When director Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999, there was much eulogizing from all corners of the film world. Many critics referred to the deceased by first name, as though “Stanley,” that legendarily reclusive filmmaker, were as familiar and known to them as a kindly old man they might happen to bump into now and then at the corner store. Perhaps it was Kubrick’s long and storied career, a livelihood producing great movies poured over by consecutive generations of filmgoers, which occasioned such informality. After all, here was a self-taught kid from the Bronx who broke into the pictures and, through sheer ingenuity and vision, changed the way the world saw film. In any case, Kubrick’s legacy is undeniable and he has clearly become part of the film canon. The most recent installment of Sight and Sound’s famous Top 10 poll (taken in 2002) ranked Kubrick as the #6 top director of all time as chosen by critics, and the #5 top director as chosen by other directors. Likewise, his films 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) ranked highly on the polls of Top 10 films of all time, as chosen by critics and directors respectively. In these polls, Kubrick shares a lofty place in the pantheon with such fellow auteurs as Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir, and Orson Welles—but unlike most of those other directors (excluding Hitchcock), Kubrick remains more of a household name. Even in death, he still carries more cultural currency than many of his contemporaries, not only a reputation in the academy and the industry but also in the general public.
Kubrick has become a fast favorite of budding film buffs and aspiring art house patrons. Ask a young (often male) or otherwise somewhat inexperienced film buff for his/her favorite directors and Kubrick is almost assured to make the list at some stage in his/her cinematic education. As a young film buff’s knowledge of cinema gradually widens, auteurism proves a seductive line of thought that enables one to organize one’s developing cinematic tastes around whole bodies of work made by individual filmmakers, instead of simply individual favorite films. With auteur theory’s privileging of the director generally incorporated into popular mainstream thought as a means of reading films as texts (perhaps the first “academic” reading strategy acquired by young film buffs), “Kubrick” as both preeminent auteur and canonical body of work provides a site of ready access for students and film buffs aspiring to upward cultural and academic mobility. Despite its inherent shortcomings and the challenges to it by feminism and poststructuralism, auteurism remains a strong structuring force in film studies, providing varying degrees of readability for “high” art texts; for example, some auteurs’ bodies of work are less readable than others, often by virtue of their “foreignness” or lesser availability to “the masses,” thus helping to establish a cultural hierarchy in which high-brow cineastes foster elitism over cinephiles with supposedly less refined tastes.
Meanwhile, cult movie criticism has emerged in recent years as almost a form of “reverse elitism” celebrating modes and genres of films typically considered untouchable by either a) “the mainstream” or b) “cultural elites”: two hazily defined conceptualizations to which the figure of the cultist is often posited and constructed in an oppositional, subcultural stance.  It is in this light that I wish to look at Stanley Kubrick as an example of a filmmaker in whom auteurism and cultism are interrelated. I am not trying to claim him as a “cult auteur” in any sense, for it is certainly difficult to imagine Kubrick’s art film reputation mingling with the likes of John Waters, Jess Franco, or Ed Wood. Indeed, with the notable exception (and counterexample) of A Clockwork Orange (1971), none of his films are widely regarded as “cult” objects. Rather, Kubrick interests me precisely because, like Hitchcock, he is such a canonical director in the “high” auteur tradition, greatly regarded by cultural elites and casual (even “mainstream”) film buffs alike. However, in Kubrick there are clearer parallels between the phenomenon of cult movie celebration and the “cult” of personality surrounding his role as auteur.
