My last boyfriend watched Barry Lyndon over ten times while we lived together. I have not had the heart to re-watch it since we parted over three years ago. Kubrick’s films are not conducive to emotional attachments, even his harshest critics, seldom they are nowadays will tell you that much. It’s odd that what has been perceived as maybe his coldest, detached film is one that lifts the lid to a well of bottomless emotion for me. When I think of Barry Lyndon I think particularly of two scenes, one being Barry’s encounter with his future wife at the gambling table. Lady Lyndon is awash in candle light, we know then that our hero will stop at nothing to have her as his own. Later, he follows her to the balcony, planting his firm a kiss on her lips. The lady does not protest; she clearly enjoys being hunted, perhaps she fears she’ll never be pursued with such vigor ever again. The second scene finds Barry Lyndon after he has deserted the British Army, where he encounters two admirals bathing nude in a pond. The two are two fey stereotypes, professing their undying love for one another as Barry sniggers behind the bushes. There, he takes one of the men’s uniforms left behind, acquiring a disguise so he may go over the German Border without being caught.
I wondered often about my ex’s obsession with Barry Lyndon, one has to clearly be looking for something if you watch the same film so many times, especially one that is known to not be easy viewing. My ex was a man’s man, who felt joyous glee in being able to pass for straight, shocking people he’d just met with a casual mention of gay sex, or something his boyfriend did, waiting for their cue to mention that they had no idea he was even gay. Often, he’d take girls phone numbers, texting and flirting with them for weeks until that moment of disappointment would gradually come when they realized he was far from interested. His gendered confidence lent him to getting whatever he wanted, even if that meant another person with a will of their own, that didn’t matter to him, not really. I’d like to think we watch films to validate our own character, our own story. Maybe my ex related deeply with the story of a scoundrel, whose own inherent masculinity lends itself to cleverness and determination, yet because he is so unwilling to play the rules of the game that it leads to his own destruction. We all love a rebel, and it doesn’t hurt if he can win fist-fights and women by the pound. Often, I felt like the unfortunate Lady Lyndon whose love for Barry has been won on his accord, a love that knows no bounds and yet she has no words or actions that can change his ways. On worse days, I felt like one of the effeminate men in the pond Barry leers at as he takes advantage of him, taking away his clothes and horse unnoticed.
Three years ago, notorious author Bret Easton Ellis set off a series of tweets supposedly outing the acclaimed director, Stanley Kubrick. “Has anyone heard that Stanley Kubrick was gay? Info from two very good sources that despite wife and kids he had a long-term male partner”, “Kubrick’s gayness: insider proof. It’s all there. ‘Ghosts’ in The Shining giving blow jobs. Cruise being attacked as gay in Eyes Wide Shut…’ Whether the orientation of an artist truly pertains to their work as a whole is a question that will endlessly be debated, Kubrick’s films lend themselves very little to any real autobiography, let alone emotion, you take what you perceive. People return to Kubrick’s films time and time again for their open-endings, the lee-way it gives any viewer to make their own interpretations and theories, even ones of conspiracy as the wildly popular documentary Room 237 tells us, where several theorists rap about the endless complications and mysteries in his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. If Bret Easton Ellis believes that Kubrick was indeed gay, he certainly couldn’t have been as self-loathing of his gayness as Ellis.
What Bret Eason Ellis forgets, or perhaps doesn’t know was Stanley Kubrick’s well documented anxiety about depicting any sort of sexuality on film throughout his entire career. Starting with his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in 1962, Kubrick regretted the compromises he had to make with the strict Censorship code in Hollywood at the time. In this story of a pedophile falling in love with a 13 year old girl, the most scintillating scene is a peevish James Mason delicately painting the toe nails of his nymphet, Lolita and a screenplay with an exhausting glossary of sexual innuendos. After this film, sexuality develops in Kubrick’s films in an almost autistic absence of any true understanding or empathy concerning sex. When sex appears in A Clockwork Orange, it is seen only through the eyes of a depraved teenager, the camera fails to blink as a woman is savagely raped in her own home, and Alex has a threeway with two girls he picks up at a record shop, Kubrick can hardly be bothered to address even that scene, he fast tracks the footage and plays Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in cartoonish fashion. In the 1970’s, author Terry Southern proposed a high budget pornographic film entitled Blue Movie. While interested, Kubrick feared the difficulties the project would ensue and the potential ruin of his own career. Eyes Wide Shut was to be the film that cemented Kubrick’s interpretations of human sexuality. While the film has slowly gained acclaim from critics and fans, unlike its icy reception on its initial release, the film fails miserably in providing anything illuminating about how sexuality pervades and exists in our daily lives. You know things are one sided when Nicole Kidman can show her breasts at a moment’s notice and fantasize about being fucked by a sailor, but Tom Cruise can hardly be bothered to take off his own underwear or have sex with a prostitute though he already paid her. Kubrick’s real failing as a director is his real ignorance of sexuality. But one wonders if this bias comes from Kubrick’s real ignorance seeping through his films, or are these the compromises Kubrick was forced to make from working with major Hollywood studios?
