A long response to a long-awaited documentary just as soon as I wax nostalgic about the documentary’s subject…
I don’t hold much in common with my parents, especially when it comes to the cultural experiences that we most enjoy, so what common ground we share is precious to me. My father and I commune over the Daniel Craig-era James Bond movies. Though I lean more toward Bobby Darrin and Dean Martin than Frank Sinatra, I still inherited a love for the Rat Pack from my mother. And one thing all three of us have in common is that none of us are horror junkies. Or even horror enthusiasts. I’m probably the most open to violence or brutality in a movie if it serves a worthwhile artistic purpose, but horror for the sake of horror has never been something any of us are interested in.
Except for The Shining.
When I was twelve years old, ABC began heavily promoting a mini-series based on Stephen King’s novel The Shining. It was going to be three feature-length installments about the Torrance family—recovering alcoholic father Jack, suspicious mother Wendy, slightly psychic son Danny—who are snowbound for three months in the Overlook, a grand hotel with a rich and checkered history. To complicate matters, the hotel is haunted—either by literal ghosts reliving the hotel’s decades of violence or by the metaphorical ghosts of Jack’s anger, alcoholism and failed ambition.
My mother told me that when she was just out of college and working as a nurse, she made the mistake of picking up The Shining and reading it while she was exiled to the graveyard shift at her hospital. After that, every gust of wind set her on edge. For weeks, she had to beat against irrational terror with the knowledge that it was just a book in order to work up the courage to do her nightly rounds. She handed me an issue of TV Guide that led with an extended feature on the upcoming mini-series, and said she’d like to watch it with me.
Suburban children of the 80s and 90s mark the memories of their youth by cultural artifacts as much as by actual experience, and returning to those books, movies and TV shows is frequently disappointing. I’ve been relieved to find that some of the artifacts that were most formative to me still have artistic merit now, two decades later: Ghostbusters is one of the greatest American comedies; The Legend Of Zelda continues to evoke a sense of exploration and possibility unmatched in video games; and my continued passion for superheroes and ancient mythology is well-documented.
The Shining was my childhood’s last great enthusiasm. The mini-series thrilled me. Over the course of three installments, Jack’s sanity melts away. Watching Steven Weber, who I had only known as “the guy from Wings,” go from dry drunk to tightly wound ball of nerves to spitting, howling demoniac, was harrowing.
By the end of the second installment, Jack’s anger, unchecked and intensified by his months-long inability to get to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, had boiled over. He no longer cared whether the hotel’s ghosts were real or just figments of his family’s imaginations. He would let them in. It would be easier to just do what they want. He’d kill his wife and son.
Sensing the change in his father’s demeanor, Danny calls out to Dick Halloran, the hotel’s aged and arthritic summer cook, who shares his psychic gift.
“Dick is gonna come back and go tool on Jack!” I remember telling my mother when she asked what I expected of part three. After all, that’s what most stories I had enjoyed up to that point had trained me to expect: An altruistic underdog, strengthened by the righteousness of narrative necessity, would confront the antagonist and emerge victorious.
The next night, Dick hopped a plane from Florida and fought the blistering Colorado winter to come to Danny’s rescue. As he walked into the hotel, I readied myself for warm and comforting catharsis.
And then Jack beat him unconscious with a croquet mallet. That was probably my first confrontation with the irrefutable fact that everyone is vulnerable.
A friend’s parents had taped all six hours of the miniseries (on a single VHS, by the way, so the quality was crap). My friend lent me the tape, and I never returned it. I can’t even begin to estimate how many times I watched it.
That summer, I purchased and devoured a paperback copy, and talked at my camp R.A. about the differences and similarities between the mini-series and the book. At length. When I got home, I got on AOL (that’s what we called the internet back then) and started reading everything I could about the mini-series and the book. I learned that Shining fans fell into two camps: Those who preferred the book (and mini-series), and those who preferred Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation. So, I picked up Kubrick’s film, and The Shining became the first cross-media intellectual property that I critically engaged as an adult.
I didn’t find Kubrick’s film as satisfying as the book or the mini-series: For one, Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance projected tightly-coiled violence from the opening scene. The horror of the mini-series and the book was in watching Jack Torrance’s rage and indignity escalate, rising from tepid through simmering until it eventually boiled away the mooring he relied on to be a better husband and father. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, on the other hand, was clearly frustrated, violent and abusive from the get-go. His wife lived in terror of him and his son was deeply mistrustful, and there was never any question in their minds (or the audience’s) that he was actively looking for an excuse to beat them again.
Kubrick’s film was also fudgier than the book and mini-series on the question of whether or not the hotel’s ghosts were actually there. Kubrick leaned toward interpreting them as extensions of the characters’ emotions and expressions of their trauma. The book and mini-series, however, leaned toward these ghosts having sentience and agency independent of the Torrance family, and when I was younger, that was scarier to me.
