Three very different masters of their craft, three unique mediums, one connecting concept that illuminates what makes their work timeless and yet somehow outside our reach at the same time
Like William Shakespeare, Stanley Kubrick can be something of an acquired taste. People are vaguely aware of the reputed genius, but prefer to appreciate it from afar, perhaps using words like “weird” or “slow” to describe masterworks like Hamlet or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Unlike another, different kind of genius, Bruce Springsteen, Shakespeare and Kubrick place significant demands on the audience. Music can be enjoyed passively, letting the sound and the rhythm wash over you. A great play or movie, however, needs to be engaged, both while you’re watching and after you’ve watched, to truly appreciate it.
In other words, you have to think.
Still, truly great works of art draw from immortal concepts, and that doesn’t mean diverse artists can’t use some of the same techniques. All three of these artists, each in their own ways, leave a lot unsaid in their work. It’s in this negative space, when something is implied, but not quite stated where your imagination takes over and their unique brilliance takes shape.
Take my favorite chorus from Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Letter to You. The song is If I Were a Priest:
If Jesus was a sheriff and I were a priest
If my lady was an heiress and my Mama was a thief
And Papa rode shotgun on the Fargo line
There’s still too many outlaws trying to work the same line
Here, Springsteen is really saying the opposite of what he’s actually saying. Of course, Jesus wasn’t a sheriff. Therefore, the speaker isn’t a priest and his girlfriend is no heiress. Neither was his mother a thief nor did his father ever ride shotgun.
Because of this negation we can imagine what these characters actually are. If his lady isn’t an heiress, does that imply she was poor? If the speaker is no priest, is he a criminal? Springsteen then goes one step further: Even if these things were true, there’d still be too many outlaws. The characters are doomed in both real life and in the fantasy.
Shakespeare often depicted characters that were doomed, either by their own hand or outside forces. Frequently, it was difficult to determine the true cause. For example, why did Macbeth kill Duncan, setting the whole tragedy in motion and directly leading to his downfall?
The play itself doesn’t say for sure. There’s a prophecy, he’s prodded by his wife, he always coveted the throne for himself. Instead, it’s all of those things, or maybe none of them:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
Ultimately, Macbeth, while admitting he may be hallucinating and not in his right mind, does the dreadful deed without providing a reason. Then again, the audience is left to wonder: Would any reason matter? People in real life certainly murder for less than the throne of Scotland. Any excuse Macbeth might give would be suspect to his own self-rationalization.
Likewise, in Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick offers no real explanation why Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford and Nicole Kidman’s Alice Harford are intent on using their jealousy to hurt one another. They’re beautiful, rich, with a lovely daughter, seemingly happy in all ways on the surface – much like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, both respected nobles before the murder – and yet Shakespeare’s green-eyed monster lurks right beneath.
Their journey into darkness begins when Alice asks Bill why he’s never been jealous of her. Bill replies that he doesn’t think she’s the type, and something sets her off. They’re both high at the time, leading the audience to question whether the fight would have occurred had they been sober.
What was the fight even about, really?
Bill gets jealous that Alice had the hots for some guy she never met a year ago, but that apparently is enough to make him seek sexual release outside the marriage. Certainly, people have fought and cheated over less. Yet, you can’t quite pinpoint a specific reason this ostensibly happy couple would unleash their inner demons on each other, threatening a stable and loving relationship in the process.
If they can’t make it, can any couple?
Ultimately, it’s enough to make you wonder if the marriage was truly stable and loving. Are there other skeletons in the closet left offscreen? Kubrick doesn’t say, he just leaves enough for a possible hint that maybe we aren’t seeing the whole story.
Shakespeare also leaves it impossible to determine why Hamlet refuses to avenge the death of his father at the hands of his uncle, Claudius. Critics have posited every reason from his relative youth to his potential Christian faith.
Does it really matter?
People procrastinate, moving from one excuse to another for why they fail to act.
Hamlet also wears a lot of masks, trying on madness, playwriting, friendship, lost lover, spurned son, friend, student, and more throughout the course of the play. He puts on these faces and takes them off without explanation.
