree to which the filmmaker marshaled the imagery into a coherent narrative. Kubrick’s technique stands clearly in contrast with the later documentary method of Frederick Wiseman’s work (e.g., High School, 1968) with its more subtle editing strategies of pulling together a “fly-on-the wall” jigsaw of revealing vignettes.
Flying Padre Narrative Chronology
Introduction: Fred Stadtmueller in Harding County, New Mexico (0:00-1:45)
Mass at the main parish (2:30-3:15)
Next morning: Little girl’s problem with Pedro solved (3:15-4:20)
Padre Fred’s hobbies (4:20-4:50)
Sick baby emergency: Padre in action (4:50-8:00)
Flying Padre features techniques that would become familiar in Kubrick’s later work: notably the reliance on voice-over (VO) that appears in several Kubrick films (Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket) and the director’s characteristically elegant use of mobile framing (e.g., to capture the plane’s celestial movements). More striking is the brief emphasis on the instruments on the plane that Stadtmueller must manipulate as he journeys to rescue the sick child. These images reverberate in the more deliberate shots of instruments on the US Air Force plane in Dr. Strangelove. Going “by the book” of procedures and its bureaucratic rationalities, the aircraft crew in Dr. Strangelove proceeds step-by-incremental-step into a holocaust with their “eyes wide shut,” carefully calibrating their instruments as they do so. Flying Padre also features ritual (in this case, in the church) as the ritualistic is characteristic of several Kubrick films (e.g., the execution sequence in Paths of Glory).
In the emphasis on the titular Catholic priest, Kubrick rehearses a surprising affinity for this form of authority figure that stands out with respect to the otherwise withering treatment of authority in his films. The VO characterizes Stadtmueller as “wise and friendly” as he intervenes in a young Latin American child’s problems with her bullying cohort Pedro. Moreover, Stadtmueller and his plane are instrumental in getting the sick baby to the hospital in a sequence that comprises the second half of the docu-short. Similarly, among the craven generals and the cynical ministers of Paths of Glory and Clockwork Orange, these same films’ priests are flinty figures even as they stand out for their devotion to giving comfort to the marginalized.
Along with formal skill exhibited in The Flying Padre, there are unintentionally humorous slippages between the VO and the images staged for the camera. Stadtmueller appears notably wooden even when coming to the aid of the bullied young Latina and fashioning an “amicable solution” with Pedro. His life, as depicted by Kubrick in the docu-short, is devoted to “work and studies,” raising canaries, shooting guns, and attending to mechanical problems with his plane; it seems to be a monastic and monadic life indeed. The final shot of the padre, left behind and disappearing into the horizon in the backward tracking shot from the ambulance, underscores the apparently removed asceticism of his existence (which, one may speculate, accounts for the more gentle treatment of his authority figure by Kubrick).
The film commits an ethnic faux pas to current sensibilities by referring to Latinos in New Mexico as “Spanish Americans” when they are clearly of indigenous and not Iberian stock. The docu-short is otherwise matter-of-fact about the U.S. southwest’s multicultural milieu in notable contrast with current uproars about Latinos in the nation’s discourse. At the same time, Kubrick’s film is reticent on the matter of the Anglo-Saxon Stadtmueller as the region’s spiritual authority.
In the City
Although he hailed from a cultured family in The Bronx, Kubrick eschewed college studies and went to work as a photographer at Life magazine. There, among other assignments, he photographed New York boxer Walter Cartier’s preparations for a match. This material later formed the basis of the docu-short that I will now discuss (“Plot Summary for Day of the Fight (1951)” n.d.). As Table 2 shows, Fight, too, has a tightly structured narrative.
The Day of the Fight Narrative Chronology
VO introduction and montage of boxers and knockouts (0:50-2:00)
Continued montage of knockouts (without VO) (2:00-2:30)
Boxers: “Why they do it” (2:30-4:40)
Introduction of Walter Cartier: Morning rituals (including Catholic Mass) (4:40-7:50)
Eats meat at restaurant (7:50-8:15)
Plays with dog and final preparations at home (8:15-9:45)
Drives to arena (9:45-10:50)
Locker room preparations (10:25-13:30)
Enters ring (13:30-14:30)
Montage of fight (14:30-16:50)
What is striking and pleasurable about viewing Day of the Fight? Besides the (to my sensibility) deliciously overwrought music (that presages the early Kubrick/late noir effort The Killing), there is witty typage with respect to at least one creepy hanger-on depicted around the boxer “protagonist.” In particular, the restaurant owner who furnishes Walter with a red-meat meal for free on the day of the fight is on screen briefly. Nonetheless Kubrick’s presentation of this figure, enveloped in smoke and low-key noirish lighting, channels the shameless cynicism of one who may call in his favors by intoning, “Tonight’s not y’ur night, kid” to the boxer. In this manner, the ostensible documentary record presents fluency in fictional codes and conventions (even if inadvertently).
