Kubrick’s Music in Mortifyingly Maleficent Movement

Paper by Jake Ohnysty.

Stanley Kubrick embodies a cinematic style in his directing that paints graphic depictions of the journey and thematic universal factors within his films. Characters’ commonly face intricate challenges against physical oppression, internal struggles and pivotal moments of deep faceted emotional revelations brought to life through captivating musical effects that capture the essence of these dynamic energies, while strategic camera utilization used in conjunction provides profound visual representations to their deep symbolic values and purpose to the story. Films of Stanley Kubrick that demonstrate the various functions of these complexities distinct to his style of camera movement, angles and usage of music are Spartacus (1960), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); inspirational influences on filmmakers to this day.

Stanley Kubrick utilizes music, notably classical music, within his films for dramatic effect, suspense building and revealing dynamics of the film’s theme, “interpreting Kubrick’s soundtrack as a series of sophisticated relationships from the more abstract aspects of large-scale structure and that unfolding structure’s reflection of the narrative’s thematic symbolism,” (Patterson, David W. pg.447). Within these three films music is used for these purposes as in 2001 with the scene of the unearthing of the black monolith on the moon, eerie classical music plays and builds with intensity until the monumental suspense is broken with its technological high pitch screech that deafens the astronauts and leaves the audience confused as it cuts to a new scene in the future, but revealing the ominous yet omniscient presence that the figure represents to the characters and humanity at large. Booming classical music is used in Spartacus for similar dramatic effect, accentuating and highlighting the boasting attitudes of joyous power the slaves are feeling in the journey scenes leading up to their arrival at the sea, where music is used in an opposite sense to convey the feelings of hopeless they are now facing in light of the devastating news that Spartacus’s plan of escape by way of ships has been foiled with imminent doom closing in on them. The music’s highlighting of these emotions maintains centrality to the theme and the hopeless struggle our main character, Spartacus, is fighting on the physical level of the battlefield and mental level of confounding challenges in rationalizing the purpose of his campaign that changes for both himself and his people leading them to impending doom. Full Metal Jacket uses a particularly distinct form of song that is inherent to the world of the Marine’s battle of war in Vietnam and the fight they all struggle with within in trying to rationalize a purpose of good for the mind-numbing death and killing; through the Marine chants they sing while jogging and the period music in the first presentation of the war zone that is Vietnam.

To capture the large dramatic features and subtle details of the various aspects that encompasses the mise-en-scene with the overall setting, Kubrick utilizes tracking shots that follow the progression of action as well as reveal the world that is surrounding those characters in that scene. These tracking shots function to allow the audience better emphasize with the thoughts, attitudes and actions that the character is feeling in that scene as well as demonstrate Kubrick’s famous quality of technical perfectionism in his films (Maestu, Nico Unit 6). In Full Metal Jacket the camera tracks the movement of the soldiers as they progress through the ravaged, war torn Vietnamese country side and into the cities, revealing the characters’ bleak outlook of their situation as well as the realistically depicted setting that is masterfully created. Witnessing the soldiers’ journey we begin to understand and gain a comprehension for the reasons for their attitudes as the realities of the war they are fighting are shoved right in our face without warning, main characters like Cowboy spontaneously perish, along with sequences of other platoons being mowed down and blown up in the ensuing altercations. Taking the Point of View of the reporters on occasions, the camera movement pans across the faces and postures of soldiers throughout the campaign, functioning to convey the surreal horrific atrocities that are the Vietnam War and the mental battle of personal rationalization we witness of the characters; identifying this alienation “when a seasoned grunt ex- plains to FNG Rafter Man, and the audience, the meaning of “the thousand-yard stare,” (Doherty, Thomas pg.26). This same attention to detail is shown in 2001 as we watch a futuristic space shuttle cruise through the void of space from an omniscient outside perspective, basking in the glory of the vessel Discovery, with eerie music accompanying this tracking scene as it transitions inside the ship:

“In these formative phases, a Chopin waltz accompanied actor Gary Lockwood as he circum-jogged the spaceship Discovery’s centrifuge,9 excerpts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream underscored scenes of weightlessness in space, and Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica accentuated the otherworldly nature of the climactic “Star Gate” sequence,” (Patterson, David W. pg.445).

The use of the tracking shot as it follows the narrative and character progression reveals the futuristic science fiction qualities that make up the mise-en-scene that is the space ship and with the quiet, non-diegetic music functioning to explicitly convey the lifeless void that is space and the characters’ feelings of being truly alone, distant from any reach of humanity. Spartacus is no exception to feelings of inhumanity and inhospitable surroundings revealed through tracking shots in the first scenes of the film panning the slaves’ miserable figures as they are whipped, beaten and forced to work until death mining the side of a mountain for their master, while non-diegetic narration provides the tragic background story of our hero backed with classical music to symbolize the ancient world of the story. This same strategy of camera movement is utilized in various tracking shots while in the gladiator school, instances like their meal gatherings has the lens following the women as they disperse food and drink panning across the faces of the gladiators sitting in the row, most grim, sullen, and bleak these shots hold focus with long takes when Spartacus and Varinia interact breaking the emotional chain conveying their feelings of forbidden love accentuated by soft, pleasant music playing as to highlight its presence amongst this world of slavery and death there is an emerging existence of hope.

