Depth of Field: Stanley Kubrick Film, and the Uses of History

Geoffrey Cocks, James Diedrick, Glenn Perusek (eds),
Depth of Field: Stanley Kubrick Film, and the Uses of History.
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.
ISBN 0 299 21610 1 (hb) $60.00
ISBN 0 299 21614 4 (pb) $27.95
(Review copy supplied by University of Wisconsin Press)

For those to whom this series is new, as it was to me, the first thing to say is that its production values match those of the best US university presses. The cover promises “the first truly multidisciplinary study of one of the most innovative and controversial filmmakers of the twentieth century”, music to the ears of a field as multidisciplinary as film studies. Two of the three editors have written individual chapters; they are professors of history and social sciences, respectively. The chapter on Barry Lyndon (UK 1975) was written by art historian Bille Wickre; most of the other contributions come from areas (still) closer to film studies. But Wickre’s chapter heading signals problems. “Pictures, Plurality, and Puns: A Visual Approach to Barry Lyndon” fulfils what is promised by its own title, but that is in tension with the volume’s subtitle.

Buoyed by the latest Film and History conference in Melbourne, one made memorable not least by its overseas speakers, I approached this volume with high expectations, aware only that Cocks had written a whole book in this direction (probingly reviewed by Thomas Caldwell in another edition of Screening the Past). The subtitle promised a broadening of film studies perspectives. But when the third page is devoted largely to Max Weber, the effect is as startling as it presumably would be for a sociologist to find Kubrick prominent in the introduction to a social sciences text. In the course of the volume one waits in vain for engagement with names like Robert Rosenstone or Natalie Zemon Davies, let alone Jameson’s ‘Historicism in The Shining’. Much that is here inclines to the thematic, and is not historically contextualized. Reception history does emerge, but even there the reader is left with a stronger sense of, say, Napoleon the historical figure than of Kubrick’s particular treatment of him. So that the overall impression, despite the volume’s general interest, is of a great topic where chances have been missed.

Some claims are baffling from a film studies perspective, as with the rhetorical question posed by Frederic Raphael, in a chapter mysteriously titled ‘The Pumpkinification of Stanley K.’: “Who will now insist that Lucchino Visconti was a significant director? […] The Leopard (1962), is the only one I should care to see again, thanks to Burt Lancaster” (73, n.1). Another contribution counterpoints, in its opening paragraph “Spielberg’s humanism and the anti-humanism of Stanley Kubrick” (101), by which is meant the narrative stance of the films, not of the biographical director. But when Alex in Clockwork Orange is viewed as “not a character to be identified with but to be loathed and pitied” (116), then this really does no justice to the challenge posed by Alex’s blend of violence and Beethoven and our ambivalent positioning as an audience. The volume as a whole does not live up to its subtitle in approaching the collapse of the West in early 70s Britain, as portrayed in this film. (Indeed Pat J. Gehrke claims “it is not important where Alex is, or when” (151).)

Taking on seemingly the least promising example to mine for history, Mark Crispin Miller does provide a reception history of 2001 (UK/USA 1968), contextualizing it alongside contemporaneous films. So encyclopedic does this become in places that Kubrick threatens to recede, but Rambo’s dubious claim to fame in “both negating that war’s actual history and repudiating all those somber and tormented films that came before” (142) takes us into areas the volume could profitably have tackled more frequently. Cocks does tackle them, in a wide-ranging analysis of what he sees as a Holocaust subtext to The Shining (USA/UK 1980), while also citing Mann’s Magic Mountain and other texts as strong influences. Some ‘evidence’ seems barely supportable (and sits strangely alongside another contributor’s view that this film is about “the massacre of the American Indians” (281)). But other claims are arresting, for example that the mannequins scene of Killer’s Kiss (USA 1955) “carries in its compositions disturbing associations with the photographs of bodies found stacked in Nazi concentration camps in 1945” (193). Ultimately the chain of speculation needs elaboration like the following: “On the symbolic level in The Shining, however, Kubrick replaces the supernatural with the historical. The ghosts in the Overlook, after all, represent the hotel’s – and humanity’s – past. Ultimately, therefore, The Shining is not about ghosts; it is about death, that is, how people become the ghosts we imagine. And more specifically it is about murder, indeed, about mass murder, including the genocide of the Jews that Kubrick could not directly represent” (200-201). By the end, the boldness of often feasible claims is defused by the author’s own diffidence, with undermining turns of phrase that culminate in “it is perhaps subliminally revealing” (211-12).

There follows an interesting piece on the most fertile film for this volume’s concerns, Full Metal Jacket (USA 1987), by Paula Willoquet-Maricondi. But the volume finishes with a flourish revealing its own historical moment, three chapters on Eyes Wide Shut (USA/UK 1999). So one of the most ahistorical films is given the most prominent place. Even there, I feel that chances are missed. The orgy scene remains the Achilles heel; even Jonathan Rosenbaum ultimately has difficulty being persuasive that it is other than cold. But part of the reason for that must lie in a translation of 1920s Vienna to 1990s New York that goes beyond costumes, mise-en-scène etc. With Schnitzler’s novella, masks invoke a whole European ritualistic tradition, not least of Karneval, whereas in Kubrick’s New York they miss such social anchoring and the ambivalence created by the suspension of standard morality.

This remains a tantalizing volume. On the one hand, it poses questions which reveal potential blindspots in film studies, such as the very notion of relating a classic auteur like Kubrick to history. On the other, the distinctiveness of the subtitle too frequently becomes a matter of convenience. That the enigmatic aspects of Kubrick’s work are if anything enhanced, speaks for this volume. But the lack of real advances in the still underexposed area of film and history, is to be regretted.

Roger Hillman,
Australian National University.

Created on: Saturday, 2 June 2007

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →