Total Pageviews

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Man Is An Ignoble Savage: The Moral Journey of Stanley Kubrick

I thought this would be fun, to compare my theory of libertarian and authoritarian morality with the moral development of the famed (and one of my favorite) film directors, Stanley Kubrick.

In his films, Kubrick went from a from having a Rousseauistic view of the innately good human being corrupted by society (the Libertarian morality) to openly attacking Rousseau and taking on a more pessimistic which some have likened to "fascist" (the Authoritarian morality)

Paths of Glory (1957) - Libertarian
This is one of the clearest examples of Kubrick seeing the innately good human being corrupted by society. In film, a group of World War I fighters are forced to go on a suicide mission so a general can get one more star. It's probably one of the best vindications of war there is, but above all, it portrays the soldiers as a good people who are cogs of an unjust war. 

In fact, it even went on to mock the central tenets of Authoritarian morality, the idea that people are evil and need to be disciplined to become good:
 "You see colonel, troops are like children, and just as a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline, and one way to ensure discipline is to shoot a man now and again."                                                      "Do you sincerey believe the things you've just said?"
Dr. Strangelove (1967) -"Realist"
In many ways, Strangelove was the beginning of Kubrick's lurch towards authoritarian thinking. In a more "realist" approach, Strangelove sees human beings as the ultimate masters of the institutions they built, not the other way around. In the film, a crazed general gave out the signal for a plane to nuke the Soviet Union while a frantic US government tries to stop it.

The film is a clear vindication of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and many of the institutions that make it possible for this catastrophe to happen, but it also tarnishes the idea of institutions having fail-safe mechanisms to prevent a crazed general or sinister President etc. from unleashing Armageddon. Thus, it puts people and institutions on a mostly level playing field, with people being slightly more important.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) - Authoritarian
With Clockwork Orange comes Kubrick's full turn into a near-fascist. In the film, Alex is a criminal who, with his gang of 'Droogs', go around raping, looting and causing chaos. What's odd is that this life of crime is mostly a secret, and that at home he is a seemingly normal young adult with decent parents and a nice house and environment to grow up in. Thus, the movie conceives of someone who is "born evil" and as the film later demonstrates, must be conditioned to become a good person.

The film's saving grace is that it views the conditioning that was put onto Alex as a worse and more dehumanizing crime than the many committed by Alex. Although as the film contends, there wouldn't be a need such authoritarian measures if people behaved.    

With this film his views would be known, Kubrick would go on to say:
"Man isn't a noble savage, he's an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved—that about sums it up...any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure."
He would later add that "The idea that social restraints are all bad is based on a utopian and unrealistic vision of man." When accused of being a fascist, Kubrick rejected it but went on to say:
Rousseau's romantic fallacy that it is society which corrupts man, not man who corrupts society, places a flattering gauze between ourselves and reality. This solid box office but, in the end, such a self-inflating illusion leads to despair. 
Kubrick's friend would later characterize his beleif of democracy as a "a noble failed experiment along our evolutionary way, brought low by base instincts, money and self-interest and stupidity... He thought the best system might be under a benign despot, though he had little belief that such a man could be found."

How did Kubrick end up from promoting Rousseau's ideals to openly attacking them? I don't know but I know his other movies are more mixed.

Full Metal Jacket (1987) - Libertarian?
The big surprise came with one of Kubrick's last works, Full Metal Jacket. Despite fears that "[t]he political left will call Kubrick a fascist," it's now considered a classic anti-war film although Kubrick said that wasn't the intention. In the film various young soldiers are enlisted into the marines and go through a brutal process of training and hazing, one of soldiers eventually going crazy and committing a murder-suicide. It then picks up in urban Vietnam through the Tet-offensive and afterwards.   

In many ways, the film mirrors Paths of Glory including the Rousseauian themes of people being corrupted by society (unlike Kubrick's earlier quotes). In fact, the idea of people having to be indoctrinated in order to fight in the war, and the obvious negative portrayal of this process, is in many ways akin to what Kubrick derides. 

Ultimately, Kubrick went on a huge journey from Libertarian to Authoritarian and possibly back.

No comments:

Post a Comment