Monday, April 8, 2013

Riske Business: Room 237 and The Shining

I am a big admirer of The Shining. While I am watching it, I am often convinced it is the greatest horror movie ever made. This past weekend, I re-watched The Shining to coincide with the release of a new documentary claiming to be 'An Inquiry Into The Shining in 9 Parts,' called Room 237. I had seen Room 237 already at the Chicago International Film Festival, and something just bothered me about it. I couldn’t figure out what. I knew I would give Room 237 another chance when it was officially released. In my re-watching of both movies, I liked The Shining more than I ever have and I’m ready to call Room 237 one of the worst movies I’ve seen so far this year. It’s a completely dishonest movie.

Like all of Stanley Kubrick’s work, I love the MOVIE-NESS of The Shining. It’s hyper-realistic and in every shot drips with mood and dread -- two elements I respond to the most in a horror movie.  Kubrick had been a photographer since he was a kid, and by the time he did The Shining he knew exactly where to put the camera and how to shape and manipulate what was happening in the image to maximize the creepiness. The score and production design add greatly to the suspense as well -- they make the hotel seem alive and ghoulish. It’s like the ghosts of the Indian burial ground on which The Overlook resides are calling out to you. It’s great how Kubrick treats a haunted house movie seriously but still knows he’s making a haunted house movie, not forgetting to pull out all the stops in the climax. Kubrick also knows the unexplained is scarier than the explained. I don’t need to know why a guy in an animal suit is blowing an old dude. I think Kubrick was building up to The Shining for a while, and is a natural choice to direct a horror movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey (my favorite movie and the scariest G-rated movie ever made) and A Clockwork Orange are profoundly mysterious and creepy, as well as thoughtful and daring. We’re lucky as movie fans that Stanley Kubrick chose to elevate the genre by doing a horror movie. Some modern day horror directors are great artists (e.g. Lucky McKee, Ti West more often than not), but they have ghettoized themselves in the horror genre, while the directing masters outside the genre have mostly not taken a serious stab at it.
Much has been made of the two lead performances from Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.  Nicholson is often praised for The Shining (he’s SUCH an ASSHOLE to his wife in the movie…OMG) with the back-handed compliment that it’s the beginning of over-the-top Nicholson.  Very true, but I like over-the-top Nicholson. I like '60s Nicholson in the Roger Corman era, I like '70s Nicholson and I like the over-the-top Nicholson of the '80s to present day. I appreciate that he’s going through different motions in his performance style as his career progresses. Also, there are enough of his '70s-style performances in his more recent work (The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, About Schmidt) than I think he’s given credit for. He’s not always crazy Jack. Shelley Duvall is super underrated for her performance in the movie; she’s asked to be crying and hyperventilating for nearly 90 minutes, and that has to be tough to do. If there’s a better "scared" performance in horror movie history, I don’t know what it is. She’s all primal maternal instinct; Danny better get her a great gift for Mother’s Day is what I’m saying.
At its core, you can interpret many things into The Shining, but I don’t want to try anymore. It’s a spooky movie about ghosts and the supernatural -- why is that not good enough? Is it going to make my day if I feel like it’s about something deeper?

For example, during this past watch I noticed a bunch of things I never had before. Could The Shining be an indictment against marriage and fatherhood interrupting "my plans?" Perhaps. Or maybe it's just the story of one guy, not trying to make a broad statement. I could just as easily say the movie is about not playing ball in the house (crazy Jack who interacts with ghosts starts right after he’s throwing the tennis ball against a wall). During the scene where Jack enters Room 237, I thought Danny was using his shining ability to summon the evil spirits of the hotel against his Dad (spurred on by Jack’s reaction when Danny asked him if he’d ever hurt him or his mom). I never had that reading before. I always just thought Danny was shining to Hallorann to help him and his mother.  This viewing, I thought Hallorann sensed that Danny and his dad were having a battle of wills and thought "Oh no, Danny doesn’t know what he’s just done." Once you open the jar of ghosts, there's no stopping it. This would explain why Grady says to Jack (in the bathroom) that “He’s attempting to use that talent against your will." The end of the movie (spoilers) opens the great debate as to whether Jack is absorbed by the hotel or if present day Jack was a reincarnation of 1921 Jack (which would explain why he felt like he was at the hotel before). To this point, I argue: does it really matter? The feeling of "what is going on?" is always more satisfying than knowing WHAT IS GOING ON in a horror movie.
The Shining is a movie about how isolation and cabin fever compounded with an air of past sin can turn into lunacy. That’s how I want to read it. It’s a textual interpretation, and that’s what I want from it so that I can still enjoy the MOVIE-NESS.

