How one should turn to stone. – Slowly slowly become hard like a precious stone – and finally lie there still and silent, to the joy of all eternity.


Apart from a few early documentaries, Stanley Kubrick made only a dozen films in his 45-year career. Like Jacques Tati, for whom the term film auteur was pretty much invented, Kubrick controlled all aspects of the production process of his films, including script, direction, production, casting, editing, light, sound, music and even distribution. But unlike Tati, who worked in only one genre, Kubrick’s body of work covers nearly all the major movie genres. His first feature was an adventure film that he later denounced (Fear and Desire, 1953); he continued with film noir (Killer’s Kiss, 1955, The Killing, 1956); a war movie (Paths of Glory, 1957); a history piece (Spartacus, 1960); a road movie (Lolita, 1962); a comedy (Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worring and Love the Bomb, 1964); science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968); a modern morality play (A Clockwork Orange, 1971); a period piece (Barry Lyndon, 1975); a horror film (The Shining, 1980) and a Vietnam film (Full Metal Jacket, 1987). His last work, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) blends psychological drama with his intention to create a porn flick under studio conditions.

Kubrick financed his first, Fear and Desire with earnings he made playing chess in Greenwich Village. Chess remained a favourite pastime to him, and various aspects of the game are featured in his films. In fact, it determines the narrative mode. Kubrick looks at the world with a chess player’s perspective—from a distance, scaled, as though his stories are told by some kind of demiurge who monitors and remotely controls the characters as representations of his soul. Take the panoramic battlefields of Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and Barry Lyndon: they are seen through the eyes of a strategist who looks down upon his men as their creator. Or, the hotel in The Shining, called the Overlook Hotel.


There is, however, a reverse variant of this setup, which happens when the camera descends and joins the actors. The space that fitted between the demiurge’s thumb and forefinger now seems overwhelmingly big. Rooms become halls as intimidating as churches, cathedrals or palaces. Interiors take on a magical, mystical character. They are not open spaces that can forever be expanded in the way of texts; rather, they are hermetic, inaccessible enclosures, e.g., the mother ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the hotel in The Shining, the sniper’s hideout in Full Metal Jacket, the lodge’s mansion in Eyes Wide Shut. They are the Holy of Holies, the Creator’s distilling flasks in which his alchemistic manipulations play out as dramatic events.

Using a secret language to avoid persecution, alchemists referred to their distilling flasks or retorts with words like “prison”, “grave”, “room” or “bath”. In The Shining, the big party hall is named The Gold Room, referring to the shining metal that is the outcome of the purification process, and the start of eternity. The end-phase that follows the death of old matter – or perhaps opening phase is a better word – is called “putrefaction”, or decay, represented in alchemy by a bath or bathroom. Starting with the famous “oysters and snails”scene in Spartacus, all Kubrick’s films feature a bathroom. In Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, a character takes his own life; in The Shining, a young, naked woman in a bathtub transforms into an old, dead woman already decaying. The phrase “a world of shit” is used frequently throughout Full Metal Jacket.

Gold and dung, then, are at either end of the alchemistic trajectory. Unlike the eschatological projection of the ancient Greeks, alchemy does not project an idealization of life in cool marble (apotheosis), turning matter into an unchanging and eternal modality. In alchemy, matter is never stable; form and quality change constantly, not due to natural progression governed by time as an autonomous, independent variable, but as a result of human activity. The outcome is not a dead, cold stone as a metaphor for fossilized life, but, rather, a philosopher’s stone that is the seed of life. Alchemy, then, is the brave attempt to force nature to abide by human rules and conduct, and to establish heaven on earth, rather than be held captive by nature’s indifferent course.

What role is left to mankind in a world that is dominated by technology? Irrespective of the chess player’s or the pawn’s perspective, man comes out small and insignificant in Kubrick’s films—but no less heroic. Kubrick holds the idea of human dignity, which was developed during the Enlightenment era of Barry Lyndon’s eighteenth century, in high regard. Since then, however, the world has increasingly become a reflection of Kubrick’s own chess player’s mind, i.e., rational, logical, technical, and scientific. Kubrick values human qualities that escape that order. Conflicts and drama in his films invariably arise from the relation between technology’s impassiveness and human consciousness; between disciplining instructions and creativity.

