Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Eleven

#11 — Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
War films have long been a staple of Hollywood, a situation only compounded by the staggering surplus of stories that could be culled from WWII, a global conflict that could be forever mined for material that deflected its horrors with a deeply felt sense of honor. Many directors tilted their cameras at that genre, but I wonder how many, even the many that were veterans, thought about exactly why war was such a fruitful source of stories, especially stories that worked in the confines of cinema, both compact (in terms of storytelling time, when measured against a novel) and expansive (the size of the screen itself). Certainly conflict, the lifeblood of drama, is built right in. More than that, there’s a unshakable intensity that heightens emotions and necessitates the sort of rapid decision-making that leads to impetuous action and heated rhetoric. These are the aspects of war pictures that made them appealing to Stanley Kubrick. The fierce moral choices that needed to be made in the heat of battle and the exhaustion of the aftermath played right into his artistic assessment of humanity’s ongoing folly.

Paths of Glory was Kubrick’s fourth feature and his first of many that could be termed, without undue hyperbole, as a masterpiece. Based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel of World War I, which Kubrick remember reading when he was younger, is film is focused on a group of French soldiers engaged in trench warfare, closing in on a piece of strategically important German territory termed “The Anthill.” In depicting the battlefield, Kubrick opts for a muddy verisimilitude that feels laudably out of step with the contemporary depictions of war. Indeed, it is brutal and ugly enough that it anticipates Steven Spielberg’s rightly acclaimed Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s unflinching view of warfare was considered groundbreaking. Kubrick simply got there forty years earlier, though the squeamish strictures of the time prevented him from engaging the situation with the same sort of graphic honesty. That Kubrick still manages to make the scenes equally harrowing is a demonstration of the unyielding fierceness of his vision.

Kubrick also develops striking profundities through the contrasts he creates. The soldiers on the front lines are stuck in the worst of circumstances, but the military leaders who direct them are ensconced in lavish comfort countless miles away, plotting strategy from the safety of a seized mansion. I maintain no other director has such a keen sense of physical space than Kubrick, and he gets the most out of the opposing places, moving his camera with shrewd freedom in each, managing to convey the lives of the separate locations in the process. This builds to the most poignant, powerful, depressing contrast of all. The generals make a disastrous tactical choice, then choose to cover up their incompetence by charging one hundred random selected soldiers with cowardice, a charge that carries a penalty of death if they’re found guilty. The men are defended by their direct superior (Kirk Douglas), a man who practiced law in his civilian life. Despite his clear capabilities, the court martial is rigged from the start. Military justice has no concern for truth or moral integrity. Like every other aspect of war, it is there to create casualties, with no other evident purpose. The title Paths of Glory is drawn from Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard,” which explains that “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Kubrick makes the truth and wisdom of that verse hit and hard and sharp as a coffin lid slamming shut.

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Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933). This big musical from the tail end of the Pre-Code Hollywood era is fascinating for its many contradictions, beginning with the framing of Great Depression challenges with a notably defeatist cheer. The production numbers are the handiwork of Busby Berkeley (the songs are by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) and they show off his skill at mesmerizing vastness. “We’re in the Money” is probably the most famous, but others are more interesting, especially the lengthy “Pettin’ the Park,” which includes a strikingly sexy moment involving a bevy of beauties changing behind a sheer screen, and the grim, powerful closer, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” The plot involves class conflict and romantic deceptions, lending the film a little more of an edge, even if all the problems are resolved a little too abruptly and easily at the end.

Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011). The second feature from Duncan Jones clearly aspires to tricky sci-fi mind-fuckery in the Philip K. Dick mode. It casts Jake Gyllenhaal as a military veteran who wakes up in the body of another man, a traveler on a commuter train. He eventually discovers that his psyche is being fed through a new piece of technology that allows him to live out the last eight minutes of another person’s life over and over again, in this instance all in an attempt to discover the identity of a bomber who perpetrated a devastating terrorist attack. Even as an gimmicky contrivance, it makes absolutely no sense, and screenwriter Ben Ripley’s over-eager attempts to keep bending the plot back on itself don’t help. Gyllenhaal is merely adequate in a role that calls for endless layers of disconcerted agitation, but there are a couple entertaining supporting performances by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, mostly because they both effectively ride the fine line between taking the material seriously and signaling their awareness of its inherent goofiness.

