Tuesday, November 9, 2010

“The Men Died Splendidly”: Some Thoughts on Paths of Glory

“You've spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality.”
– Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) to Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas)

Paths of Glory, which debuted as an amazing-looking Criterion DVD/Blu-ray a couple of weeks ago, is one Stanley Kubrick film that even those sad few who don’t like Stanley Kubrick films can get behind. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the one most often cited is that Paths represents one of Kubrick’s more humanistic films, as opposed to allegedly cold (and to some even misanthropic or sadistic) works like 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange. “Humanistic” is a loaded word, of course, but it certainly applies to Paths: It’d be hard for someone who believes Kubrick’s work to be cold to really say the same for this film, since it’s got some of the most emotionally wrenching scenes ever committed to celluloid.

I love Paths to death, but it’s far from my favorite Kubrick film. True, it never fails to turn me into a blubbering mess, but I could say pretty much the same thing for any number of his films. However, I do feel it holds some kind of key to the rest of his oeuvre. In some way, Paths is the film in which we see Kubrick both at his most emotionally open and at his most narratively ruthless. It seethes with anger, pain, and sentiment one minute, then resumes its relentless march towards its grim outcome the next. A critic friend recently referred to it as the “first” real Kubrick movie. I see what he means, but I tend to think of it as really the last "straight" movie he made. (And no, we’re not forgetting The Killing, which I absolutely adore. It's just that, as a very pronounced noir, it has one foot in a very specific tradition.)

The unremittingly grim outcomes mentioned above would become a leitmotif in Kubrick’s later films, and the machinery the director built around them – his characters are often caught in traps they’re not even aware of – would become Exhibit A in the case some have made against him. It’s not really worth hashing over the details of that debate here – I’m happy to say that Kubrick detractors are a vanquished, divided army nowadays, scattered across the countryside, feeding on scraps – but it helps to crystallize my feelings about Paths, a film which I see as offering a kind of baseline reading for Kubrick's body of work.

I’ve never quite been able to even understand the “Kubrick films are cold” argument; they’ve always been incredibly heartbreaking to me. On a surface level, his later films are a lot more unforgiving than Paths, to be sure: The pockets of sentiment wherein we ostensibly stare into characters’ souls (here , think of the scenes between the prisoners and the priest, the final scene between Kirk Douglas’s Col. Dax and Adolphe Menjou’s Gen. Broulard, and, of course, the final scene in the tavern where the French soldiers sob as a German girl awkwardly sings for them) are few and far between in the later films. When such scenes do come up later on, they’re often accompanied by a healthy dose of irony and, occasionally, a certain detachment. The magnificent, bizarre, heartbreaking scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex De Large (Malcolm McDowell) returns home from prison to find that his parents have replaced him with a border is a perfect example – some find it hilarious, some find it painful, many find it both hilarious and painful, but it’s miles away from anything you’d find in Paths of Glory. (Alas, the video clip I've linked to doesn't quite do it justice.)

There are lots of reasons for this (I mean, come on, Paths is a fairly traditional anti-war film made in the ‘50s, whereas A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian science-fiction film made in 1971, well after Everything Changed Forever™) but I think a big part of it also has to do with Kubrick’s own changing conception of his audience. I’m not sure that I’m moved any less by the aforementioned scene in A Clockwork Orange than I am by the final tavern scene in Paths of Glory, for example. But the scene in Paths of Glory is a direct hit: I can’t even begin to count the number of times when I’ve seen someone “dare” others not to cry during that scene. (I think someone even does this during the Life in Pictures documentary, no? Is it Spielberg? I can’t remember.) That’s because it’s almost impossible to do anything else; it tells you absolutely what your response should be.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, but Kubrick became less interested in such clean emotions as his work developed. And, perhaps more importantly, he increasingly trusted his audience to process more complex emotions as well -- to understand that comedy, tragedy, irony, distance… when done right, these were not mutually exclusive concepts to a genuinely intelligent viewer. (This is why I love it when some people call Barry Lyndon, probably the most emotionally overwhelming and devastating film I’ve ever seen, a “satire”. Well, why the hell not?)

Kubrick wasn’t a fan of Eisenstein’s theories of montage (he was famously more of a Pudovkin man), but I do think he embraced, on some level, the associational and dialectical nature of the enterprise: A film isn’t so much what’s onscreen but what happens in the mind of the viewer – or rather, a film is the combination of all of these elements, including what happens in the mind of the viewer. So, to argue that a Kubrick film is “cold” is to divorce it from one of its key elements: The (human) viewer, who is responding to the work in question. That may seem like an obvious point, except when you consider the fact that in 1968 many critics were knocking 2001 for being cold and anti-human even as scores of their fellow humans were camping out in theaters, seeing the film over and over again, and being profoundly moved.

It’s an argument of plastics– can the object in question be said to physically display the values with which we want to associate it? – versus effect – can the object in question make us feel these aforementioned values, even if it does not seem to overtly display them? We love to talk, for example, of the generous framing in some films, of the way the camera is placed so as to include family units and whatnot. But the real question should be whether these films actually convey said generosity. Otherwise, what’s the point?

To be fair, direct sentiment does pop up again in other Kubrick films, but when it does, it does so in more unusual and interesting ways. My favorite example from the later period is the aforementioned Barry Lyndon. The film itself is notoriously composed largely of zoom-outs that often start on a small detail and then open out to reveal larger tableaux and landscapes. Needless to say, this can at times create a deliberate distancing effect. (In an essay I wrotejesus – 16 years ago, which can be found on the Kubrick Site, I argued that this was Kubrick’s attempt to represent historical time as space, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, despite the hifalutin’, beyond-wired-college-senior-running-late-for-a-deadline tone of the piece.) Except that, sometimes, the distancing doesn’t work, literally: During the funeral of young Brian Lyndon, the funeral procession marches towards the camera, so that even as the camera pulls away, the grieving characters come closer and closer. Sometimes, raw human tragedy denies context and distance.

I'll take the Paths of Glory challenge and one up it with this one: I dare you to not be moved by this scene from Barry Lyndon, with its smash cut from the deathbed to the funeral, the relentless Handel-via-Leonard-Rosenman music, the howling devastation on the faces of the actors. But it also works aesthetically within the film’s very strange artifice: We may be physically and temporally far from these characters, they may live on an alien planet called The Past that we can only see through special lenses, but there are moments when we can connect and realize they're human, just like us. Or, to misappropriate the film’s closing sentiment: We are all equal now.

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