Modernist writers, painters, and composers created some of their characteristic effects by drawing attention to the media of language, image, and tonality and then reinventing them. Joyce, Picasso, and Stravinsky not only created works of art, they made critical interventions in their histories. Their contemporaries working in films had a quite different situation: They had first to invent the medium of their art. They had to find a way to transform staged reality into a dynamic medium of narrative and expressive photography. They had to find a way to make light—like the word, the image, tonality—into an objective medium. By mid-century, Hollywood pictures especially had firmly established a code and technology of affective realism that enjoyed worldwide admiration and loyalty. Like the modernists of an earlier generation, Kubrick set about to turn this medium into a subject for dramatic and esthetic reflection and expression. For Kubrick, like other great directors, light is not only the medium of photography, it is the medium of illumination.
A. R. Fulton provides a fundamental distinction between “arbitrary” and “natural” lighting. “Arbitrary” lighting schemes use light that is “not represented as originating in a natural source, such as a lamp, a fire, or the sun shining through a window, but [is] cast flatly for the purpose of obtaining a clear picture.” Arbitrary lighting is thus independent of the setting and its theme: It suggests, if only subliminally, that cinematic “reality” is likewise arbitrary, which is to say unmotivated. By contrast, “natural lighting” is motivated by its position within the frame, “originating or seeming to originate from a natural source.” Classic three-point lighting became so established by the mid-century that its reality effect became pervasive but also trite. The audience always knew, if only in a half-realized way, that it was watching events enacted in a studio or in a highly conditioned location. “Natural lighting” could not be an end in itself because any lighting regime that is consistent becomes increasingly artificial and finally “arbitrary.” In his films, Kubrick strove neither for purely arbitrary nor natural lighting: It had always to be actually observed and felt, whether it appealed to the audience’s sense of empirical reality or to its emotional appetite for beautiful, uncanny, or menacing atmospheres.
When Kubrick began directing in the fifties, most American films were extremely well-lit by artificial light sources that could not be justified by the scene being photographed. It was a convention that insured an attractive and glossy look but which was often lacking in mood, atmosphere, or realism. Film noir was the exception, using as it did chiaroscuro effects derived from Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and German expressionism. Limited to the underworld of the modern city, noir lighting scheme worked mainly as a marker of the genre and the fundamentals of moral choice.
Citizen Kane, which inspired some of the noir sensibility, was of course not a genre picture. And this was what Kubrick learned from Welles: Lighting, in order to be more than arbitrary or natural, has to be disassociated from genre. Citizen Kane is about a wealthy young man who takes up journalism for the fun of it, the question finally becoming, is Kane a crook who controls and deceives the masses—a fascist, a communist—or just an “American”?
This thematic quandary is established in Welles’s lighting contrasts—especially the formal and thematic motif of light pouring through windows into darkened rooms. The most striking example is the scene at the Walter Thatcher Library where the reporter Mr Thompson is seated at a large table and presented with Thatcher’s memoirs. Into the darkened room, two diagonal shafts of light fall from the high window on the library table. The light appears to be solid sculpture penetrating space, suggesting both the search for the truth about Kane, and also the Gothic and Manichaean aspects of his character and story, as well as his life-long conflict with Thatcher. The windows implicitly state that knowledge comes from outside, from a source beyond the scope of the memoir—and introduces an atmospheric sense of conflict between elemental forces.
The tactic seems natural in Gothic material—Dracula, Jane Eyre—but more disturbing and strange in such a contemporary setting. Starting with film noir subjects in Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, Kubrick would later adapt its lighting esthetic to a range of settings: from the Pentagon to the US Moon base at Clavius. In Kubrick’s lighting, both a kind of film verité authenticity and a destabilizing psychology are established. It is one thing to see shoot a meeting of underworld types in a chiaroscuro lighting scheme, it is quite another to put the President of the United Sates or a gathering of NASA scientists in one. The dialectic of room and window, darkness and light not only suggests age-old moral conflicts, but also fundamental conflicts between the unknowable and the supposedly known. It is a dialectic evident in photography itself between the camera (or room) and its aperture (or window) opening to the light.