Auteur criticism seems to be the legitimate, academic side of the “cult” appreciation of a given director, taking artfulness for granted in the very term “auteur” (as opposed to the much more recent concept of a “cult auteur,” such as Ed Wood, who might create rather artless exploitation films that still bear a distinct authorial stamp). Cult film scholars have alluded to the connections between cultism and auteurism as different but related reading strategies for films. Sconce (1995) compares the cultist’s film consumption to the cineaste’s film consumption, both sharing a perceived opposition to mainstream Hollywood productions (p. 381); likewise, the cultist uses sophisticated reading strategies similar to the cineaste’s interpretation of an auteur’s stylistic innovations (p. 386). More recently, Sconce (2003) notes that “What is often dismissed in [cult film’s white, middle-class, male] audience as pointless obsession, however, is a close analogue to the work of legitimate film scholars…. […] If ‘cult’ audiences mimic film scholars, film scholarship is not unlike a cult” (p. 31).  Indeed, Hawkins (2000) notes how auteur theory grew out of the cultish celebration by white, middle-class, male critics at Cahiers du cinéma (several of whom famously became the vanguard of the “high art” French New Wave) of various B-movie and genre directors like Samuel Fuller, Howard Hawks, and Nicolas Ray (directors who represented an alternative to commercialized Hollywood productions). She describes how “MacMahonism” informed the Cahiers auteurist debates with “a macho, heroic film aesthetic that drew equally from high and low culture” (p. 18). Auteur theory of the 1950’s and 1960’s was in many ways a sort of “fan-boy’s club,” a school of thought at odds with the feminizing effects of “mainstream” Hollywood culture, yet leveling certain high and low films as equals within the same critical plane in the process of cultish adulation. Auteurist and cultist reading strategies both share the same insistence on reading films for special aspects perhaps not noticeable by the uninitiated (no matter whether that “uninitiated” be construed as mainstream commercial moviegoers or viewers on either side of the supposed “high/low” cultural divide)—and of course, the continuing influence of auteurism has informed the criticism of both art cinema and cult cinema.
Beneath the glossy veneer of artiness (which critics usually emphasize to help elevate, and thus distance, an auteur’s films from that of “common” genre directors), Kubrick’s films generally fall into the classifications of popular genre, especially genres that have traditionally been associated with male-oriented, “low,” or B-movie productions. For future reference, a listing of his 13 films, accompanied by my genre classifications for each, should make this more readily viewable:
Fear and Desire (1953): war
Killer’s Kiss (1955): film noir
The Killing (1956): film noir
Paths of Glory (1957): war
Spartacus (1960): sword & sandal epic, war
Lolita (1962): black comedy, romantic melodrama
Dr. Strangelove (1964): black comedy, war
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): science-fiction
A Clockwork Orange (1971): science-fiction, black comedy
Barry Lyndon (1975): costume drama
The Shining (1980): horror
Full Metal Jacket (1987): war
Eyes Wide Shut (1999): psychosexual melodrama
The obvious artistry of Kubrick’s films tends to raise their cultural status from being mere genre pictures to being the artful products of an auteur, especially after the time of Kubrick’s formulation as an auteur in the early 1960’s (as I shall elaborate upon shortly). Auteur status automatically confers a certain artistry upon a director, especially one able to raise “low” genres and make them palatable to those with higher cultural tastes. Of course, this is not to say that all of Kubrick’s films were received favorably by either mainstream moviegoers, academics, or elite cineastes; many of his films garnered mixed reviews from both “low” and “high” audiences. However, Kubrick’s films mixed low/mass and high/art in ways that made his films relatively popular to most viewers. Like many art film auteurs, Kubrick’s films were produced outside of the Hollywood system (not to mention, geographically in England since 1962’s Lolita) and exhibit various artistic traits alternately familiar and challenging to mainstream American audiences accustomed to Hollywood products; however, unlike most art film auteurs (even other American ones like David Lynch), most of Kubrick’s films were financed and widely distributed by major Hollywood studios, as likely to be shown in mainstream cinemas as to be shown in art houses. Kubrick’s crossover success between both mainstream audiences and art house elites speaks to the fact that many of his films were both strong artistic and financial achievements upon their release, no doubt inspired by Kubrick’s choice of subject matter that roughly falls into popular, traditionally profitable genres.  While some subject matter came from popular fiction (e.g., Stephen King, Peter George), some of Kubrick’s source material descended from “high” literary canons (e.g., Vladimir Nabokov, Anthony Burgess, William Makepeace Thackeray), thus adding a further degree of artistic repute to the resulting filmic adaptations—though the case of A Clockwork Orange shows that material of a “high” literary pedigree can still result in a definitive “cult” work.
