Contrary to his reputation, Stanley was actually quite an emotional director.
I grew up totally enamoured with Kubrick films, which I think a lot of young people from my generation were for some reason, (Gen Xers as well as some tail end boomers). I’m not sure why that was exactly. The long, centered takes? The “cold” stares of Jack, Alex & Private Pyle? The endless tension? Like Hitchcock but no plot twist. His movies would build & build & build. Awkward yet choreographed. Visually flat while also stunningly beautiful. I was hooked. Still am.
When I’d go to parties in my 20’s & early 30’s, if someone would start talking to me about Star Wars I’d always be like “I’m more of a 2001 sci-fi guy.” Which in hindsight is both snobby and kinda stupid. Even though George Lucas loved 2001 and cited it as inspiration, Lucas knows as well as anyone that Star Wars is a totally different animal from Kubrick’s masterpiece.
It’s not that one is better than the other. They just serve different cinematic needs. The Star Wars universe is about love and war and passion and family. Full of emotion. Drama. Melodrama even. While 2001 A Space Odyssey, along with many other Kubrick films, is considered the antithesis of Lucas’ crowd pleasing story of lightsaber swinging swashbucklers from a galaxy far, far away, (yet a galaxy eerily similar to the serial b-movies Lucas watched every weekend as a kid.)
Lucas, Spielberg? Warm, accessable, blockbusters. Pulling from older filmmakers who aimed to please like Frank Capra and even Hitchcock after the jump scares. Meanwhile, Kubrick, Scocesse, Orson Welles and some celebrated European directors from Bergman to Fellni were all considered dark, cold and distant.
Scorsese & Welles had dark views of humanity but both men put emotions front and center in their best works. The European art house cinema could at times in the 50’s and 60’s be quite postmodern & cold too, but the characters usually were full of passions that balanced out their existential angst.
Kubrick, on the other hand, was and often still is considered one of the coldest directors of them all. Murderous computers, heartless ghosts, killer soldiers. On & on. Even the way Kubrick made films was considered heartless. His famous endless takes. Months of reshoots. Sometimes close to a decade between features. Those who don’t like Stanley’s film’s claim that his pictures are soulless and the performances lack any real true feelings. I think this view might be wrong.
In fact, I actually think the idea that Kubrick is a "cold" or "unempathetic" filmmaker doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Many of the stories may seem distant and robot like at first glance, but on repeated viewings of most of his films you realize that the "flatness" of his character's emotions is a mis-direct. It's the societies these people inhabit that forces a certain ‘flatness’ on them. Barry Lyndon and the norms of 19th century Europe. Joker and the norms of the armed services in Full Metal Jacket. Alex and the criminal code of not caring about anything in Clockwork Orange. Dave and his training as an astronaut in 2001.
Watching The Shining again recently, for the first time in years, I was struck by one scene that I had apparently forgotten completely, despite having seen the film some 20 times before. (Spoilers ahead). Before Jack freezes to death in the maze, we actually see Danny escape. He finds the exit and his Mom is waiting there. Wendy (Shelley Duvall) sees Danny, gasps, drops the knife she’s been holding for what seems like the last half of the movie, and screams “Danny!” Who then runs into her open arms as they embrace. Only then do we cut to Jack’s famous frozen face. I found this forgotten scene of protective motherly love very moving now after so many years. I had become a father since the last time I’d seen it. Was that the difference? Having an adult perspective? A better understanding of the child mother bond? Was that there but just not seen by me in my adolescent excitement at Nicholson’s terrifying yet hysterical performance?
A similar thing happened in Barry Lyndon. I’d totally forgotten about Barry’s son falling off a horse about midway through the story. There’s a very long scene with Ryan O’Neal in tears at his son’s bedside. Pretty much the only emotion the truly wooden Ryan expresses throughout the picture.
To miss the emotion in Kubrick's films is understandable. Especially if you’re young when first exposed to his work. Yet it’s part of the genius of his filmmaking. He fools us all into thinking these characters are the automatons that their circumstance have forced them into behaving like. The real emotion is always there though. Just below the surface. All it takes to release that emotion is a haunted house. Or cruel war. Or mysterious alien monolith. A saved child even. Then the emotion comes out. Our animal side. Our passion. Our rage. Grief. Love. Or in the case of 2001, our eternal rebirth.
I find Kubrick to be one of the most emotional filmmaker ever. You just have to wait for it. Eventually, after many viewings (and for the actors many takes), that emotion finally finds you. When it does, good or bad. Maternal, paternal, earthly or alien, there’s no escape. The emotion wins. Everytime.
Think about it. Humbert, Joker, Lyndon, Dave. Even HAL. Most of the main characters in Kubrick films end up leaving with, or dying of, the same thing. A broken heart.
Stanley Kubrick. Heartbreaker.
PS - True Kubrick fans know this, but the picture above is from one of Stanley’s earlier films “Paths Of Glory”. It’s his one movie that was quite literally a tear jerker due to this single scene at the end. Starring a young Christiane Susanne Harlan (soon to be Christiane Kubrick, naturally). Stanley never made another scene as brilliantly manipulative or openly emotional as this one. I dare you to watch the movie and not cry at the end. You’ll never call Kubrick “cold” again.