At the same time, Day of the Fight is permeated with a palpably torn posture toward the subject of boxing, one that seems to betray a potent cocktail of dread and fascination. The black and white photography of the urban setting and low-key lighting schemes contribute to the sense of unease. Moreover, the docu-short is clearly fascinated with the violent paroxysms inscribed within this particular sport and the men who willingly place themselves in the ring. The film presents Walter as careful to take Catholic communion very early on the morning of the fight “in case something should go wrong tonight” in the boxing ring, as the VO ominously observes. Later in the afternoon, before leaving for the arena, Walter gazes into the mirror and plays with configurations that his nose may assume if battered in the ring. The VO speculates darkly: “Last look in the mirror. Time to wonder what it will reflect tomorrow.”
As suggested earlier, Kubrick presents deeply inscribed conflict between affiliation and aggression, a posture toward deep-seated human drives that finds correlates in the scholarly works of ethology (Eible-Eibesfeldt 1974). In this vein, Kubrick’s 2001 famously depicts the first proto-human tool fashioned by the emergent species’ insight and creativity as a murder weapon. The bones are wielded as clubs by Moon-Watcher’s group of proto-humans, walking more erect than their rivals as they retake the water hole in a violent confrontation. 2001 then cuts millions of years into the future as the newly minted murder weapon is graphically matched to a 21st-century spacecraft. Kubrick thereby audaciously traces an arc between the first technology and the later one that would assume the flaws of its creators in becoming splayed between affiliation and aggression (to wit, spaceship super-computer HAL 9000). Similarly, a scene from the shockingly rowdy opening sequence of a crime spree in Clockwork Orange depicts a bout of gang violence between the Droogs and the Billy Boys; contrapuntally, the scene is shot against a soundtrack of classical music as base hoodlum violence and high art are implied to flow from equally deep-seated impulses.
The tension between affiliation and aggression is in various ways embodied by Kubrick protagonists such as Humbert Humbert, Alex de Large, Redmond Barry, and Joker. The dualism is made explicit in Day of the Fight as the VO characterizes the seemingly restrained Walter as “slowly becoming another man” while counting down to the start of the match. Walter is described as metamorphosing into a “fierce new person” that the VO calls the “arena man” as he ritualistically warms up by punching his brother’s hands with building intensity.
Prior to the fight, the boxer’s violence-tinged “tools of the trade” are methodically laid out, and an exercise regime of bodily discipline (punishing repetitions of crouches, practice punching) anticipates the more extended sequences of disciplining the body into a hardened weapon in Spartacus and Full Metal Jacket. Moreover, in Day of the Fight, the elaborate preparations prior to entering the ring constitute most of the film. Only the last two minutes present a montage of the fight between Walter and his opponent toward which narrative tension builds throughout the docu-short.
Where homophilia is concerned, several entries in Kubrick’s filmography suggest what is now called (in a tongue-in-cheek idiom) “bromance.” In Full Metal Jacket, the only female characters briefly onscreen are Vietnamese prostitutes and a sniper. Similarly, Dr. Stangelove presents only one female character, a mental lightweight with whom Turgidson has just had sex. Paths of Glory‘s lone woman appears in the final scene. She is a prisoner (played by Kubrick’s later wife Susanne Christian) who sings movingly to the war-hardened men in German. Elsewhere in Kubrick’s work, The Killing‘s Sherry is an ur-femme fatale who occasions a donnybrook; the snooze-inducing dullness of Fay, who unconditionally subordinates herself to Johnny’s tawdry dreams, furnishes Sherry’s lone foil in the film. Only in The Shining may a woman (Shelley Duvall as Wendy) be taken as a pivotal character in her own right who functions as more than a trigger for self-destructive male obsession. Besides the sheer predominance of males, in Full Metal Jacket, male bonding is implied to achieve the Grecian standards of antiquity. The following dialogue occurs between Joker and Cowboy as they clean the bathroom outside of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s panoptic gaze:
Joker: I want to put my tube steak in your sister.
Cowboy: What have you got in return?
Following the innuendo between the two sexually stifled recruits, the camera cuts immediately to a gun discharging to suggest the “exchange” transacted between them.
In Day of the Fight, Walter and his brother Vincent have a couple of moments that evoke such homophilia. The first glimpse of them presents a surprise to the viewer as, in a bed beneath a Christian cross, the two men wake up side-by-side before the VO explains that they are brothers (and, later, that Vincent usually lives outside of New York but comes into town for Walter’s fights). Toward the end of the docu-short, as part of the pre-fight preparations in the locker room, Vince applies oil to Walter’s semi-clad body in an image redolent of homophilia.
Paths of Glory suggests that in a war between nations, the undeclared class war within them heats up rather than being damped down with solidarity. In one telling sequence, Kubrick presents the courageous Colonel Dax in a primitive cave-like dwelling by the muddy and death-besotted French WW I front. In a powerfully polemical piece of editing, Kubrick cuts to the château only kilometers away where a different milieu reigns during wartime; the military brass hobnobs in formal dress in the palatial environs of chandeliers and large-potted plants, dancing waltzes with bejeweled women while carefully avoiding the hazards of wait staff bearing libations. Same nation, same wartime setting; but no comparable demands are made on the ruling class of war’s phallocracy in contrast with the hapless “employees” in the trenches. Kubrick extends far beyond the standard-issue “War is hell!” trope by locating some of that hell in a society’s own class structure and the ferocious antagonisms visited on the exploited.
