Thursday, April 11, 2013

Nothing but Vacancy: Room 237

“I’m not saying we didn’t go to the moon. I’m just saying that what we saw [of the moon landing] was faked, and that it was faked by Stanley Kubrick.”
– some lunatic in Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237

In 1980, Stanley Kubrick released his first film in five years, a horror movie based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel The Shining. At some point in the late ‘60s, Kubrick entered a phase in his career where every new project was a huge effort, drawn out over several massively hyped years, to top everything he’d done before, and everything that anyone in movies, and maybe popular culture itself, had done in that vein before. So, just as Dr. Strangelove was taken for the ultimate black comedy of the anti-nukes, antiwar era, and 2001: A Space Odyssey the ultimate sci-fi head trip, and The Shining’s immediate predecessor, Barry Lyndon, was supposed to be the most painterly, lavishly costumey costume drama of all time, The Shining arrived in theaters with the expectation that it would be the greatest horror movie ever made; anything else would be a letdown. The early returns pointed to it being a letdown.

The Shining isn’t as lifeless as Barry Lyndon. It’s not as terrible as Kubrick’s next picture, Full Metal Jacket. And its existence is far less inexplicable than that of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, though you could say that same thing about the Ebola virus. But audiences and reviewers were much quicker to jump on The Shining, and tended to jump on it harder, than any of those movies when they were first released. There’s a reason for that: if you’re aiming to give people the ultimate sci-fi head trip, then you’ve got a certain amount of leeway, but the concrete requirement people are going to demand of the ultimate horror movie is that it’s scary – that it is, in fact, the scariest movie ever made. (Even Strangelove didn’t have to be the funniest movie ever made to make good on its promises; it just had to be funny in a particularly “outrageous” way.) It’s no surprise that, whatever else Kubrick did or didn’t deliver, he never could have delivered that.

People talk about how fast the speed of media response has picked up in these last several years, but The Shining opened in May 1980, and in the July/August 1980 issue of Film Comment, Richard T. Jameson published a cover story praising the movie, an article that was based on the assumption that the jury's verdict was in and he was pushing a rock uphill. Jameson must have been one of the first critics to explain that The Shining was great because it wasn’t really a horror movie, or just a horror movie, at all. It wasn’t even a conventional narrative: it was “the most expensive Underground movie ever made,” and something of an homage to Michael Snow’s Wavelength. Like many others who would come to the movie’s defense, on its way to getting at least one foot inside the canon, Jameson also explained that one of its self-satirizing, deconstructive glories was the one element that virtually all early critics had zeroed in on, Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance, the ultimate bad husband and father:

“Scarcely a reviewer has failed to sneer that Nicholson has regressed to playing AIP mad scenes – but that’s it, that’s what works. Nicholson the Roger Corman flake become Nicholson the easy-riding superstar… super-hip, so sardonically self-aware that he cuts through the garden variety of cynical Hollywood corruption like a laser, and lays back bored.

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson playing Jack Torrance playing Jack Torrance as King of the Mountain. Everything Jack Torrance says in the extremity of his derangement is pixillated (“Heeeeeere’s Johnny!”); his loathsome bum jokes are gauntlets of contempt flung in the face of his significant others, his family, his audience – and they are loathsome most of all because they rebound on him, because he tells them badly as he played the furtive maniac badly. But not Jack Nicholson. Nicholson plays the badman badly brilliantly.”

Even with the Warholian “It’s easy to think like the herd and fail to see that this thing that walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and looks like a duck is a brilliantly sophisticated meta-textual commentary on a duck” bullshit, Jameson’s take on the movie qualifies as legitimate critical thinking. The opinions expressed in Room 237, an anthology of crackpot theories about the “real” meaning of The Shining, are something else, in every sense of the term. The documentary begins with TV reporter Bill Blakemore talking about seeing the posters for the movie when it was released in Europe and seeing the banner headline, “The Wave of Terror That Swept Across America.

Baking powder (left) and Scatman Crothers in The Shining
Blakemore, who seems to be a big-picture kind of guy, says that he immediately concluded that this must refer to the genocide of the Native Americans, and when he saw the movie, he felt confirmed in this by a passing reference to the hotel being built on a Native American burial ground, and to such clues as cans of Calumet brand baking powder in the kitchen pantry. (“Calumet” is a Native American word for “peace pipe,” and there’s a picture of an Indian on the can.) As Blakemore tells it, by making this association, he was connecting the picture to his own experience, in the same way that any of us might perk up if a character in a movie claims to be from our home state or gone to our college; he had grown up finding arrowheads around Lake Michigan, and the subject clearly strikes at his core. But he says that, as the years rolled by and people persisted in talking about The Shining as if it were something other than Stanley Kubrick’s version of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, he was baffled: “How come I see this and a lot of other people didn’t?”

