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Stanley Kubrick and The Major Malfunction

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Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities?
– Jack Torrance, before telling his wife that he’s going to bash her brains in.

 

Jack Torrance has responsibilities that were given given to him in good faith by the manager of the Overlook Hotel, Mr. Ullman, which “consists mainly of running the boiler, heating different parts of the hotel on a daily rotating basis, repairing damage as it occurs and doing repairs, so that the elements can’t get a foothold.” At no point in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining do we ever see Jack work on any of these tasks. In fact his wife, Wendy, is the only person we ever see doing any type of upkeep in the Overlook Hotel. When Wendy suggests that they leave the hotel and take their son to a hospital, Jack contemptuously lectures her about responsibility and that she knows nothing about the importance of doing the work you’re contractually obligated to do, questioning her knowledge of duty and ethical principles. All this happens after Wendy has discovered that Jack’s novel, which he’s been working at consistently over the cold and miserable winter, is only one sentence written over and over again on hundreds of pages “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

It’s safe to say that Jack’s perception of responsibility and his role as a model employee and provider to his family is warped. He values sticking to a job that he doesn’t do particularly well, a menial task of little importance and of little intensive labor, more than taking care of his sick son. This perspective is in part powered by an innate need to be accepted by the other males in his life, Mr. Ullman and his partner Bill, and a desire to be important, which he hopes to achieve by completing his book. His insecurities, which he violently projects on to his wife, result from his failures, both as a writer and as a father. However, no matter how wrong he is, Jack never believes he’s at fault. This is reinforced by the ghost of Grady, the former caretaker who massacred his family before killing himself. Grady assures Jack that he is a part of the group, and that he must protect the interests of the hotel from an outsider, Dick Halloran, who is defined as an other by his blackness. Grady also urges Jack to “correct” Wendy and Danny just as Grady “corrected” his family. The implication is that they are meddling in a “man’s business” which they can’t understand, and seemingly neither does Jack. Like many men, he wants to show his value as a male in society, without a clear idea of what that means, or if it’s even important. This male value is set by contradictory self-images imposed by society, and it’s difficult to discern properly the beneficial qualities from the oppressive ones. It’s this lack of awareness that can drive a guy like Jack Torrance mad.

PeattyJaeThis existential conflict makes many appearances in Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre, often with a tragic figure unable to handle the intense ideological pressures. Elisha Cook, Jr. set the mold for this character in The Killing. Considered to be Kubrick’s first major work of artistic maturity, The Killing is a heist movie in which every man involved must play his part perfectly for the prosperity of the group – like cogs in a wheel or, more aptly, pieces on a chessboard.  Cook plays George Peatty, a cashier at the racetrack where the heist will take place. Like his physical stature, George’s part in the robbery is seemingly small, but his importance to the success of this job is equal to all the other members of the team. In the chess analogy, George would be a pawn – not the flashiest mover, but incredibly beneficial when correctly utilized. It’s this promise of success and acceptance within a group that allows him to overlook getting smacked around by his comrades, as well as the legality of such an endeavor as robbing a racetrack.

However, it is George’s loose lips and his desire to keep his wife Sherry happy that leads to the tragic climax. Sherry obviously doesn’t love him and sees her marriage to him as a great disappointment, but he naively believes that a load of cash and acting the bad boy will make him a more attractive mate. This illustrates a common perception of the successful male being the one with the most fortune, and because George believes this is important he in turn projects those values onto his wife. While it’s true that Sherry places great importance on the money, she plots to steal it from George and his friends with the help of her lover on the side, who ironically isn’t financially better off than George, either. Like Jack Torrance, George Peatty thinks he’s playing the long view when in reality he’s terribly short-sighted. But unlike Jack, Peatty tries to play it down the middle, serving his partners in crime and his wife at the same time, however the results are no less horrific.

Kubrick changes the formula for this struggle with identity and responsibility in Full Metal Jacket. Leonard Lawrence is committed to being apart of the Marines, a group whose motto, “Semper fi,” is about placing their unshakable faith in God, country and the Corp, to be the best fighting machine they can be. Family doesn’t necessarily enter the picture here, so unlike Jack Torrance and George Peatty, Lawrence doesn’t have the same exterior influences as they do. With the promise that boot camp is only for a short while, it’s possible that Lawrence might be able to handle the verbal abuse of his drill instructor Hartman, and possibly earn his respect as a marksman. But it is when his fellow recruits, take turns beating him with socks loaded with soap bars because they were punished for his mistakes, that he is sent out on his fatalistic trajectory. Excluded from the tribe, Lawrence becomes unhinged and begins speaking to his gun, which he has named Charlene. The day Lawrence is told that he has successfully made it out of basic training, he kills Hartman and himself. This act of violence can be looked at as a protest to the warped social construct that could ostracize and accept him at the same time.

It’s important to note Lawrence’s relationship with his gun, Charlene. For George Peatty, his wife was an instigator of his internal conflict, while Jack projected his insecurities on to Wendy in The Shining. Leonard Lawrence had no woman of his own and chose to create an imaginary one made of gunmetal and ammo. Charlene acts as mother, confidant, and weapon. In Kubrick’s films, this anthropomorphic male fantasy is no less self-destructive than had it been a real woman.

Perhaps the most complex illustration of man’s destructive self-imaging takes place in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A super-computer named HAL 9000 is tasked with the safety of the astronauts aboard the Discovery One, who are on their way to Jupiter. HAL is the most advanced artificial intelligence in the world, while exhibiting qualities we see in the characters previously mentioned. He is a part of the team, though he’s treated as an outside because he’s just a computer program. In an interview, HAL proclaims to be incapable of error, which is eventually discredited when he misdiagnoses a problem with the ship. Like Jack Torrance, he tells Dr. David Bowman that the mission, a mission HAL doesn’t even understand, is too important to jeopardize with Dave’s actions. If the two characters could meet, Grady would probably tell the infallible HAL that he needs to “correct” his shipmates.

It’s important to recognize that as an artificial intelligence, HAL is merely a creation of man, and only knows what he is programmed to know. However, this distinction doesn’t separate him from his human counterparts in Kubrick’s other films: it unites them. He is less of an evolution than a mere artificial replication of man’s self-awareness – or lack thereof. In computer science, there’s a phrase for this: “garbage in, garbage out.”

Kubrick was a man constantly aware of the limits of humanity. As a species, he understood man was insignificant in the grand scope of the cosmos. But with this knowledge of futility, one’s ability to live life alters, either with madness or with leveled expectations. It’s a constant struggle to balance human ambition and ego, and the world around us does us no favors by imposing conflicting messages as to what our identity should be, and the responsibilities we must carry to be apart of the herd. Stanley Kubrick recognized these forces and how detrimental they are to our mental stability, and with these characters he expresses the ultimate price we often pay when those pressures become too much.

— Jae K. Renfrow


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