The major failing of Room 237 is that it doesn’t give a shit about The Shining on a textual level, only its alleged subtext. To give you a better idea of what it’s like watching Room 237, here is a text conversation I had with a friend of mine as I was watching it:

Me: I’m watching room 237 On Demand and I hate it...why are critics loving this?
Ed: Something about how a movie can keep being relevant despite being 33 years old
Me: I’m going to write about it and the shining…critics are wrong…room 237 is like talking about a movie with a crazy person
Ed: Yeah. I think the documentary is more about the craziness it inspires than whether it reveals anything about the movie.
Me: My big problem is that most of the theories are just what these people are bringing to it from their own lives…no one talks about movies like this
Ed: Well, people who suspend disbelief for a little long.
Therein lies a major problem with Room 237: it is not about unveiling the mysteries of The Shining or how we watch movies as film lovers (because 99.9% of people don’t watch movies like the people in Room 237). So it’s dishonest. It’s about seeing The Shining through the eyes of people you would try to get away from at a party (at best) or people who are fucking crazy but don’t know they are crazy (at worst). Neither makes for a pleasant experience.

The film details conspiracy theories and not interpretations of The Shining. Among the theories bandied about in Room 237 are that The Shining is about the genocide of the American Indian by the Whites, or a meditation on the Holocaust, or Kubrick’s admission to helping in the staging of the Apollo moon landing. Those are the most interesting and plausible. The most absurd (which take up the majority of the movie) are that it’s got to do with minotaurs, ghosts with repressed sexuality, impossible floor plans of a fake hotel etc. It’s a waste of time, and there’s a lot of back patting where it is not deserved.

Many interesting theories about what is going on in The Shining are completely ignored in Room 237. It’s shameful that I can find them on the FAQ section of IMDB, but the director chose to ignore a more meaty discussion of the movie. For example, one critic saw The Shining to be study about the family unit going terribly awry. Another said it’s about man’s predilection for violence through the ages. Or the white male hegemony buckling under its own weight. Or an interrogation of why audiences come to horror movies to see suffering and death. Why talk about those, Room 237 posits, when we can talk about minotaurs, phallic symbols, impossible windows, giants clearing a forest, movers carrying light loads and the fact that people are wearing shirts with numbers on them?
One interviewee stands below the rest as the worst. It’s a guy who is so obsessed with The Shining that he thinks his own life is mirroring the movie. Early in Room 237, he stops his interview to take care of his kid (who you can hear in the background). It’s a really jarring thing to be in the movie until you understand where the director is going with it. By the end of the movie, I was very worried for the safety of his kid. It made me sick to my stomach -- especially since the interviewee has a creepy spasm giggle for most of the movie.

I’m fine with a documentary being about the cinema obsessed. There’s one called Cinemania that does this, and it’s terrific and scary to boot. But where Cinemania shows the downside to devoting your life to watching movies, Room 237 never even shows us its interview subjects, so we can’t see how this obsession with The Shining has affected them or the people around them. And it’s a one-sided discussion. No one challenges these people’s points.