The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956). Depending on how generous one is inclined to be in rounding up the couple of prior efforts that just edged over the sixty-minute mark, The Killing can be viewed as Stanley Kubrick’s first feature film. A heist picture that examines the robbing of a racetrack from several different perspectives, the film sometimes feels like Kubrick actively teaching himself the mechanics of narrative storytelling more than its own satisfying work of art. Of course, since it’s some of the sharpest instincts in the history of the form being honed to perfection, it’s still pretty damn compelling to watch. All of the performances lodge somewhere between angry heat and tock hard stoicism, with the future General Jack Ripper, Sterling Hayden, setting the perfect template as the crook orchestrating the crime. The screenplay by Kubrick and Jim Thompson (adapted from a novel by Lionel White) builds nicely, right up to the cruel turn of fate that ends the film.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013). The English-language debut of cult favorite South Korean director Park Chan-wook is a delirious gothic horror romp rich in style and short of identifiable human emotions. Mia Wasikowska plays the title character (India Stoker, to be precise), a teenager reeling from the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney, who should really start every film role as a corpse) in a car accident. The funeral brings her long-lost uncle (Matthew Goode) into the picture, and much of the remainder of the film swivels on suspicions about his intentions, towards both India and her mother (Nicole Kidman). Park revels in making seemingly innocent artifacts–shoes, sharpened pencils–into carriers of great dread, but the film never manages to transcend its own giddy luridness in such a way as to make it come across as much more than an exercise.

Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950). Jacques Tourneur’s best-known films fall squarely into the horror and film noir genres, which makes it especially interesting to watching him ply his command of shadows–both those that cut across a set and those that settle on the human soul–in that most venerable of Hollywood genres, the western. The director’s skills honed in other sorts of films come through most clearly in a nighttime raid on the house of a man who’s refusing to sell his land to local mine magnate, the whole sequence staged like it belongs in one of producer Val Lewton’s fright-fests. The film is built around the experiences of a preacher (Joseph Cotten) who comes to a little frontier town, with various stories loosely threaded together giving the whole thing the feel of a dusty slice of life. One of the most notable scenes anticipates a key moment in To Kill a Mockingbird (and arguably does it more cleverly), but the best overall scenes involve the preacher’s conflict with the new town doctor, played with sharp, huffy authority by James Mitchell.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number One

#1 — Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
It may be that true cinematic genius stems less from an ability to fulfill a particular vision to the letter and more from a knack for pulling together all the unwieldy challenges that beset any production into a coherent, satisfying finished product. When pieces threaten to go flinging off the rig while it’s moving at top speed is when a director’s talent is truly tested. Compromises can always be transformed into advantages, but it takes someone with the intellect, patience, creativity and recognition of the value of happy accidents to do it. When Stanley Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, he didn’t want to cast Peter Sellers in multiple roles (it was insisted on by the studio, attributing much of the box office success of Kubrick’s Lolita to Sellers’ playful, identity-shifting performance as Clare Quilty), he had to contend with George C. Scott’s discomfort with playing the material as broadly as was called for and he went down a few creative blind alleys, most notably the famed pie fight scene that was shot but not used in the finished film. Kubrick had to be shrewdly adaptive throughout the process, from taking Peter George’s novel Red Alert from the serious to the bleakly comic (aided by George himself and Terry Southern, co-conspirators on the screenplay) to the complicated shoot to the final assemblage, the last with the added task of threading the multiple improvisational digressions of Sellers into the film in a coherent manner. Making this chaos into a resounding satisfying work of art is a crazy task, but, as I alluded to above, we are in the territory of genius here.