The window is an objectification of the play of lens and film, curtain and shutter, a reminder of the authority, but also the partiality, of light. By contrast, scenes shot with conventional studio lighting are deprived of this cognitive cue, being illumined, it seems, by the light of natural and impartial truth—“the way things are.” In order to break with the conventions of Hollywood “realism,” windows or practical lighting within the scene can be employed and amplified. In Kubrick’s four films from the fifties (Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, and Paths of Glory), one can observe a deepening of the semiotic potentials of natural window light—from atmospherics, to dramatic contrasts and political irony. Shooting the scheming, murderous Generals in Paths of Glory in the window light of a French Chateau puts their actions into an uncanny and yet appropriate setting.
After exploring the possibilities of open windows as apertures for the admission of natural or artificial light into the scene, Kubrick would turn his attentions to windows that only appear to admit outside light. The conference scene in 2001 introduces this uncanny effect, which Kubrick would expand while building the set for the Overlook Hotel in The Shining: Here “windows” become lighting sources for interior photography but reveal little or nothing of the “outside” world. The claustrophobia and psychotic contagion in the films are thus illustrated in a low-key, nearly unconscious way.
In order to allow these studio lights to illumine the scene, ceilings were all but nonexistent in most conventional films. A visible ceiling not only requires interior scenes to be lit naturally, it also introduces a sense of confinement and menace, even if it is unwanted. Vincent LoBrutto describes how Kubrick insisted on ceilings on all the sets of Dr. Strangelove: “I don’t want the camera to light from the top. I want to use source lighting,” Kubrick told his set designer Ken Adam. As LoBrutto explains, the sets then required low camera angles, inspiring Adam to “creat[e] dramatic architectural structures for the basis of the design.”
Such structures redefine the characters. If the hero is actually confined in a room, the ceiling and practical lighting are easily assimilated in the interests of expressive realism. But Kubrick likes to work with ceilings and practical lighting in banal scenes: a job interview, a bureaucratic briefing, a married couple talking. The ceiling in such scenes indicate not only menace and confinement—things that can be escaped—but an existential realization of pervasive and insuperable human limitations.
If the use of ceiling and window light sources can operate to undermine an implicit sense that appearances are to be trusted or at least to be perceived uncritically, lit floors appear to heighten anticipation and wonder. We first encounter Group Commander Lionel Mandrake in a computer room at Burpelson Air Force Base. He fumbles with the sixties-era computers as they print out information into ungainly loops of paper. Beneath man and machine, the floor is opaque white and ironically reassures the audience that technology is immaculate, clinical, and reliable. The floor of the rotating Space Station V in 2001 is even whiter, and the floor in the strange room that David Bowman finds himself—at the end of his journey through time and space—is whitest of all. Although all these lighting schemes are in one sense simply solutions to the problem of establishing illumination for photography, they inevitably establish an atmosphere of containment and radiance, a clinical, futuristic ambience where fear and hope are suggested in equal measure. In an odd way, then, the search for practical solutions to camera lighting can drive the discovery of startling settings and designs.
The journey of these modulations of mood and luminosity is a long one. The light in Fear and Desire is both studied and naïve. Drawing upon the recently released Rashomon (1950) and the classic Soviet cinema of Dovzhenko and shot in the San Gabriel Mountains with a minimum of expense (Kubrick was the camera man), the film complements its archetypal temporality and its existentialist theme with the natural and the inexpensive moodiness of dappled light and lingering close-ups. The dappled light in forest and hillside illustrates the film’s concerns with dualism, doubles, and the shadowy and luminous aspect of instinct of civilization and character. Together with Gerald Fried’s musical score and the often lofty narration and dialog, the lighting emphasizes the film’s high-art aspirations and seriousness, sometimes with mixed results. As the maddened Sidney improvises a pantomime of the enemy General for the captive girl belted to a tree, the dappled light lends an arty lyricism to a grotesque scene of failed seduction, soon followed by murder. Light in Fear and Desire, despite its being natural, has an artificial expressive theatricality that stresses the same qualities in the script.
