A Balance Between Rationality and Irrationality

01Jan11

The search for a picture illustrating Mallarmé’s impersonality led me to one of the books most profoundly influencing my own views on film: Michel Ciment’s Kubrick.
There I reread the interview  on The Shining from which are taken the following excerpts:

Michel Ciment: Don’t you think that today it is in this sort of popular literature that you find strong archetypes, symbolic images which have vanished somehow from the more highbrow literary works?

Kubrick: Yes, I do, and I think that it’s part of their often phenomenal success. There is no doubt that a good story has always mattered, and the great novelists have generally built their work around strong plots. But I’ve never been able to decide whether the plot is just a way of keeping people’s attention while you do everything else, or whether the plot is really more important than anything else, perhaps communicating with us on an unconscious level which affects us in the way that myths once did. I think, in some ways, the conventions of realistic fiction and drama may impose serious limitations on a story. For one thing, if you play by the rules and respect the preparation and pace required to establish realism, it takes a lot longer to make a point than it does, say, in fantasy. At the same time, it is possible that this very work that contributes to a story’s realism may weaken its grip on the unconscious. Realism is probably the best way to dramatize argument and ideas. Fantasy may deal best with themes which lie primarily in the unconscious. I think the unconscious appeal of a ghost story, for instance, lies in its promise of immortality. If you can be frightened by a ghost story, then you must accept the possibility that supernatural beings exist. If they do, then there is more than just oblivion waiting beyond the grave.

Ciment: This kind of implication is present in much of the fantastic literature.

Kubrick: I believe fantasy stories at their best serve the same function for us that fairy tales and mythology formerly did. The current popularity of fantasy, particularly in films, suggests that popular culture, at least, isn’t getting what it wants from realism. The nineteenth century was the golden age of realistic fiction. The twentieth century may be the golden age of fantasy.

(…)

Ciment: Who is Diane Johnson who wrote the screenplay with you?

Kubrick: Diane is an American novelist who has published a number of extremely good novels which have received serious and important attention. I was interested in several of her books and in talking to her about them I was surprised to learn that she was giving a course at the University of California at Berkeley on the Gothic novel. (…)

Kubrick: A story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analysed too closely. The ultimate test of its rationale is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. If you submit it to a completely logical and detailed analysis it will eventually appear absurd. In his essay on the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If the genre required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.

(…)

Ciment: It seems that you want to achieve a balance between rationality and irrationality, that for you man should acknowledge the presence of irrational forces in him rather than trying to repress them.

Kubrick: I think we tend to be a bit hypocritical about ourselves. We find it very easy not to see our own faults, and I don’t just mean minor faults. I suspect there have been very few people who have done serious wrong who have not rationalized away what they’ve done, shifting the blame to those they have injured. We are capable of the greatest good and the greatest evil, and the problem is that we often can’t distinguish between them when it suits our purpose.

(…)

Ciment: You are a person who uses his rationality, who enjoys understanding things, but in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining you demonstrate the limits of intellectual knowledge. Is this an acknowledgement of what William James called the unexplained residues of human experience?

Kubrick: Obviously, science-fiction and the supernatural bring you very quickly to the limits of knowledge and rational explanation. But from a dramatic point of view, you must ask yourself: ‘If all of this were unquestionably true, how would it really happen?’ You can’t go much further than that. I like the regions of fantasy where reason is used primarily to undermine incredulity. Reason can take you to the border of these areas, but from there on you can be guided only by your imagination. I think we strain at the limits of reason and enjoy the temporary sense of freedom which we gain by such exercises of our imagination.
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