Kubrick’s characters may find themselves torn between these conflicting powers. They may be forced (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket) or they may pursue a dream (The Killing, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut); they may be possessed (Lolita, The Shining)or programmed (Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange). But at the basis lies the general assumption that when technology advances beyond a certain point, the world may shed human supervision altogether (cf. the Overlook Hotel), and act of its own accord. Technology will have reached such a level of reliability that human control should no longer be required; the only thing left for us to do at that point will be to obey.

Kubrick turns this proposition around. Instead of humans becoming technical, he believes technology should take on human qualities. It should not devote itself to tasks that find their sole legitimacy in a successful execution, but, rather, it should relate experience to ‘fear and desire’, and gain moral consciousness through an awareness of those affects. That is the ethical dimension that drives Kubrick’s body of work. It points the way to alchemy as a mythological metaphor for his project, the structure and symbolism of which strongly affect the narrative and appearance of his films.

Alchemy marks a period and a belief that had yet to conceive of man and technology as separate systems; alchemy instead regarded technology as a means to continue and extend life beyond the limitations that nature imposes on the body. To achieve that, it had to overcome and outwit nature’s program of cycles of birth and death. Technical means would have made possible eternal human life. Indeed, the very concept of life would have to be redefined. The accomplishment of this goal would reveal the divine nature of man, and end the paranoia that our life is controlled from some terminal – be it a magic chessboard or a tricky and unstable configuration of balls on a billiard table (Eyes Wide Shut). Technology, then, is not conceived of as software, but as a means to intervene in software, i.e. nature, and to bring the divine in matter to the surface (sublimation).

In his laboratory, the artifex assembled the metals that compose the universe and enclosed them in his distilling flask or retort. With sulfur and mercury, he disposed of the prima materia that he required for the preparation of the Philosopher’s Stone. With that agent he could attempt to purify base metals into gold, or “full metal”. The object of that transmutation was to establish Heaven on Earth (depicted as the birth of the Star Child toward the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey). But to a true adept, the subsequent phases of the process in the retort were regarded as reflections of his own spiritual stages. In the same vein, alchemy’s contributions to science’s advancement were thought to run in parallel with the spiritual development of mankind as a whole.

In his 1961 collection of autobiographical essays, Voer voor psychologen (“Food for Psychologists”), Dutch author Harry Mulisch writes that the twentieth century marks the end of a perceived concurrent development of the spirit of mankind and the advancement of technology. ‘Should this “spiritual development” not have swerved from the technical one’, he writes, ‘the world would not have arrived at these results [the atomic bomb and other scientific wonders] before the year one million. Science had never become “exact”, and a principal rule that applies to non-exact philosophy (as well as to literature) would still have applied to science—one can only discover and do things that one is (or is-not). Left to its own devices, however, technological advancement was able to take a huge shortcut (…) And so—how is man going to take the same shortcut, and catch up with technology so that it may become it, be it (or, not-be-it)? The answer was given in Hiroshima.’

Kubrick’s response to that conclusion would likely have been that Mulisch presents things in reverse order; we may have to wait until the year one million before technology is worthy to be called ethical. To Mulisch, mankind is lagging behind technology, not the reverse; he regards technology as a model for mankind but believes that our spirit is simply not up to it yet. Undoubtedly, his pessimism was instigated by the figure of Adolf Eichmann. In his book on the Eichmann trial, De zaak 40/61 (“Case 40/61”), Mulisch describes the organizer of the Holocaust as an obedient slave, an unresisting machine that responds as it must because it is programmed that way. Eichmann was a mechanical human, a living dead who ‘created the machine in his own image’, as Mulisch says. His ethics are based on tautology and refuse legitimacy by a third agency: Befehl ist Befehl, Jew is Jew. And Eichmann was not on his own, and still isn’t—our society is to a great degree built on his example.

Kubrick does not close his eyes to the risks posed by machine men; he seems at first in fact to have followed Mulisch’s train of thought. In his early film, The Killing, a seemingly waterproof plan to rob the racetrack bookmaker’s office fails when one of Johnny Clay’s (Sterling Hayden) confederates cannot withstand human-all-too-human desires. A year later, however, in Paths of Glory, Kubrick points out the madness of an institution like World War I that claimed so many people’s lives. In Dr. Strangelove, the versatile Peter Sellers depicts machine men in various aspects, from a weak president in a situation beyond his control to the grotesque schizophrenia of the strange-loving doctor, who is unable to control his arm and prevent it from enacting the Nazi salute.

