Stanley Kubrick: Using Violence to Instill Peace

Paper by Sarah Myers.

Graphic violence is a common element in movies today. It serves to entertain and excite crowds, adding suspense to each scene. In the 70’s and 80’s, the violence in Stanley Kubrick’s films served a different purpose. Not only did he seek to entertain and please, Kubrick sought to instill fear in viewers, in hopes that they learn to avoid violence altogether. His films rely heavily upon suspense techniques, aimed at dramatizing demonic characters. The colors, music, and cinematography are used to drive suspense, and bring the twisted characters to life. These stylistic traits effectively instill fear in the observer and leave one drained of any desire to commit such crimes. A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987) are prime examples of how Kubrick repeatedly relies on violence and mental instability to evoke fear and send a message about violence. In turn, these films along with several of his others, manage to inspire peace while simultaneously bringing an ingenious elegance to brutality.

The first thing to grab ones attention at the start of a Kubrick movie is the music. Most notably, the introduction to The Shining shows beautiful scenes of mountains and rivers while ominous music begins to build. Similar to the intro in Hitchcock’s The Birds, suspense is heightened as we follow a car through the windy roads. The scene may be beautiful, but the music is a clear indication of the impending danger. Whether it’s cymbals crashing, loud screeching, or famous classics, the music propels the plot and connects each scene of the movie. “For Kubrick, a film’s score was responsible for more than mood and transitional cues—it was essential to major narrative themes within the story” (Gengaro). In A Clockwork Orange, Beethoven’s 9th symphony and with other classical pieces represent violence. At first, Alex commits heinous acts (rape, theft, etc.) while playing these pleasant tunes, adding an eery quality to the music. Vice versa, the music adds an eery quality to the action on screen. During “therapy”, Alex is subjected to graphic films played alongside the same music, causing him to fear violence, and hate the very sound of his once beloved crime music. In The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, loud, abrupt sounds are used to create unsettling anticipation. In her review on SBCC Film Reviews, Wendy Deloughly points out how the music in The Shining “makes the audience jump rather than the actual event —and even when there is no event”. The intense sounds are often played when the only thing on the screen is the day/time of the scene. Crashing cymbals are simply used to shock the viewer, and signify the end/start of a new scene. It is moments like these when, even though there is nothing actually happening on the screen, the music is responsible for propelling the plot and maintaining a necessary level of thrill.

Another key to anticipation in Kubrick films is the use of vivid colors. The use of color and brilliant imagery creates a visual aesthetic that is intense and captivating. In A Clockwork Orange, white, black, and red dominate the screen. This establishes a dystopian ambience in the film. In The Shining, red has an overwhelming presence. Danny was always seen either wearing or surrounded by red, visually amplifying his connection to the danger. Wendy was typically surrounded by yellow, reflecting her persistent cheer. I felt the use of yellow was used to signify her role as savior to Danny. It was her responsibility to maintain sanity and peace for the sake of her son while Jack was going crazy. In Full Metal Jacket, drab colors were used to reflect the horrors of war. Instead of bright, vivid colors to create excitement, muted ones (such as blue) bring the energy down to match the dark situations at hand. The combination of music with color was crucial to the success of these films. Kubrick is recognized for these stylistic traits because of the impact they have on viewers. It is nearly impossible to overlook the use of color in his films, especially The Shining. He makes his intentions very clear, and his attention to detail most certainly pays off.

His sharp attention to detail continues to be seen in the impeccable camerawork. Long tracking and zoom shots, accompanied by intense music and vivid colors, create suspense by honing in on the dramatic facial expressions of our main characters. Preceding the infamous rape scene in ACO, Alex is provoking the house owner’s wife with a large white penis. Kubrick utilizes a tracking style that dramatizes their encounter. He repeatedly hits the giant white penis, causing it rocks up and down, which causes her to grow increasingly more angry, eventually prompting her to attack. Once she takes the first step, the camera begins following them around in a dance of a fight. The camera circles them wildly, creating more hype in the scene. The rapid movements create a much more exciting/entertaining view, as opposed to a still image of two people fighting. This style creates power within scenes, by providing an intimate perspective of our characters. In The Shining, one example of this tracking style is seen when Danny is running through the maze with Jack following close behind. The camera bounces as if we were the one’s running from the crazy possessed Jack. This style puts us in the shoes of the character (in this case, Danny), and increases the feelings of excitement and fear.

