The Comedy of Kubrick

The final scene of 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut takes place in a toy store. As Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice, let their young daughter run around to pick out Christmas presents, they discuss the future of their relationship. It’s been a harrowing two days for the pair, as Alice revealed her emotional infidelity while Bill revealed his odyssey of near physical adultery, culminating in an infiltration of a clandestine orgy where he may or may not have witnessed a murder. Their secrets revealed to each other, Bill is unsure whether their marriage has a future at all. Alice tells him that they’ll continue the marriage, with the stipulation that “there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible.” “What’s that?” asks Bill. “Fuck,” Alice intones. Cut to black. The final film of director Stanley Kubrick ends on a laugh line.

The works of Stanley Kubrick have not, as a whole, been referred to often as “comedic.” Indeed, that final line in Eyes Wide Shut was so unusual it fueled speculation that the studio tampered with the film in the few months between Kubrick’s untimely death and its release. Kubrick kept away from the press throughout his career, fostering a reputation as a “mad genius” type who was controlling to a fault, demanded hundreds of takes of each scene, and so on. Yet a closer examination of his work reveals not a cold filmmaker who demanded to be taken deadly seriously, but a humanistic one who sought to mock social conventions. He was a satirist, and while the comedy in his films was not always blatant, it becomes more apparent when seen through a satirical lens.

Kubrick’s comedic approach and penchant for satire can be seen almost immediately, in his first two features, Fear And Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955). The war in Fear is deliberately ambiguous, with the same actors playing both sides of the conflict, and the noir elements in Kiss become externalized as a room full of mannequins literally look on as the hapless boxer fights his nemesis. Both films try to live up to the genres they belong to, rather than transcend (and therefore mock) them — which is exactly what Kubrick’s next film did.

The Killing (1956) is a dark comedy of errors, taking the structure of a heist film and tearing it down piece by piece. Each character’s movements are followed by Kubrick’s camera and a dispassionate, omniscient narrator, commenting like a god on the feeble follies of the small-time criminals who think they’ve figured out the perfect crime. In the end, Johnny Clay’s getaway with the money isn’t foiled by persistent cops, nosy clerks or good samaritans, but instead by a single rambunctious Pomeranian.

Paths Of Glory‘s (1957) reputation is that of a harrowing antiwar film, suffused with the melodrama of a late-‘50s Kirk Douglas performance and the plight of three innocent soldiers marked for wrongful execution. It would be almost unbearably sad, were it not for the distinctive performances of Adolphe Menjou and George Macready, both of whom play their general characters in the style of high comedy. Simpering, weasel-like, and well mannered, Kubrick’s cast make abundantly clear who’s to blame for the film’s failed battle, as Menjou and Macready’s generals stand in for the callous machinery of war itself. The juxtaposition of the horror of trench warfare with the two generals squabbling in opulent chateau drawing rooms elicits dark laughter as much as disgust. Even the film’s nakedly emotional ending is given its own bitter punchline, as the soldiers’ catharsis from listening to a German girl’s beautifully sad song is undercut by a sudden call to battle, and an ironically jaunty arrangement of the girl’s song plays under the end credits.

Spartacus (1960) was Kubrick’s one “work for hire” job, and as such lacks any major satiric content (though a film where the “happy ending” involves the hero literally being crucified must have given Kubrick a good chuckle). His comedic approach returned full force in Lolita (1962). Having his hands tied by the Motion Picture Production Code, Kubrick played up the romantic satire from Nabokov’s book rather than dwell on specifics. Although Humbert Humbert is the narrator and main character of the story, the film mocks him at every turn, not just through the supporting characters but through the score itself, with Nelson Riddle’s music illustrating a sweeping and passionate love affair while Kubrick’s camera coldly shows anything but.

The most telling comedic element of Lolita is Kubrick’s use of Peter Sellers, whose Clare Quilty is the director’s most likely alter ego in the story, popping up intermittently in order to directly make fun of Humbert. This culminates in a scene in which Quilty confronts Humbert in disguise as a school psychologist using an absurd German accent, his true identity apparent to everyone but the clueless Humbert, who is too blinded by his desire.

Sellers and his gift for playing multiple characters would return in Dr. Strangelove (1964), a film long recognized for its satire yet perhaps not seen for being the out-and-out comedy that it is. Strangelove‘s comedy is primarily verbal and character based, but employs both visual gags (the opening montage of planes erotically refueling in midair) as well as broad physical comedy, pratfalls and all. It’s no wonder that the original ending of the film was to be a gigantic pie fight in the war room.

In comparison to the only Kubrick film that could legitimately be described as “zany,” 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) seems impossibly austere and intellectual. Consider, though, the most famous edit in the movie (indeed, arguably in film history): a match cut between an ancestor of Mankind throwing a newly discovered tool/weapon into the air, to a descending spacecraft millions of years in the future. It certainly implies the breadth of humanity’s technological progress, but beneath that lies the fact that the spacecraft is actually a nuclear satellite placed by a rival nation aimed at the earth, a threat used just as the apeman’s bone was used to ward off the other apeman’s tribe at the watering hole.