Dr. Strangelove is Kubrick’s attempt to make sense of the heightened Cold War paranoia and tension that helped define the first half of the nineteen-sixties. Always a sardonic observer of human foible, Kubrick naturally determined that the only way to confront this aspect of global life–especially the bizarro strategy of mutually assured destruction–was with the blackest of comedy. The plot begins with the alarmingly realistic notion that a stockpile of weapons can become the tool of destructive misuse through the actions of a single individual, even one whose clearly toppled off his rocker. That describes Brigadier General Jack. D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who strays from his soliloquies about the dangers of fluoridated ice cream and sharing one’s essence during the physical act of love long enough to order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. That sets off a flurry of arguments and strategic conjecture in the Unites States “War Room,” with U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) and General Buck Turgidson (Scott) representing dovish and hawkish approaches, respectively. Unable to reach the plane bound for Mother Russia, the American officials are forced to engage in varied discussion with Russian counterparts to figure out how to extricate the planet from pending nuclear annihilation.

Kubrick’s bleak sense of humor suits the topic well, and his sense of timing throughout the film is pinpoint perfect. He knows when to hustle and bustle through scenes, playing up the kinetic energy as the tension increases, and then when to slow down the filmmaking process to simple soak in a brilliant comic set piece, such as the long held shot on President Muffley as he makes a bad news phone call to the Soviet premier. And if Kubrick’s subterfuge to get Scott to go bigger and bigger in his acting eventually angered the actor when he found out the director used what were promised to be “practice takes,” the results are worth the hard feelings. I mean it with complete sincerity and stripped of as much hyperbole as I can manage when I call Scott’s performance here one of my four or five favorites ever committed to film. The actors are uniformly strong (Hayden manages to be simultaneously hilarious and terrifying), but Scott is incredible, wringing every bit of wryly funny petulance out lines that signal the self-perpetuating folly of constant arms escalation: “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.”

Every bit of the film contributes to its marvelous whole, including the beautifully realized War Room set, a triumph of art direction, and the rich, evocative black and white cinematography, by the masterful Gilbert Taylor. Kubrick’s satire traverses the fine line between outrageousness and pointed truth with acrobatic ease, exposing the lunacy of nations that preserved the peace by hovering shaky fingers directly over buttons that could eradicate mankind if pressed. Unthinkable as drama, it makes for grand comedy, at least as long as the right creator is presiding over it. Dr. Strangelove had the exact right creator, one who had the wherewithal–and, yes, the genius–to shape its glorious mayhem into something vivid and vital.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Seven

#7 — 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Stanley Kubrick, master director and cinematic innovator with a heavy influence on countless cinematic greats who followed, won exactly one Academy Award. One. Of course, that’s more of a damnation of the selection process of the Academy than it is any reflection on Kubrick, especially since the Oscar bestowed upon him wasn’t for producing, writing or directing, all categories in which he competed over the years, but instead for the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly the film’s triumph over Ice Station Zebra, the only other nominee in the category, was a marker of sound judgment, but the Academy’s exclusion of Kubrick’s mind-blowing feature in the Best Picture race was not. (Kubrick was nominated in both the writing and directing categories that year, losing out to The Lion in Winter‘s James Goldman and Oliver!‘s Carol Reed, respectively.) It was simply one more example of the people toiling in the movie industry completely misunderstanding Kubrick in his time. The visuals in 2011 are amazing, groundbreaking, unthinkably beautiful. They’re also the least impressive part of a relentlessly challenging film.

The film is so commonly broken into its distinctive pieces in retrospective analysis and celebration–depending on whether someone wants to pirouette agog around the opening prehistoric set piece, the malevolence of technology in the conflict over whether or not some pod bay doors should be opened or the wild head trip of the conclusion (sadly, the futuristic corporate bureaucracy up on the moon is the least likely segment to be touched upon)–that the potency of the whole can be shortchanged. It is the intellectual unity of these pieces, however, that makes the film so significant and even devastating. They are shards of story, connected by the most tenuous of threads, and yet they fit together as a complete vision, a view of existence in which mankind utterly and completely lacks the primacy it is constantly claiming as a birthright of the species. The command over earth, space and self is a fiction, dashed when considered against the vast unknown of the universe. It’s common enough to look up at the sea of stars in the sky and feel like an ant. Kubrick warns that forgetting one’s proper place for even a moment makes it all the more likely that a boot will come crashing down.

Inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke story (certainly not adapted from his work in any reasonable interpretation of the term, though the revered science fiction author was an active collaborator on the film, making his contribution undeniably significant), 2001 is a film alive with possibility, both for the future and for the boundaries of filmmaking itself. Kubrick’s nonconformist tendencies never came out quite as fully as they do in this film, with narrative subsumed to what is impactful, particularly as one idea tumbles into another. The movie can shift at the speed of thought and decidedly rejects any perceived need to fill in gaps. The director was as committed to honoring his setting here as he was in any of his films in more grounded, familiar territory, plunging the audience into the gaping maw of the solar system, chilliness and uncertainty completely intact. The film questions, cajoles, marvels and even occasionally recoils from its own truths. It is as plain and perfect of an example of a director allowing for no compromise in following his instincts no matter where the might lead as can be found in conventional American cinema, at least until Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which owes a clear debt to 2001. It’s a stunning piece of work.

And the special effects are good, too.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Fifteen

#15 — Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)
From 1956’s The Killing on, every one of Stanley Kubrick’s films was drawn from a novel, many of them the sort of prickly, complicated tomes that are tagged as “unfilmable,” a term the director undoubtedly found to be a creative aphrodisiac rather than an actual warning. Through it all, he may not have found an author better suited to feed him source material than Vladimir Nabokov, the two creators sharing a bleak sense of humor and a wicked intelligence, which led widespread misinterpretation of their work. Lolita, Nabokov’s 1955 novel about a literary scholar named Humbert Humbert who develops an obsessive passion for a girl who hasn’t even crossed into her teens, the girl of the title with the name that requires one’s tongue to take “a trip of three steps down the palate” to speak it. Dismissed by those who should have known better as mere trash and pornography–pronouncements that grew ever louder when it reached more prudish American shores in 1958–to even attempt to film Lolita was a provocation, particularly at a time before the introduction of a ratings system loosened up the standards of what could be presented in American films. Kubrick later noted that the monumental struggles he had in caressing the content to suit the norms of the day were such that he wouldn’t have opted to make it had he correctly anticipated the burden. Luckily, he underestimated the forces he was up against, because, no matter the difficulties, by pressing ahead he made a great film.

Kubrick’s one concession was to tick the age of Lolita up a couple years, at least by implication, as he cast fourteen-year-old Sue Lyon in the title role. For Humbert, Kubrick enlisted James Mason as Humbert and found a true ringer for key antagonist Clare Quilty in Peter Sellers (who he’d use even more effectively a couple years later, but we’ll get to that later). I’ve noted before that Kubrick was a satirist so masterful that his comic deconstructions become almost indiscernible from sincerity, and that quality is in full evidence here. Just as Nabokov’s novel was (and still is, amazingly enough) often misread as a offbeat love story instead of a portrait of ludicrous, self-destructive obsession, so to does Kubrick’s rendering of the material so perfectly cleave to the warped reality that springs up in Humbert’s head and heart that some undoubtedly don’t get the joke, even with the sly clowning of Sellers around the fringes. The ad campaigns for the film famously asked, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The answer, it seems to me, is clear: by exposing the spiritual corrosion at the core of Humbert that leads him down this ill-conceived path.

The framing of individual moments is astonishing. Others may have been more adept at the flow of narrative, but precious few rivaled Kubrick when it came to the art of structuring a shot, a talent matched by a bearish confidence to hold with a scene well past the point of unbearable discomfort. Lolita is funny, but it’s also painful, challenging and toxically engrossing, leaving the viewer without a single character with whom allegiance can be comfortably placed. The earliest scenes draw much of their humor from Humbert’s somewhat stuffy, unsettled responses to rumbling American effusiveness (all of it played marvelously well by Mason), and there’s a sense that Kubrick is exposing the damage that could be wrought by his homeland’s culture as it grew increasingly clear the entirety of the nineteen-hundreds were irrevocably the American Century. Lolita was the film that caused Kubrick to relocate to the United Kingdom, a move that became permanent. Kubrick never disavowed the States, but Lolita carries some twinkling of the reasons he was never in all that much of a hurry to return. As only a young teenager, Lolita is the future of the country, after all, and as alluring as it may be that future is also destructive.

