Steven Spielberg’s recent announcement that he intends to adapt Kubrick’s script about Napoleon into a TV series has met with scowls from the usual suspects. How could cinema’s most ambrosial optimist, they asked, possibly do justice to its most intractable pessimist—its grandmaster, its Kasparov? The same thing happened the last time Spielberg attempted a mind-meld with Kubrick, for "A.I.", which was a misguided venture from the get-go—no voice as singular as Spielberg’s should sing karaoke. One wag said the film had "Spielberg’s intellect and Kubrick’s heart", it being the received wisdom in cineaste circles that analytical intelligence is a better trait in a film director than I-feel-you-bro warmth.
Is it, though? It is certainly a qualification for the job of film critic. I’ve long since given up trying to list the ways in which critics are out of touch with audiences, but if asked to name a single thing I would say: their underestimation of the audience’s wish to be moved. Thus Michael Haneke is praised for "never allowing an ounce of false sentiment into 'Amour'", "Lincoln" for eschewing "trademark Spielberg sentimentality"; and "Skyfall" is chided for allowing "sentimentality to cloud its judgment". You find yourself wondering which bit, exactly? The scene with the man-eating lizards, the crashing train or the shootout-with-shotguns at the end?
I’ve never trusted the accusation of sentimentality. It’s a conversation stopper rather than starter. It bullies with phony unanimity, and splinters upon contact into a hundred warring definitions. "To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phony, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd,” writes Carl Wilson in his marvellous book "Let’s Talk About Love", due to be reissued this year. It’s about learning to love Celine Dion, but also, by the by, about sentimentality’s demotion from a virtue in the 18th century—when Diderot demanded that art "move me, astonish me, break my heart"—to a 19th-century vice. "A sentimentalist," said Oscar Wilde, famously, "is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it", but what did Wilde ever do to earn his spurs as the authority on honest emotion? Not the guy you’d phone in a pinch, methinks.
The Victorian disdain for sentimentality was, in part, a reaction against the rise of potboilers and romances written by, or for, women—and all too often, it came down to discomfort about emotional displays of any kind. A similar chauvinism prevails at the movies, a medium born halfway between the limbic system and the Kleenex box. When the New York Times praised Martin Scorsese’s "Hugo", an evocation of cinema’s early days, for keeping "the treacle at bay", nothing would have struck the directors of that era as more heretical. Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Frank Capra and George Cukor prided themselves on the accuracy of their strike at the audience’s emotions. The problem with "Hugo" was not that it was too sentimental, but that it was not sentimental enough. Scorsese couldn’t summon the ease with emotions demanded by the material.
That is what makes him a modern artist, just as sentimentality is the modern sin. We thrill at the pitilessness of directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher, and we haze old-school empaths like Spielberg until they repent. The granddaddy of them all—the original cold haddock—is Kubrick, who made movies much the same way he played chess, to win before you’d even taken your seat, hence the nagging suspicion—happily embraced by his fans—that the best thing to do with a Kubrick movie is not so much watch it as submit to it, the way you submit to a superior argument.
I’ve read his "Napoleon". Written in 1969, just after he completed "2001: A Space Odyssey", it is everything you might expect of the man who went on to make "Barry Lyndon": Olympian, exhaustively researched and chilly as a mausoleum.
The most telling scene comes early, with the young Napoleon teased by his school-mates for his ignorance of ice—a perfect torment for the man who will over-reach in the snowy wastes of Russia, like Jack Nicholson caught in a snowy maze at the end of "The Shining", the only Kubrick film after 1971 that really works, if only because the director seemed to be detailing his own chilly labyrinth. There are marvels here: a slow-motion cannonade, the sight of 30,000 extras rushing into battle, a Parisian orgy boasting only slightly less in the way of risk to life and limb. But there is also a lot of voice-over, saddled with the task of explaining over 50 years of Napoleonic history, and there are lines like "Citizens, word has come from Paris that the foul prison of Bastille has been captured!" One for the Guillotine.
Bonaparte himself remains a stiff, distant presence, a man already posing for his marble bust. The master strategist is here, but not the fiery Corsican who roused his men and sent them into battle, or the errant romantic who remained fascinated by dreams and what they could make men do. "You imagine that an enemy army is defeated by analysis?" he once said. "Never." If that sounds like anyone it is not Kubrick but Spielberg.
So to Spielberg I say: make Napoleon your own. The king is dead, long live the king!
Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson, Bloomsbury, November 2013