|M.P. King, Wisconsin State Journal|
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.
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.
The "impossible window" discussion reminded me of the very amusing promo for a Kubrick retrospective on More4 in England.
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).
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.