Monday, October 14, 2013

In Focus: Room 237 and the Interpretive Leap

It is interesting that a poster for Room 237 draws upon an iconic image of the carpet on the second floor of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, but it doesn't use the carpet in Room 237 itself.  The now famous interlocking hexagons are quite visually striking even if you are not familiar with Kubrick or The Shining; but if you are familiar with them, the image provides a starting point for various interpretations of the film and Kubrick's style.  Young Danny himself seems to interpret the strong angular lines as borders and barriers as he keeps his cars lined up within the orange lines as if they were roads. Is it that far of a leap, therefore, to assert that Kubrick placed Danny just as precisely within the hexagon so that the yellow ball would roll up the brown line to reach him?  That seems like staging by an experienced director working within a vivid production design.  But can we then say that Kubrick "traps" Danny in the hexagon, and that the rolling ball violates or transcends the barriers to reach him?  Now we're moving into what these staging and production design decisions mean, not what the decisions are or what we literally see on the screen. That move to interpretation is what filmmaker Rodney Ascher is interested in exploring with his subjects.

M.P. King, Wisconsin State Journal
The Outlook Hotel carpet design so jarring that it must be a decision with some intention (right?). Anyone who has visited the Frank Lloyd
Wright-designed Monona Terrace in Madison knows that a jarring carpet has many effects on those subjected to it.  But while the Monona Terrace carpet has been controversial over the years, the controversy has not been about what the carpet "means."  That controversy has been more about what the intention of the carpet should be and whether it does or does not make visitors feel welcome.  The Outlook Hotel carpet is equally jarring, but people tend to make the move to narrative or thematic interpretations right away, rather than dwell on the psychological effects of color, shape, and pattern. It's not just that the interlocking hexagons suggest a puzzle, it's that the solution to the puzzle is not immediately obvious. Thus the image of the carpet is perfect for the poster for a film about people who have spent a lot of time with the puzzle of The Shining.

The carpet in Room 237 itself, on the other hand, would make a horrible poster for the film, because it is too obvious.  It is about as subtle as a Georgia O'Keefe flower painting. Nobody wants to talk (or hear) about obvious phallic symbols, they only want to talk about the hidden symbols, the ones that you need some degree of skill or a hermeneutic code to find and decipher. Still, the discussion of the carpet in Room 237 is one of the more effective sections of the documentary, because it did reveal a detail that was not immediately obvious from a casual viewing of The Shining (which I revisited a few days before watching Room 237).  Ascher has to do an optical (or digital) zoom-in during Jack Torrence's point-of-view shot walking through Room 237 to reveal this detail, much like the participants in the documentary had to repeatedly watch the film first on VHS and then on DVD.  And while I admit groaning and rolling my eyes when the Room 237 carpet detail appeared, its relationship to other stylistic choices prompts further questions and reflection.  The phallic shape in the design is its least interesting aspect; far more interesting is how the design echoes yet diverges from the hexagonal carpet.  And once you have that relationship in your head, you start thinking about how both designs relate to other stylistic choices in the mise-en-scene, most obviously the hedge maze.

Calling this a motif is not yet assigning meaning, it is simply observing the repetition and variation of graphic elements in the mise-en-scene.  This repetition and variation is not a matter of subjective response; it is not my opinion that these elements repeat, it is a fact that they repeat.  But once these repetitions and motifs are observed, most people quickly make the move to interpretation.  What does it mean that Danny is inside the hexagonal pattern and inside the center of the maze in these shots? What does it mean that the Room 237 carpet and the hedge maze feature the color green?  What does it mean that Wendy is with Danny inside the hedge maze when we compare the maze to the two carpets? Do the answers to these questions affect our response to the climactic chase in the hedge maze? If stylistic decisions cue us to draw comparisons between these moments in the film, what is the point (or intention) of the comparison? It is the process of answering questions of interpretation that Ascher focuses on in Room 237 by interviewing five perverse spectators of the film: Bill Blakemore, Geoffey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner.  (In addition to their biographies on at the Room 237 website, you can follow the name links to their web resources).

I do not call them perverse spectators as an insult.  Room 237 exemplifies the tradition of what film academics call "reception studies." A good starting point for those interested in reception studies is Janet Steiger's book from 2000, Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception.  Those who reject the interpretations in Room 237 are usually missing the point.  It is irrelevant whether or not the interpretations are "right or wrong"; Ascher is more interested in how these spectators have used these images and sounds and this story to create a range of meanings. That said, I found some observations and interpretations more compelling than others, but even when I was less compelled Ascher conveys the interpretations in interesting ways.

