Kubrick, Brilliant Yet Distant

Casting a sharp eye over one of history's sharpest filmmakers

Courtesy Warner Bros.

“The Shining” is one of Kubrick’s films most imbued with genuine emotion. It contains some of the director’s finest scenes, during which the viewer catches a glimpse of some feeling through the directorial schema.

In “Paths of Glory,” filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 drama of wartime corruption and injustice, an extended tracking shot of runic grace follows Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) along the length of a trench lined with French soldiers. That same shot will one day follow Jack Nicholson’s demented Jack Torrance as he prowls the endless corridors of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.” It’s no coincidence that just as the trench will soon be lined with the corpses of Dax’s men, so the Overlook will shortly become Jack’s tomb, enfolding him in its grisly embrace. The glacial, seemingly inevitable progress of the camera, with its lightness and sepulchral calm, is just the kind of filmic memento mori characteristic of Kubrick, the man who knew everything about movies and precious little about human beings.

“Paths of Glory” and “The Shining” are perhaps Kubrick’s two most redeemable films in that they are inflected with real emotion. That is not to deny their creator’s genius, but only to suggest that his grandest works, in their fiercely ambitious attempts to confront and understand the universe, lack the human grounding that might have made them cherished as well as revered. The Museum of Fine Arts is showing a Kubrick retrospective throughout February in its excellent Remis Auditorium, and it’s the perfect reminder that while hugely important, Kubrick’s immaculate chilliness—sustained by that particular genius which only lapsed into parody on his execrable late films, “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut”—probably has no place in modern cinema.

The finest moments in Kubrick’s filmography are usually ones where some passion or pathos breaks through the ice. Douglas’s embittered decency carries “Paths of Glory” to the point where it becomes a cathartic tour de force—the final scene says more about war than anything else in American cinema. Nicholson anchors “The Shining” within the realms of mundanity wherein it becomes far more frightening and intense. “Dr. Strangelove” has Peter Sellers’s improvisatory, comedic talent. The best bits in “2001: A Space Odyssey” are the ones featuring HAL 9000, the self-conscious robot, who displays far more humanity than the virtually anonymous astronauts destroying him.

At their worst, though, Kubrick’s practices and idiosyncrasies seem less like inspiration and more like damaging eccentricity. His insistence on shooting in England renders farcical the several haggard palm trees in “Full Metal Jacket,” especially when compared to other contemporaneous Vietnam films like “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” and “The Deer Hunter,” which were on shot on location. The location is also problematic in “Lolita,” supposedly an American road movie, which looks nothing of the sort. Some of Kubrick’s films carry an annoying air of didacticism as well—“A Clockwork Orange” may not actually say anything particularly insightful about violence, but it certainly thinks it does.

Watching the films again in a cinema, it’s clear that for all their scope and skill and the many thousands of plaudits they continue to receive, nobody makes movies like this anymore, for very good reason. Cinema is as much about empathy as it is about spectacle, art as much about people as it is about ideas. Kubrick is a reminder that sometimes a filmmaker can be almost too talented, too born for greatness. Watch “Paths of Glory” again, not merely his best but also one of the very best, and recall that when he made it in 1957 he was still just Stanley, still just a man, not the great and godlike Kubrick whose films would one day be shown in the halls of fine art museums like plastic, monolithic monuments to the dead. What an achievement! What a necropolis!

—Staff writer Caleb J.T. Thompson can be reached at calebthompson@college.harvard.edu.

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