In Kubrick’s ensuing body of work, he repeatedly poses the question of to what extent people are able to maintain themselves in a world that increasingly answers to its innate technological nature. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the board computer, HAL 9000, goes haywire in response to a software error, and attempts to wipe-out all human life aboard the spaceship. In A Clockwork Orange, idealists attempt to program Alex’s impulses as part of the preconception that society can be reformed from top to bottom. In Full Metal Jacket, soldiers are trained to become killing machines. It would take until A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), an unfinished project that Steven Spielberg completed after Kubrick’s death, that he would arrive at a depiction of a machine man that draws near to the ideal of a human technology. In that film, a robot-shaped boy is programmed to love his adoptive mother. Kubrick used the working title of Pinocchio for this project.


From 2001: A Space Odyssey and onward, the outlines of Kubrick’s alchemistic project become increasingly clear, particularly in the orientation of the narrative mode in his films. The chess player’s point of view predetermines his stories and characters to behave like pieces on the board, according to defined features, in fixed relations to each other, and within a defined playing field. They have limited room to manoeuvre, and their roles become stereotypical in the same way that the commedia dell’ arte is structured; repetitive patterns occur with recurring motives and themes.

Alchemy adds an ideological superstructure to Kubrick’s base structure. Together they form a dramatized version of the consecutive phases in the transmutation process that takes place in the adept’s vial. In the same vein, alchemy may be used as a critical tool for the structural analysis of other works as well, including novels and poetry.

There is a common structure to Kubrick’s films. In a world that operates according to logic and reason, his characters are lured into submitting to a system that functions on its own terms. Problems arise when, along with their transformation of man into computer, they surrender their autonomy. The system then expels them to a directionless space where input equals output, and total devastation and entropy can only be prevented when they fall back on the profoundly human ability to intervene in automated processes.

The theme of expulsion or ejection is clearly apparent in most of Kubrick’s films. Examples include the astronaut, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) from 2001: A Space Odyssey when he is shut out by HAL; Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) from Eyes Wide Shut who is exposed as an intruder by the secret lodge; Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) who is suddenly shunned by his former friends, and fatty Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) from Full Metal Jacket who is expelled by his buddies. The latter event is mirrored in the second half of the movie by Pyle’s counterpart, the North Vietnamese female sniper, who alone takes it upon herself to drive the Americans out of her country.


The space to which these exiles are relegated is conceived of and represented as a labyrinth. Its appearance signals their inability to act according to their own parameters. They no longer have control over themselves, they have no compass to guide themselves, and literally lose track. Their environment becomes a maze where they follow “paths of glory”. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, a horizontal tread is turned 180 degrees; the space travellers keep in shape by running through aisles that have no beginning or end. When in the final part of the film, the astronaut breaks through the barriers of time and space, he and his spaceship are both in the past and the future, both in space and on earth. One could almost say that his perspective is postmodern; beyond the infinite, he becomes both subject and object, and in his own old age he arrives in a period room from the eighteenth century. His own existence is his last resort and orientation point.

Other wanderers and labyrinths include Barry Lyndon who travels across a strife-torn Europe; Bill Harford (Eyes Wide Shut) on his quest through New York City; the soldiers in Full Metal Jacket who misread their map; and Alex (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange) who must relive his tour when he is taken to the same places that he terrorized previously. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert and his nymph travel through the country while being followed themselves. In The Shining, finally, labyrinths are abundant—in the tapestry’s patterns, in the enormous kitchen, outside in the snow, and also in the hotel itself with its endless halls and rooms, where Danny rides his pedal-car, and a representation of the Minotaur seems to hide in every room.

When Kubrick’s protagonists wander about for too long through these mazes, disorientated and alienated from themselves, they may display a pose that has become known as the “Kubrick stare”. The chin rests on the chest with jaws hanging, and eye pupils turned upward. It is a zombie-like expression that they give off when they are finally devoid of all human traits, fears and desires, and of their sense of good and evil. An immense alienation remains that shimmers through their mouth and eyes. Once in this mode, they are capable of all evil, and the “Kubrick stare” often signals its imminence.