Consider, too, how Dr. Heywood Floyd apologizes for the “embarrassing” cover story the U.S. government has concocted to hide the existence of the newly discovered alien monolith. Later, HAL, mankind’s ultimate technological achievement that is “foolproof and incapable of error,” turns insane and murderous toward his human crew, simply because his design could not compute how to keep that very clandestine secret Floyd apologized for. As the best joke in the movie deftly illustrates, if humanity cannot devise a zero-gravity toilet without a wall’s length worth of instructions to read first, perhaps there’s still some evolving we need to do.

Upon their release, neither A Clockwork Orange (1971) nor Barry Lyndon (1975) were regarded as comedies, though perhaps they should have been. Clockwork, in particular, has undergone reappraisal as a black comedy in the last few decades. Its content was deemed far too shocking at the time it debuted; now the character of Alex seems not just prescient, but almost common: the celebrity criminal.

As normal as that archetype may be in 2017, the film still stings thanks to its craft, as Kubrick seeks to play the ultimate joke on the audience themselves. He has them identify with the murderer and rapist through first-person narration and by having every supporting character be cartoonish in their obnoxiousness and/or cluelessness, with Alex being the charismatic voice of reason. By the time Alex has been “cured, all right,” Kubrick has you laughing out of fear.

In Barry Lyndon, he has you laughing out of pity. Upon its release, Lyndon was seen as a dull exercise in period piece aesthetics, gorgeous but hollow. In truth, it’s a comedy of errors not unlike The Killing, concerning a dim-witted man who seeks to better himself and his station through largely nefarious, if charming, means. Over the course of the film, Barry fails upward until he finds that the high society he wishes to infiltrate is as cold and hostile as anything he encountered as a conscript in the Prussian army, which was made up of actual criminals. Barry commits one single noble act in the entire film, and is subsequently ruined and forgotten for it. Kubrick’s comedy was undoubtedly bleak; where one character triumphs despite his crimes, another is destroyed for acting selflessly. 

That pitch-black humor can be found in both The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), two films that, while not secret comedies, still contain a large amount of satire. As much as Kubrick commits to the horror throughout The Shining, at times it seems like a parody of the genre. That parodic element can be seen in Jack Nicholson’s performance, as he drops one-liner after one-liner while mugging for the camera. It’s even more apparent in the Dick Halloran subplot, wherein Kubrick spends a large amount of time following the character’s courageous journey back to the Overlook Hotel, only to be immediately and brutally dispatched by Jack. This cruel joke on the character and the audience serves not only the dark humor of the film, but also the horror, showing how there will be no easy escape from a possessed father’s hatred.

Having the comedy and satire support rather than undercut the horror of the proceedings continues in Full Metal Jacket, a Vietnam war film whose main character is literally named “Joker.” That dichotomy is present throughout the film, from Joker’s “Born to Kill”/peace button outfit to the movie’s boot camp/grunt work bifurcated structure. There are a lot of uncomfortable laughs to be had in Jacket, ranging from the audacious insults slung by R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant to Kubrick’s use of ’60s pop music juxtaposed with the mundane horror of war, as when The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” underscores a tracking shot full of shell-shocked soldiers sitting next to endlessly firing tanks.

The film’s biggest joke comes at the finale, though, when the men trained to be nearly out-of-control killers are almost wiped out by a single sniper — a single female sniper, at that. Summing up the film’s themes and a take on the Vietnam conflict all at once, Kubrick has the most pacifist characters in the movie gun the girl down, then murder her dying body in cold blood. The final cadence the soldiers sing is not a war song, but the theme to The Mickey Mouse Club. Kubrick leaves the audience with the image of overgrown children with guns as a final punchline.

Seen in this context, the finale of Eyes Wide Shut — indeed the entirety of it — seems less like a botched final entry in Kubrick’s career and more like a last statement from the master director. Those who complain that Eyes is an erotic thriller that fails to be erotic are missing the point: Tom Cruise’s Bill Harford is, like Johnny Clay and Barry Lyndon before him, the butt of Kubrick’s dark joke. A straight white male whose patriarchal worldview is shattered by his wife’s confession of lust, Bill spends an entire night in New York City being blatantly offered numerous sexual liaisons, each of which he either is distracted from or turns down. In addition to externalizing the film’s central theme of fidelity and what it means to a long-term couple, Kubrick creates what must be one of the most sexually repressed characters ever on screen (one wonders if Kubrick saw Cruise’s 1983 “teens looking to lose their virginity” film Losin’ It, as it only adds to the humor).

In the end, Bill imagines (or does he?) an entire murderous clandestine cult that seeks to keep him from getting laid, and only breaks the spell by confessing his true nature to his wife. Kubrick, a devoted family man for 40 years, must have taken great pleasure in concocting a fable where a philandering man is mocked so relentlessly. Thus, Alice’s final laugh line lets both Bill and the audience off the hook.

If there is a through line to Kubrick’s genre-hopping career, it’s that people are feeble, weak-minded, and fallible creatures, reinforced by social and societal systems of oppression. However, there is a small glimmer of hope, whether in a shared emotional experience, a transcendent metamorphosis beyond the infinite, or a carnal encounter between lovers. As Kubrick told Playboy magazine in 1968, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference … our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” The world may be bleak, but that doesn’t mean you can’t laugh at it.


Bill Bria laughs at life — which laughs back at him — in New York City.

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