Stanley Kubrick’s Power Junkies

The other night I was watching a chunk of Paths of Glory and savoring the performance by the guy on the left here.

His name is Richard Anderson—yes, he’s with us still—and he was in a lot of schlocky TV shows in the ’60s and ’70s. He never impressed me then but in Paths he held his own amidst a host of big-name stars, and showed what he could do as Major Saint-Auban, aide to the almost metaphysically evil General Mireau. In his scenes with the general he’s in a state of perpetual alert, like a pointer hound on a hunting trip, and when Mireau explodes into a tirade because the regiment hasn’t left the trenches, Saint-Auban simply trains his snout on his master and holds that pose, knowing the right answer is to simply agree with anything the general says, even if it’s an order to shell their own troops.

Leeches like Saint-Auban—the sycophant who enables soulless bureaucracies to flourish—are peppered throughout Stanley Kubrick’s movies. Paths of Glory is infested with these termites—Lieutenant Roget and General Mireau himself belong to their ranks—and the military is such a natural magnet for them that Kubrick would return to that milieu through the rest of his career. But they exist everywhere, and they’re also reflected (or parodied) in the repulsive social worker, prison guard and hospital staff of A Clockwork Orange, the gangsters kowtowing to their ringleader in The Killing, and Clare Quilty’s impersonations of a cop and a school psychologist in Lolita. Thanks to his obsession with food-chains and pecking orders, picking out the biggest prick in Kubrick’s pictures would make a good day’s work for anybody. Any short list, though, really ought to include the government’s point-man on the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just look at this smug bastard.

Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (played to a turn by William Sylvester) is dripping with a sense of entitlement from the second he steps onto the space-station. He absently talks down to a helpful receptionist without ever seeing her; he calls his daughter back on Earth so he can rush through a list of bullet-points, one of which is her birthday; he coldly stiff-arms some Russian scientists who are concerned about (gulp) a lunar epidemic; and he quashes his staff’s discontent by telling everyone to keep their pie-holes shut if they know what’s good for them. He can’t even do a voice ID check without giving the machine a condescending smile.

Dr. Floyd needs a scant few minutes for all of these breaches in civility, but it’s during the moon-bus flight that we see what a putz he really is. Along with a pair of gray-souled subordinates he engages in some frosty bonhomie that’s the verbal equivalent of white noise.

Floyd Minion #1 (opening a cooler of synthetic sandwiches): Anybody hungry?
Dr. Floyd: Great. What do we got?
FM #1: You name it.
Dr. Floyd: What is that—chicken?
FM #1: Something like that. Tastes the same anyway.
The men chuckle.
FM #2: You know, that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
FM #1: It certainly was.
FM #2: I’m sure it beefed up morale a hell of a lot.
Dr. Floyd: Thanks, Ralph. By the way, I want to say to both of you I think you’ve done a wonderful job. I appreciate the way you’ve handled this thing.
FM #2: Oh, the way we look at it, it’s our job to do this thing the way you want it done. We’re only too happy to be able to oblige.

On paper this reads like nothing at all; one must hear the faintly snotty inflections, deadpan deliveries, and lifeless chuckles to appreciate the exchange.  The ending of it recalls the moment in Paths of Glory when General Mireau offers Saint-Auban a shot from his flask and the canny major insists that the general take the first drink, causing a thin smile to crease Mireau’s face; here, too, a subordinate being thrown a bone immediately turns it into a boomerang flying back to his master. The rules of the game aren’t merely adhered to in Kubrick’s world. They’re enjoyed.

And a moment later there is this exchange:

Dr. Floyd: I don’t suppose you have any idea what the damn thing is.
FM #2: I wish to hell we did.

The casual condescension in Floyd’s voice, the forced nursery-room profanities, and the hollow collegial laugh that follows them—these are not the sort of things that Kubrick is noted for. He’s normally remembered for grand set-pieces and camera-moves that cry out for attention, but these moments of overgrown boys jockeying for position employ a quieter action that goes on just beneath the surface of our gaze. The constant in all of them is the way they sound, a kind of sub-bureaucratic murmur delivered with only a shadow of human personality. Everybody is oh so nice on the surface, but in truth they’re all busy repressing, repressing, repressing. Listen closely and you can hear the throb of blood under each exchange; it’s no surprise when these people sometimes react like the apes of 2001 and panic over a noise in the night.

In the (increasingly rare) examinations of machismo and power-worship in our cinema, we’re more used to seeing the gristly, often lethal likes of criminals or renegade spies, but Kubrick understood the dangers posed by the Saint-Aubans and Dr. Floyds—the bland, un-extraordinary men who we must deal with every day. The Shining opens with a long job interview in which a rageaholic puts on his best face for an overworked hotel manager and his eagle-eyed security chief, and for perhaps ten minutes the three men sit and exchange banalities while looking like they want to tear each other’s throats out. The next time you’re on an elevator with two coworkers talking over a deadline, just listen to the sound of it and see if it doesn’t ring a bell.

2 Responses to “Stanley Kubrick’s Power Junkies”

  1. DAK Says:

    Wow, this is fascinating stuff. For me, the power games you are talking about in Kubrick are no different than McConnell and Boehner against Reid and Pelosi. Power, who wins, who loses, and to hell with the big picture. My bone is bigger than your bone.

  2. Tom Block Says:

    Thanks, DAK–it’s good to hear someone else is interested in this side of him.

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