Other witnesses include film historian Geoffrey Cocks, who thinks that The Shining was Kubrick's indirect way of making a movie about the Holocaust – because why else would Jack Torrance’s typewriter be of German manufacture? – and Jay Weidner, the NASA-conspiracy fellow who thinks that Kubrick made the movie to express his inner conflict about having had to lie to his family and everyone else in the world when he agreed to fake the footage of the Apollo moon landing. (Hence, Jack Torrance’s angry speech to his wife about how he can’t just abandon his post at the Overlook Hotel because he gave his word to his employers.) None of these people appear onscreen; Ascher illustrates their talk with movie clips, from The Shining but also from other movies, especially other Kubrick films such as 2001, Eyes Wide Shut, and Paths of Glory. (A clip of soldiers crawling on their bellies is seen while Blakemore talks about how Kubrick dispatched a team of researchers to Colorado, where they spent three months learning everything there was to know about the history of the area, before reporting back to their boss. Life sure was hard before Wikipedia.) Some of these juxtapositions are witty and apt, such as the image of Nicholson, costumed as a Napoleonic soldier in the Roger Corman cheapie The Terror, to illustrate the idea that Jack Torrance is a symbolic representative of all the faceless little men who, throughout history, have done the bosses’ dirty work for them. But the main effect is to make you feel that you’re trapped inside a fog generated by the speakers’ mania, in a film studies classroom in Wonderland.

It’s impossible to know what Kubrick would make of this kind of appreciation, but he left himself open to it – by fostering a reputation for being incredibly meticulous, and also by tending to an image of being uncannily brilliant, in a high-I.Q., chess master sort of way. A recurring theme is that Kubrick was too smart to fail, too smart to do another in a simple and direct way, and probably too smart to be wasting his time making movies. “We are dealing with a guy who had a 200 I.Q.,” says one witness, who adds that he thinks that Kubrick needed to construct an especially challenging intellectual puzzle at the time he started working on The Shining, because, “after he made Barry Lyndon, he was bored.” (Talk about poetic justice.)

The 'Minotaur' and his maze
Blakemore’s theory of the key importance of those cans of baking powder is backed up with a publicity photo showing Kubrick personally reaching up to put one of them on the shelf. People looking to read hidden meanings into Kubrick’s movies can also do a lot with continuity errors and other goofs, since everyone knows that Kubrick was so detail-conscious that they must be there on purpose. The Torrance child, Danny, has a bunch of stickers on his bathroom door, including one of Dopey, of the Seven Dwarfs. Then, after Danny has a vision of the horrors awaiting the family at the Overlook, Dopey disappears from the door, indicating that he has achieved wisdom and “is no longer a dope about things.” No detail is so small that it might not contain volumes. Jay Weidner’s clinchers for his deranged moon-landing theory (which has helped inspire a satirical fake documentary, the French film OpĂ©ration lune) include a shot of the sinister Room 237 with a key in the door and a tag reading “ROOM No.” As Weidner points out, the tag features the capitalized letters R, O, O, M, and N, and “There’s only two words you can come up with that have those letters in them, and that’s ‘moon’ and ‘room.’” Actually, you can also make “moron.”

A decade ago, there was a creepily exploitative documentary called Cinemania that centered on five unemployed, seemingly unemployable obsessive moviegoers who haunt the first-run and revival houses of New York. It made movie love look like a form of psychosis. If Cinemania had written its graduate thesis, it would be Room 237. It’s diverting for the first fifteen minutes or so, and boiled down to that length, it might have made for a classic YouTube clip. But at feature length, it feels depressing and pointless, because none of the arguments are based on anything. Ascher seems to acknowledge this at various points, when, say, Juli Kearns is talking about how what appears to be a skiing poster on a wall of the Overlook is actually a picture of a minotaur, and Ascher puts it up screen so it’s clear, that, no, it absolutely isn’t. But he mostly just seems to find any drivel anyone can think up to say about the movie to be of equal interest. The Shining is a movie; according to the current laws of critical discourse as it’s practiced on the fringe, you watch it a million times and then throw whatever you like at it, and hope something will stick. (Of all the dozens of ideas in this movie, that only one that had any resonance for me is the suggestion that, in keeping with the little-guy-taking-murderous-orders-from-the-malevolent-depots-of-history theory, the hairpiece worn by Barry Nelson, as the Overlook manager, is meant to make him look like JFK. But maybe that just strikes a chord with me because I’ve been trying to figure out what to make of Nelson’s hair in that movie since I first saw it in stills, and am ready to grasp at any straw.)

Highly personal, unconventional takes on popular culture are something the world needs more of, but only if comes from people who’ve seen the same movies we have, and not the special unreleased director’s cut for Martian-only distribution. The arguments in Room 237 are to criticism what the theories of the birthers and 9/11 truthers are to political and historical discourse. The amazing thing is that these folks have been talking this shit for three decades, so we can’t even blame it on the Internet.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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