Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Room 237 and The Shining

"The Shining" is easily, by far and away, my favorite horror film.  In fact, I'd rank it as one of the best movies ever made, a masterpiece by every sense of that word.  I have probably seen "The Shining" a good twenty times over my lifetime, and every single time I see it its like a gripping, entirely new experience.  Its a wonderful delirious movie with so much subtlety in how it slowly twists your mind, just as the characters in the movie themselves are losing their grasp on reality and sanity.  Stanley Kubrick is one of the most beloved directors to ever live, and for good reason, he's made at least half a dozen truly excellent, classic movies of many genres.  But he only made one horror film, "The Shining", when by 1980 in his career he could have made any movie he wanted.  And the result is there for the entire world to enjoy:  a stirring, quietly unnerving, and stunningly beautiful movie that is masterfully driven from beginning to end.  I don't think I can lay the hyperbole down any harder for "The Shining", it is simply that good.

"Room 237" is a new documentary that was released detailing fan theories about what "The Shining" really means.  Stanley Kubrick, even today many years after his death, still maintains a devoted audience of worshipers who truly believe that he was the ultimate Film Artist.  That every noise, every image, every prop, and every cut was exactly according to a masterplan which would secretly give the audience messages about what the film were really about.  The underlying assumption amongst the fans of "Room 237" believe is that the film is not about a family living in a hotel as the ghosts and spirits of the place infect their minds and drive them to the darkest violence, no, that's merely a frame.  Stanley Kubrick is too great a man to just make a horror film.  Rather through careful examination, a level of obsession usually seen only in paranoid schizophrenia, and not a small bit of delusion, these fans have come up with several theories about what Kubrick was really trying to say.  Its really about the death of the American Indian.  Its really about the Holocaust.  Its really a confession that Kubrick gave to the world about how he filmed the fake the Apollo 11 Moon landing for NASA.

Clearly, all of the theories are nonsense, spawning from the same misused pattern-recognition powers that we humans have misused to create such other bullshit as JFK assassination theories, the Bible Code, Dan Brown, and Paul is Dead.  Humans can see patterns everywhere, we're hard wired for it.  If I draw two dots and a half circle, you'll see a face.  We have amazing cognitive skills, and it allows us to create fantastic narratives, without which our love of fiction probably would not exist.  However, it also results in a lot of silliness, like the theories of "Room 237".  To the filmmakers credit, they work tirelessly to recreate the evidence that the theorists see, and simply present the theories forward without judgement.  This isn't a study in social insanity or how film nerdiness can go too far, its just the theories shown to us - make your own conclusions about them.  What I find so interesting is how its "The Shining" that seems to create so much interest, even if its the mistaken application of cognitive powers.  There is truly something about that movie that leaves you wondering:  "what the hell did I just watch?"

I would recommend watching "The Shining" before reading further.  Spoilers.

One of the great techniques about "The Shining" is how little about it is actually explained.  Stephen King's original novel actually goes into great detail about what the characters are facing and how the evil Overlook Hotel works.  There is a great deal of history in this place that is only implied in the film, leaving you little glimpses of the horrors that have taken place inside.  For example, there's the terrifying moment where Wendy looks into a room and sees a man in a dog mask giving another man a blowjob.  Both of these men are ghosts, but you have no idea what kind of bizarre bestiality homosexual perversion has been going on, where these people came from, what any of it means, but ultimately conclusion is clear:  horror.  Fear of the unknown.  What does the elevator spilling out blood mean?  Who the heck is Lloyd?  Why is Wendy seeing cheesy skeletons like we're watching an old William Castle film?  What was going on in Room 237?  The conclusion is very satisfying, and leads to only more questions.  Jack has become another lost soul trapped in the House, smiling on the 1922 party picture with the most terrified grimace expression.  He's pleading for help at the audience with a grin on his face - this really is a masterpiece of a movie.

From there I can see how how our theorists could have mistaken this film for some grand metaphor for really whatever they want.  The death of the American Indian seems to develop simply because the Overlook Hotel uses an Apache decorative scheme.  The Holocaust stuff is just developing the great nightmare of the 20th century as a film.  One women babbles about a Minotaur, I think she's only really thinking about it largely because there is a maze.  The kind of unregulated analysis that is applied to "The Shining" could result in any theory for any movie.  I could watch "Battleship" and decide its ultimately about the Iraq War and America's underlying and resolved guilt for that conflict.  I would also be wrong.  But I do understand why "The Shining" is the subject of this speculation.

