A woman runs down a long, deserted hallway trying to save her son from her maniacal husband, when she is stopped by a ghastly phantom who proclaims, “Great party, isn’t it?” A man wakes in bed to discover that he has transformed into a giant insect, and worries that he might miss his morning train. Another is charged of a crime with no name, and hopes that his co-workers won’t hear about it. A cigar-chewing general sends a misinformed order, which leads a patriotic cowboy to start the nuclear apocalypse. These scenarios are infamous examples of the absurd, the comedic and the horrific, expressed in chaotic unison through fiction. All of them were created by artists who are often taken far too seriously: Franz Kafka and Stanley Kubrick.
Most Americans have read Kafka in a high school or college lit class, the most oft-taught examples being his novella The Metamorphosis and novel The Trial. Both stories involve businessmen who wake up to discover that their world has changed utterly… and their first worries are of their bureaucratic jobs. Josef K. in The Trial is accused of an unnamed crime and is made to go through increasingly ridiculous tasks in order to clear his name—a necessity in order to keep his high-level bank position, which is all he seems to care about. Likewise, when Gregor Samsa becomes a bug in The Metamorphosis, he scrambles to make it to work on time, unaware that his life has been altered forever. Both characters search for solutions to their bizarre problems and are met with mundane obstacles along the way (eternal paperwork, weird judges, a family who can’t pay rent due to the insect in their house), and they end up consumed by their own inability to accept the situations.
Kafka’s stories are derived from very real situations that deal with bureaucracy and figures of authority; being tied to a job that you despise. He inflates these occurrences to fantastic and insane proportions, but never in a way that completely disguises them. They are our worst nightmares. Imagine being detained at the DMV for eternity, having your number called, only to be told that you’re in the wrong line. The inflation allows the dread and humor to speak all at once. Samsa’s dull, annoyed attitude at his transformation is comical; and Josef K. encounters comedic set pieces constantly, such as policemen being whipped in his office storage room, or a painter whose studio is entirely made up of an unsteady bed. But the humor dries up when the characters discover that their new lives are permanent, that this grotesque dream is now reality.
Kubrick was vocal about his admiration of Kafka, and cited him as an influence on the style of The Shining, in which monstrous events are described in unnervingly calm vocabulary. The same approach can be seen throughout Kubrick’s most frightening films. The Shining is told in bright and stark images, with production design lifted directly from travel magazines—the only baroque element is the core-rattling score. 2001: A Space Odyssey features one of the most soft-spoken villains of all time, and as the awe-inspiring events take place, humans pass the time with conversations about lunch. Dr. Strangelove basically chronicles the end of the world, but it plays out like a slapstick comedy, with sex jokes and huge caricatures filling official seats. (This feels less and less like satire every day.)
Both Kafka and Kubrick are taken so seriously in academic terms, even as great writers like David Foster Wallace discuss the extent of their humor (in a fantastic essay called “Laughing With Kafka”). This may be because their humor is rooted deeply in the grotesque, exaggerating perspectives so completely that they don’t feel real anymore. They do this with the straightest of faces; in an interview, Kubrick noted that Kafka’s prose is without decoration, describing such bizarre incidents as if relating the daily news. Kubrick’s cinematic style is likewise stark, brightly lit, and coldly shot, baroque only in its soundtracks and story choices. In some ways, they seem so very serious. Had these storytellers drawn stylistic attention to their strangeness, though, the humor would be cheap and farcical. It’s the realism of perspective that makes them so horrendously effective.
Though stories like The Metamorphosis and films like The Shining are certainly works of mind-melting fright, it’s a comfort to find the humor in them. Kafka and Kubrick acknowledge the absurdity of our little terrors, and show that such fears are laughable. Maybe this is even more frightening in the end; that we are surrounded by ridiculous, pointless, and endless doom. With the world seeming more absurd every day, are Kafka and Kubrick’s perspectives so wild after all? This is yet more proof that such wild stories sometimes present more truth than their realist counterparts. If the end is so near, we can do nothing but laugh.