Of considerable interest in auteur criticism is the personal life of the director authoring the text, a life informing films with his/her unique sensibility, and Kubrick’s legacy as it exists today provides a notable example. The “cult of personality” formed by auteurism builds legends around filmmakers, especially those whose living and working methods are marked by eccentricity, such as Lars Von Trier, Werner Herzog, and David Lynch. Legends about Kubrick’s meticulous and pain-staking preproduction research, his penchant for repeated takes and sheer perfectionism while filming and editing, and various obsessive aspects of his personal life (e.g., fear of flying, permanent residency in England, etc.) have sprung up around the man and his work, creating him into a sort of mythic figure. A connection can be drawn here between auteur theory and cultism, for both highly value trivia as a means of providing “a sense of inclusion through shared knowledge” that is also used “to exclude outsiders” (Hunt, 2003, p. 187). Just as cultists use trivia to inform reading strategies and exert a purported sense of ownership over the revered material, the auteurist critic uses intimate and highly detailed knowledge of the director’s personal life and prior work in order to inform auteurist reading strategies and to assert a film’s academic or high cultural value as an artistic text that rises above “mainstream” tastes or fosters such reading strategies. Likewise, both cultists and auteurist critics use “critical distance” to distinguish themselves as more discerning than mass market viewers, thus privileging some reading strategies over others (Hunt, 2003, p. 197), especially when the cult/auteur object is also widely popular within “mainstream” consumption (as in Kubrick’s films, for example).
In the case of Kubrick specifically, the figure of him as a hermetic, idiosyncratic auteur bodes well for a sort of cultist/auteurist conflation. By remaining intensely private and secretive on the fringes of an industry built upon public exposure, the notion of Kubrick-as-auteur fostered a “cult of personality” by his very refusal to exploit the limelight occupied more comfortably by other prominent directors (e.g., compare Kubrick to Hitchcock’s rampant showmanship and self-aggrandizement). This hermeticism encourages auteurist readings that border especially strongly on cult because the auteurist critic must “gain access” to the filmmaker’s private world—a world not unlike the hermetic, border-policed world of the cultist—using the sort of detailed cross-textual knowledge (and/or trivia) of Kubrick’s work necessary for an auteurist reading. Likewise, the infrequency with which Kubrick produced films—only 13 in almost 50 years of filmmaking, with lengthening intervals between films in his late career (e.g., 12 years between 1987’s Full Metal Jacket and 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut)—adds to an almost cultish critical overinvestment in each release. In a broader sense, this sort of critical (over)investment also leads to repeat consumption of an auteur’s films under the lofty stance of “artworthiness,” a reading/consumption strategy resembling the repeat consumption of cult films by fans similarly attuned to the textual/profilmic practices and eccentricities of their less reputable object choices.
A brief glance at each of Kubrick’s films should hopefully help to draw some parallels between cultist and auteurist object choices. Fear and Desire (1953), Kubrick’s low-budget independently produced first feature, tells an existential tale about soldiers fighting behind enemy lines in an unnamed war that causes them to lose their sanity and humanity. Along with Spartacus (1960), this was Kubrick’s only film on which he received no screenwriting credit, yet for all of its weaknesses as a rather amateur debut film, it shares thematic resonances with many of his later films—most notably in its evocation of the dehumanizing effects of violence and war. According to biographer Vincent LoBrutto (1999), the film played the art house circuit to mixed reviews before, notably enough, being billed “as a sexploitation picture.” Kubrick soon withdrew all prints of it from public exhibition and it was very rarely seen for decades. As LoBrutto says, “Cultists and Kubrick fanatics saw it as a cinematic equivalent of the Rosetta Stone or the Shroud of Turin,” due to its utter unavailability (p. 90). Although extremely difficult to find, there are very poor quality bootlegs of the film circulating within the same paracinematic video trade/sales circles that many hard-to-find, semi-legal cult films call home. In this sense, Fear and Desire exists today as a sort of “lost object” invested with great desire by Kubrick cultists, a prize obtainable by only the hardcore few who use the same illicit, underground sources utilized by other cult consumers.
