Thursday, April 18, 2013

Truth is in the eye of the interpreter: a review of "Room 237"

"The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it's simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves."

-Stanley Kubrick

Around the two-hour mark of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) drives to the Overlook Hotel after receiving a telepathic message that trouble is brewing. On the way, he comes across a red Volkswagen bug crushed under a semi, off to the side of the road. 

In the Stephen King novel upon which Kubrick's movie was based, the Torrances
had a red VW bug, but in Kubrick's re-telling the family Volkswagen is yellow. The totaled red bug is Kubrick's artistic license, his prerogative to adapt the source text as he pleases, a reminder that the shape a story takes is out of the creator's hands once it's released to the public

The documentary "Room 237," which gives five people who've watched "The Shining" too many times to count 102 minutes to offer their interpretations, takes this idea so far that it begins with a disclaimer:


(Click on photo to enlarge)
"Room  237" doesn't provide an explanation of the plot or the characters of "The Shining." Director Rodney Ascher assumes that viewers are familiar enough with Kubrick's movie to understand the context of the various perspectives. (*Reader beware:  this spoiler-laden review works from the same premise.) 

Kubrick's keen eye for detail and fascination with puzzles reflected a very deliberate nature which finds expression in the complicated and ambiguous structure of "The Shining." On the surface, "The Shining" is a horror movie about a writer who gets cabin fever and commits murder, but Kubrick being Kubrick, most horror movie conventions are bypassed in favor of a multi-layered mindfuck full of symbols and undercurrents which suggest that there is much more here than meets the eye. In essence, "Room 237" is five film fanatics' attempts to pick Kubrick's capacious brain.

The opening speaker is ABC news correspondent Bill Blakemore, who relates the reconnaissance that got "The Shining" off the ground. As he'd done for his previous movies, Kubrick conducted extensive research prior to shooting (which is one reason his releases were infrequent by industry standards). Once Kubrick had chosen a hotel for the movie's outdoor shots, he sent out a research team who spent two to three months studying Colorado history and photographing the hotel from every possible angle. 

Blakemore believes that "The Shining" is about America's slaughter of the
American Indians. In the scene in which Halloran first communicates with Danny Torrance through "the shine,"a can of Calumet baking soda (in the lower left of the adjacent image) appears. Quietly, as Blakemore explains his theory, a drum beat starts up with organ accompaniment, establishing the rhythm of "Room 237," which rotates among five interpreters whom the audience never sees.

Blakemore also discusses the two scenes where Danny talks to his imaginary friend Tony in the bathroom, before the Torrances journey to the Overlook Hotel. In the first scene, as the camera moves through a hall toward the bathroom, the last image along the left side of the wall is a cluster of stickers, ending with a decal of Dopey (of the seven dwarfs). In the second scene, after Danny has had a premonition of the terrors to come at the Overlook, the camera again moves past the stickers, but Dopey is gone, signifying that Danny is no longer dopey, no longer oblivious to the dangers ahead.     

The theories range from playful to substantial to seemingly ridiculous. Playwright Juli Kearns has mapped out the Overlook Hotel's interior. She points out that Mr. Ullman's office (where Jack Torrance [Jack Nicholson] chats with the hotel manager) couldn't have a window, based on its location, and that the light streaming through the window is preternaturally bright, indicating that something is off. This cognitive dissonance continues through much of the front-end of the movie, which is generally shot with soft colors, even as we sense something ominous. 

Kearns postulates that Jack Torrance is a stand-in for a Minotaur, a scary monster from Greek mythology with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The Minotaur was slain in a maze, just as Jack Torrance dies in a hedge maze that Kubrick created for his movie (Stephen King's book had a topiary, but no maze). Kearns also cites a figure in the print on the wall (which resembles a skier, but has a Minotaur-like upper body) behind the mysterious twins that Torrance's son Danny sees while he plays darts

John Fell Ryan analyzes the visual exposition and mounting suspense in the three viscerally thrilling Steadicam scenes of Danny riding his Big Wheel through the hotel and talks about the synchronicities when "The Shining" is played backward and forward simultaneously.

Jay Weidner thought movies were a "substandard" art form until he saw "2001:  A Space Odyssey," after which he was the last person sitting in the theater and had to be removed by the usher. He was disappointed with "The Shining" the first time he saw it, but something about the movie brought him back for repeated viewings. Weidner says that Kubrick had read "Subliminal Seduction; Ad Media's Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America" in the years between "Barry Lyndon" (1975) and "The Shining" (1980), which informed his heavy use of shadow themes in the latter. 