The first scene in Killer’s Kiss in the original Penn Station (destroyed in 1963) is lit by natural light falling from high, distant windows into the drafty and airy space. As he begins his voice-over narrative, Davy stands tentatively in this diffuse light. The light in the station has such a softly luminous texture that it is difficult to pay attention to his narrative: The light is absorbing, his words are trite. Here the natural light suggests Davy’s innocence—and the contrast between the sinister tale he will tell: His escape with his girl Gloria from a corrupting city where men and women are reduced to the status of bodies paid to box and dance. This city is lit by Kubrick in strong contrasts by which light is surrounded and dominated by darkness. Davy and Gloria’s dimly lit apartments, subway cars, dressing rooms, offices, the boxing ring, dance club, Times Square, the night-time skyline of New York: each photographically deepens the theme of light threatened to extinction by darkness.
In this labyrinth, the voracious Vince Rapallo like the Minotaur (the film was a “Minotaur Production”) threatens Gloria (Ariadne) and Davy, the Theseus of the tale. As if to reverse this lighting scheme and perhaps indicate his awareness of its elemental triteness, Kubrick presents Davy’s dream after his defeat in the ring in negative processing. To a large extent, Killer’s Kiss indicates a deeper interest in exploring the ways in which source lighting can deepen the complexity and menace of inexpensive sets. The scenes again and again present the source of light as threatened or inadequate to the immense obscurity around it. The only exception is the climactic battle between Vince and Davy in the manikin warehouse: Here the lighting on the ghostly dummies appears to be without source. They crowd out of the darkness of the warehouse into the light of the scene as if they were the unconcealment of the city Davy and Gloria hope to escape.
In The Killing, there is a remarkable scene in the stable of the racetrack: A large window channels white light onto thoroughbreds trotting over the straw toward the paddocks. In these black and white scenes, apparently filmed on location by Kubrick’s friend and collaborator Alexander Singer, the window shapes light into eye-seizing forms that throw more than illumination on the scene: They recall the dialectical nature of experience—we can see only with light—and so arouse consciousness, if not knowledge, about what we cannot see. While The Killing is a film about a crime meant to elude chance through perfect organization and timing, it ends by showing explosive consequences of the slightest interventions of chance. Throughout the film, Kubrick places source lighting clearly in view, usually with lamps in dingy and confined rooms: The atmosphere is of course characteristic film noir. In these settings, Johnny Clay and his gang attempt to control chance and enforce their will upon the contingencies of existence. The opening scene in the stable has a luminosity, a portentousness, and a beauty that is more difficult to interpret. It is as if the thoroughbred horses, agents of pure energy and chance in the gambling industry, are revealed as the antithesis of all attempts to eliminate contingency. They move out of this elemental and sacral light through the darkened frame of the stable into the general daylight.
In Paths of Glory, the scenes in the chateau—where the Generals chat, drink, dine, and conspire against their own men—are also naturally lit. The ornate windows in the eighteenth-century chateau provide enough light, but it is an impotent, or perhaps an ironic light that falls on their hypocritical and criminal affairs. La siècle des lumiéres and the Revolution have come to this: The soldiers of France are to be sacrificed for the promotion of General Mireau and to suit an arbitrarily planned schedule. The trenches are lit from above and always partially in darkness. The officer’s rooms are lit by hanging lights or candles. And the brig where the condemned men are confined is lit through barred cellar-windows. The sunlight pours through, brightly or dimly, in ways that recall the stables in The Killing. Although it is clear that in both instances Kubrick is indulging himself in the pure esthetic pleasure of exhibiting light as light, one can also see that both scenes have a sacral and sacrificial aspect: In each confined space, we witness the agents and victims of chance.
Lolita is less mannered than these films, but it accomplishes an even more remarkable result. In the scene beneath the opening credits of Humbert painting Lolita’s toenails, the light seems to emerge from hand and foot, as if we witnessed a true epiphany or showing forth of the sacred. Light does not appear to be cast or channeled but to be released from Lolita’s flesh, as a manifestation of Humbert’s veneration or abjection before the beloved body. Something of the same effect is achieved in the scene when Humbert first beholds Lolita sunbathing: Both accomplish something like a photographic equivalent of sacred painting and witnessing—the pedophile’s vision and recovery of the lost child of his youth is granted externalization and, in a sense, a kind of cinematic reality. The epiphanic nature of this scene is retroactively heightened by the cut: It is Humbert driving through a heavy mist to Quilty’s mansion.