Killer’s Kiss (1955) was Kubrick’s second low-budget independent feature, and his first foray into the film noir style/genre still in its heyday at the time, despite being a “low” B-movie genre. This time out, Kubrick wrote the film, in addition to photographing, editing, and directing it. The story of a boxer dragged into violence as he attempts to protect a dancer from a vengeful nightclub owner, Killer’s Kiss was inspired by Kubrick’s first short documentary film, Day of the Fight (1951). Kubrick’s next project was his first Hollywood studio feature, The Killing (1956), another film noir that is often considered his first “professional” picture. It helped pioneer a radically nonlinear narrative structure by using intersecting flashbacks to show the details of a racetrack robbery gone wrong and a getaway thwarted by cruel chance. According to LoBrutto (1999), this nonlinear structure was rather confusing to audiences at the time and the film was neither a critical nor financial success; instead of showing in art houses (as Kubrick intended), it played as part of a double feature like many other films noirs and B-movies (p. 123-26). Although this type of nonlinear structure would eventually become a trademark of art cinema, it was apparently not enough to raise a film noir like The Killing to “high” enough cultural status for it to play in the art houses. Nevertheless, Kubrick’s “auteur” methods (e.g., commandeering the film’s cinematography from veteran studio cinematographer Lucien Ballard) and critical status (e.g., press comparisons to Orson Welles) were beginning to mount; from this point on, Kubrick’s control over his films (Spartacus excepted) from the writing stage to the directing was more pronounced, although he was not yet also in charge of the distribution and theatre booking of his films, as he would be in his later career.
Kubrick’s reputation as a skillful perfectionist and talented up-and-coming auteur grew with his next film, Paths of Glory (1957). His first studio film with a major star, it featured Kirk Douglas as a French general who tries unsuccessfully to save three men from execution for cowardice following a blundered attack in the trenches of World War I. Another film about the dehumanizing effects of war, not to mention a harsh condemnation of military corruption and wrongdoing—themes to which he would return in Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket—it was a critical success. It was also Kubrick’s first film to be shot outside of the United States (in Germany). Douglas then brought in Kubrick as a last-minute replacement for director Anthony Mann on his sprawling big-budget sword & sandal epic Spartacus several years later. Centering on the failed slave rebellion led by the titular gladiator, the resulting film was a lackluster example of a cycle that was nearing the end of its course in Hollywood.  Although it earned several awards and a respectable box-office return (despite controversy about the source novel and screenplay being written by two blacklisted writers), Kubrick was not pleased with the production process as essentially a director-for-hire and in later years semi-disowned the film. As LoBrutto (1999) states, “The supreme lesson that Stanley Kubrick learned on Spartacus was that he had to have autonomy on the films he directed,” and Kubrick later noted that Spartacus was the only film on which he did not have “absolute control” (p. 193). It seems that this unpleasant transitional experience merely strengthened Kubrick’s resolve to take the next step into auteurdom.
Lolita (1962) was Kubrick’s first production to be surrounded by widespread controversy, due to Nabokov’s notorious seriocomic story of a middle-aged professor who becomes tragically infatuated with a pre-teen “nymphet.” With the announced production mired in scandal from the get-go, Kubrick decided to move shooting to England to help avoid high production costs and censorship restrictions, and he would subsequently shoot the rest of his films in England as well. Many compromises with various censorship boards were necessary to secure the film a seal of approval for distribution, but Lolita was finally okayed, opening to positive reviews and solid box-office returns. Although Lolita is not generally considered a cult movie in any respect (possibly in part because its risqué subject matter always remains at the level of innuendo and mild suggestion, never explicitly employing “low” or exploitative appeals to the viewer’s body), the very controversy itself shares parallels between cultism and auteurism. In his discussion of David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), Mathijs (2003) notes how “topicality and controversy are crucial mechanisms in the creation of cult in critical reception” (p. 122), serving to help form or bolster a director’s auteur status. Controversy and topicality—which often go hand-in-hand when a film calls into question the changing nature of cultural values (e.g., the relaxing of limits as to “permissible” film content)—raise critical discussion about the extra-textual “worth” of a disputed cultural artifact. As some critics attempt to reappraise a scandalous film in this context, auteurist readings may result through the linking of the film’s controversial aspects to the question of directorial intent, thus helping to critically reinterpret the film as more “worthy” than it might not otherwise seem at first glance (p. 115-16, 122). While there appears to be a world of difference between Kubrick’s “high” literary adaptation (pre-privileged for serious critical consideration) and Cronenberg’s “low” body horror debut (pre-prejudiced for serious critical dismissal), the reception