Kubrick: An Odyssey by Robert P Kolker & Nathan Abrams - review by Graham Daseler

Graham Daseler

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Kubrick: An Odyssey


Faber & Faber 656pp £30

There are, I have long suspected, two types of cinephiles: those who think Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a masterpiece and those who think it’s a relentless bore. Early in their new biography of the film director, Kubrick: An Odyssey, Robert P Kolker and Nathan Abrams make clear which camp they belong to, describing the scene in which the astronaut Frank Poole jogs around (and around and around and around) the spaceship Discovery as ‘one of the most lyrical passages in film history’. This, it seemed to me, was an inauspicious sign, as was Kolker and Abrams’s habit of muddling modifying phrases. ‘Although he stood little chance of getting into college, Jack wanted his son to have a successful career,’ the authors write, making it sound as if Kubrick’s father, Jack, a doctor who specialised in otolaryngology, wouldn’t be attending university.

But I needn’t have worried. Much like their subject, whose first feature film, Fear and Desire (1952), was so amateurish that he later tried to buy up all the prints and have them destroyed, Kolker and Abrams get better as they go along. By the time they reach Kubrick’s fourth film, Paths of Glory (1957), they’ve hit their stride, as had Kubrick himself by that stage in his career. Paths of Glory remains one of the best antiwar movies ever made, showing the absurdity of war without ever being sententious or syrupy. Kubrick’s films have their faults – tedium, self-indulgence, a tendency to treat women as little more than sex objects – but sentimentality is not one of them, which is a reason why his pictures have, by and large, aged so well. Platoon, Oliver Stone’s grunt’s-eye view of the Vietnam War, was hailed for its realism when it came out in 1986, but, four decades later, it seems as contrived and cloying as On Golden Pond (1981), whereas Full Metal Jacket (1987), Kubrick’s much more biting, misanthropic Vietnam movie from the same period, feels as fresh as ever.

Paths of Glory wasn’t a box office success, but it was praised by critics, pulling Kubrick out of indies and into the mainstream. Thus began one of the greatest runs by any director in movie history, starting with Spartacus (1960) and ending with A Clockwork Orange (1971). In the decade

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