The American cinema is rich with powerful and insightful filmmakers whose bodies of work add to the legacy of American filmmaking. But a few filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, two of the most enlightening and illuminating directors to ever grace the silver screen, not only add to but create entirely new possibilities for the American and global cinema. These auteurs are separated from other filmmakers because of their profound sense of creativity and individuality. There is no mistaking a film by Kubrick or Lynch because everything from the editing to the scoring to the cinematography is unmistakably theirs.
Their unique visions become a part of film’s history, and their trailblazing efforts help to create new possibilities for the institution of cinema. While Kubrick and Lynch share the distinction of being trailblazing auteurs who broaden the scope of cinema, their bodies of work, style, and world views are vastly different. Kubrick, whose body of work centers around the dehumanization of man, is separated from Lynch whose body of work centers around a character’s discovery of self in an amoral world.
Thus, it is often found that Kubrick focuses on exterior themes such as man as a symbolic figure, while Lynch focuses on intensely private themes such as a character’s discovery of self. Using their films as evidence, let us take a closer look at how these two great directors use their unique sense of style, characters, and auteurship to espouse their world view. One of the greatest contrasts between Lynch and Kubrick is found in their treatment of mankind. For Kubrick, men are often treated as ‘machines’ who serve a purpose.
For Instance, in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Full Metal Jacket the dialogue of the characters becomes so entrenched in a technical jargon that the audience starts to see the characters not as humans, but rather as extensions of a machine (be it the computer machines of 2001 or the military machine of Full Metal Jacket). Thus, when Sergeant Hartman asks Gomer Pyle “What is your major malfunction? ” he is treating Pyle as a machine, as a malfunctioning unit devoid of emotion and humanity.
What is your major malfunction” becomes the ironic mantra of the film as it shifts from its “marine camp” stage to its Vietnam stage. When characters like the helicopter gunman who shoots men, women, and children are introduced the audience finds that the “malfunction” is in the characters transformation from humans into machines by the military. They have lost their humanity and have become dehumanized-void of any saving graces such as benevolence, mercy, or forgiveness. This dehumanization is also very present in 2001 where all of the limited dialogue goes into a whirlpool of unintelligible jargon.
There is no meaningful dialogue between characters, no representations of inner thoughts and feelings; there is only the empty dialogue of technology which Kubrick couples with the cold emptiness of space. Thus characters like Dave speak, but the words they speak are not inherently human-they carry with them no sense of the emotion, passion, and vitality which are all fundamentally human. Ironically the most ‘human’ character, in terms of showing any type of depth and range is the HAL 9000 computer.
When Dave “unplugs” HAL from his mainframe, HAL displays this depth and range pleading: “Dave. StopStop DaveI’m afraidI’m afraid Dave. ” Thus HAL becomes the only character in the film to display any type of in-depth human emotion, and of course this irony is furthered when the audience sees that the position of the HAL 9000 super-computer is as omnipotent and the human characters as subservient followers. Kubrick creates a world in which humans are not only parts of a mechanism (i. e. Dave’s responsibilities are to HAL) but are also subservient to it. Humans become dehumanized and are utilized only for their ability to further the cause of the machine.
Kubrick’s world view of humans as tools to further the cause of the machine (political, military, or other) is not found in the films of David Lynch. Lynch approaches his world view from a much more intensely personal and human approach. For Lynch, it is the discovery of the self in an amoral world that often drives the narrative of his films. Take for example one of Lynch’s finest films The Elephant Man. Lynch begins with a character who in a sense is dehumanized, the horribly disfigured John Merrick, and centers a very beautiful and profound human story around him.
In a sense, Lynch is working in the opposite direction of Kubrick who often begins his films with a human character (i. e. Barry Lyndon, Jack Torrance) but by films end has dehumanized them. In opposition to this, John Merrick is a character who throughout the film is trying to locate his self, his humanity, in a world that is disgusted and frightened by him. Take for example how Lynch details the episode when Merrick is abducted by a travelling freak show and introduced to the absolute lowest forms of human life.