In his last black and white film, Kubrick applied the expressionist power of his noir films to the theme of national security and nuclear holocaust. This style is so thoroughly associated with the underworld that its use in a film about the highest levels of the US government and the US Air Force achieves an immediate sense of moral disorientation. Where Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command (1955), celebrating the mission of Air Force and the duty of Americans to serve, is filmed in brilliant color, Kubrick’s film manages to ironize light as a force of moral clarity. He exhibits light in a condition that he would exploit in many subsequent films—as glare. The opening scenes establish this pattern of objects illuminated by glaring lights clearly in the frame: the opening scene of a B-52 on the flight-line, General Ripper sitting at his desk, the crew of the B-52, Miss Scott in a bikini sprawled out under a sunlamp, and the great round table in the “War Room.” Human beings and machines are similarly illuminated by the ironic glare of lights that do not reveal so much as they flatten out differences and identities. In a film without daylight (other than the shots of the B-52 in flight), these reiterations enforce a sense that enlightenment has been transformed into obscurity. That instrument of American nuclear might, the B-52, appears under its glare as weirdly sinister and sacral—more like a cult object than a war place. The public and the manifest become the secret and the subversive. Sterling Hayden’s General Ripper may wear the same uniform as James Stewart in Strategic Air Command but he looks like a mobster—while Stewart looks like an Eagle Scout. Meanwhile, in the war room, the table where the fate of the planet is being determined is lit like a titanic poker table—from a point of view that keeps the circular lighting above clearly in view. As in all these instances where the source lighting is in the frame, the viewer is constantly made aware of the conditions and limitations of seeing and knowing: There is no reliable “studio” light beyond the scene. Burpelson Air Force Base and Washington, DC, are benighted throughout the film: Only the sky and snowy wastes of Siberia have any share of “natural” light.
In 2001, light and its spectrum are nearly the whole story. From the opening scenes of the “Dawn of Man” to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” “mankind” is translated from animal unconsciousness beneath a bright sky to an enlightened consciousness mediated by light itself. The light schemes range from the banal to the sublime. The meeting where Dr Heywood Floyd is briefed about the discovery of the monolith on the moon takes place in a low-ceilinged room with projection screens on three sides and a “U”-shaped table. After his sublime journey from the earth, to the Space Station, to the base at Clavius, Floyd finds a room that adequately expresses the limitations of his imagination. Having slept most of the way to the moon, he is now safely ensconced in the banalities of human space and language. His main job is to explain why the discovery cannot be made public and the cover story is necessary—and to insist on signed security oaths from all those in the know.
In this context of conspiracy and deceit, the low ceiling expresses the repression of truth and of wonder, a human response to the limitlessness of space. Ordinary human beings are thought by the experts to be incapable of wonder, capable only of “cultural shock and social disorientation” if they learned the truth of extraterrestrial life. The light in the scene is provided by the projection screens so that the meeting can proceed and so that the cameras can film—but it is nothing like the light of truth or realization. It is an opaque glare that expresses conspiratorial dissimulation and fear that, at the same time, is being dramatized for all to see. The screens are, in other words, an inversion of the monoliths: They reveal all that they are, but that is nothing at all.
This setting is recapitulated at Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1: The monolith stands excavated, exposed, and lit by floodlights. Like the conference scene and the exhibition of the B-52 and Miss Scott, the lighting is accomplished within the scene and not outside of it. Again and again, Kubrick wants to illuminate objects and people within the terms of his film world, not within the terms of its production. The audience is integrated within the illumination of reality, becoming a participant and not merely a witness of cognition.
What is distinctive about lighting in 2001 is its creation of a spectrum of reds that connects black and white. Black is the color of space, the monolith, and the mystery of existence; white is the color of the moon, space craft, satellites, space station, and technology. Kubrick’s reds are found inside of technology: the flight bays in the space station, the landing station on Clavius, the interior of the HAL 9000 computer, and his/its hypnotic, glossy, mysterious “iris.” The anthropomorphic aspects of technology are enhanced by these diluted, blood-like washes of light, visually suggesting that human interiors have been transferred to technological interiors. The diluted, blood-like washes lighting the landing bay at Clavius have a womb-like vibrancy and vulnerability. The interior of HAL’s brain, lit in a slightly darker tone, likewise balances superiority and weakness, domination and exposure. These tonalities prepare for the final manifestation of the astral fetus.
