05/15/2012 06:09 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

Communing With Kubrick


Room 237, Rodney Ascher's documentary about the hidden puzzles and bizarre theories fomented by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, is one of only two American films selected for the Director's Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival this year (May 16-27). The prestigious berth signals keen attention will be paid to the film that caused a significant stir at Sundance and one that may revolutionize the standards for "fair use" -- the doctrine that allows footage from previous movies to be used for documentary purposes -- in this case multiple clips from The Shining illustrating Room 237's strange propositions.

On the one hand, Kubrick would be amused and supportive of The Shining being the means that challenges the status quo. On the other, he would raise fiduciary questions about its use but recognize the residual benefits that would accrue to The Shining's ancillary sales.

And once again, and unexpectedly, it brings him to the head of the international film forum, a place he found himself whenever he premiered his latest work, confirming the resonance of his vision and how he still speaks from beyond.

What we can be sure of is that it will also produce false or misleading Kubrick references, evidenced by Room 237's major piece from Sundance in the New York Times by Robert Ito. Like too much reporting that draws conclusions from questionable sources and is then regurgitated as fact, we are first told via film scholar Julian Rice that "the initial reception by journalists to most of Kubrick's films was negative."

The fact is that Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, The Killing and Lolita all opened to wide critical acclaim. A Clockwork Orange swept the New York Film Critics Awards the week after its 1971 premiere.

The Shining, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut arrived with a range of critical responses, including major raves. All were re-assessed and re-interpreted after repeated viewings (postmodernists included), as Kubrick's films require, if not demand. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the Kubrick film that caused the most controversy and confusion. It was also the first that was ushered in as an event, by which all Kubrick films thereafter were received, each creating an atmosphere that stimulated dissection and discussion.

And then if one critic's views are quoted, we can be certain to count on Pauline Kael's being dredged up as the authority on critical thinking during that time. In the case of The Shining, citing her "mystifying" review places absurd emphasis on her relevance, for her response was easily predicted: she hadn't liked Kubrick's work since Dr. Strangelove.

Although I enjoyed Kael's lively, visceral writing, especially when our tastes coincided, and she was inadvertently responsible for my working with Kubrick, her influence has been consistently overstated. Kael was not the oracle of film criticism, but one of a number of superstar critics whose names often replaced those of actors on New York marquees when movies were fundamental to the nation's cultural dialogue.

Today's filmmakers owe their 'film by' credit to Andrew Sarris, who popularized France's auteur theory of film criticism, which designated the director as a film's author and creative center. As the film critic for the Village Voice, the most widely read alternative newspaper, Sarris informed us about a director's themes and style when analyzing his latest effort. He educated us without ever sounding academic. Sarris and Kael were usually on opposing ends of the critical pole and their frequent clashes expanded the film conversation.

The New York Times fostered two prominent voices. Rex Reed attracted immediate attention as the provocative writer of their major film profiles in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section. He enjoyed major syndication and became the film critic for the New York Daily News, the city's largest circulation paper.

The most reasoned voice was Vincent Canby's, the chief film critic for the New York Times for nearly 25 years, whose balanced approach combined astute observations with keen insights that guided an audience into what to expect. A Canby endorsement solidified a film's prospects. Recently re-reading his "Spaced Out By Stanley" column for the re-launching of 2001 confirmed the ease, intelligence and wit of his opinions.

Arguably the most popular and important film critic was Judith Crist, now in her 54th year as an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University. For many years she held an unequaled trifecta of power as the first national television critic for The Today Show, the critic for TV Guide, America's largest circulation magazine, and the film critic for the New York Herald-Tribune. Later, the founding film critic of New York magazine. At the Tribune, her passionate advocacy challenged the long-standing authority of the Times' Bosley Crowther as the country's major film voice.

Crist sometimes filled in for Barry Gray, who originated the radio talk show format on his highly rated WMCA late night program. On one occasion she invited Pauline Kael to be on the show. They had never met.

When Kael arrived, her greeting was, "Judith Crist, the only critic with balls!"

Canby, Crist, Kael, Reed and Sarris were the critical magnets that grabbed the public's attention. Newsweek's Joe Morgenstern, Newsday's Joseph Gelmis, Time's Jay Cocks and Chicago's Roger Ebert, the first film critic to be honored with a Pulitzer Prize, also made movie headlines.

