Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Embodied Meaning-Making in Film

Cinergie – Il cinema e le altre arti. N.12 (2017)
ISSN 2280-9481

Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Embodied Meaning-Making in Film

Maarten CoëgnartsUniversity of Antwerp (Belgium)

Maarten Coëgnarts (Belgium) holds a PhD in Film Studies and Visual Culture and an MA in Sociology (University of Antwerp). Since 2010 he has been doing research on the interplay between conceptual metaphors, image schemas and cinema. The results have been published in Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, Cinéma&Cie, Image [&] Narrative, Metaphor and Symbol, Metaphor and the Social World, New Review of Film and Television Studies and Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind. He is also co-editor of the special issue Metaphor, Bodily Meaning, and Cinema of the Journal Image [&] Narrative and the book Embodied Cognition and Cinema (Leuven University Press, 2015).

Published: 2017-12-04


This article aims to examine some aspects of the cinematic work of Stanley Kubrick from the embodied and interdisciplinary point-of-view of Conceptual Metaphor Theory. Central to this theory is the idea that abstract concepts such as emotions, relationships and mental functions are metaphorically understood in terms of concrete concepts of human bodily experiences such as movement and spatial boundedness. Given that Kubrick’s work is characterised as highly conceptual, it is therefore plausible to assume that the meaning entailments of his films arise from the same mappings of embodied source domains. This paper sets out to illustrate this hypothesis by offering a dense analysis of various concise scenes taken from his oeuvre. It is precisely through Kubrick’s mastery of the devices of filmmaking (e.g. framing, camera movement, editing, etc.) that, as this paper demonstrates, his films exhibit a formal precision rooted in the human sensory-motor system, which enables them to reach a level of conceptual sophistication.

Keywords: Stanley Kubrick; Conceptual Metaphor Theory; sensory-motor system

1 Introduction

The films of Stanley Kubrick continue to fascinate audiences and it is generally recognized among scholars that a large part of their appeal lies in their powerful ability to convey conceptual themes in a purely cinematic and visual manner.1 This claim to higher meaning, however, exhibits a paradox, anchored in the ontological reality of cinema itself. This paradox revolves around the seemingly contradictory question of how cinema is capable of expressing conceptual knowledge while at the same time being essentially non-conceptual in nature.2 In other words, if we accept that Kubrick’s work is exceptional in its ability to express abstract meaning, then there must be something in his work that overcomes this paradox. It is the central aim of this article to demonstrate that this “something” can be further explained in terms of Kubrick’s technical and stylistic craftsmanship. It is precisely through the mastery of the devices of filmmaking that, as this article will show, his films impose a structural precision and formal cohesion onto the first-order world of perception by which they create the foundation for the emergence of concepts. To theorise this conditional link between “structure”, on the one hand, and “meaning”, on the other hand, the article draws on the theoretical framework of Conceptual Metaphor Theory (henceforth, CMT) (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, Lakoff and Johnson 1999). CMT proposed a theory of embodied cognition, rooted in the field of cognitive linguistics, according to which human concepts are grounded within “structures” of human sensory-motor experience. This is how, for instance, we come to understand mental functions such as cognition metaphorically in terms of movement (“I arrived at that conclusion”) or emotions in terms of containment (“I’m in love”). Hence, if we accordingly claim that (1) Kubrick’s cinematic work is highly conceptual and (2) that this conceptual meaning is grounded within structures of sensory-motor knowledge, then, (3) we might assume that the same structures also play a pivotal role in the grounding of meaning in Kubrick’s cinema. To test the validity of this claim, however, we first have to answer two basic questions: (1) which are the abstract concepts under scrutiny in this paper with regard to Kubrick’s cinematic oeuvre, and (2) which are the structures of sensory-motor knowledge that humans use in order to ground these concepts? This will be the task of the first theoretical section of this article, which when applied in the second section will demonstrate, by means of various concise case-studies, how Kubrick’s films manage to evoke these structures stylistically in order to elicit conceptual meaning.

