Stanley Kubrick: great technician, not quite a major film maker.

The peerless Paths of Glory.

The peerless Paths of Glory.

There’s a season of each and every one of Stanley Kubrick’s films on at the Lighthouse cinema in Dublin at the moment. The best place to start is with his second film proper (his actual fourth) Paths Of Glory (’57).

One of the great anti-war films, it sees Kirk Douglas come fruitlessly to the defence of unjustly accused soldiers in the 1st WW. What’s so striking about the film in retrospect is how gloriously moving it is. There’s a tremendous emotional investment in the figure of Douglas and the result is a searing indictment of war. It was though the one and only time that Kubrick ever allowed emotion sully any of his films.

After that, we have a series of films each of which seems to have its own particular excuse as to why it fails to engage on an emotional level.

The Planet of The Apes.

The Planet of The Apes.

First, there’s the bloated if curiously bloodless spectacle of Spartacus (’60), followed by his understandably cold take on Lolita (’62). You could hardly have become emotionally invested in that kind of a protagonist. Hence the casting of James Mason instead of the younger, darker and more obviously cynical Dirk Bogarde – who would later reprise the role for Fassbinder in the glorious Despair (’78).

Next up, he was appropriately detached for the brilliant political satire Dr Strangelove (’64). Neither it nor 2001:A Space Odyssey (’68), the sci-fi classic that followed had a discernible protagonist, so there was no one there to invest your emotion in. But that’s the nature of sci-fi, seems to be the suggestion. Even though it hadn’t been for the other sci-fi classic that came out in exactly the same year, Planet Of the Apes.

2001 A Space Odessey.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

And you can hardly blame Kubrick for failing to get us to invest emotionally in the protagonist of his next film, Alex in A Clockwork Orange (’72). Or for that matter in Ryan O’Neill’s Barry Lyndon (’75) or Jack Nicholson in The Shining (’80). And while you do care about Matthew Modine’s Joker in Full Metal Jacket, he’s not what the film is about. His are just the eyes through which we view the war. While in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, he ditches the protagonist, Nicole Kidman, after 90 minutes and we spend a fruitless final hour watching an actor at a series of orgies being directed by the only man in the world even more wary about sex than he is.

Ton Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.

Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.

Paths to Glory ends with a female German prisoner being humiliatingly forced to sing in front of her French captors. But as they watch her, they become increasingly moved by the pathetic sight of her, and the plaintive sound of the song that she sings. And they crumble before her, reduced to common tears. The German actress was called Christiane, and Kubrick promptly married her.

And it’s almost as if, having found emotional satisfaction in his personal life, he was never inclined again to invest any emotion in any of his protagonists, and therefore into any of his films, ever again. Or perhaps at that early stage of his career, he just hadn’t found his voice yet. Perhaps engaging emotionally just wasn’t something he was interested in. And having made the mistake once, he made sure never to do so ever again.

There’s no denying the technical bravura of say the lighting in Barry Lyndon, the use of the steadycam in The Shining (remarkably foreshadowed in Paths of Glory by the way), or the performances he gets out of Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, or the sheer dazzling spectacle that is 2001. But in the absence of emotional investment, that’s all they are; dazzlingly brilliant, spectacular, technical exercises.

They all glisten, but, with the exception of 2001 (reviewed here), none of them are quite gold.

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