Stanley Kubrick’s Shining turns out to be a more divisive movie than I would’ve expected but despite having first hated it, when I watched it in middle school hoping for a page-by-page adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, I’ve come to like it quite a bit as I’ve gotten older, though it’s never blown me away, and I’ve watched Dr. Strangelove twice at the behest of my dad and on both occasions I thought it was clever, but not hilarious (nor even, frankly, all that enjoyable), and then, like a lot of teenagers, I had a phase with A Clockwork Orange where I watched it over and over and thought it was brilliant. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, though. Not sure if I’ll like it when I reach that point in the List.
The reason I bring all of those up at once is because they’re the only Kubrick movies I’ve seen and now we’ve got Paths of Glory, the first Kubrick movie on the List, and even though he’s popping up on the cinematic scene and having his work take flight at the same time as Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu and Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini (the group of mid-century elites who changed cinema), he’s existed in my imagination for a while now, his work always seeming perfectly accessible, but I’ve also had the longstanding habit of deferring to Kubrick; in other words, if there was ever something I didn’t like in one of his movies, or if I felt that they didn’t make sense, I blamed myself instead of Kubrick, just assumed that, given his renown in film circles, he can do no wrong and I simply just don’t know what to appreciate.
Paths of Glory is gorgeous and swift, with a lean 80-minute runtime, and was more accessible than I’d expected.
Kirk Douglas (who alongside Henry Fonda, as I’ve mentioned, is probably my favoite actor of his generation) plays a soldier in the French army during World War One. He’s ordered to carry out a suicide mission, leading a bunch of soldiers out of a trench and across a field toward inevitable slaughter, and he complies with it. When the mission goes wrong, for a number of reasons, he finds himself serving as the devense attorney, at a military trial, for three soldiers under his command who’ve been arbitrarily charged with Cowardice.
(I’m writing this at a bar in Coral Gables and I’ve got my earbuds in with no music playing cuz there’s a guy beside me who’s probably in his 70s, drunk as shit, watching the football game and swaying side to side, muttering to himself, agitated. It’s distracting. I’ve seen him here before and I know that the minute I pop these outta my ears he’s gonna start talking to me.)
The movie is a pretty scathing satire of military politics, particularly the officers’ attitude about the expendability of a soldier’s life, the indifference with which they estimate the slaughter of an entire unit, surrendering those lives so that they can overtake a hill that isn’t a tactical necessity and where the enemy outnumbers and outguns them by orders of magnitude.
Kubrick’s depiction of the officers’ indifference, and of the opulent accommodations they enjoy while soldiers shit and starve and die in trenches, is the kind of touch that, rather than simply making a point, actually makes the movie pretty frustrating in the way that an effective polemic will. The villains are so loathesome, and whether or not the bureaucracies by which they’re protected are really so unassailable, it feeds that part of the viewer’s own mind that’s been subject to beureaucratic indignities of one sort or another.
The absurdity of Dr. Strangelove explores and mocks the military, too, and it’s very much a product of the same sensibility: it attacks the bureaucracy of war, the casual gambling with human life, the aloofness of the men who pull the strings in palacial subterranean control rooms.
So why go with a brutal nihilistic approach to the satire here and a comedic one there? What does one accomplish that the other can’t?
But I do wanna celebrate Paths of Glory for the way that, like with Winchester 73, the story moves forward in distinct chapters that are so brilliantly and beautifully self-contained as to seem more like episodes in a very brisk series. I’ve heard it said of Quentin Tarnatino that he doesn’t make good movies, he makes good scenes (a perspective I totally understand, but also disagree with), and I can see Paths of Glory being subject to the same appraisal—except that each episode is built upon the last. Each character is made richer and richer. The ending is bleak but reaches a soft dramatic crescendo that works well enough. Emphasis on that last part. Because the ending is making its point that this sort of injustice is just gonna go on and on, it’s the nature of the beast, etcetera.
It’s a point well-made.
Dramatically, though, it leaves us hanging, gutted, and it prompted me to wonder what was more important to Young Kubrick: his story, or his ideas.
It’ll be interesting to see how he vascillates between those elements over the next few decades.
Cuz I felt gutted by the ending, emotionally, but I don’t think it’s because I was made to really care for the characters who got fucked by the system—I was gutted by the thought of how they were being gutted, by the simple factual injustice of it. And when I think back on the Kubrick movies I’ve seen, I think it’s something of a motif: the characters are less compelling than the ideas they’re meant to embody or explore.
It also raises the question of when such qualities are to be looked at as a shortcoming, or an aesthetic.