2 The role of the body in conceptualizing the (fictional) being

What exactly do we mean by saying that a Kubrick film exerts higher order meaning? On a general note one can say that films with higher meaning tend to focus on “how experiences are processed in the inner world, as opposed to focusing on experiences in an exterior world” (Grodal 2009: 228). This article will narrow this definition by focusing on two property domains of the fictional being that are not directly perceptible, namely what Jens Eder categorises as “sociality” and “mind” (2010: 24). Sociality refers to the connection of a fictional being to a proposition about his or her relation to other characters. It includes such concepts as group membership (e.g., family, friendship, partnership), interrelations, interactions, positions of power, and status. The mind refers to the connection of a fictional being to a proposition about his or her inner life or personality. It includes such mental faculties as perception (“the character sees something”), cognition (“the character knows something”), and emotion (“the character feels something”). Evidently, there is some overlap between both property domains. Mental states such as perception and emotion are mostly also directed toward others making them social at the same time. Likewise, the mental states within the domain of the mind should not be conceived in isolation, but rather in close association with each other. The mental faculty of perception (i.e., of an outer event), for example, is often seen causally associated with the rise of cognitive and emotional states in the perceiver.3 In selecting both categories as suitable places to locate a significant part of Kubrick’s cinematic meaning, we are motivated by the uncontroversial claim that his films, like many other narrative films, have the intention to convey meaning about the social and mental or subjective life of characters. References to both domains can be found in most of Kubrick’s films, ranging from General Mireau’s (George Macready) acceptance of General Broulard’s (Adolphe Menjou) bribe of promotion in Paths of Glory (1957), to HAL 9000’s cognitive mindset in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or Redmond Barry’s (Ryan O’Neal) seduction of Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) in Barry Lyndon (1975), and Dr. Harford (Tom Cruise)’s emotional breakdown in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), to name a few.

If we consider the property domains of sociality and mind as two important abstract target domains in Kubrick’s work, what, then, are the resources appropriated to make these domains perceptually accessible to the viewer? In order to answer this question, it is perhaps useful to consider how humans in general tend to conceptualise such concepts as relationships, emotions and mental functions. Addressing this issue brings us to the field of cognitive linguistics and the broader research program of embodied cognition. Rather than explaining linguistic patterns by examining the structural properties internal to and specific to language (i.e., Chomsky’s notion of “generative grammar” (1965)), cognitive linguistics aims to examine how these linguistic structures relate to cognitive principles and mechanisms that are not medium-specific (i.e., situated outside language).4 One such principle that has received considerable attention among scholars has been the mechanism of conceptual metaphor, as it was introduced in the early 1980s by philosopher Mark Johnson and cognitive linguist George Lakoff (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Underlying this concept is the idea that metaphor is not merely a figure of speech, but an indispensable tool of human understanding whereby people make use of structures that are grounded in physical and bodily experience in order to reason about abstract concepts. Hence, as a great deal of attention within cognitive linguistics has been devoted to the study of the cognitive principles governing the ways people reason about relationships, emotions and mental functions, it might be interesting to briefly consider some of the insights gained in this area of research. A discussion of this literature would take an overview of an extensive body of research. For our purpose, however, it is enough to list some of the most cited metaphors for conceptualizing the inner life of human subjects (see Table 1).56

Table 1. Metaphors of the inner life
Table 1. Metaphors of the inner life

As can be seen, there is a significant degree of overlap among the source domains used to conceptualise both emotions and mental functions. A large part of this overlap is centred on the basic human experiential domains of physical movement and spatial boundedness, or containment. As Lakoff and Johnson have pointed out, these domains each give rise to a specific structure, what they call an “image schema” (Lakoff 1987, Johnson 1987, Hampe 2005). Image schemas are recurrent patterns, shapes, and regularities in, or of, human ongoing bodily activities that emerge as meaningful structures within our conceptual system. The structure underlying movement is that of the “source-path-goal” schema or simply “pathschema” (Johnson 1987: 113-7, Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 32-4). Because a path is a means of moving from one location to another, it consists of a starting point or “source”, a destination or “goal”, and a series of contiguous locations in between which relate the source and goal. The gestalt underlying the experience of spatial boundedness is that of the “in-out” schema or simply “container” schema (Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 31-2). Its internal structure is made up of three structural features: an inside, an outside, and a boundary. Precisely because both schemas are internally structured, consisting of a small number of parts and relations, they are particularly suitable for the purpose of expressing non-imagistic (abstract) target domains such as emotions and mental faculties (i.e., the question of metaphorical extension). This is, for example, how we come to understand visual fields in terms of the inferential logic of containers (“The ship is coming into view,” “That’s in the centre of my field of vision”) and intimacy in terms of the inferential logic of closeness (“We’re close friends,” “We were tight as a glove”). As such the various figurative words and expressions become the formal and outer signs of a human conceptual system that is based upon the metaphorical extension of structures that are grounded in bodily experience.7

The principle of conceptual metaphor, however, is not the only cognitive way available for humans to reason about emotions and mental functions. Another bodily resource equally fundamental, but often overlooked, is that of conceptual metonymy (Lakoff and Turner 1989: 103). Metonymies differ from metaphors in that they do not provide mental access to a domain through the inferential logic of another distinct conceptual domain (the “A is B” relation), but through a part of the same domain (the “A stands for B” relation). Two domains in particular are believed to play an important metonymical role in the representation of emotions and mental faculties, namely body parts and physiological responses (see Table 2).8 For instance, it has been argued that humans have a natural tendency to associate the head as a whole with the cognitive faculty of thinking, while the body parts of the head such as eyes and ears are generally seen as standing for the perceptual functions associated with them (seeing and hearing). Likewise, people tend to metonymically relate particular facial cues with specific underlying cognitive functions and emotions (e.g., frowning to thinking, raising of the mouth corners to joy, etc.).9