of each film respectively shares a critical tendency toward auteurist readings that help to dispel the threat of potentially “pornographic,” exploitative subject matter in each. Just as Cronenberg’s reputation as a budding auteur sprang from the controversy of his first feature film, I believe that Kubrick’s growing reputation as an auteur was much aided by his willingness to engage in controversial subject matter (e.g., as in his later films like A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut). After Lolita, Kubrick’s renown as an auteur seemed to be firmly established: virtually all of his subsequent films were advertised under the banner of his own name, the title of each film often preceded by the “Stanley Kubrick’s” ownership tag (e.g., “Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange” or “Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove”), as if actively using his “absolute control” as auteur as a marketing strategy unto itself.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) marked another Kubrick incursion into comedic territory, again using a fairly serious novel (Peter George’s Red Alert) as inspiration for a satire. The result was one of his most popularly enduring films, a perversely razor-edged black comedy about the very real threat of global nuclear annihilation; in more recent years, Kubrick’s vision of power-mad politicians and military men has been validated as being much closer to the truth than even the filmmakers themselves knew at the time. As Eco (1986) notes, a cult movie must “provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes” (qtd. in Mathijs, 2003, p. 109), and Dr. Strangelove seems to fall into this category. It is Kubrick’s first immensely quotable film and its shadowy netherworld of government war rooms, hovering bombers, and besieged military bases denotes a sort of eerily familiar, yet satirically sent-up Cold Warring world. Were the film not so highly celebrated by both cineastes and moviegoers (both at the time of its release and today), its subversively sardonic take on the global nuclear politics of its day would no doubt heighten its status as a cult object due to the sheer perversity of its subject matter. A film’s inclusion in the canons of “high art” often seems to preclude its being taken as a cult object, and vice-versa; “cult” is automatically associated with “low” objects, even if cult is just as select a culturally imposed categorization as the “high” art revered by cineastes. Dr. Strangelove, like Eco’s example of the highly regarded Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943), provides a case in which low/cult and high/art appreciations of the same film are not mutually exclusive, even if each categorization is often used in opposition to the other. In this way, auteurism and cultism can share similar cultural self-exclusionary tactics, even if their reading strategies are remarkably alike, finding value in the very same aspects of a given film (even when those aspects are not necessarily read ironically or subversively, as in cult consumption)—perhaps even more alike than some cult film theorists are willing to admit.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was Kubrick’s first science-fiction film, and is generally considered a very influential benchmark effort, not only of the genre but of cinema in general. Adapted from a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, one of the most highly esteemed science-fiction writers, the film traced the simian ancestry of man back to the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence during prehistory—then leapt forward in time to the titular year as man-made computer technology takes over a spaceship amid an exploratory expedition to Jupiter. The film ends with the sole surviving astronaut fleeing the ship in an escape pod, being sucked through a Star Gate, and emerging in an alien environment where he ages rapidly before apparently being reborn as an evolutionarily advanced Starchild orbiting Earth. The open-ended, highly symbolic narrative of the film has much in common with other radical narratological developments in 1960’s art cinema (e.g., Alain Renais’ 1961 Last Year at Marienbad), and despite some understandable public confusion and discussion over what the film ultimately meant, it became regarded as the first “serious” science-fiction picture; its most direct cinematic descendant in narrative form and genre is Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972). Hailed as an artistic and technological triumph, 2001: A Space Odyssey helped bring an air of respectability to the genre. According to LoBrutto (1999), Kubrick had prepared for the production by viewing any and all science-fiction films he could acquire, even ones of the lowest quality, in his search for new ideas (p. 270)—though he would not do likewise in his preparation to enter the horror genre with The Shining (1980). Kubrick himself helped to distinguish his film from the “low” associations that science-fiction films had garnered since the youth craze of the 1950’s: “I don’t regard 2001 simply as science fiction,” he told Newsweek. “Science fiction is a legitimate field, of course. But there has been bad execution of the visual effects and too much emphasis on monsters. 