A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, George Lucas, Jonathan Swift, Magic Negro, Repressive Desublimation, Stanley Kubrick, Star Wars, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Stranger Things, The Duffer Brothers, The Green Mile, The Shining
I hated Stephen King’s books when they came out and I was in high school. I had to read more than one, just to keep up with the pop culture references. I loathe them even more, today. For me his low point (to date) was writing the teleplay from his book, The Shining for the TV series of the same name (1997). There is no better example of King’s narcissism, hubris and corresponding lack of talent than this laugh out loud effort to ‘correct’ what is arguably the greatest horror film of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The only thing to be said about the television version is that it is indeed faithful to King’s book, while Kubrick’s is not. But that’s exactly the point: King’s writing has always been cloying and soft in the middle, unconsciously mendacious in that uniquely ‘ugly American’ way. At once insipid and preternaturally neurotic, the horrors visited upon Stephen King’s Americans–and they are always stock Americans–are the character flaws and psychological failures of individuals, even when they take an institutional form.
This is precisely what Kubrick has never trafficked in, the melodrama and kitsch that characterize contemporary morality plays in the wasteland of genre fiction.
What Kubrick did with King’s pablum is extraordinary–he made a mediocre text obsessed (as always) with individual themes of personal responsibility and psychology into an indictment of American exceptionalism and universalism. And it was terrifying, but in ways that were difficult to verbalize.
Kubrick linked profoundly disturbing themes of child abuse, murderous misogyny and alcoholism with capitalism, racism and white settler genocide–he made the personal, political, and the political, personal.
This achievement is partially recognized through the fanciful documentary film Room 237, (2012). The filmmakers make much of Kubrick’s fanatical attention to detail, noting the frequent appearance of symbols that reference two genocides–those of Native America and the Holocaust. And I agree that the repeated appearance of certain symbols–cans of baking powder and a typewriter, for instance, were not incidental nor accidental; but intentional. Kubrick puts them there for reasons cited above.
Room 237 is an interesting homage to Kubrick’s The Shining but it doesn’t take King to task. As befitting the pay-to-play state of modern academia, it also includes a lengthy, tedious and stupid section that is incidental to the film, repeating conspiracy theories that Kubrick assisted in faking the 1969 moon landing. The film also fails to note what is hidden in plain view within the important scene that takes place in the bathroom between Jack and the ghost of the previous caretaker, Grady. Grady refers to the Black head cook, played by the iconic actor Scatman Crothers, as a “nigger.” Kubrick was as careful crafting language as he was with symbols, so that’s there for a reason, too. Jack’s mental illness is brought on not least because he craves acceptance into upper management at a resort hotel that caters to the well heeled, white and rich, who are forever dancing and drinking at a Fourth of July celebration. The price Jack must pay for admittance to the upper crust is the sacrifice of his family. The character played by Scatman Crothers is the only one trying to protect them. For King its all about the ‘demons’ of alcoholism and the ‘salvation’ of AA. To King, Crothers is the ‘magical negro’, a frequent staple of his stock and trade (The Green Mile, The Stand) but in Kubrick’s hands the character represents something much more.
King always resolves whatever conflicts he conjures within a morality play of possessive individualism. His characters–an endless parade of pop psychology tropes torn from a high school year book–are as wooden as his plots: The magical negro, the overburdened patriarch, the evil foreign interloper, the randy daughter, the undersexed milf, the touched giant, the addicted adolescent, so on and so forth. Each character a world unto themselves; all forbidden from exercising the only possible resolution to their woes–radical collective action.
King hated Kubrick’s movie because it skewered the very myths King had spent his entire literary career so passionately defending–the bourgeois family, the myth of a melting pot America, the ‘up by your bootstraps meritocracy’, Democracy vs the Evil Empire, etc.
All of this is now reappearing with a vengeance through a virulent strain of reactionary nostalgia for 1980s America, which is really the golden era of Stephen King. And he has imitators galore: Here come the amnesiac and conspiratorial Duffer Brothers, and Stranger Things, followed by Steven Spielberg and his Ready Player One. Both try and recast conformist and repressive strains of pop culture such as Van Halen and Yacht Rock, Dungeons and Dragons and Back To The Future as rebellion. The naval gazing, Wall Street speculating, anti communist computer nerds of Reagan’s America are the hero’s making America Great Again. There is a term for this, it’s called repressive de-sublimation. Look it up.
As an old ghost of antifascism I must draw the analogy: King’s entire oeuvre is to horror what the Anti-Defamation League is to antifascism, the Nature Conservancy is to ecology, or the 2017 Women’s March is to feminism. The latter the result of celebrities ‘leaning’ so hard into their ‘resistance’ they fell over the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated. Ooh. Scary!
Kubrick, while not a leftist, and probably not a feminist, was at least my kind of nihilist, unsparing and sharp, his erudite vitriol always serving to clarify relations of power, rather than obscure or justify them.
He may not have had an alternative to the world of shit within which we live, but his work helps us not mistake that world for a flower garden, which is more than one can say for all the typing Stephen King has ever clacked out. “All Work And No Play Makes Stephen A Dull Boy.”
Aside from the greatest American horror film ever made, Kubrick also made the greatest film of political satire: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1964!?!). A great satirist needs a wicked sense of humor, and I think Kubrick took some inspiration from Jonathan Swift’s, A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729). You remember what that proposal was, yes?
Did Kubrick also create the greatest American antiwar film ever made in Full Metal Jacket? (1987).
A Clockwork Orange (1971) is a searing indictment of the postwar boom in youth subcultures, consumerism, social control and the inherent violence of the state.
2001: A Space Odyssey exposes every asinine iteration of George Lucas’ Star Wars as the juvenile cartoons they are. Yes, I hate Star Wars, too and I don’t care that it was originally conceived as having something to do with protesting the Vietnam War. They are all wretched films.
Long Live Kubrick!