Kubrick began his film career as a photographer, which has provided him a unique ability to depict moods and ideas through the use of camera style (Nolan, 185). The lighting, colors, costumes, facial expressions are directed at creating a message, but it is the stylized camera movement that ties it all together. The lead characters’ incredible acting performances and creepy facial expressions add great strength to the effect of various scenes. Kubrick purposefully implements face shots of our crazy leads during climactic scenes. The demonic facial expressions, such as seen when Jack is staring out the window with his head tilted down and mouth open, or when he is breaking down the door with the ax. Images like this are still celebrated and discussed today, and retain their potency. Kubrick’s ability to evoke various emotions through his control over visual style is what makes him a recognizable Auteur.

Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange all rely on visual effects and music to heighten anticipation and add an element of thrill to various scenes. Bright/ vivid colors catch the eye and grasp the viewer’s attention. The horrifyingly suspenseful music creates intrigue and drives suspense. Unique camera movements, like slow tracking, or dramatic face shots compel watchers to feel what they’re seeing. The shakiness is typically used in point of view shots to allow us to experience the perspective of the character, bringing a new level of fear to each scene. In James Naremore’s article titled “Stanley Kubrick and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque”, he discusses how Kubrick’s “grotesque” violence is easily depicted through use of shaky camera movements. “Set over against this technique is his repeated use of handheld shots, often positioned at bizarre angles, which usually depict violent combat. The radical shifts between geometrical tracking and skittish, handheld movements are in some ways echoed in the performances of his actors, who depart from cinematic naturalism” (Naremore, 13).

This topic is relevant because the grotesqueness of the violence portrayed in these films has undoubtedly had/ continues to have a major impact on viewers and filmmakers alike. These movies are still discussed today because they helped establish a new genre of films… those that reflect a dystopian outlook on the future. I believe the intention of his films was to not only to get people talking about dark/serious issues, but to scare them from ending up like any of his characters. The intense emotions that these three films evoke are undeniable. They are made to shock, and conjure emotions/discussions about other twisted, dystopian perspectives on life. James Naremore accurately poses that “this is the world Kubrick repeatedly tried to represent. If some people regard him as cold, it may be because he seldom allows us the comfort of secure responses. The emotions he elicits are primal but mixed; the fear is charged with humor and the laughter is both liberating and defensive” (Naremore, 10).

In a public discussion about Kubrick, cinema blogger Jon Ferreira suggests that Kubrick “felt this kind of violence was necessary to purge the violence of his viewers, and to deter any future violence.” He continues to say that “Kubrick never glorified violence, but portrayed it either realistically and grotesquely or absurdly and farcically.. He suspected no one left his films wanting to commit more violence” (Ferreira). He implements a dystopian worldview in which main characters are led to mental destruction. His movies play on the notion that evil that is inherent in everyone, just waiting to be released. Subsequently, the horrific drama, accentuated by the colors, music, and camerawork, promotes an abandoning of violence. Rather than promoting a “monkey see, monkey do” attitude, Kubrick’s films leave viewers terrified/disgusted. This is an effective call for peace, through which viewers are left with a better taste toward violence.

Works Cited
“A Clockwork Orange Interview (Malcolm McDowell: The IMDb Original Interview).” IMDb. 23 Apr. 2013. Web. .
Deloughly, Wendy. “Stanley Kubrick: A Director’s Impact Through Music.” Student Film Reviews. N.p., 6 Aug. 2015. Web. .
Ferreira, Jon. “How Did Stanley Kubrick View Violence.” Quora, 11 Apr. 2015. Web. .
Gengaro, Christine. “Listening to Stanley Kubrick: The Music in his Films.” 71.01 (2014): 80-93. Project Muse. Web.
Manglass, Chris. “Perspective in Full Metal Jacket.” Set and Setting. 16 Oct. 2014. Web. .
Naremore, James. “Stanley Kubrick and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque.” Film Quarterly 60.1 (2006): 4-14. JSTOR. Web.
Nolan, Amy. “Seeing Is Digesting: Labyrinths of Historical Ruin in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.” Cultural Critique 77.1 (2011): 180-204. JSTOR. Web.
Scorzo, Greg. “Re-interpreting Alex’s Violence in A Clockwork Orange.” CULTURE ON THE OFFENSIVE. N.p., 20 June 2017. Web. .


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