To start with a less compelling observation and interpretation, I was not particularly swayed by Juli Kearns's argument about the skiing poster and the minotaur.  To paraphrase and perhaps oversimplify her point, she suggests that it makes no sense for the skiing poster to be in the Outlook Hotel game room, because in the opening interview scene Stuart Ullman explains to Jack Torrence that the Outlook Hotel cannot stay open during the winter and cater to the skiing market because it is too logistically difficult to do so.  But she seems to assume that skiing posters would only appear in venues that cater to skiers.  It seems to me to be perfectly plausible that a game room anywhere in Colorado might have a skiing poster, regardless if the venue actually served skiers.  (Would it be difficult to find a skiing poster in a bar in downtown Denver or Boulder?)

Even if we accept her premise that the poster shouldn't be there, I also found the description and the analysis of the poster itself problematic. Despite the fact that she insists that it is a minotour, at best I would describe it as a skier whose silhouette happens to suggest a minotour when you look at it in a certain way.  Both the poster and the minotaur are then building blocks for larger points that I won't paraphrase here.  But to repeat my earlier point, it is irrelevant whether I agree with her observations or interpretations. Ascher vividly visualizes her observations by guiding our attention to parts of the original frame (using arrows, or in this case, a square), and by enlarging and panning over parts of the frame like Ken Burns would do to a Civil War photograph.  He effectively matches the rhythm of the speaker's voice with the rhythm of the visual presentation, often transforming Kubrick's original static and stoic compositions into something more dynamic and frenzied.

Far more compelling, in my opinion, is Kearns's observation about the "impossible window." It is more compelling because rather than building upon a possibly faulty inference about information conveyed in the story, the "impossible window" observation is built upon some pretty clever work with mapping out the layout of the Overlook Hotel after many, many repeated viewings.

The "impossible window" discussion reminded me of the very amusing promo for a Kubrick retrospective on More4 in England.

As crazy as the space in the promo is, in spirit it is not that far off from how odd the space in the Overlook Hotel set is once you stop to think about it, or as Kearns and others have done, once you stop to map it out.  Again, Ascher very vividly presents the work that Kearns and others have done and indeed the "impossible window" argument is hard to refute when it seems there should be not one but (at least) two hallways between the office and the outdoors. This observation and others support a general argument that several of the subjects put forth, that the spatial inconsistencies and what usually would be called continuity errors are part of Kubrick's deliberate designs and intentions.

The fact that a chair disappears in the middle of a shot-reverse-shot conversation scene, or that Jack's typewriter changes color in different scenes in the film could be part of an intentional design. Artists deliberately putting mysterious elements in their work is not without precedent, in cinema and the other arts. One subject briefly mentions James Joyce; recall that Joyce once said about his Ulysses, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” There are other possible explanations for some of these inconsistencies, of course.  One being that they may simply be the type of continuity errors typical of films that feature performers who are allowed to improvise (as the Room 237 mentions Kubrick allowed Nicholson to do).  There are possible narrative explanations as well: it seems perfectly plausible that a professional writer using a manual typewriter in 1980 would bring more than one with him if he were to spend a winter isolated from the nearest typewriter repair shop (there's nothing in the film itself that directly supports this inference, however).

Other examples of breaks in spatial continuity are more compelling, in addition to the "impossible window," including one that returns us back to Danny on the second floor carpet. These two shots in front of Danny are separated only by one brief wider shot behind him looking down the empty hallway after the yellow ball has rolled up to him, so this is supposed to be continuous time. As you can see, in the first shot Danny faces the "open" side of the hexagon (and as I mentioned at the beginning, the yellow ball draws our attention to the brown line leading up to him).  In the second shot Danny faces the "closed" side of the hexagon. Unlike some of the more typical continuity errors, this seems like a deliberate attempt to mess with our heads using visual style. The question then becomes whether this is part of a larger pattern or system, and Room 237 does give other examples of discontinuities that seem more than just mistakes, like entrances and exits from what is supposed to be the same room that the maps show us are in completely different places on the set.

While I seem to be more interested in the formal observations in Room 237 over the socio-political speculations about The Shining, I don't mean to completely dismiss the possibility that The Shining has something to say about the monsters we have made or the horrors that we have inflicted on ourselves through history. One can legitimately use almost anything to help analyze or explain another thing; for example, I used the seemingly unrelated Monona Terrace carpet to help make a point about the function of the carpets in The Shining. So while I have no objection to using The Shining to discuss the genocide of American Indians or the Holocaust, it is a fair question to ask to what degree these interpretations offer any explanatory power. Or, to ask what they actually help explain. The explanatory power of my Monona Terrace carpet example is very focused and limited, and it probably would be a mistake to use it in a more wide-reaching way to interpret or explain The Shining (or Western civilization). So, while I'm not interested in calling these readings "wrong," it is worth asking what The Shining actually "says" about genocide beyond "It is bad that we have been so capabale of extreme violence, on small and large scales, throughout history," which we hopefully knew just as well before watching The Shining. Or, to ask this another way, aren't most horror films also about the monsters we have been or are capable of becoming?

