Stanley Kubrick and Satire: Comedic takes on Grim Social Issues
In contemporary society, few academic sources comment on the satire genre , most classifying it as a sub-genre of comedy. Despite incorporating comedic aspects, the overall concept of satire is vastly different to that of comedy, resulting in its own distinctive set of genre codes and conventions.
Satire films essentially feature a dark, comedic outlook on a grim situation. As the aim of the films is to bring to light subjects rarely confronted by the public, they are often received as offensive or inappropriate. Key subjects highlighted by the genre include war, mental illness, murder, rape, suicide and abuse.
The lack of academia surrounding this genre often makes satire films difficult to classify, particularly as fine lines exist between this, parody and black comedy. The key factor that differs satire from other genres is the social message that lies at its core. Today, satire proves to be a rare brand of film, often masked by additional genres, lessening the blow of the central message.
One of the few modern examples of satire lies in the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine. Described by The Guardian as “satire with a safety cap”, this film explored the grotesque world of child beauty pageants long before Toddler’s and Tiara’s. The satirical storyline follows a dysfunctional family as they road trip across the country to enter their youngest daughter, Olive, into the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant. Throwing suicide, death and implied pedophilia into the mix, this film is about as close as contemporary film comes to satire.
In contrast, the 1900s presented a wide range of satire films, often subjects around the key historical events that took place. Stanley Kubrick’s contribution to this genre is often seen as the most significant of filmmakers, his films touching on subjects particularly sensitive to the time. Throughout his range of satire films, Kubrick explored the topics of nuclear deterrence, war, rape, murder, pedophilia, prostitution and mental illness in order to send strong messages to the general public.
Today, Kubrick is recognised as one of history’s greatest filmmakers, the majority of his masterpiece’s permanently recognised in IMDB’s infamous “top 250 films of all time”. His tendency to produce abstract satires almost serves as his personal trademark, and his use of satire characterisation conventions have served as highlights in the careers of many great actors. Some of his most appreciated satire films include Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Lolita.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “The Shining” collaborates themes from the satire genre with that of horror and mystery. Following the story of a family taking care of a desert ski lodge during the summer, this film particularly uses characterisation to give a comedic edge to the issue of mental health.
A young Jack Nicholson brilliantly portrays the gradual mental decay of protagonist Jack Torrence. The gesture and dialogue codes seen through this character are supportive of characterisation conventions typical of the satire genre. The use of a charismatic or charming character humanising evil themes is used frequently within the satire genre. Here, Jack Nicholson portrays his character as a quirky and often humorous character whose primary goal towards the end of the film is to brutally murder his family.
Nicholson’s interpretation of Jack Torrence comes as a terrifying character whose motives towards his wife and son are often shaded by his charming smile. Satire dialogue and gesture codes are shown clearly in the scene in which Jack axes his way into the bathroom his wife is hiding in:
Jack’s facial expressions and yell of “hheerrree’sss Johnny!” reflects the essence of satire: a comedic take on a grim scene. The character’s mental illness has clearly peaked during this scene, resulting in a full breakdown.
Although satirical themes exist within the film, the genre’s presence is not as strong as within Kubrick’s earlier films. A possible reason for this may be the release date of the film. The 1980s not only saw the end of the Cold War, but a significant progression in social issues and the slight commercialisation of Kubrick’s film style. These factors could have impacted Kubrick’s use of satire within The Shining.
Often seen as his first attempt at satire, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita follows the story of a middle-aged professor’s infatuation with a 14 year-old girl. Despite censorship laws restricting the development of themes within the film, Kubrick managed to create a chilling satire that brought to light the subject of pedophilia.
Lolita is a flirtatious and temperamental 14 year-old who captures the eyes of two middle-aged men: Dr. Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Although the girl is never forced into anything she doesn’t want to do, the film shows a gruesome insight into the life of a pretty girl as the subject of pedophilic interests.
Throwing a comedic light on this grim subject are the characters of Clare Quilty and Lolita’s mother. As Clare Quilty dresses up as a range of personalities to con Humbert, Lolita’s mother is throwing herself all over him like a lovesick puppy.
Peter Sellers performs his role brilliantly within Lolita, winning him a three leading roles in Dr. Strangelove and showing the world the strange, quirky acting style he is known for today. His satirical performance of a pedophile begins during a dance where he interacts with Lolita’s mother. Through this scene we can start to see pedophiliac qualities in Quilty, this is mixed in with the humorous level of desperateness shown by Lolita’s mother.
Lolita can clearly be classified as a satire film as it provides a comedic take on the dark subject of pedophilia. Through characterisation conventions, both Clare Quilty and Lolita’s mother are able to cast a comedic light on the unfortunate situation at hand, providing a chilling film despite censorship codes of the time.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange is known to be one of the more controversial of Kubrick’s films, essentially following the story of a charismatic criminal who volunteers for an experimental aversion treatment. Confronting the general issue of criminal insanity, the film uses comedy to slightly lessen the blow of strong themes like rape, murder, abuse and mental illness. The film itself serves as a satire of modern society, confronting viewers through the use of a freedom-deprived, crime-ridden futuristic setting.
Alex, the protagonist, is seen as a juvenile delinquent obsessed with rape, violence and Beethoven. Kubrick presents this character in an unsettling manner typical of satire character conventions, making him evil yet charismatic to disorientate viewers. This characterisation is supported through music codes in particular, as Kubrick cuts horrifying scenes to a traditional, classical score. This adds a slight comedic aspect to the scene, despite its dark themes. Such a scene occurs when Alex puts his fellow delinquents in place:
Due to mass protest and controversy surrounding the film, Kubrick himself banned it in the United Kingdom in 1973. Years later, this ban was lifted, however the film will forever remain highly controversial and confronting to viewers from all generations.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Dr. Strangelove is definitely in the running for the most satiric film ever created. Released during the Cold War, Kubrick uses the public’s very real paranoia to fuel a stream of controversial themes. Using a comedic take on accidental nuclear deterrence, the film successfully confronts the public and opens their eyes to what was then a sensitive subject. The dark themes used coupled with the timing of the release has produced a controversial satire which is, honestly, very weird.
The concept of nuclear deterrence combined with comedic relief provides grounding for the satire genre, allowing the film to use fiction to address public concerns. Character conventions and dialogue codes are particularly used to support Dr. Strangelove‘s satirical nature. Within this genre, key characters are generally seen to each embody a different angle of attack towards a central issue. Such character conventions are reflected within Dr. Strangelove.
The dialogue of Gen. Ripper, for example, positions his individual stance in favour of the bombing of Russia. This characters opinions on this issues is seen through his consistent use of the derogatory term “commies” in addition to his statement that the Russians are using water fluoridation to infiltrate America’s “precious bodily fluids.”
The use of satire dialogue codes to support character conventions allows Dr. Strangelove to clearly classify itself within the genre. Kubrick’s fondness and talent in creating satire is seen most evidently through this highly celebrated film.
These four films display the effective use of satire to highlight social issues through a comedic take. Through this display of films, it is evident that Stanley Kubrick has contributed significantly to the genre and is arguably one of the greatest satire filmmaker recognised today.
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