Even though Merrick sees the underbelly and amorality of humanity he still believes in its potential for good. This is the most profoundly humanitarian moment in the film, because even though Merrick become conscious of the horrors of humanity, he still wants to belong. In one of the films triumphant moments, Merrick pronounces his claim to humanity saying: “I am not an animalI am a human beingI am a man. ” This notion of humanity as something above animalistic is what drives Lynch’s film and what clearly marks the biggest distinction between Kubrick and Lynch as far as their views towards humanity are concerned.
It is obvious that Kubrick views the complex social human world as a disguise for humanities baser nature. The characters that Kubrick focuses on all act out of their animalistic urges. From the disguised lascivious nature of Humbert Humbert, to the literal animal transformation of Jack Torrance, (Kubrick highlights the sloping forehead and wild eyes)Gomer Pyle, and Animal Mother (who clearly represent the animalistic transformation after excessive use of violence), Kubrick shows characters who cannot escape their animalistic nature.
Lynch on the other hand, makes a clear distinction between the “animal” and “human” side to society by placing John Merrick as a liminal figure between both worlds. His declaration “I am not an animalI am a human beingI am a man,” is thus seen as his departure from the “freak-show” society that Lynch highlights in the film. As opposed to Kubrick, who usually represents only the animalistic side of society, Lynch presents the audience with an alternative world. The character of Treves and the other doctors who work to try to “cure” Merrick are all seen as saintly figures.
Lynch allows for both the animalistic and humanistic side of society to be shown, and clearly draws the distinction between animal and man. This distinction between animal and man is furthered in many of Lynch’s films. Lynch’s masterpiece, Blue Velvet, details one character’s position as a liminal figure between an animalistic and civil society. The film is centered in Loggerton, an idyllic mid-western town full of the cliches and banalities of everyday life. Jeffery Beaumont is the films protagonist, and the narrative follows his journey through small town idealism into a world of corruption and decay.
Just like John Merrick’s journey takes him from the freak-show carnivals of societies underbelly to the acceptance and compassion of civil society, Jeffrey’s journey will also follow a similar arc. It is the discovery of a severed ear that will begin Jeffrey’s adventure into the seedy side of his small town that he never new existed. And it is this discovery for Jeffrey that Lynch places the most emphasis on. Just like Merrick must find his self in the amoral world of the freak-shows, Jeffrey must locate his self and individuality amongst the degeneracy of Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his cronies.
What Jeffrey ultimately finds is that he himself, just like the town that he comes form, has a seedy side that he never knew existed. Jeffrey discovers this side of himself through the character of Dorothy (a nightclub singer who Jeffrey follows because he feels she knows information pertaining to the severed ear). In one of the films most powerful scenes, Jeffrey hides in the closet while Frank beats and rapes Dorothy. Powerless to move, Jeffrey watches the abuse. After Frank leaves, Jeffrey comes out from the closet and tries to comfort Dorothy, which ultimately leads to a strong feeling of passion between the two.
But instead of making love, Dorothy asks Jeffrey “to hit her,” and the following scene is marred by Jeffrey’s discovery of something dark and troubled within himself. And while it is this discovery of violence and sadism that Lynch uses to complicate the films “happy” ending, which is so fabricated in its composition that it causes disstanciation from the audience rather than a feeling of closure, it is also Jeffrey’s resistance to abuse and denigration late in the film that removes his liminality and places him firmly as a benevolent character.
At this point I would like to compare the different ways that Kubrick and Lynch address the issue of domestic violence and men’s abuse of women. Perhaps one of the most notorious rape scenes in film history is found in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The scene is set in a man’s house ironically called “home,” and revolves around Alex and his droogs savagely beating an old man and raping his wife. Set to the music of “Singin’ in the Rain,” Kubrick creates an atmosphere that is so violent and surreal that it causes the audience to wince in pain and laugh out loud at the same time.