Before I veer too closely to the sort of over-analysis that leads people to see minotaurs on the wall of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, I’ll concede that it could very well be far simpler than that. A major recurring theme in Kubrick’s work the damaging results that come from masculine hubris and selfishness. That thesis works just fine too. Whatever hidden messages may (or may not) exist, Lolita is a testament to the value of concentrated intellect in storytelling, and that complimentary notion is applicable to either the prose or cinematic authors of the piece.

You’ve Always Been the Caretaker: The Many Lives of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

This is a piece I wrote for a friend’s self-published magazine about a year-and-a-half ago. With Room 237 in theaters now, it seems a fine time to share it here. With only a few modifications–including some helpful hyperlinks–here’s my take on the long reach of The Shining.

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When Stanley Kubrick started filming The Shining in the late nineteen-seventies, movies weren’t a disposable medium, but they were fleeting. VCRs were commercially available by that point, but they were hardly pervasive. A movie was something that was experienced in the theater, once or maybe a few more times for those who locked into an obsession about wars among the stars or some such thing. After a stint on a premium cable channel promising unexpurgated content, the film would eventually make the rounds on commercial television, though with a sizable chunk of the content finessed to keep the film palatable to the ever-skittish public and the federal overseers who swore to protect them. Beyond the fact that a movie’s impact was almost assuredly diminished with each repeat viewing as elements that were meant to be surprising became familiar instead, the real experience of a movie was available only briefly, during its run in theaters which lasted anywhere from a few weeks to several months. From there, it lived on in its truest form—uncropped, unedited, larger than life—only in the memory.

Even still, the control over the inevitable modification laid elsewhere. Networks and studios collaborated to figure out which dirty words needed to be excised, which images needed to be blurred and which needed to be knocked out altogether. What’s more, the aspect ration of televisions was drastically different than those of movie screens, reflecting a modification that theaters had made in part to combat the suddenly availability of visual entertainment in the hidden comfort of the home. When a theatrical release had its television run, the image was cropped, sometimes leaving as much as two-thirds of what was originally offered outside of the plane of the television screen, another adjustment in the hands of broadcasters rather than consumers. The movie always belonged to others. The best an audience member could do was buy a ticket.

That control residing solely with the creators (and those that, ideally, the creator had some direct connection with and sway over) was what Kubrick preferred. The famously meticulous director wanted his films exactly the way he wanted them and no other way. After 2001: A Space Odyssey had its premiere in 1968, the director decided that almost twenty minutes of material had to come out of it, even though it went into general release just a few days later. Instructions were sent to theater owners that already had the print instructing them on how to edit the movie to his satisfaction. There were even stories about Kubrick himself pedaling his bike from theater to theater to make the trims personally, a story that may not be true, but is plausible enough to stand as a good indication of his exacting nature.

By the time he presided over The Shining, meeting Kubrick’s standard had reached all new levels. Always a director willing to burn film, Kubrick now engaged in endless takes of seemingly insignificant scenes, presumably in order to get the physical demeanor of his actors to match the vision in his head as clearly as the art direction and camera angles did. With this particular film—depicting the gradual but stark descent into madness of the winter caretaker in a snowbound Colorado hotel, a mounting lunacy coaxed along by the supernatural doings in the lengthy hallways and drab rooms—he may have also been simply trying to wear down his actors, pushing them until they exhibited a natural exhaustion in line with the characters they were playing. Certainly, the behind-the-scenes documentary his daughter Vivian shot shows Kubrick verbally berating actress Shelley Duvall with such unbridled maliciousness that it begins to seem like an extension of the punishment her character was facing at the hands of her onscreen husband. He does everything but pick up the ax, and if he ever was casually carting around that on-set prop, Duvall surely must have felt at least a tremor of genuine fear.