It is undeniable that there are gay images throughout Kubrick’s oeuvre but what is peculiar is how even the most passionate Kubrick fan will forget quickly that they are even there. Homophobic images throughout media are so deeply imbedded in our collective consciousness that we often have to look twice to even comprehend them for what they are. While Ellis may call these images “Fascinating and illuminating”, it is doubtful it illuminates anything about Kubrick’s own sexual identity than a deeply entrenched homophobia and an almost puritanical view of human sexuality in general. Practically all of Kubrick’s filmic narratives center around the viewpoints of hyper-masculine, heterosexual men, and their very narrow but normative views of the world around them. The morally ambiguous teen rebel Alex who rapes and murders with unthinking glee in A Clockwork Orange, the alcoholic abusive father Jack Torrance in The Shining and the neurotic Dr. Bill Hartford in Eyes Wide Shut are the uncontested narrative place holders of each narrative. Whenever Kubrick’s main characters witness or perceive homosexuality, it is depicted as only freakish or humorous. Ellis’ ‘Ghosts giving blowjobs’ in The Shining perhaps cements Kubrick’s homophobia the best, at the height of the final act of the film, Jack Torrance’s wife Wendy runs through the haunted Overlook Hotel looking for a way out. In one hallway we are shown the terrifying image of a man in a dog suit giving fellatio to a man on a bed. The dog suited man looks up to Wendy, who gasps in terror and continues to flee. Interestingly, in Stephen King’s novel The Shining, the man in the dog suit is in fact the gay lover of one of the previous owners of the Overlook Hotel who ‘follows him around like a dog.’ The Overlook Hotel itself is an endless labyrinth far from the straight and narrow path. The two lovers are proof of that, as Wendy continues to run in horror, struggling to find a way back to a world of normalcy. The same moral dilemma as professed in images occurs again in Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut when Dr. Bill Hartford becomes determined to have an extra marital affair and winds up in the trappings of an elaborate sex cult. Sneaking his way into a mansion safe guarded by passwords and endless conspiracies, we find two men dancing in the ballroom among others, the men can only show affection because like everyone else there, they wear masks and elaborate clothes to hide their identities. The two male lovers can dance, but they may only do so in a den of vice and depravity. Later, Dr. Bill Hartford tries to investigate exactly what happened the night he visited the orgy and encounters an effeminate bell hop who merely tries to make a pass at him. With the bell hops demeanor and two dimensional flirtations, he may as well swam out of the pond in Barry Lyndon, replacing his stolen clothes and horse with a hotel uniform and a service bell. Are we seeing the world through each characters eyes, or Stanley Kubrick’s? One is forced to ask once one looks hard enough. But one thing is inevitable, while Kubrick is acclaimed for his vast, almost endless film landscapes whether it be 18th Century Britain or outer space, his depictions of human dynamics and interpersonal relationships are as small as a matchbox.
Are my theories on Kubrick’s sexual phobias meant to take away from his work? Frankly, not at all, in an odd way it makes me love his filmography even more. If anything I hope my theories will help trigger a deeper, more emotional response to his films that are typically not to be found on standard viewing. Kubrick’s films are what you make of them, and that is where their genius lies. One can find hundreds of clues and answers, but mostly more questions in each of his films. But if one wishes to find a clue to Kubrick’s own presumed homosexuality, I wish them all the luck in the world. Kubrick merely reflected the homophobia and sexual paranoia of his own time, nothing personal. If one wishes to find the answers to that, they’re bound to be lost in a labyrinth more complicated than the hedge maze of the Overlook Hotel.