The movie has a really interesting first 20 minutes. Director Rodney Ascher has a lot of fun mashing up movie clips from Demons, Eyes Wide Shut, etc. to make visual jokes. The music is great in the movie -- very reminiscent of Phantasm -- and it front-loads with the best theory (involving the American Indian connections). After that initial bit of fun, the movie runs out of steam quickly and becomes tedious. Then it goes on forever to the point where you want to turn it off and just watch The Shining already.

What the hell is Room 237 even about? Is this a movie about the cinema obsessed? The Shining as a movie? How filmgoers watch and interpret movies? Is it satirizing people who look for meaning in movies? The movie never says and has no clear point of view. The closest it comes is in a really troubling reduction that "We all know from postmodern film criticism that author intent is only part of the story to any work of art." But in Room 237, they completely ignore author intent in favor of a one-sided conversation. It’s like if you commented to this column, telling me what I meant to say and then when I tried to answer back you just told me to shut up. It’s putting words in the author’s (Kubrick's) mouth. If you want to know more about the hidden meanings and analysis of The Shining I would recommend you check out two documentaries: Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures and the making-of doc on the DVD of The Shining, directed by Kubrick’s daughter.

Sometimes a movie is just a movie. It’s like what’s happening with Paul Thomas Anderson with The Master: maybe it’s just a story about people and not interested in making a comment on the human condition, Scientology or, in the case of The Shining, evil itself. Kubrick, like Anderson, is not allowed to make one of these straightforward exercises, I guess, because he’s an "important filmmaker." There has to be more! That’s our fault as an audience. If you over-intellectualize it, what have you gained?
To close, here are some interesting quotes I found from Stanley Kubrick himself:

• "I don't think that writers or painters or filmmakers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel. And they like the art form; they like words, or the smell of paint, or celluloid and photographic images and working with actors. I don't think that any genuine artist has ever been oriented by some didactic point of view, even if he thought he was."
• "The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize or analyze it."

As I was prepping to write this column I went to my parents’ house for dinner. My Mom collects antiques.  Look what I found in a display case. The Overlook Hotel is following me - - and not on Twitter!


  1. See my comment on the PotA page

    1. Hi Kathy. Thank you for commenting. We love you.

      I completely agree with you about Room 237 being a movie about what the viewer brings to it from their own experiences. That doesn't mean it's a good movie.

      For example, I like ice cream and could read a bunch of stuff into The Shining too. They eat ice cream, it's cold outside, snow looks like ice cream, Jack if frosty to his family like ice cream. All of these things are true but that doesn't mean The Shining is about ice cream. What I just said is nonsense and that is Room 237 in a nutshell. Again, these are just my opinions.

  2. I am soooo going to watch the Shining again after reading this. So, if you come into my house and you hear me typing or if you don't hear me typing, or whatever the heck you hear me doing, it means I'm watching this movie. That means don't come in...can you handle that truth?

    1. Nice homage to the Jack losing his sh*t at Wendy scene!

  3. Great column Adam! I heard good things about Room 237 when people first saw at film festivals and what not but reviews have been coming out, lately, that are making the same points as you. From what i gathered, it's basically the 'Loose Change' of film/shining documentaries. I'll probably still check it out (probably on demand, when made available).

    Also, i find it really interesting that your favorite film is '2001'. You dont seem like the kind of guy who loves that kind of stuff. I have no problem with that (i love '2001') but i dont know, weird.

    Also Also, speaking about Kubrick, i watched 'Barry Lyndon' recently and really liked it. But i definately feel like i need to rewatch it cause, like all of Kubrick's work, there seems to be more than meets the eye (cue transformers sounds). And maybe that's me, like you said, overanalyzing the work because it was made by an "important filmmaker" but i dont know.

    Once again, great article! I'd love to see you write about '2001' and why you love it but hey, it's your world man, i'm just visiting...