2001 is not fantasy, though a portion of it is speculative” (qtd. in LoBrutto, 1999, p. 311). Although Kubrick (and critics supporting the film) seemed all too ready to distance 2001: A Space Odyssey from the fantasy, monsters, and bad visual effects found in the less reputable science-fiction films of the 1950’s and 1960’s which are now consumed primarily by a cult audience, his own film drew a strong cult audience of its own. Billed as “the ultimate trip,” 2001: A Space Odyssey was very popular with the 1960’s youth generation, frequented by hippies and other counterculture members eager to enhance their drug trips with the hallucinatory trip through the Star Gate depicted in the film. In his pioneering survey of “subversive” films, Vogel (1974) describes 2001 as a “Cult film of the young, this is a manifesto of the new sensibility; a nostalgic elegy to innocence lost to technology, a vision of truths beyond understanding. It ends with unforgettable images of the new star child in space, facing the earth he must transform to make it human again” (p. 322, caption). Though Kubrick had not made the film specifically for the counterculture, nor intended it to portray or enhance a drug trip (as in a “head film”), it was nevertheless appropriated by a strong countercultural cult audience, the same demographic that helped bridge the “high” art cinema of the 1960’s and the “low” midnight (cult) movie sensation of the 1970’s.
Part science-fiction, part black comedy, A Clockwork Orange (1971) is the only Kubrick film to be widely regarded not only as an important art film, but also as a prime example of a cult film. With its dark humor, disturbingly graphic imagery, “retro-futuristic” visual style, synth-classical score, and the inventive “nadsat” slang taken from Anthony Burgess’s novel, there is much to suggest the film as a cult object, a special sort of (in Eco’s words) “completely furnished world” unto itself enabling the quotation of dialogue and situations. The near-futuristic story of a vicious teenage gang leader whose violent free will is stripped from him by an authoritarian society attempting his rehabilitation, A Clockwork Orange proved very popular with young audiences and much of its cult reputation springs from the notorious depictions of sex and violence that allegedly inspired “copycat” crimes (a controversy much like the one later surrounding Walter Hill’s 1979 cult movie The Warriors). As had been the case with Lolita, the gradual easing of censorship restrictions meant that Kubrick could take on more potentially objectionable subject matter; inaugurated in 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system opened possibilities for new sexual and violent material to appear on screen, and A Clockwork Orange (rated “X” upon its initial release) was one of the most notorious of these transgressive new films to appear. The elimination of formal censorship restrictions meant that Kubrick could finally have “final cut” on A Clockwork Orange and his subsequent films, a rare privilege stipulated in his contracts with various studios (though some rare cuts had to be made to avoid an “X” or “NC-17” rating for better distribution and marketing purposes, and A Clockwork Orange was eventually re-rated “R” after several cuts). Ironically, the conservative backlash over the film’s purported ability to incite copycat crimes echoed the film’s own depiction of filmic images being used to forcibly alter human behavior; after receiving death threats over the film, Kubrick pulled it from theatrical release for many years. Regardless, “cult” behavior associated with the film was especially marked in Britain (the film’s setting), where actual teenage gangs emulated the distinctive dress and talk of the film’s dangerous young “droogs,” this being one of several trends in British youth counterculture (along with teddy boys, skinheads, mods & rockers, etc.) that would eventually culminate in the punk movement of the late-1970’s. When Quentin Tarantino recently quipped that Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange merely for the masturbatory fantasy afforded by the graphic opening scenes of the picture , there is no doubt a grain of truth in his statement, since Hawkins (2000) points out that, according to cineastes and other elites, “high” cultural objects supposedly (but clearly do not) evoke different pleasures than “low” or exploitative cultural objects, even when both high and low objects engage the viewer’s body in the very same way (p. 6). As Clover (1992) says in her analysis of rape-revenge horror films, “were they less well and expensively made by less famous men,” both Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971) and A Clockwork Orange “would surely classify as sensationalist exploitation” like Meir Zarchi’s infamous 1977 cult film I Spit on Your Grave (p. 116). Just as Watson (1997) notes that censorship regulations actively created the illicit subjects taken up by classical exploitation cinema (p. 79), the final lifting of these regulations in the 1960’s meant that these illicit subjects could be taken up by dominant culture, with art cinema often leading the way that more mainstream films would soon follow. Indeed, as Hawkins (2000) notes, A Clockwork Orange is one of a group of films that is difficult to categorize because it draws upon both “high” and “low” art traditions, mixing avant-garde stylization, high production values, and European art film cachet with plenty of sex and violence that engage the viewer’s body (p. 22-23). Financed and distributed by a major American studio, it emerged at a time in which Hollywood was competing for art film audiences as art films, pornography, and countercultural films all crossed over into increased mainstream popularity (p. 22, 189). Even today, A Clockwork Orange remains a controversial and notorious work, retaining its cult status among young (predominantly male) viewers; venerated by cultists but still regarded by cineastes as one of Kubrick’s finest films, it demonstrates perhaps the strongest meshing of “high” and “low” elements in the director’s oeuvre.
