Today’s post is a two-fer, because it only seemed appropriate to combine reviews for these films, beings that one is based upon the other. In other news, water is wet! So let’s head up to the Overlook for some words on The Shining and Room 237…
THE SHINING (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers
Country: United Kingdom / United States
The Shining starts with Jack Torrance (Nicholson) interviewing for a winter caretaker position for the Overlook Hotel, a remote resort built on top of a Native American burial ground. No really. During the interview, he’s warned that during the off-season, the hotel is often snowed in and isolated for several months, and that a previous caretaker came under case of cabin fever so serious that he hacked his wife and two daughters with an ax before killing himself. Jack sees no issue with this, and accepts the job offer, mostly as a way to take time off so he can focus on writing a book. Meanwhile, his wife Wendy (Duvall) and young son Danny (Lloyd) are back home, where Danny has just experienced a vision of the hotel that’s beyond terrifying. When they get to the Overlook, the family dynamic quickly dissolves in a rush of liquor, blood, and violence.
I can approach a piece about The Shining in two ways: I can talk about it as a groundbreaking piece of horror cinema, as so many others have done; or I can talk about how for years I hated this film with a fiery passion, but with each subsequent viewing grew to appreciate and even…gasp!…love it. I think the latter is far more interesting, so let’s take that path, mostly because anything I could say about The Shining in terms of the former has already been said a thousand times over and with much more panache.
The first time I saw The Shining, I was incredibly underwhelmed. My main problem with the film is, I think, a common complaint: Jack Nicholson is playing crazy from frame one, so there’s no suspense in his character arc. Well, let’s soften that a bit – he’s certainly an asshole from the start, and there’s frankly nothing likable about him. He’s condescending to his wife and child and there’s an constant undercurrent of cruelty to his voice. For years, his entire performance kept me from really enjoying the film on any level, that’s how annoyed I was with Nicholson. I’ve still never been completely sold on his entire career, although I do enjoy him an awful lot in things like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Witches Of Eastwick. The difference between those roles and this one is that he’s so damn charming there, and a real dick here. I suppose that’s a testament to Nicholson at the end of the day.
I was also rather underwhelmed with Shelley Duvall’s performance. There was something that would just drive me bonkers about her portrayal of Wendy. However, the more I watch the film, the more I understand Wendy – she’s a woman who is living with a man who has a barely-contained addiction to alcohol and who has shown abusive tendencies to their son. Duvall is brilliantly fragile here, entirely believable as someone who is trying to convince other people that her and her husband’s relationship is perfectly okay while her voice is trying not to crack. It’s a bravura performance that often gets overlooked, which is a shame.
There are so many moments in The Shining I could point to as favorites – the initial time we see the elevator open and all that blood pours out, the conversation between Halloran (Crothers) and Danny about “the shine” and about room 237, the way the camera swings with Jack’s ax as he chops through the door to their suite at the Overlook – but if I had to choose one, right now I’d go with the sequence where Wendy realizes that Jack hasn’t been working on his novel at all. She finds his manuscript, all right, but it’s just the same line repeated over and over, in different formats. When she later fights him off with a baseball bat and locks him in a storage pantry, she shows all the terror and exhaustion and emotion of someone who has fought a long internal battle, and yet, she STILL doubts herself! At this point, Wendy is every woman who has been in an abusive relationship – she is fighting back, but that mental hold is still strong. Has she done the right thing? We know she has, but she does not, and the impact of that resonates deeply. Powerful stuff.
Anyhow, my personal misgivings aside about The Shining (including the fact that Stephen King really likes to rely on the “magical Negro” trope), every viewing of the film improves upon the last. I see something new, I understand something deeper, and my appreciation of it grows. And the more Stanley Kubrick films I see, the more I go back to The Shining to see his fingerprints all over it. It’s crafted as tightly as a fine timepiece, and it comes just as unwound at the end. Kubrick made his films with a steady hand, and one that’s particularly attentive to detail – it’s rare to see a mistake in any of them. This attention to detail has lead many people to point out minor flaws – such as a chair that disappears in one shot only to reappear in another – as intentional, that he purposefully made these “mistakes” as a sort of code. This equal obsession with analyzing details comes into play in Room 237, which might be one of the most interesting and most facepalm-inducing analyses of a film I’ve ever seen.
ROOM 237 (2012)
Director: Rodney Ascher
Analyses by: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner
Country: United States
I’m a big fan of film analysis. Coming from a film school background, and one with a writing emphasis, this is where I really enjoy cinema. I’m like Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist – I love to discuss film, to critique it. My favorite thing is when I’m watching a film and it triggers a recognition of some concurrent social event, and then reading the film through that particular lens. This doesn’t happen with every film, but when it does, it’s fun to pick it apart and talk about it in a deeper context. So when I first heard about Room 237, I was pretty excited. The Shining seems like the perfect film for people to add their analyses to, so an entire film of that? Sign me up. Since I live in a sort of “cinema desert,” I don’t get to see a lot of things until they hit Netflix streaming, and the same happened with Room 237. In the meantime between its release and it being on instant watch, I started to hear a lot of not-good discussions of the film, mostly that some of the views presented in the film were completely nonsensical. Naturally, I had to see this for myself.
The film presents a handful of theories about The Shining from five different people; these theories range from the weird layout of the Overlook, to the genocide of the Native Americans, to the Holocaust, to the Apollo 11 moon landings, to the different ways one can literally view the film. The one about the Overlook’s floor plan is by far the most intriguing, although it can be explained away with the fact that some of the film’s scenes are set on soundstages. Still, within the confines of the film, it does create a sense of disorientation that, along with the superb sound design, keeps the audience off-kilter. Another analysis has the film being viewed forward and backward at the same time, one image projected on top of the other, which allows for some eerie juxtapositions. The other analyses are tenuous at best and rely on the equivalent of seeing the Virgin Mary in a tortilla. When you want to see faces in clouds, you will.
The analysis that most frustrates and annoys me is the one presented by Jay Widener, who has long been a moon landing conspiracy theorist. While he makes sure to point out that he doesn’t think the Apollo 11 landing itself was faked – he says that the FOOTAGE of the moon landings were filmed in a studio – he sees The Shining as Kubrick’s apology for being complicit in that faked footage. Don’t get me wrong, a good conspiracy theory can be fascinating as hell, but I’m also a big fan of Occam’s Razor – the fewer assumptions, the better. The Holocaust and Native American genocide readings of the film also fall under a similar category of interesting bullshit, but Widener’s theory is the most egregious.
That said, the way Room 237 is put together is fascinating. Rodney Ascher uses not only clips from The Shining and a host of other Kubrick films, he sets the film in the theater from Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), as if to drive home the point that everything we’re watching here is just a film. It’s all a fiction, even the theories about The Shining. Even though Room 237 doesn’t really vet any of those theories, and it kind of presents this particular film analysis as a cluster of outlying, whackadoodle, internet conspiracy junkies, it still gives us a broader look at the cultural impact of Kubrick’s contribution to the horror genre. For that at least, I’m glad it exists.