There really is a great deal going on this movie, even if isn't a grand parable for the Holocaust*.  The character of Jack Torrance is really the main protagonist and one of greatest driving forces in the movie, yet we really understand so little about him.  In some scenes he seems like a real man struggling with human frustrations  in a marriage that is clearly falling apart, and in others he's so bizarre its impossible to understand what he's thinking.  Danny sits on his father's bed while Jack Nicholson seems to be in some kind of trance, freakishly threatening even while speaking sweet words.  Then by the end, Jack has gone completely mad, turned into a full-on over-the-top maniac.  (By the way, Jack Nicholson is hilarious in this movie, and he hams it up something fantastic - this is why they hired him in 1989 to play the Joker.)  Its really apparent just how little we've understand the Jack Torrance character once we see that novel he's been working on, which is nothing but the words "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" repeated endlessly.  Wendy spends most of the movie either desperately trying to be cheery and create some warmth between herself and her husband, or running in terror in tears.  This was a family that was not going to hold together, with the alcoholism, the underlying frightening rage, and the more fantastic problems of having a psychic son.  And Danny's own powers are themselves unclear and mysterious, leaving you to wonder just what kind of life he's going to lead after this horror at the Overlook.

I would honestly feel bad for the Apollo 11 dude, the Indian guy, and the Minotaur Lady, if not for the fact that they are obsessively watching a beautifully-shot movie that really was constructed to be as mindbending as possible in very subtle ways.  Clearly, "The Shining" is the work of a genius cinematographer, creating so much mood and energy behind very simple effects, such as Danny riding his big wheel around the Overlook Hotel** - which was all a giant soundstage, not a real hotel.  Its remarkable the level of detail that went into that construction, since it looks simply too large to be a set, but it is.  Careful examination of the Overlook's floorplan by people more dedicated to this film than I - even one lady in the movie - reveals that most of the Overlook's structure makes little sense.  Hallways pop out from behind huge painted glass windows which apparently lead to the outside, there's an office in the middle of the building that has a window to the outside, some rooms are way too large, eating into elevators or staircases, and the hedge maze has completely different layouts in a model inside the hotel as compared to a map shown on the outside.  This house cannot exist in our world.

Nobody in "Room 237" caught this weird inconsistency, but I actually did when watching the movie recently for this review.  Mr. Ullman tells Jack early in the movie the story of a Charles Grady who murdered his family with an ax in 1970.  Later Jack meets the ghostly figure of an Englishman, who calls himself "Delbert Grady".  This Grady is definitely the ax murderer from the story, he admits to having killed his family to Jack in their scene by saying he "corrected" them.  Yet its odd that Ullman would get the name wrong, and also neglect to mention how Grady was English, since that seems to be an curious detail.  And even more, Jack Nicholson tells Grady he saw his picture in the newspapers (Jack is weirdly tickled to be speaking to a dead murderer) when in the interview he apparently had no knowledge of this event at all.  Then of course, Grady denies being the caretaker since Jack Torrence "has always been the caretaker", alluding to some sinister theme that is never clearly explained.  "The Shining" is a puzzle, and a brilliant one.  You can watch it over and over again and never quite see every piece that's out of place.

Ultimately, "Room 237" makes for a very interesting watch, even if it doesn't amount to very much on its own.  Its fascinating to listen to these theories, but they're so outlandish and their proofs so meager that its hard to take them seriously.  What we should cherish and enjoy is not the documentary, which exists mainly as a piece of curiosity, but the movie, "The Shining", which may be one of the greatest movies ever made.  I really do feel that modern horror is under-appreciated, its a genre were inevitably the worst kind of crap Hollywood produces finds its way.  Yesterday I want to see a horror film, and before the movie began I had to suffer through trailers for a no less than three haunted house movies, two of which were about people in masks attacking a family.  And they were all built on little more than loud noises and primitive joy at seeing gore, which is fine.  You'll have adrenaline pump through your veins for a few seconds, that's worth the price of admission if done properly.  But we have to admit, that's not the best horror can do, its not the best filmmaking can do.  "The Shining", however, is one of those rare glimpses into what horror can be if enough effort is put in and enough care is placed to really screw with the audience's mind for decades.

* And if Stanley Kubrick were to come back to life and tell me "oh, Jack and Wendy and Danny, they weren't real people, they were just metaphors for etc. etc. because its really all about blah blah blah" I would probably find myself enjoying this movie a lot less.  Ever since an English teacher told me that "The Legend of Sleepy Hallow" was really a parable for America society post-revolution, I've never been able to read a single word of Washington Irving's.

** Those shots and several other long sequences were created thanks to the marvelous new technology of Steadycam, which allowed filmmakers to follow their actors in more complex patterns and create large-scale rehearsed moments.  Just a bit of techno-trivia for you.

1 comment:

  1. I have actually heard that Apollo 11 theory before. It's funny.

    I've always thought that Act II was the scariest part of the movie, when the ghosts are just toying with the family and slowly driving them mad. The elevator of blood, the twins, the woman turning into a dessicated corpse while Jack makes out with her, that was the sort of stuff that scared me. But I simply did not find Act III to be all that frightening. While I can appreciate how messed up it is for a man to be driven mad to the point of trying to murder his family, the transition into madness scared me far more than the madness itself. I didn't find Halloween to be scary either, so I guess slasher-style horror just doesn't get to me.

    Slow building, atmospheric dread such as the second act of this movie or The Woman in Black, on the other hand, scares the hell outta me.