As with many of his films, The Shining wasn’t all that well-received at first. It did earn respectable box office, a take in the range of $44 million, double its budget and a sizable sum in a year when only three releases crossed the $100 million mark (current blockbusters are expected to cross into nine digits in their opening weekends). Critics were far less kind, with David Ansen of Newsweek one of the few prominent supporters: his proclamation that it was “the first epic horror film” became a central part of the ad campaign. It surely had its impact, led by the immediate cultural touchstone of Jack Nicholson’s improvised appropriation of the Tonight Show introduction “Here’s Johnny!” as he shoved his crazed visage through the shards of a door he’d just cracked to pieces with his ax. (As someone who’d lived outside of the United States for several years and was somewhat insulated from the pop culture of his discarded homeland, Kubrick reportedly didn’t get the reference at all and had to be persuaded that this was the take that should be included in the film.)

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What’s really interesting about The Shining, though, is the long reach it’s had since its release decades ago. Just a few years after it came out, the home video revolution started freezing cinematic pop culture in time. A movie was no longer something that came and went. Instead, it came, went and found a home at some sort of rental outlet in the neighborhood (or, more rarely at the time, in a household collection), forever waiting for someone to revisit it because they were in a certain mood. “You gotta see this,” was no longer a fervent recommendation reserved for something current enough to be threaded through a projector at the downtown movie house. It could mean something from years earlier. And, in some ways, those sorts of suggestions were even more urgent. “What do you mean you haven’t seen The Shining? Oh my god, it’s the scariest movie ever. Let’s go get it, right now!” The movie lingered, always, to borrow from more modern vernacular, on someone’s queue.

As it’s endured into the internet age, the memorable nature of the film, the way certain elements of it practically imprint on the psyche, have made it one of the most inviting targets for those gifted with creative wanderlust. Ironically, the fierce precision of Kubrick, honing scenes down further and further until that are exactly what he wants them to be, has wound up contributing to the astounding malleability of the film. It’s so tight, so controlled, so wound up in its own exacting construction that it can be pulled apart like loose bricks and rebuilt into so many temples of tribute.

One of the first notable tweaks of Kubrick’s film was Robert Ryang’s brilliant reworking of The Shining into a trailer that presented it as a sweet, sanguine romantic comedy called simply Shining. Even the simple alteration of dropping the article from the title changed it from something strange and ominous into a little declaration of hope. Cut to music that seemed wholly at home in a deliberately non-offensive Hollywood offering (including especially ingenious deployment of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” which had, at the time, been recently used as the background music for the spectacularly nondescript Dennis Quaid comedy In Good Company), Ryang’s trailer traded in on the established knowledge of Kubrick’s film as a force of grueling terror, cheekily cherry-picking the footage to find moments of uncommon sweetness between Nicholson’s character and Duvall’s character instead of the more famous swings of blades and bats. Even the typewritten pages of “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” are transformed from a revelation of madness to evidence of nothing more than the harmless frustration of writer’s block.

Ryang’s fake trailer is an inspired gag, but it also provides something more: a glimpse at the way that even a work as indelible as one made by Kubrick can be artfully recreated and misrepresented. A movie trailer is just a sales job, after all, and sometimes the promised great new taste is an evasion meant to close the deal. The widely reviled but useful custom of a movie trailer giving away every detail of a film (often the whole goal of a movie’s marketing campaign is to do little more than reassure the potential audience that the product is going to fulfill rather than challenge their shared expectations) is so entrenched that a trailer that doesn’t follow that pattern but plays a tricky shell game instead is all the more striking. As exacting as Kubrick was, Ryang’s trickery showed that all that precision isn’t a bulwark against even the most ludicrous reinterpretation.