With Bowman’s cosmic journey, the full spectrum of colors is revealed: His enlightenment is manifested via an immersion in light and color alien to mundane existence. More significantly, they emerge from the blackness of space, as if concealed within the lightless absence of space were another world with another light and other colors—an alien light scheme, the ultimate natural lighting. The fiat lux of Judeo-Christian mythology is reimagined here as the revelation of light within darkness. Bowman’s odyssey back to earth and rebirth is largely accomplished through the use of color negatives of the human eye and a range of deserted terrestrial locations: mountainous wastes, vacant oceans, canyons, attenuated clouds. The palette and imagery of the trip is impossible to describe simply because it does not resemble anything—other than a kind of inverted or reversed vision of the earth. The transitional image between the trip and the room where he lives out the remainder of his identity as David Bowman is his eye seen in various color negatives concluding with its natural color. The room is lit from whitened floor panels, its wall sconces remaining unlit. Like the space station and the computer room in Dr. Strangelove, the effect is indeterminate: Things are upside down, as if one were walking on the ceiling. Having cycled through life, death, and rebirth, Bowman finally appears as the astral fetus, a self-illuminating, human planetoid born of the void itself—an enlightened being.
After this sublime scheme of enlightening luminosity, A Clockwork Orange looks like a sardonic, bitter rebuke to human hopes. The title and credits appear on an orange and then a blue screen: We have gone from the depths of space to the flatland of Pop Art. Light is mocked in this film, as are notions of human transcendence, since it can reveal nothing but surfaces. To this end, the lighting is nearly always evident in the scene, most often in the form of actual and stylized light bulbs. The Korova Milk Bar is so lit, as are the Alexander “Home,” Alex’s bedroom, the Cat Woman’s house, the police interrogation room, and the changing room at the prison. Kubrick supplements this satirical exhibition of light with glare—in the scene where the droogs beat the old man in an underpass near the Thames embankment and in Alex’s home, where the windows opening onto the outer world reveal little more than an opaque, banal, remote brightness.
These lighting schemes, together with the theatrical settings—the abandoned rape of a girl in an old theater and the stage at the Ludovico Center where Alex’s new corrected “nature” is demonstrated to the press—suggest the barrenness and the triviality, the brightness and emptiness of this alternative future. There is no natural light to speak of—no sun, moon, or stars—in this urbanized world in which human nature can be altered through conditioning by drugs and celluloid.
Nothing could be further from the rich array of luminosities to be found in Barry Lyndon: here are cloud-light and moonlight, sunlight and candlelight. But is it, one wonders, any less an empty or a vain world than that of A Clockwork Orange? Perhaps not, but one can more easily recognize what a contrast there is between the potentials of beauty to be found in nature and what human beings have made of them. It is like the contrast between candlelight and bulb-light. The first is dynamic, fluxional, and responsive to air and breath; the second is flat, immediate, and without human relation.
The eighteenth was the last century to escape photographic scrutiny, representation, and banality—it is perhaps for this reason that Kubrick was attracted to it as the subject of his most expansive and complex picture. Dissatisfied with film representations of the past, Kubrick set out to discover the lost world of the eighteenth century by dispensing with film conventions. Instead of using the theatrical frame—a sound stage with lighting that illuminated the smallest thing, as if to account for the costume budget—Kubrick turned to period painting and its reliance on natural light and tried to reinvent it in natural settings, country houses and their rooms. In order to capture natural light, Kubrick used lenses developed by the Zeiss Company for the Apollo program. Such a linkage between Kubrick and NASA was a natural publicity coup but it also led to an unprecedented naturalism. Gone were the stagey looks of traditional costume dramas: Kubrick had managed to transform one of the most conservative film genres into an avant-garde exploration of the nature of light.
The first scene in Barry Lyndon is the duel in which Barry’s father is killed. We watch the killing, distant in time and space, from behind a rock wall and a tree. The sky is darkly clouded above the men, but beyond the light falls above a sloping hillside. It is an extraordinarily evocative scene, and a complex one, placing the death in a narrow aperture between foreground and background. Light in this framed scene is evidently subject to rapid transformations, from obscurity to clarity, a distracting foreground and a beckoning background: between them the chancy events of a duel transpire—one of many to follow in the picture. Kubrick introduces us to the complexity of natural light’s metamorphic powers in the context of weather and its distance and intimacy with human affairs. Other outdoor scenes discover the constant dynamism of natural light in a frame of clouds, shadows, birds, building, and men. After the brittle clarities of A Clockwork Orange, this light falls as if on another world.