For his next project, Kubrick would dive into a very different sort of “completely furnished world,” an 18th-Century costume drama based on a fictional memoir written by William Makepeace Thackeray about a young Irish rogue who flees his homeland after a duel, gradually rises to great wealth and social status (after being a soldier, spy, and card shark), only to be reduced back to destitution after a series of social mishaps. Barry Lyndon (1975) is an opulent, exactingly detailed vision of a time period long gone, recreated using very modern technology (e.g., special lenses adapted to shoot by candlelight). Although it was an impressively executed film that was celebrated by critics worldwide and drew large audiences in Europe, it did not attract large numbers in the United States (unlike most of Kubrick’s other films). Despite its obvious artistry and technical achievement, today Barry Lyndon seems to be one of Kubrick’s least culturally enduring works, perhaps because it is one of the least likely to potentially foster a cult reading; indeed, beyond Kubrick’s “cultish” auteur status and his previous film record, there is remarkably little textual material in Barry Lyndon to encourage a crossover cult acceptance of it. Another factor in this (as I hinted in note 3) may well be the “feminine” quality attributed to the costume drama. Although Barry Lyndon the protagonist is a fighter in duels and wars, a womanizer, and a rather likable masculine fellow, the costume drama is commonly associated with the feminine, especially when melodramatic elements are involved. While most of Kubrick’s other films are in typically “masculine” genres (e.g., war, science-fiction, horror), several of his least currently popular works (e.g., Barry Lyndon, Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut) all contain more melodramatic or expressly romantic material than the others. Though melodrama (a traditionally “low” genre) certainly does not preclude auteurist consideration, as the reputations of Douglas Sirk and Max Ophuls testify, cult consideration is more likely to reject more manipulative “feminine” melodramatic elements and lean toward masculine appreciation of films. Indeed, Hollows (2003) and Read (2003) both show how “cult” is often strongly associated with masculinity (albeit a masculinity under threat from the stereotype of the cultist as a “desexualized” fan-boy in whom femininity and consumerism are conflated). Hollows (2003) in particular notes how a film like Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) may be a “cult” film to a certain select (largely feminine) audience, but its associations with both a mass audience and the feminine qualities of melodrama ensure that it is unlikely to be accepted by either academic or popular (male-dominated) cult canons (p. 38). Such may be a similar case with Barry Lyndon merely due to its high production values and (feminine) genre status, thus repelling possible “cult” readings while preserving all of the “high” art distinction of auteurism. With the counter-cinematic (i.e., low-budget, marginalized, or subversive) stress placed on so much cult film, perhaps it comes as no surprise that costume dramas in general—a genre typified by lavish historical depictions of the aristocratic and bourgeois ruling classes—do not often have a cult reputation, unless there are some outstanding textual elements that help to actively encourage a cult reading (e.g., the eccentric and horror-based imagery of Ken Russell’s 1986 Gothic).