    1. I'm a bit intimidated to write about 2001. In short, it's my favorite movie because it deals with existence which is such a huge topic for a 2+ hr movie. The fact that the movie has a theory on that and works at all is amazing to me. I can't believe something like it exists. And it gives you time as the viewer to sit and think about these topics for yourself. I think it's very deliberate why Kubrick gave so much time to that imagery and classical music - he wants you to have your mind wander a bit and think about things you don't usually consider.

      I love Barry Lyndon. I think it's very underrated. The photography and music alone make it a great movie.

    2. Barry Lyndon is one of my favorite Kubrick movies, and yes there is a lot going on in that movie.

    3. I'm still holding out hope for a 2001: A Space Odyssey column or (preferably, in a perfect world) podcast someday. I know a lot of it would probably be a lot of "2001: A Space Odyssey is amazing, and here's why," but I think it would make for a fascinating discussion or write-up. Just my two cents.

  4. Adam,

    Loved the column. Thanks for writing about this film.

    I think Kubrick films invite a lot of critical analysis, and that primed my interest in this film. I can't say I loved it, but I did find it thoroughly enttertaining.

    You write “a major problem with Room 237: it is not about unveiling the mysteries of The Shining or how we watch movies as film lovers (because 99.9% of people don’t watch movies like the people in Room 237). So it’s dishonest”. I agree that it doesn't unveil the mysteries. Like yourself, I thought the theories held little salt, and the mountains of craziness piled up as the theories went on. Kubrick created fake moon footage of the moon landing, and hid it from his wife? This guy is not only zanny, he's put himself on a government watch list.

    As a viewer, I enjoyed seeing how far people could a benign detail, and how make this crazy story out of it. The obessiveness that these people would view, and create a fantasy was just riveting to me. Who counts the number of cars in an aerial shot! Their personal stories were twined into their lunny theories – for instance in the beginning when the narrator was in Europe and thinking about America from a foreign perspective, and started with this native american autrocity theory. Viewing this with an audience (Musicbox), there were moments of unbridled laughter at points. So my defense of the film is from an entertainment point of view, even though it doesn't have the hard documentary chops to give a viewer detail into a critical analysis. Also with a psychology background, I just like crazy people a little more than the next guy.

    One last thing, I would love to hear an FthisMovie perspective on Kubrick. That would be a critical analysis we can all agree is worth hearing!

  5. I haven't seen Room 237, but The Shining is one of my all-time favorite movies. Theories about underlying meanings can be interesting, but they do sometimes take the fast track to crazytown. Kubrick messing around with spatial relationships (i.e. the phony window in Ullman's office) may have been for no other reason than to screw with the audience perception - which is more than enough, in my opinion. What I find compelling about this movie in the end is its portrait of a profoundly dysfunctional family, which was hopelessly damaged long before they got to the Overlook.

    I keep coming back to the scene early on between Wendy and the pediatrician. It could be shown to social workers as a demonstration of how to gradually pull information from reluctant parents. And look how Wendy has the same vacant smile plastered to her face throughout, even when talking about how her husband broke her son's arm. The movie may nominally be about the paranormal, but the emotions we see are as true-to-life as they can be.

  6. Great article Adam, I don't think I could agree with you more.

    The thing that still eludes me is the widespread critical praise for this doc. Almost as if the vast majority of people who praise it are getting the same pleasure out of it they would a freakshow or reality television. That just seems silly to me.

    There seems to be a problem with, like you said, people refusing to critique movies as movies. Subtext that serves the point of the story or "feeling" of the story as opposed to harebrained theories that do nothing to increase the appreciation for the film. Afterall, the point of most film criticism is to increase the appreciation for film, even if you have to F them sometimes.

  7. Room 237 is the angriest I will be at a movie all year. It would be the worst if The ABCs of Death did not exist.

    @ Greg - Your reason for liking Room 237 is the only one I can wrap my head around - you were entertained. Just like how humor is completely subjective, so is what makes us entertained. For example, I like the movie White Chicks.

