Sexual Confusion and Redefining Masculinity in the films of Stanley Kubrick

I have found that Stanley Kubrick’s films cannot be reviewed in the traditional way.  They are so dense, so vibrant, that to take them as a whole would take far too long.  Rather, one has two options.  Kubrick must be taken frame by frame, scene by scene.  Again, a worthwhile endeavor, but it requires a lot of free time.  The other option is to examine the themes as a whole.

Of course, many have done this. But there is one that I feel has not been examined in great detail.  That is how Stanley Kubrick views males.  Many claim that Kubrick viewed humans as savages.  This is correct.  But he also viewed men as trying their hardest to overcome their savagery or their dysfunctions and failing.  Each male character in a Stanley Kubrick falls into three categories.

Closeted Homosexuals-These are characters who cannot reconcile with their own sexuality and thus take drastic measures to assert what they feel is “normal” in society.  Examples of this character are General Ripper (Dr. Strangelove) Lord Bullington (Barry Lyndon) and, arguably, Mireau  (Paths of Glory).

Unconventional Relationships-This is most notable in the movie Eyes Wide Shut. These are the characters who have achieved that goal and started a nuclear family, only to be betrayed by the savage nature of man and ultimately turn against what they have sought for so long.  Examples include Humbert Humbert (Lolita), Jack Torrance (The Shining) and of course, Dr. Bill Hatford (Eyes Wide Shut)

Otherwise unable to assert their masculinity-This is perhaps the most notable, as many of Kubrick’s characters have been rendered useless in that manner.  These are characters who’s minds may want a conventional relationship, but whose character and, in some cases, their own bodies prevent it.  Examples include Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove) Alex de Large (A Clockwork Orange) Pvt. Joker (Full Metal Jacket) and HAL 9000 (2001).

Now, what do I mean by all of this?  That Kubrick had some deep seated fear of men and felt that women and of his own self?  Yes, in a way.  He was far more scared of his own nature but could not explain it in the traditional sense.  He used men simply because most filmmakers were men and used male characters.  Kubrick was no exception-his female characters are very weak and usually can only be explained in how they relate to the man’s world. But Kubrick could be a feminist, not in the bra-burning sense, but simply in the way who portrays men.

Now, the three categories can be easily explained through Kubrick’s visual cues.  Let’s start with the first category using the most obvious character-General Ripper.  He is seen throughout the movie with a giant phallic cigar in his mouth.  Now, many characters smoke, and some critics claim they are merely symbolic of masturbation. Maybe.   General Turgidson also smokes.  But then, why would the cigar be in his mouth?  Turgidson quickly and nervously chews gum (slightly evocative of the quick motions necessary for men to perform oral sex) in the War Room and takes the cigar out.  Other characters are shown holding their cigars.  The most prominent shots of Ripper feature the cigar firmly pressed against his lips.  Ripper’s conspiracy theories also come across as a shot against his inability to make love to a woman.  Perhaps he is impotent, but he also appears to be consciously unwilling (Women sense my power, but I have denied them my essence). Of course such a military man would be unlikely to admit to his homosexuality.  He had to start a world war simply to come to terms with the fact.  He wanted to prevent the communists (who he blames for destroying his “fluid”) from undermining his masculinity.  War and sex often go hand in hand with Kubrick.  So, for a character to use a war to get whatever sexual high he can makes perfect sense.
Of course, there are many characters who are not gay but merely betrayed by their wild, animal nature.  They want to have sex as long as possible but society deems it impossible.  This contradiction drives many of Kubrick’s characters insane.  They either try to fulfill their desires as Humbert Humbert did. In some cases, they take this much further.  Eyes Wide Shut may be Kubrick’s best film, in the fact that it confronts this theme directly.  Bill Hatford goes from place to place trying to receive some sort of sexual enlightenment.  He is unable to and ends up being called to abandon his search.  His attempts to be exotic find him in dangerous places that offer no answers.  Jack Torrance turns on his family with an axe.  His attempts to cheat find his object of desire being turned into something positively hideous.  Each man wants to break free but cannot, even after supposedly having all of their dreams come true.

But the most notable characters are characters whose minds and bodies do not allow them any sort of relation.  Dr. Strangelove has been cut off from the waist down (including a very vital organ) and hence wants to create a society with ten women to each man.  This would give him some sort of chance.  When he comes up with this idea, he regains the use of his “legs.”  HAL 9000 has a love for the mission beyond everything else.  He sees nothing wrong with what he is doing (in the same way Strangelove never pauses to think beyond his cold logic) and ends up doing far more harm than good.  Alex de Large, however, has a different kind of love-a true love of violence.  Oh, he is straight and is capable of making love to a woman.  But he cannot separate it from the violence he commits.  When he goes out, he and his “droogs” each wear giant codpieces.  When he takes it off before a rape, his own phallus appears to have shrunken significantly.  He loves the violence, not the sex.  He kills a woman with a phallic sculpture. When that is taken away from him (by the Ludovico treatment) violence is shown first and Alex cannot respond.  Because of this, when a woman is shown to him, he cannot even touch her much less be aroused by her.

These moments are what make Kubrick among the most erudite filmmakers in history.  He is so dense that somehow the knowledge seeps into the subconscious before reaching the brain.  It takes multiple viewings to sort it all out.  Of course, many more interpretations exist.   But Kubrick still had the same passions as any man.  People try to ignore this, but it is impossible to simply brush aside.

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1 Response to Sexual Confusion and Redefining Masculinity in the films of Stanley Kubrick

  1. Danny Darwish says:

    Great piece!

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