When Kubrick moves the scene indoors, the effect is to structure and organize light, to channel and sculpt it for dramatic and atmospheric purposes. Windows allow us to see light as light, and so in this picture of eighteenth-century life, it shows us a world that is old and weathered, and clinging to political and class prerogatives soon to be demolished. In dining and club scenes, Kubrick uses windows—their panes and muntins—not only to cast light but also to throw confining shadows on interior walls, tapestries, and paintings. This optical play in the background puts action and dialog into a subliminal context of illumination and obscurity, escape and confinement. The effect is to imply optically a sense of perpetual limitations. (Weather and the passage and the play of outdoor light in Barry Lyndon cast the apparent freedom of movement in space into a similar context.) At the dinner scene when Barry challenges Quin to a duel, light pours through the window, throwing a grid of shadows on walls and tapestry: There is no freedom to be had, however. His aim is to show Nora that he is a man and deserving of her hand, but the subsequent duel has been rigged by Nora’s kin to spare the Englishman and gain his fortune for their family. Instead of winning her hand, he will begin an aimless life. And later when his stepson Lord Bullingdon comes to challenge Barry to a duel, his rich wife estranged and his fortune nearly spent, he discovers the man asleep in a chair at his club. The late afternoon light cast on the scene tells the whole story of his rise and fall.
If outdoor and indoor sunlight creates an atmosphere of flux and dilemma, moonlight appears as beautiful illusion. The scene in which Barry wins Lady Lyndon shines with moonlight—whether it is simulated or not, it appears real enough. The illusory nature of his motives is as secondary—or as tertiary—as the moonlight. Candlelight, on the other hand, offers a partial and wavering kind of illumination that allows for intimacy and confession (Barry with Grogan), intimacy and deceit (Barry and Col. Potzdorf), and intimacy and adultery (Barry and Lischen). These candlelit scenes, which Kubrick and John Alcott went to such lengths to film, also include gaming and whoring. But to read these scenes, and the others, purely in terms of thematic correspondences is to miss something more intangible and striking. We are being shown a world in which light has yet to be domesticated and conserved. It is a wavering and partial light, distant indeed from the bright floors of the space station or circular lighting in the war room, far from the fictive futures of the previous three films.
Given the haunted house premise of The Shining, one would expect—from any other director—a lighting scheme that emphasizes the Gothic tradition of chiaroscuro. But there is no darkness at the Overlook, no mysterious shadows, no sudden loss of power and light, and no wavering candlelight. The hotel’s abysses are concealed not by darkness but by light. Using very powerful lamps, Kubrick arranged that the hotel be illuminated via windows that nearly always are opaque (or white with glare) and with ceiling lights and room lamps. The claustrophobic, labyrinthine world of The Shining is thus lit as if for a laboratory experiment or for yet another repetition of a mythological archetype. Kubrick is trying to penetrate light and find a different, an invisible, darkness within it.
Consider Jack Torrance’s interview for the caretaker’s job, which is a variation on Heywood Floyd’s briefing on Clavius. Mr Ullman sits at a desk beneath a window that lights the scene with a cloudy, formless light that is reflected on the ceiling. Across the desk, Torrance and a subordinate sit in well chairs; the walls are covered with plaques, diplomas, and a clock; the desk is cluttered. The conversation and atmosphere is both too cheerful and too casual, as if to stress suppressed thoughts – Ullman’s awareness of the hotel’s violent past and Jack’s fear that he would not get hired. When the predictable banter is concluded, Ullman carefully broaches the matter of the caretaker Delbert Grady who had murdered his family and then killed himself. It is the light source and glare on the looming ceiling that communicate an unstated malaise within the chipper banter that follows the revelation.
