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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5 Best Films about Hollywood.

2800338627_c5df023aac5. A Star Is Born

The 1954 version, obviously. Directed by George Cukor, scripted by Dorothy Parker and starring Judy Garland as the innocent ingénue discovered by Hollywood heart-throb James Mason. Her “Born In A Trunk” medley makes this a genuine Hollywood classic.

And make sure it’s the restored 176 minute version from 1983. They stitched it together by inserting publicity stills in place of some of the lost footage. But it all works surprisingly well, and looks at times like a carefully planned art-house film.


4. The Player

Supposedly an indictment of Hollywood, Robert Altman’s clever thriller is in fact a closet celebration of the system it slyly pretends to satirize. The sub plot centres around a horribly believable caricature of a European writer, whose sincerity is flagged by his refusal to allow his opus to be sullied by anything as vulgar as stars.

But he quickly sees the light. And his movie ends as Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts enjoy a gloriously clichéd, Hollywood kiss.

The film’s amorality and triumphant cynicism are punctuated by the pitch perfect cameos from everyone who was anyone at the time it was made, in 1992.


wallpaper043. Mulholland Dr.

As David Thomson pointed out in his perceptive review, the “Dr” of the title stands a much for Dreams as it does for Drive, where the film is set in the Hollywood hills.

A director, an actress and a starlet move from dream to nightmare and back again in a series overlapping and interweaving scenarios. The idea of Hollywood being presided over by an actual cowboy is all too appealing, but only David Lynch would have imagined him taking his responsibilities completely seriously.


Visually arresting and hauntingly evocative, it is, given its troubled history (it was originally begun as a TV series) a surprisingly engaging film, that delivers an unexpected emotional punch.


2. Sunset Boulevard

William Holden is the embittered writer, Gloria Swanson the faded goddess from a bygone age, and Eric Von Stroheim (who directed the majestic Greed in 1924) her butler in Billy Wilder’s razor-sharp satire of the industry they were all working in.

It’s hard to know what’s more contemptuous; Wilder’s casting of Swanson and Stroheim as painful parodies of their former selves, or the latter’s agreement to both act in the film.


rg363b1. The Bad And The Beautiful

An actress (Lana Turner if you don’t mind), a writer and a director are forever embittered after an archetypally ambitious Hollywood producer launches their respective careers as only he could; as a means of furthering his own.

Played with irresistible charm by Kirk Douglas, his Jonathon Shields projects the perfect mix of magnetism and ruthlessness. And of the many, many details that the film gets absolutely spot on, my favourite is the coat of arms he insists on hanging portentously on the gates to his mansion.

They read: non sans droit. “Not without right”. Which was the motto originally penned by one William Shakespeare on his coat of arms.

That this is never referred to in its dialogue is a testament to the film’s infectiously confident swagger. And director Vincente Minnelli somehow strikes the perfect balance between sophisticated cynicism and exuberant, heady melodrama.

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