Class politics as they intersect with the conduct of war are crystal clear in Paths of Glory. In Day of the Fight, they’re more muddled. The opening VO characterizes boxing as a $90 million annual business by the time the film was made. However, the opening VO also evokes typically Kubrickian tensions between an ostensibly rational order and the barely suppressed aggression uncomfortably situated within it. The hardboiled VO intones that boxing constitutes “legal assault and lawful battery” for participants. The boxers are “hammering each other unconscious with upholstered fists,” the VO claims in imagery that pulls unbridled aggression within nature (“hammering” fists) together with its “softening” via culture (“upholstered”). And the spectator? In sardonic poetry, the VO characterizes boxing as a guilty pleasure that allows the façade of everyday civility to slip. On this view, to witness boxing is to be recruited into the “primitive vicarious visceral thrill of seeing one animal overcome another” (emphasis added).
The closing VO of the film posits Walter as “a man who literally has to fight for his existence” and thus implies that he fights for his dinner. However, an earlier VO observes that Walter could work in a law office, as his brother does, but that he opts not to do so. Thus, economic desperation is not the principal motive for participating in quasi-gladiatorial sport. Earlier, the VO similarly undercuts this motive when it observes the class striation among boxers that exaggerates that of western capitalist states generally: 6,000 prize fighters were contemporaneously active in the ring, 600 “make a living” at it, and 60 have income characterized as “good” according to figures cited by the VO. Instead of income, the VO implies that the boxer is driven by the yearning for recognition; that is, recognition for being a champion with its embodiment of “legend” over mere “small type on obscure sport pages.” In another setting, Francis Fukuyama (1993) triumphally refers to this complex of drives as thymos, a quest for recognition to which Fukuyama reduces the motive force of history. In Day of the Fight’s world, the drive for recognition appears far more powerful than merely obtaining wealth (as is also the case for the titular character of Kubrick’s Thackeray adaption, Barry Lyndon).
However, the VO’s stress on boxing’s extra-economic motivations does not magically divest the topic of politics in general or class politics in particular. That is, Day of the Fight may be interpreted as positing that capitalist relations present the best arena for the (barely) sublimated aggressive push for recognition. Boxing presents a heightened (literally, fist in the face) version of capitalist relations in which exploited labor participates zealously in market-circumscribed games. On this view, the film is resigned in the face of market relations as a “natural” channel for unquestioned primordial drives that implicate not just material wealth but the potent attractant of social recognition within the sport’s milieu of intensified class striation. Alongside the fierce criticisms of war and classism in Paths of Glory, Kubrick reproduces and reinforces market and class mythology by situating them within unalterably and ineffably primordial human drives. In doing so, Kubrick enthrones class and markets as giving expression to transcendent social needs – and does so despite his many moments of iconoclasm.
Final thoughts: Day of the Fight‘s measure of sympathy with Walter’s working-class standing and his attendant aspirations is readily apparent. However, in making the claim that Kubrick’s film may be at least partly in the thrall of assumed inevitability about class division and market relations, one merely suggests that films do not exit out of the tides of the filmmaker’s own society even if this auteur’s work clearly harbors critical tendencies. For example, although Kubrick strongly accents male characters, The Shining is notably critical toward traditional masculinism as it hysterically defends its privileges against the post-1960s aspirations of characters who represent female, youth, and minority empowerment. Nevertheless, in forming interpretations of any text, including these docu-shorts, a reader should resist an unconditional commitment to collapse them into revolutionary tribunes laden with unstinting gestures of fingers in the eyes of The Man’s authority. Extending from John Fiske’s (1990) more measured claims, an almost celebratory theoretical impulse gained currency in academic writing in recent decades and at times has risked contortionist stretches to achieve its conclusions; even toward texts that are carefully constructed commodities distributed by and accountable to profit-driven multinationals that are not invested in the “business” of revolution.
Eible-Eibesfeldt, Irenaus (1974). Love and Hate. New York: Schocken Books.
Fiske, John (1990). Introduction to Communication Studies. London: Routledge.
Fukuyama, Francis (1993). The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Avon.
Goss, Brian Michael (2009). Global Auteurs. New York: Peter Lang.
“Plot Summary for Day of the Fight (1951)” (n.d.) Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved 26 October 2009 from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042384/plotsummary.
“The Seafarers (1953)” (n.d.). Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved 30 October 2009 from: www.imdb.com/title/tt0045130/.
Walker, Alexander (1972). Stanley Kubrick Directs. New York: Harcourt.
- As I was finishing this article, another (later) Kubrick short came to my attention: The Seafarers (1953), a 30-minute effort in color that followed the modest response to the director’s first feature-length film, Fear and Desire. Along with being relatively remote from the look and feel of Kubrick’s oeuvre, the Internet Movie Data Base characterizes The Seafarers as having been “Lost for over 40 years!” (The Seafarers n.d). [↩]