The sadness at the heart of The Shining finds its objective correlative, not in romantic shadows and pitch darkness, but in the empty ubiquity of artificial light. Indeed, as far as one can judge, the lights never go out at the Overlook. The abyssal and labyrinthine hotel does not require darkness as a medium for the evil and the grotesque: the seventies’ décor, the yellows, oranges, and tans transform brightness and cheerfulness into the uncanny, the expression of a mind reverting to primal instincts, fears, and hopes. Thus, the bathroom in room 237, the navel of this dream-house, is coolly but thoroughly lit, immaculate, and yet frighteningly explicit, seemingly incapable of concealment. Kubrick realized that in making a film with such a title, light itself would have to be mined for its fully evident horror value—in a place that never goes dark, an eternity of pastels and tans, only occasionally refreshed by visions of deep-red blood.
In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick turns away from this palette of soulless angst toward an impassioned polarity of blues and reds. Blues and shades of blue dominate the opening panel devoted to the instruction and transformation of young men into Marines. Violent as this instruction is, it has a theoretical and verbal remoteness from what is to follow. The war scenes in Vietnam are illumined often by the reds and oranges of bursting shells, bombs, fireballs, and burning buildings. The chromatic dynamism in Full Metal Jacket is simply stated: The cool blue of violent instruction flips to its opposite on the color wheel to violent, fiery practice.
The scenes of instruction dominated by Sergeant Hartman have a lyric understatedness. The light often has a sedate and withdrawn aspect, a suppleness and a fragility, especially in the barrack scenes, where the windows are the opaque source of illumination. With the fluorescent ceiling lights off, the lateral light leaves the barrack in a complex play of reflected light on the polished floors. The muntins in the windows, like the arrangement of bunk beds, emphasize the domination of particulars by laws of symmetry, the domination of men by the codes of Marine Corps instruction. The outdoor light has no particular weight or heft, leaving the barrack entirely to Hartman’s enforcement of new rules of reality. At night, illumination is provided by fluorescent ceiling lights, and they too provide no sort of opposition or alternative to Hartman’s rule. Deepening these scenes of instruction, scenes of revenge are lit with blue-filtered moonlight or outdoor lamplight. When Private Gomer Pyle is punished by his squad, the bluish light suggests a distinct kind of emotional reality, a surreal atmosphere somewhere between outdoor and indoor illumination. The same kind of light fills the head when Pyle shoots Hartman and then himself. The domination of blues establishes a psychic coldness and frustration, a violence that is contained and in effect theoretical.
With the shift to Vietnam, this kind of mental anguish is transformed into a violent actuality represented and photographed by the light of fiery explosions. In a sense, the practice, as opposed to the theory of war, is liberating: The men no longer labor under the oppressive presence of authority. They practice violence, killing and being killed. In contrast to the cool lights of Parris Island, the film is now illuminated by the scattered fires of bombing and artillery. Kubrick turns to fire itself to provide an atmospheric equivalent of combat. In the final scenes of the film, as darkness falls, the dialectic of night and fire intensifies. When Joker executes the wounded female sniper, his face and those of his platoon are lit by fire, as they are when they march from Hue to the Perfume River. Concealed in the blues and shades of Hartman’s barracks, where the violence is mainly psychological, the potentials for violence are now fully realized.
Although an exploration of dream, Eyes Wide Shut has no precise boundaries with waking life. Instead, it ranges in depth and strangeness between the night and daylight scenes, nighttime interiors and exteriors, the concealed and the revealed, desire and consequence. Kubrick is demonstrating once again what happens when the ends of the spectrum meet, as desire and danger do. In this regard, the dialectical chromatics in Eyes Wide Shut are a variation on the dialectic of reds and blues of Full Metal Jacket. The reds speak of desires and potential pleasures; the blues of the cold world of fact, where desires and pleasures are called to account. Thus, we see Alice in the first scene dressing for a party and then disrobing before a scarlet curtain, doubled by a mirror. Her russet hair and warm flesh, which she reveals by letting her dark gown fall to her feet, echo this light. In contrast, the blues beyond the blinds in the window imply the cold reality beyond this intimate and secure room. We see her alone in a kind of theoretical space of confident self-disclosure. In one of the last scenes, she and her husband Bill confess their erotic secrets in a room suffused with blues, her eyes wet with tears. In this polarity, there is an age-old drama at work, purely visible as light.