Similarly, the film is not exempt from becoming fodder for the sort of crackpot conspiracy theories that are prevalent on the net, as truth itself is another set of shifting plates. Most infamously, Jay Weidner cooked up a treatise on how the entire film is a thickly veiled confession from Kubrick that he was enlisted by the U.S. government to help fake the moon landing over a decade earlier. Weird little details from the film, such as the shifting of important room numbers (widely acknowledged to have happened at the behest of the Oregon hotel that provided exterior shots for the fictional Overlook Hotel, which wanted Kubrick to use a number that didn’t correspond to any of their actual rooms), are reinterpreted by Weidner as an array of sneaky clues that would make the most hackneyed mystery novelist scoff. This information isn’t just muttered on a street corner or scrawled feverishly into spiral notebooks at home; it’s out there in the digital landscape, in some ways indistinguishable from legitimate interpretations of the art.

Even though The Shining is sometimes turned upon itself, it’s also preserved in the oddest ways. It’s not necessarily held in amber in a manner that’s true to Kubrick’s complete version, but it’s picked apart and held up for tribute. It’s an especially enticing subject for individuals that create animated gifs, taking a few frames from a film (or some other video source) and putting them together into an endless looped animation. Sometimes referred to as cinemagraphs or, in the more elegant phrasing of the Tumblr If We Don’t, Remember Me, “living movie stills,” the tendency is to take the most striking single moments and hold them in subtly shifting place for as long as anyone cares to looks. Jack Nicholson nods lasciviously for all eternity and the effect is both reductive and expansive, simultaneously cutting something vast down to tiny parts and elevating those fragments into their own little works of art, even if they’re merely echoes.

For a filmmaker who had a great command of the technological developments within his field—the sole Oscar win claimed by the visionary director was for his oversight of the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey—it’s perhaps fitting that his work is being reshaped by a technology with global reach that exploded shortly after his 1999 death. The authority that Kubrick claimed over his art has been trumped by the unfettered, egalitarian freedom of the web and the different software that helps feed it with new content. The original films still stand and, in many cases, are still duly revered. But there will eventually be more people who know films such as The Shining through the mosaic of their reworkings and reinterpretations. That may even be the case now. The Shining is available through a variety of means, but it takes fewer keystrokes to get to the long shadows the film casts.

Spectrum Check

I had a lot of stuff go up at Spectrum Culture this week, so let’s just tick them off:

–It’s fairly rare that I write for the book section, but it occurred to me late last fall that I just might be able to get myself a review copy of the massive, intimidating and universally adored new outing from Chris Ware, Building Stories. Evidently, I made my request right before our editor-in-chief, inspiring at least a bit of envy. That’s the proper reaction on his part, by the way. This thing is spectacular. In my many reviews for Spectrum, this is only the second time I’ve felt compelled to give something our highest rating, five out of five stars.

–My turn came up in the “Revisit” series on the film side. These are always especially tough for me, as I have a hard time figuring out my angle. Then I was struck by the idea of going back to look at Steven Soderbergh’s first film on the occasion of his announced intention that Side Effects will be his late outing for the big screen.

–I’ve been anxious to see Rodney Ascher’s documentary on film freaks who dive way too deep into Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining ever since I read about its debut at Sundance a year ago. As I note in the review, there are few things I find more entertaining than the Kubrickian conspiracy theorists that flock to that movie.

–Finally, I wrote the latest entry in our ongoing Oeuvre series, surveying the filmography of Brian De Palma. I wrote on what may be his most disastrous movie, The Bonfire of the Vanities. And I did so at my request, which could reasonable be seen as an act of cinematic masochism. This came out in December of 1990, when The Reel Thing, the radio movie review show I co-hosted, was into its first year. It was a movie I should have seen, but I was lucky enough to go on a family vacation to Hawaii for a couple of weeks, and by the time I got back Bonfire was completely gone, theater owners practically rubbing down their screens with bleach to remove the taint of it. I read Julie Salamon’s terrific book about the making of Bonfire and even interviewed her for the radio show, but still never watched more than a couple minutes of the film itself. I liked the idea of taking this opportunity to rectify that. As expected, I was lucky to have missed it all these years.