    @Steve K - I like your comment. I personally am fine leaving The Shining as it is but your point about the social worker is solid. The reason it's solid is because it's actually part of the dialogue and the focus of a scene in the movie. It's there in the text.

    @Jake B - They should change the name of Room 237 to Shi**ing on a Classic. I hate this movie with the fire of 1,000 suns (I want that on the poster). The critical reception to this movie depresses me. It's inspired some great writing for a movie that does not deserve it at all. This movie represents to me the 'party line' mentality of too much of the film critic community. Rather than go out on a limb, they parrot each other.

    If Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a movie about the genocide of the American Indian don't you think (with all his talents and pull in Hollywood) he would have made that movie? And why in the hell would the director of Dr. Strangelove participate in faking the TV broadcast of the Apollo moon landing?

  8. I just watched Room 237 and fuck fuck fuck this "movie". Being a fucking MOVIE should mean something. This is some TLC fuckin Hoarders Honey Boo Boo let's laugh at the crazy people schadenfreude bullshit - which I admit occasionally appeals to the stupid lizard part of my brain that also "enjoys" watching people fall on their ass, but it doesn't deserve to be called a movie. A collection of creepy weirdos rambling on about barely comprehensible nonsense with well-timed clips in the background does not a MOVIE make. Their retarded interpretations of the movie (and I'd say you're being too generous saying any have any plausibility) are so far removed from what a normal person would see that it's barely even a movie about The Shining. Their insipid theories are so personal and so much about other weird shit that it's not really about looking too deeply into movies - they're somehow seeing everything but the movie. And their personalities are so bland it's not even an interesting movie about obsession. It's a big piece of crap, and I'm with you Adam, it's made me a little angry at it, and rarely do I bother being angry at a movie, or in this case, an insult to movies.

    The ONE interesting thing I found in the whole thing were some of the shots of the movie being played simultaneously from the beginning and backwards from the end, but I have a feeling that the handful of kinda cool juxtapositions of scenes they showed us would not make up for what is probably mostly a jumbled-up mess (and almost certainly nothing Kubrick ever thought about).

    Nice article, Adam - I too love The Shining and it deserves a deep critical analysis from people like you - you know, crazy in a good way.

    1. I feel like a Dad after his son hits a homer in little league. Let's go to Pizza Hut! Do they have those in Canada?

    2. I'd add that I too really liked Cinemania and as strange as some of those characters were, I never felt like I was just there to laugh at them. I started reading some of the many POSITIVE reviews (@#$&!) of this movie and the only real positive point they seem to have is that the people and their theories are so funny. So laughing at people with mental problems, that's cool now? That's kinda like walking out of The Bully Project saying you loved it because the bullying victims were so hilariously nerdy.

      Urge to kill...rising!

    3. Heheh - we do - too greasy but their sauce is my favorite!

  9. All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy

    1. Then apparently you never paid attention during the infamous typewriter scene in The Shining...

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. must be watching USA because you just got a Burn Notice :)

  11. (for some reason you can't reply here when using an android tablet)

    BTW you realize that all of these things they find so significant in this documentary - changing carpets, doors not matching, missing chairs, typewriters that change color - if this was a Corman film or Ute Bole (sp?) or a good first time director everybody would be laughing their asses off at the mistakes.

    But you know in the meantime there's been something bothering me about the movie, Sleepaway Camp. Then I finally realized what it was! If you look at the shelves in the kitchen you'll see several cans of vegetables under the brand "Lil Brave". The most prominent one is of yams but there's another one that's pumpkin. Meanwhile, James Earl Jugs is preparing corn. Corn was what the Native Americans taught the settlers to grow so that they wouldn't starve and inspired a national holiday. Then we see a guy who tried to show a young girl his "man meat" dies by the corn...

    I've come to believe that Hiltzick was using this movie to promote Vegetarian Thanksgivings. The strongest evidence of this is that the murderer is a girl with a "sausage". The message: "Meat Is Murder!!!!"

    Or it's just a really f'd up movie. :P