Room 237
Weidner's novel contribution to "Room 237" is his belief that certain details in "The Shining" are Kubrick's tacit admission of involvement in the fake footage of the Apollo moon landing

In Weidner's telling, Kubrick, under secret contract with the U.S. government, used front screen projection to fabricate images of the moon landing, and we know this because Danny Torrance wears an Apollo 11 sweater in the movie. And the pattern in the carpet (in Danny's Big Wheel photo above) matches the Apollo's launching pad. And the mean distance between the moon and the earth is 237,000 miles. Just as the government covered up its fake footage of Apollo 11, Jack Torrance "covers up" his interaction with the phantom woman he meets in Room 237, which is also covered up - no one is to know what's in there.        

Another interviewee who didn't like "The Shining" at first was Geoffrey Cocks, a professor at Albion College who wrote "The Wolf at the Door:  Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust." Cocks says that despite his initial impression, he watched The Shining" every few years on television and eventually was drawn in. Cocks' theory is that "The Shining" is about the Holocaust. Kubrick was a voracious reader, and during World War II, when he was in his teens, he devoured numerous books and films about the Nazis. Late in his life he began work on a Holocaust movie ("The Aryan Papers") which he eventually abandoned, to his relief, as he felt the magnitude of the Holocaust couldn't be captured in a two-hour movie.

In Cocks' mind, "The Shining" was Kubrick's indirect platform for wrestling with the
Holocaust, since he didn't want to address the subject directly. As evidence, Cocks mentions that Jack Torrance uses a German typewriter (such as was used by the Nazis with cold, bureaucratic efficiency to compile lists of people to be rounded up) with an eagle insignia - the symbol of Nazi Germany-  at the top of its face. And according to Cocks, the Holocaust went into high gear in 1942 and forty-two - a symbol for malevolence - appears many times in "The Shining." Danny wears a sweatshirt with 42 on it as he talks to Tony in the bathroom. There are 42 vehicles in the parking lot when Stuart Ullman walks the Torrances around the grounds of the Overlook. Later on, Danny and his mother watch "The Summer of '42." The digits "42" also are on Halloran's license plate.

Forty-two is divisible by seven, and the number or its multiples show up frequently. Delbert Grady's brutal murder of his family, which appears to haunt the Overlook, occurred in 1970. The hotel was built in 1907, and the ballroom party in which Jack Torrance is pictured at the end of the movie took place in 1921, the same year that the road leading up to the hotel was finished. And in that final ballroom photo (below), as the camera eye dissolves from a group shot to a close-up of Jack Torrance, a Hitler mustache appears on his face for a split second.

The date on the ballroom photo is July 4, 1921, which bolsters Bill Blakemore's view that "The Shining" is about the genocide of the American Indians. In this formulation, the imposing Overlook Hotel, which is built on an Indian burial ground, is representative of the United States and its imperial glory; as Stuart Ullman walks the Torrances around the grounds, he mentions that Native Americans were fought off in the construction of the Overlook. 

Inside the Overlook are stained glass windows and wall art with Native American motifs, and as Ullman tells the Torrances of the royalty who've stayed at the hotel, they pass a portrait of an Indian chief. Later, Jack Torrance uses the phrase "the white man's burden" when talking to Lloyd, his bartender. The famous image of blood gushing out of the elevator represents the blood of the Indians (the elevator shaft presumably burrows deep into the burial ground) and the closed elevator doors are Americans' denial of their country's ugly past. Kubrick is expanding on the traditional ghost plot, where individual spirits wreak havoc, to dramatize the horrors of history.

Ultimately, it's hard to know how far to follow these perspectives, which is what makes
"Room 237" fun. If everything was tied up in a bow, there would be no doubt, no mystery, no reason to see "The Shining" more than once.  

Even as I question many of the claims made, I know my next viewing (and the one after that) will be all the richer. 

Perhaps that's what Kubrick intended.

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Andy Ross on the business of writing

Last summer I took a weekend workshop called Writing and the Inner Life” at C.I.I.S., a forward-thinking private college in San Francisco.  The workshop's mission was billed as follows:

"Explore the connection between writing and the inner life. Hear from accomplished writers how their personal experiences with meditation, spirituality and reflection help to guide and enrich their writing lives. Learn specific methods that combine writing and meditative consciousness. For writers and spiritual practitioners on all levels."