The Shining (1980) was Kubrick’s only real foray into the horror film, but it remains a rather notable and well-known release within that genre. Jack Nicholson delivers one of his most campily excessive performances as a struggling writer who moves his family to a snowbound hotel where he has been hired as a winter caretaker, only to be driven murderously insane by ghostly influences. Though most critics panned the film (perhaps in part due to its status as a horror film), it was still a box-office success. Although Kubrick’s “high” auteur status somewhat sets him apart from “low” horror auteurs who are more likely to have a cult following, the use of the horror genre itself is in some sense enough to draw some kind of cult audience; for example, even a glossy “mainstream” horror film like The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) or The Shining remains celebrated by many cult horror audiences, while those same cult audiences may denounce other more explicitly commercial, derivative Hollywood horror output. There are many different “cult” audiences, “mainstream” audiences, and “high art” audiences—none of them are a cohesive group with entirely shared tastes—but The Shining tends to find some acceptance in each rough category of spectatorship, whether by virtue of its status as a horror film, its status as a Kubrick film, or its actual artistic merit. More recent critical reappraisals of the film (see Cramer, 1997) have located it in the domain of postmodernity (and thus a level of artworthiness supposedly transcending traditional horror film conventions), seeing Kubrick as knowingly playing with tropes of the Gothic novel, the haunted house subgenre, and the slasher subgenre, creating something distinctly different from Stephen King’s source novel. Another critic even relates the emergent paternal violence in The Shining back to the Starchild from 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the father symbolically seeks revenge and the reappropriation of patriarchal power that he ceded in the face of a new type of bourgeois family reborn during the turmoil of the 1960’s (see Sobchack, 1996). In any case, the development of serious scholarly work on the horror film (which has also partially yielded recent work on cult films) has helped The Shining to gain some “high” cultural currency with cineastes, not just as the work of a well-known auteur but also as a major work in the “horror canon” (a canon that has traditionally been a favorite for cultists, even if cultists and cineastes would not necessarily include the same films in their own definition of the that canon). In the realm of “art-horror” films like The Shining, a crossover between auteurists and cultists seems quite inevitable.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) marked Kubrick’s full return to the war film, and was considered one of the strongest films in a cycle of Vietnam-related films that appeared during the 1980’s. Opening to strong reviews and strong box-office, Full Metal Jacket was another bleak look at the dehumanizing effects of war, first focusing on the identity-destroying Marine boot camp experience, then on the horrific violence inflicted and incurred by American troops in Vietnam. The film also depicts the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the troops in a negative light, but regardless of these admonitions of insensitive male bonding behavior, Full Metal Jacket remains a favorite of (male) war movie enthusiasts, typically for its darkly sadistic sense of humor (as deftly illustrated in R. Lee Ermey’s much-quoted gunnery sergeant character). “Serious” war films like Full Metal Jacket, even if artistically made and offering a critique of military violence, nevertheless serve a sort of masculine dynamic as shaping a strongly male-dominated genre. While war films are often created on large budgets, either as historical recreations or as action vehicles, high production values (especially in “serious” war films) often translate into graphically realistic depictions of wartime violence and other aberrant behavior (e.g., rape, racism, etc.), all in the name of historical authenticity. Like the extreme (male-oriented) imagery in horror and other types of cult film, gore and other “authentic” offensive material in the (male-oriented) war film is often used by (young) male viewers as a sort of test of “hardness,” as if only the most hardened sensibilities will be able to withstand the experience of such imagery (e.g., see Hollows, 2003, p. 45). In this way, war films and horror/cult films, two traditionally male-dominated varieties of film, both use extreme imagery as a means of determining a sort of “masculine” inclusion, almost like a rite of passage. In a time when the draft has been abolished in America and military service remains merely optional, the modern war film especially serves this masculine “rite of passage” by using graphic imagery as an ersatz substitute for actual lived combat experience (even if this inadvertently celebrates the sacrificial nature of American troops in unjust wars like Vietnam, partially undercutting the larger critique of American involvement in such wars). Also like the horror/cult film, Full Metal Jacket in particular is infused with a sadistic blend of horror/abuse and gallows humor, evoking both shock and laughter.
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