Despite all of that, though, my real reservation was that Kubrick’s movie left me unsettled in a way I couldn’t quite articulate as a twelve-year-old. I found it unpleasant, and I didn’t want to go back to it.
Eventually, though, I started consuming more and increasingly varied books and films. As I did, I began appreciating Kubrick’s ambiguities more. I eventually started to see that Kubrick’s The Shining offered tropes and concepts that I really enjoy—unreliable narrators and a pliable, Borgesian understanding of the flow of history. If the ghosts and horrors in every scene are projections of each of the three Torrance’s psyches, then there’s no way for us to actually know what happened at the Overlook that winter. And if Jack’s occasional moments of deja vu and that maddening final shot of a framed photo of Jack at the Overlook in 1921 mean anything, then this wasn’t the first time the Torrance family died there, and it won’t be the last.
Kubrick’s The Shining is a rorschach of a movie, a versatile frame frame on which you can hang any number of interpretations or meta-narratives.
Which is good news for Room 237, a documentary about the various obsessive theories about the film that have sprung up on the back corners of internet forums over the years. The documentary has been making the festival rounds for a couple years, but is just seeing a wide theatrical release now. (Check your listings, you may already have missed it…)
Some of the theories seem sensible, even if their proponents seem extreme. (IE, The woman who began hand-drawing maps of every room and hallway depicted in the film so as to figure out if Kubrick deliberately designed his Overlook to be an impossible, Escher-esque labyrinth.) Other theorists (IE, The historian who insists that Nicholson’s ad-lib of a line from “The Three Little Pigs” as he’s chopping down the door in the famous “Here’s Johnny!” scene is an obvious reference to an obscure Disney interpretation of the fairy-tale, and thus irrefutable evidence that the film is really a backdoor effort to comment on the holocaust) seem to be reaching, tacking their own agendas onto the movie from outside of it. Still others (IE, The commentator who is convinced that he is being spied on by the government because he figured out that the film is a coded confession that the moon landing was faked) are at best fun until you think too hard about the kind of mind that comes up with that.
What is true across the board, and what allows for such varying interpretations, is the fact that Kubrick’s film is passionately, gloriously, masterfully messy. Yes, the Overlook has hallways, windows and doors where there couldn’t possibly be hallways, windows and doors. Danny passes an elevator then rounds a corner to pass a door that should open into the elevator shaft. But are details like these meant to disorient us, to claw at our subconscious, as some of the documentary’s subjects claim? Or is it possible that Kubrick’s set designers included that door because the hallway looked too empty without it?
“Kubrick is a master filmmaker,” several of Room 237‘s subjects say of the random bits of texture they are trying to knit together into a tapestry of significance. “He was obsessive about detail and couldn’t possibly have made such a mistake or done something on such a flimsy whim.”
In response, I point to one the most memorable moments in one of the greatest films of one of history’s greatest filmmakers: the famous kiss in Notorious, by Alfred Hitchcock:
The story behind why this is considered the longest kiss in movie history is too long and too digressive to share here. (Why it is considered one of the most erotic kisses in movie history should, I hope, be obvious.) Hitchcock, however, had this to say about it:
The actors, of course, hated doing it. They felt dreadfully uncomfortable in the manner in which they had to cling to each other. And I said, “I don’t care how you feel—I already know what it’s going to look like on the screen!”
Hitchcock, arguably the most masterful of cinema’s master class, never thought twice about using utterly unnatural blocking or using filmic trickery to fudge logically impossible choreography because it looked better on camera. Masters can aim for something other than naturalism without having an ulterior motive.
Ultimately, though, my lasting impression from Room 237 is one of dread.
We never see documentary’s subjects on camera. They all recorded audio of their commentary and theories on the movie, and the filmmaker cut them together over footage from The Shining broken up by illustrative clips from other films where appropriate. By about halfway through the film, though, I realized I had a growing sense of apprehension, even terror. I couldn’t figure out why: There was no narrative happening on screen to suck me in, and the audio was interesting and even funny, so why the fear?
Because terror is built into the film’s visual geometry. The camera’s smooth, low movements as it follows Danny riding his tricycle in a loop around the hotel’s grand concourse; the way Jack Nicholson’s face is framed so as to leave the shot’s composition feeling unbalanced; and, of course, the film’s painstaking chronicle of Shelly Duvall’s on-camera nervous breakdown. The Shining is a testament to the fact that Kubrick knew—whether academically or intuitively—how to shoot photographs that evoked emotional responses. And the emotional response he wanted to evoke with The Shining was dread.
Room 237 has brought me full-circle with Kubrick’s The Shining. My relationship with it started as a child—purely visceral, purely aesthetic. As I learned more about it, I began engaging it as a text, as an object to be taken apart, reconstructed, understood. Now, thanks to Room 237‘s most extreme possible deconstruction and reconstruction of Kubrick’s film, I’m finally able to engage with it as a purely visceral and aesthetic experience again.
And that’s what I’ve been missin’.