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David Simon introduces Paths of Glory Saturday, Sept. 25

September 24, 2010

Timothy Carey in "Paths of Glory."

Local journalist, writer, and television auteur David Simon has never hid his appreciation for Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war epic Paths of Glory. He’s called it the “most important political film of the 20th century.” He told NPR it was one of the movies he’s loved. It was his example of life-changing art in Baltimore magazine’s John Lewis’ dependable blog. And he wrote the introduction to Penguin Classics’ recent reissue of Henry Cobb’s 1935 source novel.

Tomorrow night he introduces the movie, showing at MICA’s Brown Center at 7 p.m.. and sponsored by the Maryland Film Festival. Consider the screening one of those rare chances to see a spectacular piece of art and hear one of its intelligent and huge fans talk about why he appreciates it so much.

With Paths, though, where to begin with such praise is the hard part. Cobb’s novel was loosely adapted by Kubrick himself and two of the more indelibly salty and sometimes overlooked writers of mid-century America. One was Calder Willingham, who would go on to work on more celebrated scripts—The Graduate, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, 1991′s sometimes slept-on Rambling Rose (adapted from his own novel)—but his 1947 debut novel, End as Man, is a still-searing portrait of student life in a military college much like the Citadel. The other screenwriter was Jim Thompsom, who provided the chipped-tooth dialogue to Kubrick’s 1956 noir The Killing and, from the mid-1940s until his 1977 death, cranked out some of the most unnervingly memorable villains ever to hit the 25-cent pages of American pulp fiction.

Together these two scribes and one visual perfectionist created a gritty loony bin of a war movie. When a French regiment’s offensive on a German position fails, French high command orders three men executed—one man from each company. Kirk Douglas’ Col. Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, tries to defend them in this kangaroo court, but to say he doesn’t succeed isn’t a spoiler. What makes Paths of Glory so effective isn’t merely its story but how it’s told. Kubrick’s pre-Stedicam tracking shots through the French trenches remain unmatched in scene-setting power, and Adolphe Menjou and George Macready deliver two of the finer examples of privileged buck-passing as two French generals.

But it may be Timothy Carey that clings to first-time viewers the most. This incomparable character actor—think Tim Burton odd, then make him a bit more eccentric and give him a Bronx accent—plays one of the three soldiers sentenced to be executed, and when Carey’s Pvt. Maurice Ferol walks his final march, he delivers a tour de force of anxiety toggling between desperation and absurdity. (For a lovely introduction to Carey, see this Film Comment interview piece by the great, late Texan, Grover Lewis.)

David Simon introduces Paths of Glory at MICA’s Brown Center, 13201 W. Mount Royal Ave., at 7 p.m.

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