Is he truly mad after all?
One of Springsteen’s characters on the Tunnel of Love album, only has Two Faces, and yet he cannot reconcile them:
One that laughs one that cries
One says hello one says goodbye
One does things I don’t understand
Makes me feel like half a man
Like Hamlet, he speaks of these different sides of his personality as if they were somehow distinct from himself. Ultimately, the best he can come up with is to agree to fight it out amongst himself, declaring “well go ahead and let him try” to take his love away.
Logically, none of this makes any sense, and, yet, emotionally we’ve all been there, battling demons that come from places inside we can’t really control. In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick ponders whether a demon can be placed inside of you, against your will.
Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence is an overweight and dim-witted new recruit. Early in the film, he shows no propensity for violence, but constant abuse from his drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, unleashes something in him and he ultimately kills his instructor and himself.
Interestingly, Kubrick presents this first half of the film almost like a documentary. We know next to nothing about Pyle or the other recruits, either before or during their training before heading to the Vietnam War. Instead, we see primarily how they are trained and treated, yet the visuals are enough for Pyle’s transition to a suicidal killer to make narrative sense.
It’s only after you accept the events on screen that you start to wonder: Did Pyle’s slow wit make him incapable of coping with the training? Was he abused before he arrived? Would he have become a killer if there was no Vietnam War? What about the other recruits that actually went to the war?
In Othello, Shakespeare introduces us to the arch-villain, Iago, who ultimately destroys everyone around him and then refuses to speak about it. Iago is one of the few characters in Shakespeare’s plays that is presented as almost universally evil, incapable of feeling anything for this fellow man, and yet even then he chooses to present two pieces of motivation.
Iago himself claims:
I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if ’t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.
Additionally, he was passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio and wasn’t enough of a part of Othello’s inner circle for this liking. At the same time, no one really believes these tidbits are enough to justify the monstrosity of Iago’s revenge. Instead, it’s generally assumed that something in him is evil — for lack of a better word — from the start.
Springsteen considers the idea that some people are simply born bad as well. In the poignant Highway Patrolman, he opens with:
My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville, barracks number 8
I always done an honest job, as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky, and Franky ain’t no good
Unfortunately, sometimes you have to live with these people as family. The speaker knows what his brother is, but he also believes a “Man turns his back on his family, he just ain’t no good.” Treating Franky like he would anyone else, would somehow turn him into Franky.
Joe Roberts ultimately compromises his own moral compass by letting Franky flee to Canada after commiting a murder.
In Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, it’s not clear that the main character, Redmond Barry, has a conscience, but even he can be pulled by the strings of his homeland. Though Redmond, played by Ryan O’Neal, has found favor and friends with the Austrian government, and is being treated far better than he was in either Ireland or England, he immediately betrays them merely at the sight of an Irishman and the sound of his voice.
The betrayal is abrupt and complete. Redmond sees the Chevalier, played by Patrick Magee, and the “splendor of his appearance” causes him to switch sides, permanently. The decision practically comes out of nowhere, and the only motivation given is that Redmond and the Chevalier share the same homeland.
It’s simultaneously enough and yet not enough: It’s also apparent that Redmond prefers the Chevalier’s grifting lifestyle, likely more than the rigors of working for the Austrian police state. Though the film continues for over another hour, Kubrick never revisits the decision, nor does Redmond ever show any regret over it.
Like the other pivotal decisions and character traits we’ve discussed, does it matter?
Perhaps a more apt question: How do these things left unsaid, forever in the negative space, improve the quality of the work?
First, I would argue it makes the story more organic. While real life is no excuse for bad drama, people certainly do things for a variety of different reasons, and many times their stated reason isn’t the primary motivation. Either they are lying or self-rationalizing.
Second, the use of negative space creates the impression that truly understanding the work is always slightly outside your reach. You can see the shape of it under the surface, but when you put your hand in to pull out the “meaning,” it’s always just a little too far away to truly grasp. You can get quite close, but something always slips away.
Ironically, isn’t that a bit like real life after all?