Ebert, Morgenstern and Reed still review regularly but the dominance of movies as the bold, entertainment medium has diminished with corporate requirements for the bottom line and competition from video games to extreme sports. The very personal risk-taking film that fueled popular discourse is now the exception.


Whenever possible, I look forward to meeting with Todd McCarthy, the widely-respected critic, author and documentarian. We've known each other for years and enjoy catching up on mutual movie interests over pasta and risotto.

A year ago, while rushing to lunch in the Los Angeles heat, a sudden chill came over me as three young triplets, immaculately dressed in navy blue and white dresses, white socks and dark polished shoes, walked towards me in unison. People were window shopping, their father walked a few feet behind, but I felt isolated and briefly frightened. Such was the strength of Kubrick's imagery that the twins from The Shining had grown to triplets and materialized in Beverly Hills.

Startled, I let them pass and tried to take a photo from behind before they disappeared, but my hands were shaking.

When I joined Todd at the table, I was about to describe my experience when he asked, "What is your favorite Kubrick film?" I felt The Shining had followed me down the street and into the restaurant. Kubrick had never opened our lunch before.

In February, we met again at our favorite Italian. Todd had just flown in from Sundance, where he had seen Room 237 and had emailed the Times' feature. He found the film pretty wild and weird with accounts of its hidden meanings ranging from the Holocaust and the genocide of the American Indians to the myth of Kubrick staging the Apollo Moon landing.

I had always felt The Shining was about modern man unraveling , with its most terrifying shot, the continuous typewritten phrase, "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy," which made one realize Jack Nicholson's character was no longer in control. (All the more effective for its mordant humor.)

Now sitting in a restaurant, the most haunting memory of visiting The Shining's set came to mind... walking through what I thought was the studio's vast pantry-storeroom, adjacent to the commissary. Stocked from floor to ceiling were food supplies in a perfectly organized massive kitchen. I had never seen such a variety of canned food and groceries. Everything was available. It was waiting to move.

Commenting then on the abundance, I asked Andros Epaminondas, Stanley's right hand and my guide, if he knew how often the studio had to restock supplies?

"Mike, we're on a soundstage. This is the kitchen set. Stanley's shooting the maze next door."

I couldn't believe the depth of the authenticity.

However questionable or believable the hypotheses in Room 237, it has to add to the penetrating legacy of Stanley's films, which encourage thinking and hopefully, multi-level filmmaking. Whether Kubrick left signs for these speculations or clues for the future remains part of his timelessness and keeps us wondering. He always said, "Movies are in the baby-steps of their evolution."

Now, when I meet Todd for lunch, I know the image of The Shining twins and the eeriness of the kitchen soundstage will be in the air.

In the two years I worked on 2001, I saw the film 28 times. Five times during its premiere week , when it ran an additional 19 minutes, and another 23 in various venues around the country. The 28th was on an IMAX screen in Toronto, which dwarfed the 70mm. projection.

Seeing it again in 2006, I was struck by a sequence that seemed uncannily prescient. William Sylvester, as NASA official Heywood Floyd, calls his young daughter from the space station to wish her a happy birthday. His daughter is played by Vivian Kubrick, Stanley's youngest.

He asks her what she wants for her birthday.

Vivian answers, "a Bush-Baby.'"

2001: A Space Odyssey began filming in 1963.

It was released in 1968.

George W. Bush took office in January, 2001.

Prescience, coincidence or ???

Kubrick keeps communicating.

This is the fifth in a series of reminiscences about Stanley Kubrick written by Mike Kaplan, a veteran film executive who was Kubrick's marketing man for his film 'A Clockwork Orange,' having also worked extensively on the release of 'Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.' Previous installments can be found here, here, here and here. 'A Clockwork Orange' opened nationally 40 years ago.

Kaplan's latest major poster exhibit, GOTTA DANCE: THE ART OF THE DANCE MOVIE POSTER, opens May 23 at the California Heritage Musem in Santa Monica, CA. and runs through September 30, 2012. Over 80 rare vintage posters from throughout the world showcase key dance images from both musical and non-musical films.

This post has been updated since its original publication.