Emerson, the bathroom graffiti version
The first two days followed this template closely. Roger Housden, the Friday night speaker, was noticeably enthusiastic about the written word. Housden moved around the stage with a dramatic flair as he spoke of the way writers channel sensory experiences and impressions, using the personal as a gateway to the universal. Writing should be about finding your authentic voice, your unique fingerprint (shades of Mark Morford), in a process of discovery driven by the heart. And we were fully in command - if we wanted to be. Housden quoted Emerson:  “What lies before us and what lies behind us are but small matters compared to what lies within us.”

On Saturday, cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien gave an engaging lecture entitled "Capturing Meaningful Events Through Language, Symbol, and Image." From a comfortable cross-legged perch, with her hands alternately folded over her knees or moving through the air in gesticulation, Arrien said that an important stranger would come into our lives at least once a decade, and though we all belonged to "the scar clan," it was better to love - to remain moist - than to dry up. In a similar vein, Arrien stressed the importance of setting our egos (our controlling, planning natures) aside and embracing life's mysteries; each of us was a bird in a gilded cage with shelter, food, and water who could all too easily stay in the safe and familiar cage. But the door was open. Wonder and growth lay beyond if we were willing to overcome our fears and insecurities. In Arrien's words, “Our psychomythology is greater than our psychopathology.” 

The afternoon speaker on Saturday was Norman Fischer, a "poet and Zen Buddhist priest." Fischer was very relaxed, with delicate movements and a steady, even tone. He began with a ten-minute silent meditation for the 100 or so people in class. Afterward, he read poetry, talked about the way language helps us organize and make sense of the world, and guided the class through writing exercises. Fischer maintained the self-affirming tenor of the previous speakers; at one moment he said that if we were honest, we would admit that the world was mad, crazy, a "lurid obscenity," while the space we inhabited in that moment, at C.I.I.S., was "an island of sanity." 

And on the third day, Andy Ross rose up and dashed the paying audience with cold water. 

Andy Ross's cuddly publicity photo
Ross, the former long-time owner of Cody's independent bookstore in Berkeley and a literary agent of five years, was in many ways the antithesis of the previous speakers. A New York transplant, Ross sat on a stool brimming with energy, sharp, humorous asides, and a no-bullshit view of the book publishing industry. He wasn't there to build us up or rhapsodize about the wonders of the imagination. 

Within minutes Ross set the tone by likening the relationship between art and commerce to S & M. Most publishers weren't concerned with the quality of our work; they wanted to sell books and make money. Period. In the publishing industry's eyes, it was "better you should be bad and a Kardashian than good and not a Kardashian."

Strivers/masochists who didn't want to self-publish had a choice between small publishers (who often didn't require submission by an agent) and big publishers who only accepted submissions from an agent. Getting in with a small publishing house could spare you the headache of finding an agent, but likely meant minimal marketing of your book and low sales. Low sales would be registered in the sacred Nielsen BookScan read by every publisher, which could doom you if/when you tried to publish a second book.

Getting an agent involved compiling a list of potential agents from in a spreadsheet, checking their websites and submission guidelines, narrowing the list more, and sending query letters to anyone who seemed like a potential fit.

If an agent took you under their wing, the focus shifted to how to sell your book. The book had to be done, clean and edited, prior to submission; publishing company editors wouldn't do clean-up. Apart from having to hook the reader from the first page (Ross said he often knew a book wasn't marketable from the opening paragraphs), one needed a convincing book proposal. Such a proposal would clearly define an audience for your book, with examples of recent, similar releases that had sold well, preferably through major publishing houses. An outline with a vision of your narrative arc (and a narrative arc that follows formula) would be included, along with a sample chapter and excerpts from each of the other chapters. And your proposal had to include a marketing plan, or platform, to sell your book - a blog, a personal website, stories published in small reviews, known writers willing to blurb your book, access to media. Ross added that your blog would be meaningless to publishers if it had less than 50,000 page views per week. If you fulfilled all of these conditions, your book had an outside chance of being accepted by a publishing house. 


Though I had walked into C.I.I.S. that morning with few illusions about the book industry, Ross's presentation was still somewhat of a shock to my system. By the time he was done, it was obvious that very few of us in the lecture room would be successful writers.      

But I was grateful for Ross's honest distillation of forty years' experience with the publishing industry, the most practical lecture I saw that weekend. He made crystal clear just how much work (and luck) it takes to get into even a small publishing house, and thereby reinforced the truest, most intrinsic purpose of writing:  the stimulation of the creative process, and the satisfaction of willing something from thin air.

**for further wisdom about navigating the book industry, see Andy Ross's blog