Thursday, December 8, 2016

Kubrick and Work or Fear

Strange. I was walking down the sidewalk past dead leaves when I realized… I despise Stanley Kubrick. Not because of anything in his outside life—he didn’t, say, act like European director Roman Polansky and have a sexual relationship with a Lolita. No, the highly respected British director, famed for such movies as Lolita and 2001: A Space Odyssey had a blameless life (I presume) beyond his movie business.

Within “the business” Kubrick was well respected for his technical skills. He said any good movie was worth seeing twice. His works are excellent, studied at film school. In fact, when I took a night class with film majors at S.A.I.T. (Southern Alberta School of Technology) although we seldom had time to watch a movie during class from beginning to end, we took the time for Kubrick’s film noir, The Killers.

 I’m like Kubrick: I craft my blog essays to be worth a second read. My essays go here, on my blog. As for my harsh judgment of Kubrick, my path to explaining him must go through explaining my blog.

As you know, every blog site has a profile: On mine, under “interests,” I have put “meetings.” An unusual choice of hobby, to be sure: Am I am fascinated, then, with learning the intricacies of Parliamentary Procedure in Kubrick’s London, or Robert’s Rules of Order here in North America? No, not especially.

What truly fascinates me is how a group working on a problem, just like an individual, is in the grip of two powerful opposing forces. These vectors, like two force arrows in physics, are always present for every working group, whether on the moon in 2001 or on earth in the 1950’s. Opposing a group’s desire to work is their desire to escape the task—not from laziness, but from something which even big executives don’t like to admit: fear.

Business suits in Hollywood, with their mega budgets, seem especially prone to fear: Folks say Joss Whedon’s starship Firefly would still be flying if only timid Hollywood committees, out of fear, hadn’t made extremely misleading TV previews, scrapped Whedon’s two-hour pilot and shuffled his intended story order. “What a crock!” wrote film critic Roger Ebert.

The suits at Fox studios probably wouldn’t admit to their fear. They probably told themselves they were merely being cautious and businesslike, even as they overruled a winner with a proven track record for TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Joss went on to set a summer movie box office record for writing and directing Marvel’s The Avengers, but I wager he’ll never work for Fox again.

I'm  fascinated by how, in our work meetings, if we aren’t conscious of our fears then we won’t be conscious of how we have so many ways to escape working on our task, such as (groan) compulsively making lists on a board. Sometimes we are conscious, as when legislators say “let’s postpone the work, for now, while others do some further study.” More often, a working committee gets derailed by, for example, things said on impulse, or by sudden jokes. It’s as if the group “allows” such things as part of their need to escape the task. 

Only during my dad’s lifetime were experts discovering that groups are comparable to families from a social work textbook, with their unconscious roles and dynamic currents. I learned this in my college career program. While all of us tried to be critical, one person in our group, our teacher explained to us, would be filling the role of “group central critic.” We easily agreed it was Charmaine Trofel.

Then the teacher asked us, “Who is the “group central comedian?”” All these arms pointed in my direction! I felt warmly surprised: All the time I had been looking out for the class, I hadn’t thought anybody had noticed. Our teacher impressed upon us: The thing to be avoided is being the “group central clown” who merely helps the group to escape from dealing with the task before them.

A good example of being the group comedian, not clown, comes from the meeting when the first American revolutionaries were screwing up their courage to sign a piece of paper to rally their fellow colonists to rebel. Would they become known as founding fathers or as dirty traitors? The positive force arrow would have been, “a band of brothers doing the right thing.” The opposing force was fear that if the rebellion failed then the penalty for treason was “to be hung from the neck until dead, dead, dead.” Naturally they hesitated. Then old Benjamin Franklin joked, “We must hang together, or we will all hang separately.” Everyone laughed, relaxed, and gathered around to sign their names to the Declaration of Independence.

My innocent childhood, long after democracy was conceived on our continent, was not without fear. I remember an animated television public health announcement: A cartoon man stood in a business suit while a cartoon doctor explained he could see only a mushroom cloud, (one showing in each eye) hear only an atomic blast (steam from his ears)… We got on with our lives, of course, but as we did so, as we were all pushed down dread, guilt and despair, we knew there was a task we were escaping—even if we saw no point in admitting it, no, not even to ourselves.

But, but, but—there must be a solution! Mustn’t there? I mean, aren’t we a people of can-do spirit? And so we had writers of short stories trying desperately to brainstorm a solution: Not the solution, of course, only a desperate effort to keep us firmly on the track of firmly trying to think. The TV equivalent might be the Star Trek episode A Taste of Armageddon, where the good people avoided atomic oblivion by walking into disintegration chambers. Remember? A crazy idea, yes, but our new time of clicking Geiger counters had made us all a tad crazy. The important thing was not to give up. I remember a summer rock concert in Victoria where everyone drove away with car radios cranked up playing Armageddon by Prism. (The very long FM version) If the older generation had given up and quit, then maybe we young people could still find a solution. Needless to say, we had as much chance of connecting to a solution as a blindfolded man punching in the dark—But we had to try!