A special form of the machine man is the homunculus, Latin for “little man”. Paracelsus (1493-1541) claimed that he had created one from sperm and horse manure—a creature measuring a finger in length that inhabited all the properties of a grown-up man. In the Middle Ages this figure was projected in mandrakes, the root of the mandragora officinarum plant that often resembles a small, shriveled human figurine. In Dr. Strangelove, Lionel Mandrake, Group Captain (played by Peter Sellers) bears its name. In fairy tales, the creature appears as Tom Thumb; in Jungian psychology it represents the part of the male psyche (animus) that is responsible for the development of logos, the mind (as opposed to the female principle, or anima). Hence, the homunculus, i.e., the “mind within the mind” represents the power of “self realization”, as Carl Jung puts it.  Jung, who based his theories in large part on alchemy, is the only thinker in Kubrick’s work who is mentioned by name. Asked to account for the discrepancy between the motto, “Born to Kill” on his helmet and the peace symbol on his uniform, Joker (Matthew Modine) in Full Metal Jacket refers to ‘the duality of man, the Jungian thing’. This relates to Jung’s distinction between an individual and collective subconsciousness.

For obvious reasons, spiritual growth and self-realization are in children’s hands in Kubrick’s films. The thirteen-year-old Lolita is all sexual power; the robot boy from A.I. aspires to become human. On the other hand, Barry Lyndon’s son is thrown off his horse and dies, breaking his father’s heart, who now has to face Lord Bullingdon, his already matured stepson. In The Shining, Danny (Danny Lloyd) has inner dialogues with “Tony”, a homunculus who resides in his forefinger. Especially toward the end of the film, Danny proves to have been cast from the same special mould as Pinocchio, when he manages to use the Overlook Hotel maze to escape from his father, rather than losing his way. Chased through the snow, he steps back in his own footsteps, making himself invisible to his father who, seemingly stuck between two life stages, has nowhere to go anymore, and remains stuck in the snow, a grotesque statue. His developmental process was not aimed at refinement and improvement, but, rather, at immortalization pure and simple. (‘You have always been the caretaker.’)

The fact that these themes and motives recur in Kubrick’s films would imply that Kubrick tells the same story over and over. One might ask: Wasn’t he done after the first couple? But this is one of the aspects that reveal his kinship with alchemy. The experiment can be repeated again and again, with ever-changing ingredients and under varying conditions. The process itself, the syntagmatic sequence of phases keeps to established patterns, but the materials are paradigmatic. They may transform from solid to liquid and gas, reacting differently to every second substance. Nothing is ever the same in alchemy because the concoction is always in a different state. One might think of it like this: when Humbert Humbert (James Mason) in Lolita runs out into a massive downpour to find Lolita’s mother lying dead on the street after being hit by a car, the brew inside the flask has come to a boil with vapour condensing against the glass and precipitating. In the next shot, we see Humbert relaxing in a bathtub, as though rejuvenating.

Of course, this is a metaphor. It aims to confirm a relationship between a narrative structure that can be understood in alchemistic terms.


So let’s move on, and observe that letters, too, may start dancing. It is a common device, used by alchemistically inclined artists like Harry Mulisch who shares his initials with Hermes Mercurius, and Quentin Tarantino, who misspelled the title of his film, Inglourious Basterds. And Kubrick? In a famous scene in The Shining, Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) discovers that her husband, Jack (Jack Nicholson) has typed the same sentence over and over on hundreds of pages, each page with a different typography. His son, Danny, writes the words “red rum” on the wall, the reverse of murder. Another well-known example is the name of the board computer, HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey that Kubrick found by moving back the letters ‘IBM’ by one position in the alphabet. And, there is the famous code, ‘CRM 114’ from Dr. Strangelove that reappears in A Clockwork Orange as ‘Serum 114’, the medicine that is administered to Alex, while Mandy (Julienne Davis) in Eyes Wide Shut lies in state on the first floor in Room 14 of the C Wing, ‘C-Rm 114’. To this day, the code has not yet been cracked. Finally, would not the Philosopher’s Stone have anything to do with Stanley ‘Livingstone’ Q-Brick?


Look again at Danny’s footsteps in the snow in The Shining. In Voer voor psychologen, Mulisch regards the act of becoming invisible as the high point of alchemy. He quotes Plutarch: ‘Egypt, moreover, which has the blackest of soils, they call by the same name as the black portion of the eye, Chemia, and compare it to a heart; for it is warm and moist.’ Mulisch then continues: ‘Now, the pupil is not the eye; rather, it is the part of the eye through which the eye sees, i.e., a hole, the absence of eye, non-eye, kême. From an alchemistic perspective, it follows that a pupil without eye is invisible, and at the same time, it is “vision itself”. So that, for all intents and purposes, alchemy is the art to transform into the invisible seeing that is love.