I don't want to push that line of questioning too hard, however, because Room 237 isn't so much about The Shining as it is about what its subjects have done with The Shining. So what is Ascher's argument about these interpretations?  While for the most part he simply allows the subjects to speak while he illustrates their points, at times his stylistic choices could imply a degree of skepticism. For example, while he uses arrows and boxes to draw our attention to the part of the frame being discussed, in the sequence discussing the alleged image of Kubrick in the clouds he does not do so, leaving us to stare and wonder if Ascher thinks it is there.  In terms of visual style, the film often reminded me of an Adam Curtis documentary, using archival footage, from Kubrick and non-Kubrick sources, to punctuate or counter-point the subject's voice-overs.  Like a Curtis documentary, sometimes the footage is used excessively to a fault; the connections with some Kubrick films, like Paths of Glory, seem a bit too forced. One problem I had with the overall presentation was that it was difficult to remember to whom the voices belonged, and mentally I had to resort to short-cuts like "Oh, it's the American Indians guy," or "the Holocaust guy," "the laughing guy with the kid," or "the Apollo conspiracy guy" (Kearns voice, as the only woman, was obviously easier to recognize). I liked the decision to keep them all off-screen, but the heart of the film depends upon the ethos of these speakers, yet we're not entirely sure who they are.

Perhaps the one exception to that would be Jay Weidner, but that could be because makes the most audacious and memorable claims of the bunch, especially that Kubrick directed the staged footage of the Apollo missions. Below I have included Amazon Instant Video links if you are interested in renting Weidner's two films on Kubrick; part one seems to be devoted entirely to Kubrick and Apollo. Personally, I don't know if I want to go much further down that rabbit hole. But if you do, please let me know your reactions in the comments section below. (Also, one last streaming point: Weidner's website points out that he is the programming director for Gaiam TV, which is a channel available on the Roku Streaming Player.)

Here are a few other films that are currently streaming (either subscription service or rentals) that you might want to check out, including, of course, Room 237 and The Shining.

[Edit: Within hours of this post I received a nice response and kind words from Kevin McLeod, who does the commentary track for the Room 237 DVD. For those who have seen the film, he is referenced as Mstrmnd.]

Posters and Synopses from The Movie Database

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, USA, 2012, 102 minutes)

A subjective documentary that explores the numerous theories about the hidden meanings within Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining. The film may be over 30 years old but it continues to inspire debate, speculation, and mystery. Five very different points of view are illuminated through voice over, film clips, animation and dramatic reenactments. Together they'll draw the audience into a new maze, one with endless detours and dead ends, many ways in, but no way out.

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK, 1980, 142 minutes)

Jack Torrance accepts a job at the Overlook Hotel, where he, along with his wife Wendy and their son Danny must live isolated from the rest of the world for the winter, but they aren't prepared for the madness that lurks within.

Twelve Kubrick films are streaming on various services on the Roku Streaming Player.  Most of them are rentals, but the titles available with subscription services include Eyes Wide Shut (Redbox Instant), Dr. Strangelove, and The Killing (both Amazon Prime)

Kubrick's Odyssey: Secrets Hidden in the Films of Stanley Kubrick, Part One, Kubrick and Apollo (Jay Weidner, USA, 2011, 70 minutes)

This provocative and insightful film is the first in a series of documentaries that will reveal the secret knowledge embedded in the work of the greatest filmmaker of all time: Stanley Kubrick. This famed movie director who made films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, placed symbols and hidden anecdotes into his films that tell a far different story than the films appeared to be saying. In Kubrick's Odyssey, Part I, Kubrick and Apollo, author and filmmaker, Jay Weidner presents compelling evidence of how Stanley Kubrick directed the Apollo moon landings.

Kubrick's Odyssey II: Beyond the Infinite Secrets Hidden in the Films of Stanley Kubrick (Jay Weidner, USA, 2012, 62 minutes)

This provocative and insightful film is the second in a series of documentaries that will reveal the secret knowledge embedded in the work of the greatest filmmaker of all time: Stanley Kubrick. This famed movie director who made films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, placed symbols and hidden anecdotes into his films that tell a far different story than the films appeared to be saying. In Kubrick's Odyssey, Part II, Beyond the Infinite, author and filmmaker, Jay Weidner further explores the esoteric secrets allegedly hidden in Kubrick's films.

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (Jan Harlan, USA, 2001, 141 minutes)

A documentary about the life and work of Stanley Kubrick, famed film director, made by his long-time assistant Jan Harlan. 135 minutes long, it consists of several 15-minute chapters, each detailing the making of one of his films - and two more showing his childhood and life.

Color Me Kubrick (Brian Cook, UK, 2005, 86 minutes)

The true story of a man who posed as director Stanley Kubrick during the production of Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut, despite knowing very little about his work and looking nothing like him.

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