Stanley Kubrick’s style is influenced by his own personality that has been known to commonly portray his black humor, grotesque representations of human nature with monstrous characters devoid of virtue in narratives aimed to “show paradoxical and potentially disturbing truths,” that has earned him acclaim for decades (Naremore, James pg. 14). These disturbing qualities of life are all demonstrated in his films that cannot be ignored, not just in the physical brutality that are inflicted upon characters and the real people they represent, but the mental torment that accompanies physiological divergences between conflicting parties. Mental processes depicted in his films are artfully revealed through his strategically focused long takes in particular scenes that are evoked with gripping power due to the components of the mise-en-scene contributing to the characters’ passion with hard lighting used to focus attention on faces and body posture for dramatic effect, often dehumanizing the interaction because of the actions brutal necessity. Seen in the final scenes of Full Metal Jacket as the flames from the burning building the Maines bleed to get to, are the only light source as the struggle to kill a young girl sniper is grappled with by Joker and his comrades seen through the long take dialogues deeply focused on the barley lit half of their faces visible by fire light; functioning as a symbol of the dehumanized struggle in rationalizing war and this metal battle that is central to the theme of the film. Demonstrated in similar fashion in the other films as the final scenes in Spartacus show the dramatic dark nature of human history with the crucified slaves lining the road out of the city, with our hero front and center chocking for his last breaths, long take dialogue with camera movement panning this final interaction with him and his wife; a hopeless battle for himself and his followers, yet the ultimate victory for his son who came at the very end and escaping the atrocities that was Spartacus’s life, theme of hope in the face of hopelessness conveyed with accompanying classical music. 2001’s final scenes involving the last surviving astronaut, alone, millions of miles from home, in the most inhospitable environment possible, literally facing an inhumane entity devoid of human emotions with only hope and perseverance to motivate him along to succeed in this final very long take as Hal begs for his “life,” slowly fading away into oblivion; the theme of a hopeless struggle prevails through an otherworldly dimensional shift takes him out of his world and into the grips of the omniscient all powerful monolith. Kubrick’s usage of long takes in these final scenes coupled with deep focus on the astronaut’s face both stuns and grips the audience with the absolute sheer terror in his eyes, as we bounce back and forth to his point of view until utter confusion in conceptualizing the meaning of these final events both watching and seeing them unfold; Irena Paulus description of these camera movements final functions, “psychedelic sequence? at the end of the movie, when colors and shapes literally run in front of the viewer’s eyes during the sudden turn of the film into the mystic of the unknown,” (pg.105).

Kubrick’s stylistic usage of camera movement and music has influenced future filmmakers in how he so evocatively depicts unnerving aspects of human nature in powerfully captivating and entertaining works of art. Being a filmmaker in the age of liberalizing censorship of Hollywood and the industry his works demonstrated an ability to produce profound works of cinematic ingenuity that kept to his own characteristically dark humor. “Unsettling social norms regardless of conservative of liberal values, inducing a sort of moral and emotional disequilibrium,” (Naremore, James pg.10) demonstrated by an ability to accentuate the presence of those fundamental aspects of the narrative, captured through commendable usage of varying camera movement strategies encompassing long takes, point of view shots, and wide angle lens. Masterfully coupled with actors’ performances in dramatically realistic settings that utilized contrasting, deep-focus hard light, helping bring to life the characters’ complex emotional feelings, with the strategic accompaniment of music; creating dramatic effect, building suspense and further capturing the powerful essence of the film. Stanley Kubrick’s distinct stylistic usage of the cinematic conventions of camera movement and music have substantially contributed to his works having become icons of astounding recognition within the film industry, setting the bar of standards for future generations to the incredible level of possibilities that can be achieved of those that aspire to greatness.

Works Cited

Paulus, Irena. “Stanley Kubrick’s Revolution in the Usage of Film Music: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 40.1 (2009): 99-127. Web.
Patterson, David W. “Music, Structure and Metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”” American Music 22.3 (2004): 444-74. Web.
Doherty, Thomas. “Full Metal Genre: Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam Combat Movie.” Film Quarterly 42.2 (1988): 24-30. Web.
NAREMORE, JAMES. “Stanley Kubrick and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque.” Film Quarterly 60.1 (2006): 4-14. Web.
Maestu, Nico Unit 6 Lecture, Stanley Kubrick, Master Filmmakers 120.


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