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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