In spite of the wondrous ring of these words, they may remind us first of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, who is forced to watch the same type of  ‘ultra violence’ that he indulged in before by having his eyelids keeped opened with clips. In the same way that Mulisch uses Eichmann’s photograph to compare Eichmann the executioner with Eichmann as witness, so is Alex forced to see what he has done. He is made to look at himself as an object, just like the astronaut in the eighteenth century period room in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alex is forced to account for his actions—but not through a reunification of ‘I’ and ‘Self’. On the contrary, both subsets of his persona part ways, are alienated from each other, and the “invisible seeing that is love” deteriorates into visible seeing that is shame.

Another failed example of invisible seeing is provided by the masquerade of the secret lodge from the appropriately titled Eyes Wide Shut. From an alchemistic point of view, the anonymous sex that the lodge members indulge in indicates a haphazard blending of random substances. It means that Bill Harford is not yet “at the end of the rainbow” that the girls hold out to him during the first party of the film. According to the proverb, a “pot of gold” should await him there, an obvious reference to alchemistic gold. He is exposed before the lodge during the second party, and is only able to end his quest after he finds his own mask lying on the pillow next to his wife. He, too, must look deep into his own eyes, detach from his dream, free the spirit inside the spirit and realize his Self according to Jungian precept. Only then, during the third party, the Christmas celebration toward the end of the film, may the Son of God be born. And only then, after his wife (Nicole Kidman) finally says the sacred F-word, may their chemical marriage be consummated.

The two prime base materials used for their concoctions, lead and sulfur, were reverently called King and Queen by the alchemists. They put them in a retort, brought them to a boil, and during the mortificatio phase, which “killed” both of them, the Son was born. He was often represented as a two-headed hermaphrodite, which according to Jung symbolized the Self. Toward the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Bill and Alice Harford go out shopping to buy Christmas presents for their daughter. Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth. It signals the end of both partner’s digressions, the surrendering of their old soul, and their readiness to merge as King and Queen in their chemical marriage.

By far the most striking example of “invisible seeing that is love” comes from HAL in 2001, the board computer whose interface only consists of a voice and a big red eye. It would seem insane to attribute the property “love” to this machine when most of what HAL harbours in the way of human qualities is murderousness. However, when Dave Bowman commits lobotomy on its brain and extracts HAL’s memory functions from the motherboard, Kubrick, in a wonderful amalgam of sarcasm and compassion, makes HAL sing the song Daisy with its last resources:

Daisy, Daisy,
Give me your answer do?
I’m half crazy,
All for the love of you!

Nothing prevents us from projecting an early stage of the boy from A.I. onto HAL, who is so longing for love. The unification of man and technology in the image of the machine-man is then the expression of Kubrick’s take on love, a strange love we might say that is ultimately the manifestation of a will to power. This connection to technology is the line of flight that allows man to escape from his limitations without surrendering the qualities that are considered human. Some day, he may be completely composed of mechanical parts, and still be considered human.

The transition of the machine-man’s urge to destroy to a desire to love is set off by his ability to become master of his own software, i.e., when he is capable of deploying his innate properties on his own account for a nobler, purer purpose, to put it in alchemistic terms. This is not achieved through shame and repentance, as the unsuccessful attempts on Alex in A Clockwork Orange indicate, but through the recognition that love and violence are on both sides of the same medal. Joker in Full Metal Jacket reaches this highest form of inner transmutation when he releases the North Vietnamese sniper from her misery, turning the Marine Corps’ adage, “Born to Kill” into an act of mercy. This is what Joker meant with “the duality of man, the Jungian thing” in his conversation with the General.

Finally, Kubrick himself arrived at the same juncture. His camera is the best example of “invisible seeing that is love”. He left New York and Hollywood, and gradually attained a legendary and inaccessible status in his house on the English countryside. However, it was not an expression of paranoia or megalomania, traits to which his chess player’s mind, his tendency to control, his aversion to human interference, and his perfectionism might have easily led him. On the contrary, Kubrick succeeded in transmuting those properties, and used them for a relatively small body of work that takes up a monumental space in the history of cinema—a Gold Room filled with stories and people who will live on “for ever and ever and ever”, as the twin sisters in The Shining would likely put it.

This article originally appeared on the Belgian/Dutch website Alphavillle. Translated and reprinted with the kind permission of the author.

About The Author

Rutger H. Cornets de Groot is a Dutch born translator and essayist on film, poetry, and visual arts.

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