The scene is so perfectly choreographed and plotted that the “rape,” in a sense, looses its power. That is not to say that the scene is not frightening, but the actual rape tends to loose its importance in the midst of Alex’s performance. Thus the scene is not centered around the abuse of the woman, rather it is centered around Alex and his dance. Kubrick tends to downplay the violence shown towards women in other movies. In The Shining Kubrick creates a character in Wendy that is so unattractive, so absolutely unworthy of sympathy, that the audience does not react out of horror when Jack threatens abuse towards her.
Indeed the very terrifying reality of spousal abuse looses any of its meaning in a Kubrickian film because he creates characters like Alex and like Jack who are so over the top, so comic-bookish, that their violence does not carry with it any real significance. In both The Shining and A Clockwork Orange the violence shown towards women is of less importance to Kubrick than the furthering of a character. Thus Jack and Alex take center stage, and their abuse of women becomes secondary to how Kubrick uses this to develop their characters.
While Kubrick sets his scenes of violence towards women in a surreal comic-book atmosphere, Lynch places his scenes of violence directly in the home-place. As stated above, the scene where Frank rapes and abuses Dorothy happens within her home-the living room-the sight of oppression towards women. The home is also the sight of abuse towards Laura Palmer in Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which sees Leland Palmer abuse both his daughter and niece within the domestic sphere. Lynch shoots the violence realistically, without the comic-book qualities of a Kubrick take.
Thus the scenes in which violence and abuse are at the center take on a much more realistic and disturbing tone. And although Lynch is often noted for his surrealness (in such works as Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks) the violence is never so over-the-top that it looses its affect as with Kubrick. Therefore, I would posit that Kubrick treats the abuse of women with much less seriousness and affect than Lynch. It seems as if Kubrick (who much more intensely details violence towards men in such films as Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket) is not very concerned with domestic violence.
Lynch on the other hand powerfully portrays how men violate women-within the domestic sphere-and creates an atmosphere in which the violence is brought into the home and into the world of the audience. This difference found in the way Kubrick and Lynch shoot scenes of domestic violence seem to correlate with their sense of style and world views. That is, Kubrick is much more concerned with treating his films almost as allegorical and symbolic stories that tie together all people. The individual character therefore becomes a reflection of society.
Thus Alex and Jack Torrance come to represent certain aspects of a patriarchal society, and their individual story really tells the story of no one individual, rather a conglomerate of many. Thus Kubrickian film worlds become worlds like no other. His version of Vietnam is unlike any other Vietnam ever scene, the post-apocalyptic world of Clockwork is again a world unlike any ever seen because he is creating films which are allegorical and symbolic-pertaining to this world yet not quite of this world.
Because Kubrick’s films have this other worldliness quality about them certain issues like the abuse of women lose their power. Lynch, opposing this, tells stories of individuals, who although sometimes over-the-top, are always representatives of everyday life. Firmly based in someplace USA, all of Lynch’s characters from Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey to Wild at Heart’s Sailor, are instantly recognizable. Because these characters seem so real and recognizable to the audience, empathy for such issues as the abuse of women is much more achievable.
Despite their differences in world view and technique, it would appear that both Lynch and Kubrick have affected each others body of work. Lynch, in his creation of such over-the-top characters as Frank Boscombe, the log-lady, and Sailor, is using the template forged by Kubrick with characters like Major Kong, Jack D. Ripper, and Humbert Humbert. Kubrick, in return, might have been inspired by Lynch’s powerful use of colors and forms when shooting such scenes as the “bloody elevator” in The Shining or his creation of Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket.
But there is no doubt that each director has unalterably changed the possibility of cinema for all young filmmakers. Both Lynch and Kubrick challenged themselves to create new cinematic worlds and forms, to develop new ideas and concepts, to raise the potential of what film can be. And even though sometimes the artists reach exceeded their grasps, and failure took place, it was never for a lack of creativity and ingenuity. They were always pushing the envelope and raising the standards of film, and their influence to this generation of filmmakers is far far beyond measure.