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From the archives: Seven Days in May

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Some interesting thoughts recently crept upon the KubrickNet discussion list regarding a classic political thriller, in a conversation between myself and Frederick Dolan, Professor of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.
It began when a few of us noted, in response to a comment of Dolan’s, that the group was often abused by overtly ideological postings. Frederick remarked how this was out of character for a group devoted to Stanley Kubrick, and the conversation continued….

   FD: “I’m a credentialed political philosopher but feel that so far as our own times are concerned
the main point of politics is to keep it as far away from our real lives as possible. To quote
Michel Foucault (roughly, from memory): “Leave it to our police and our bureaucrats to see
that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”


     
GA: I’ve always noted how, when Kubrick’s
films deal with politics they are as far as possible from the
‘political’. They seem the height of objectivity in that regard. And
it’s a tenor and a tone that I think the best “political thrillers”, as
a genre of film, also strike.

     
FD: I agree. They are as far removed as can be from what I would call “ideology,” defined as
interpreting the world according to a series of fixed fundamental principles and where one’s
foremost concern is to submit the world to moral or political judgment. In a broader sense of
“political” a case can be made for finding in SK’s films elements of what some would call
political “realism.” The sense that conflict is ineradicable and competition for power endless,
that the consequences of action are generally unforeseeable, or that they are more likely to be
bad than good, that political power is basically a form of constraint or coercion — these are basic
elements of conservative political theory, speaking very very broadly, and they are central to
Hobbes’s political philosophy, which is behind a lot of what is today called “realism” in politics.
One could probably get pretty far in characterizing SK’s view of the political world as Hobbesian,
although there is nothing substantial in Hobbes that corresponds to SK’s films’ treatment of the
sublime and of religious and spiritual longings.
What political thrillers come to mind as examples of films that strike the tone you’re talking about?

     
GA: Off the top of my head, there’s my favorite: “Seven Days in May” — although the plot immediately concerns a quite dire conflict between militarist and pacifist ideologies, we’re never led to focus on any indicative properties of those ideologies, only the actions and effects of those characters who represent them — no, “represent them” is wrong; these characters are fully fleshed; the ideologies inspire their actions but clearly their motives are complex — one can’t say of the characters they represent those of a type — “here’s the pacificist president, and here’s the typically brutal militarist”. In fact, from the casting, the expectation of a primitivist embodiment by type is played against: Fredric March as the liberal president is a far harder, concrete personality than Lancaster’s slightly fey, elegant, and almost patrician idealist.

     

It’s clear throughout the film that what is at stake in the conflict is greater than the success or failure of either ideology, or in fact ideology per se. In fact one could say, that the victory in the film is, itself, a victory over ideology, as the subversive ‘pacifism’ Lancaster wants to battle is a (perhaps false) abstraction of his own making (cf. the summary rant he gives against the ‘one-worlders..’, etc. that bedevil him). I suppose it is the fate of the ideology-bound to see only ideological motives in their adversaries — or to see their adversary as only an ideology. And we know that one’s Enemies are creatures of one’s Self….

     

There’s a line that has always rung loudly in my head from ‘Seven Days': the President is having his first interview with Kirk Douglas’ ‘Jiggs’ regarding the plot against the constitution; Douglas is nervous, he hems and haws; the President interrupts, brusquely:

 
March: “Do you have something against the English language?”
Douglas: “No, sir…”
March: “Then speak it plainly, please.”

     

A fine piece of dialog, and like a rifle-shot in context. It makes so much sense to me, I use it for a life.

I agree at first blush (if one was to flip a coin) with your typification of Kubrick as Hobbesian; but (as always in regard to Kubrick) I would caution about carrying that too far, as you already seem aware, mentioning his “treatment of the sublime and of religious and spiritual longings”. Kubrick indeed contains multitudes, if not those wonderful Whitmanesque contradictions that vex us, engendering discussion panels….

     

Y’know, what’s remarkable about Barry Lyndon is that (in addition to everything else it treats of) it contains as much of Kubrick’s trenchant observations on war and politics (and their mutual confluence) as fully as do his three ‘war films’ — and does so set against the pre-Napoleonic Wars (!). Perhaps it’s the politically foreign context that has most modern doctrinaire ideologues of the left — all of them children, of some sort, of 1789, (and fascinating that this date [signed upon the pittance of a stipend sent to Redmond, now exiled in America (!)] closes the film….) confused to that film’s subtle magnificences. Though “subtle” and “magnificence” are not often words in their vocabularies, I find. The only critic I’ve known who seems to ‘get’ this film is they guy who superintends the KubrickNet mailing list, Bilge Ebiri.

     

(I might also refer to another Frankenheimer film, “The Manchurian Candidate”, which immediately preceded “Seven Days” — it carries the concept of the irrelevance of ideology per se to wonderful absurdity, which is the great black humor of the film. And a book I’m re-reading right now — Heller’s Catch-22 — though I don’t think it came across at all in Buck Henry’s wonderful screenplay, here we have an anti-war novel so absolutely devoid of ideology on the part of any character, or the author, for that matter, the effect is almost vertiginous. …Interesting isn’t it that this book and the two films I mentioned are, all three, circa 1960-1962, and had their gestation in the five or ten years preceding… Hm….).

     

And of course, ideas die where ideology lives.

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