Actually, the older generation did have something to offer. As a university student newspaper reporter in the 1980’s I interviewed a strange new breed of Conscientious Objectors, none of them students. They reasoned that since the next war would be over so swiftly, there wouldn’t be time to object by refusing to fight, so they had to object to atom bombs now. Their solution, believing not in arms but in nuclear disarmament, was to withhold the proportion of their income tax that would go to what we used to call the Department of War, now called the Department of National Defense. I don’t know what ever became of them…

One idea we failed to implement was for the federal government to take one dollar, or even one penny, for every hundred dollars it spent on munitions, or even just one penny for every thousand dollars, and then spend it on researching peace. The results might have helped us, not just back then but even today, as the Wall has tumbled in a rubble of peace rocks and yet, despite our big conventional armies, small brush wars are flaring. Did any political scientist know the outbreak of peace would cause wars?

Today everybody knows that Islam here in North America means peace. But according to the newspapers, Islam also means hatred. We all know hatred can lead a believer to shoot up an Orlando gay nightclub. Can hatred lead an entire nation to sabotage peace? I don’t know. Do we have an aggression gene that, willy-nilly, forces us to periodically be aggressive? I don’t know. If we couldn’t afford to set aside pennies to find out, then why not? From capitalist greed? Or from fear of what we might discover? I just don’t know.

An artist, Sting, sang: “What can I do to save my boy, from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy? ... What might save us, me and you, is if the Russians love their children too.” Easy to say, “Ban the Bomb.” In the real world, probably the most non-artistic solution, an imperfectly practical one, would have been gradual mutual disarmament, but we all knew saving our planet from nuclear winter wouldn’t be easy.

Back during my favorite decade, the 1950’s, it was especially important for every man to face the central fact of the Bomb, rather than “just turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see” (Bob Dylan) Peace would take a national effort, while maybe a strong president might help to lead the way. Easier, though, for us all to just escape into giving up. This while every passing year meant the safeguards might fail against starting an atomic war, either by an individual or by accident.

Human nature is hard to beat. In classic folklore, such as King Arthur, “a war starting by accident” scene was where two sides have been lined up for battle, holding still, at last getting ready to depart in peace, with no deaths today —but then one lone soldier pulls out his flashing sword to kill a scorpion…

Some Hollywood moviemakers decided to do their part to avoid Judgment Day, by making a movie called Failsafe. (From the book by the same guys who wrote The Ugly American) Their movie was not scored: Partly, I guess, to be realistic, and partly to help viewers feel without music to screen their feelings. Although color movies had become normal, the makers artistically chose to film in black and white. Most artistic of all, and most risky, they subverted the Hollywood audience expectation that big mainstream movies must have happy endings. Henry Fonda played a strong president who, instead of saying atomic bombs were a central fact, as immovable as mountains, stood tall to say something like, “Men put them there, and men can take them down.”.

But there was a problem among the movie-going public, a big, big problem:

Stanley Kubrick became aware that his movie, a clownish one subtitled How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb, would ready for distribution late within the same year as Failsafe. I have read that Kubrick insisted the studios release his movie first. In January. Why? Why must Doctor Strangelove be first? How in the name of sanity could Kubrick not know the public would jump like lemmings at their chance to escape? Surely after laughing hard at Doctor Strangelove no one would want to sober up and be reminded of the long, slow, anxious, concerted effort required to begin becoming engaged in mutual disarmament. No one. This would have been foreseen by any film artist interested in human nature. (Also, I despise how Kubrick drastically lowered the box office take for Failsafe)

As I see it, for the “group” known as the “body politic,” Kubrick was no Benjamin Franklin. Not helping us face our work, but only helping us to escape it. Not comedian but clown. It was no thanks to Kubrick that, in the end, we did manage to avoid a nuclear winter—only by a miracle! Only because the worker’s paradise went broke. It wasn’t inevitable. Disarmament? Today the North Koreans are desperately poor while still holding on to their communism, and their Bombs—but at least their Bombs don’t have an intercontinental capacity. Not yet. Mainland China, too, remains steadfastly communist. With Bombs, and with a manned space program.

If we avoided war, without atomic disarmament, then maybe we had more luck than we deserved.

As for Kubrick, I despise the man.

Sean Crawford
Near a disarmed empty army base
Winter, 2016

~One of my favorite “mothers for peace” was Sarah Connor. I wrote about her in Sarah, Terminators and Feminists, archived July 2011.

~As for human failure being the same today as in King Arthur’s time, I remember a novel, condensed by Reader’s Digest, where a NATO submarine captain tries to launch the Bomb. Another story of men under submarine pressure was the novel and movie The Bedford Incident.

~Although I deleted reference to how, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we lived with a death warrant hanging over us, with air raid sirens, during testing, sounding like banshees, here is a clip—be warned, it’s so sad—where Buffy, having just one second ago “heard her banshee wail,” is shocked and crying, unable to be noble, in front of the two most important men in her life. (Posted by a fan onto Youtube)

…Here’s the link to the black and white music video Russians by Sting. He was a writer as well as a singer; he wrote the music himself except for the heavy Russian notes.

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