FILM

How Stanley Kubrick Portrays Institutions

When the desire for control eventually leads to chaos

Ezra T. James
Mar 4, 2020 · 5 min read
The War Room in Dr. Strangelove (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Stanley Kubrick’s approach to filmmaking centered around the exploration of an individual’s morality in the face of an extreme force. The stories he crafted served to demonstrate the consequences of this clash. Unlike the orthodox approach of creating a narrative that fits the character, Kubrick created (or in some cases adapted) a character to explore a narrative beyond the character’s control.

To better understand how Kubrick constructs this depiction, the films Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange can serve as the best examples. Both pictures present a world in complete chaos and decay, only each demonstrates these circumstances with their own unique aesthetic tones. The characters inhabiting this world behave in amoral and absurd forms, completely unaware of their own behavior.

The crux which holds the absurdity of these films together is identified by Kubrick as the institutions in charge of maintaining law and order. In this world, the individual is a functioning cog in the “apparatus of totalitarianism”. One of the most creative ways Kubrick highlighted this lack of individuality is by casting Peter Sellers to play three crucial roles in Dr. Strangelove: Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the titular character of Dr. Strangelove. The reason behind this decision was to demonstrate the indifference of identity in the film’s bureaucracy. Anyone could’ve been replaced, and the situation would’ve remained the same. As Elizabeth Cook pointed out in her essay “Understanding the Enemy”:

Kubrick knew the only way to portray the ineptitude and ignorance of our nature had to be through absurdity. In Dr. Strangelove, the end of the world came as a result of a mad general ordering a massive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union under the firm belief they contaminated his “precious drinking water”. However, the mad general was unaware that the Russian’s counter-attack is the activation of a “Doomsday Machine” designed to fire nuclear weapons at every corner of the planet until its complete annihilation.

The Americans in the “war room” try to handle the situation by launching an attack on the general’s base, and are able to activate the plan’s fail-safe, but not before one of the bombers loses radio control and is unable to hear the message, resulting in the detonation of their nuclear warhead. The failure to avoid disaster is demonstrated throughout the film through the institution’s illogical decisions and outlandish remarks, from pondering how bad it would be if they managed to kill “10 to 20 million tops, depending on the brakes” to the Russian’s absurd idea of a Doomsday machine.

The characters Peter Sellers portrays are meant to represent how an individual responds in the face of bureaucratic incompetence. President Muffley is a weak buffoon who tries to act tough and in control but in reality has no idea what he’s doing, as the film’s most famous remark of “Gentlemen you can’t fight in here this is the war room!” demonstrates. Dr. Strangelove is equally as mad as General Jack D. Ripper and genuinely seems to be looking forward to the upcoming destruction. The film’s only saving grace is Captain Mandrake, who does everything in his power to prevent war by unlocking the fail-safe code. Despite managing to unlock the codes, his success is met with utter failure when one plane is unable to receive the message.

A Clockwork Orange removes the threat of nuclear warfare and deals more with how evil is transformed to fit the needs and purposes of governmental institutions. Questions of free will and corruption are deeply explored in the film through the eyes of Alex DeLarge, a delinquent teenager who engages in acts of violent and depraved nature. When he is arrested, he is submitted to a treatment known as the Ludovico Technique, which aims to remove any desire for violence in Alex’s mind. After completing his brutal treatment, where he was forced to watch scenes of violence and death over and over again, Alex no longer felt any impulse for violence. The government, as a result, considers the treatment a success and immediately releases Alex.

Alex undergoing the Ludovico Technique

When he returns to society, Alex finds nothing but scorn and hatred by others for his past deeds. After being tortured by a man he assaulted before, Alex attempts suicide by jumping out of a two-story house. He survives the attempt, and is immediately labeled as a victim by the government and a success story of the state’s “cure” for delinquents. The film ends with Alex’s picturing of an erotic image as he proclaims in a sarcastic tone: “I was cured alright.”

A certain ambiguity is present in the film’s ending. The final image is graphic and depraved but not necessarily violent. It could be an indication of Alex’s transformation into a member of the state, where evil deeds are pardoned if they are done in the name of the institution. It could also be interpreted as a pseudo-optimistic message of the possibility for the individual to avoid institutional control, regardless of how abhorrent the individual may be.

The film’s ending is also strikingly different from the book’s ending. Anthony Burgess, the book’s author, decided to end the novel with Alex completely abandoning violence out of his own will. The intention behind this act was to demonstrate how good will always triumph over evil. However, Kubrick found this idea to be completely out of touch with the novel’s philosophical foundation of institutional corruption, going as far as to say Burgess’ ending was an idea from the publishers to sell more copies. In a way, he is correct. The story’s central theme is whether Alex, the individual, can overcome the institutions of his surroundings, not whether he may be redeemed.

Kubrick’s entire filmography centers around mankind’s paradoxical actions. He attempts to demonstrate how our institutions are the catalyst for this conflict between right and wrong, of serving one or another. However, he is well aware of how we are the creators of these institutions and are therefore complicit in their propaganda. This striking paradox is at the heart of every Kubrick film, how our desire for control eventually leads to chaos. His films are aesthetically different both in genre and style, but the message behind each story remained the duality of existence. It was this peculiar attention to the abstract details behind the mechanisms of society that makes Kubrick’s work stand out in a room full of spectacle and glitter.

An online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling, STORIUS is a publication for everyone interested in how stories are created, discovered, distributed, and consumed.

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Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and…

Ezra T. James

Written by

Absurd journalist and essayist from the outskirts of Shambhala.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Ezra T. James

Written by

Absurd journalist and essayist from the outskirts of Shambhala.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

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