Table 2. Metonymies of the inner life
Table 2. Metonymies of the inner life

On the basis of this short overview one might raise the following hypothesis: if (1) bodily source domains such as facial expressions, distance, movement and containment are important cognitive resources for conceptualising human relationships and mental states linguistically, and (2) these resources are not modality independent (i.e., being cognitive, they are only derivatively linked to language), then, (3) one might assume that the same bodily resources play a conditional role in the expression of the (fictional) mind in cinema. Testing the validity of this assumption requires that we take into consideration the resources of cinema. Indeed, cinema can only exploit a potential for further metaphorical and metonymical extensions if the bodily resources upon which these extensions are based are imposed upon the visual content of the filmic frame. What, then, are the tools available for filmmakers and their entourage in order to achieve this task? In general, one might emphasise the importance of at least three different techniques in order to evoke the cognitive source domains mentioned above, namely: (1) acting (2) framing (including camera movement) and (3) editing.10 The visual elements of the actor’s performance are most suitable for instantiating “facial expressions”. The frame, by its nature, lends itself to the expression of the “container” schema with an interior (on-screen) and an exterior (off-screen). The frame also imposes various “distances” onto its inside material (left-right, top-down, front-back), while mobile framing and editing are particularly useful in “connecting” these distances, the first device by showing the various locations between starting point and ending point, the second one by cutting straightaway from starting point to ending point (i.e., through a process of elimination).

Having briefly sketched out the theoretical foundation of this article, we are now able to examine the following question: how does Kubrick’s work manage to embody the fictional being by relying on the resources as listed above? This will be the task of the next section, which is divided into two parts. The first part is a general discussion of some of Kubrick’s visual and creative strategies for embodying relationships between characters (e.g., group membership, perceptual relationships, etc.). The second part is more specific and involves an inquiry into the causal linkage between one specific type of relationship, namely the perceptual one, and the change of state it triggers in the character’s inner life (e.g., cognitive, emotional).

3 Embodying the fictional being in Kubrick’s cinema

3.1 Embodying relationships between characters

As literature indicates, humans have a natural tendency to conceptualise relationships in two embodied ways, either as distances between entities or as spatial connections between entities (Kövecses 2000: 92-4). In this section we will show, by means of a description of various scenes, how Kubrick’s work seems to extend both metaphors systematically in order to impose various relationships between characters.

To illustrate the first extension, let us consider a scene from Spartacus (1960) in which a group of gladiators (including Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) himself) await a gladiatorial battle to the death inside a wooden cabin (see Figure 1).11 The event is rendered in a single static shot. The left-right schema is appropriated in order to align the characters symmetrically inside the frame. The distance between both sides of the frame is extended in order to position the gladiators as rivals of each other. Both pairs, similar in dress and outer appearance, are separated from each other by the presence of a wooden sliding door in the center of the frame. As the door slides open, two new parties enter the frame. In the top background we can see the Roman audience sitting on a balcony waiting for the gladiators to enter the arena, while the arena itself in the center middleground of the frame is taken in by their brutal trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw). As a result, a new distance (and by extension a new relationship) is created. Where the gladiators previously viewed as two distinct groups sitting opposite of each other (grounded in the left-right schema), they are now united in the lower foreground of the frame, forming one proletarian group against the elite in the top background. By extending the foreground-background structure, or front-back schema, Kubrick manages to underline the contrast between the two opposing worlds.

Figure 1. Spartacus
Figure 1. Spartacus

For the next case study, I want to consider a different example in which the relationship between the characters is not rendered by way of aligning various “distances” in a static frame with stationary characters, but by way of eliciting “connections” by means of movement. A vivid example of this strategy can be found in The Killing (1956), Kubrick’s cinematic rendering of a race track heist by a group of would-be criminals. After the successful robbery the conspirators are gathered at the apartment where they are to meet Johnny (Sterling Hayden), the leader of the gang, and divide the money. This moment of anxious waiting is rendered in one single take in which all the individual members of the group are united through the movement of the camera as it tracks the nervous walk of the clerk George Petty (Elisha Cook Jr.) (see Figure 2). The chain of connections starts with a shot of the corrupt policeman, Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), sitting on a sofa smoking his cigarette. As his eyes move up, George enters the scene from the left side of the frame. He walks towards the curtains where he holds still for a few seconds, only to move again, this time diagonally in a forward direction. As he stands still towards the right middleground of the frame, Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), the bookkeeper of the group, shows up. From the right side of the frame George then walks from the middleground to the foreground, thus filling the frame with his bodily appearance. As he leaves the frame, the face of Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer), the track bartender, is revealed. The whole scene is built upon a succession of the source-path-goal schema, whereby each time George moves from one location to another a character is exposed. In a purely visual manner the film conceives the individual members as one group.