Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Caretaker Sparkle: ROOM 237

from top: "Autobiographical Nexusplation" (Erich collage), ROOM 237, THE SHINING.
ROOM 237 is a lightning crack to the head; all is illuminated, and terrifying: first because paranoid psychosis is very contagious; two because the film is terrifying in and of itself; three because it mirrors all our film deconstruction / analysis, from the ur-dry Bordwellian breakdowns (as in "before getting started, we all have to agree what we mean by a film") to the ultimately meaningless doctoral theses of nonwriters in a publish-or-perish deadlock, to the gonzo freaks like me who see what we want to see through magic glasses; four because we tend to forget that since we're a nation conditioned to 'recall' movies with an ever-dwindling series of studio-sanctioned iconic images--which in THE SHINING's case means the "Heee-rree's Johnny!" grinning Jack Torrance peering through his bathroom axe crack-- the SHINING's power is that it's just crazy enough to survive and resist any chance to dumb it down, to reduce it to a few fun quotes ("and a nice chianti"). The more we try to reduce it to grinning Jack T-shirts the less we remember the actual details of a film that seems to lose all contact with the outside world. Forget about being reduced to a simple icon, the SHINING is all about losing all connection to icons, all signifiers, until objective consensual 'meaning' vanishes into the fog of the purely subjective.


In ROOM 237 however, we get as close as we are likely to in quantifying at least some aspects of madness, the madness of obsessive fans, likely loners with too much time on their hands and a good education who've read too much into the world. Filmmaker Rodney Ascher has taken the kind of patient intellectual time with hid paranoiac collage that Kubrick did with the source material, and so the madness of cabin fever within Kubrick's film becomes refracted into a dozen different facets of meaning. These theories are gold, far too shiny to take seriously (even Jack Torrance roll his eyes at some of the theories-via the constant editing collage, blooming with chance or otherwise synchronicity), but you have to wonder at touches like the decal of Dopey from SNOW WHITE on Danny's closet that is visible on his door before his first 'shine' of the bloody torrent (torrent-torrance) but gone afterwards, reflecting, perhaps, Danny's getting wise to what horrors are in store and taking his first steps towards his inevitable survival.


Hey, if Kubrick did put in that little touch intentionally, how nice it was finally recognized. I like to imagine that one day my own weird details will be recognized--even if they were put there purely by unconscious 'accident' (as in the Kubrick fashionista above, for whom I added an axe which I thought at first would look like it was just a real axe coming out of her chest, but then noticed to my surprise it looks like part of her fur coat). Artists do intentionally odd touches for just such a reason, like messages in a bottle tossed seaward. If it turns out the bottle reaches someone across the ocean, then you don't paint over it, even if the wrong person found it. Maybe it will take a hundred years, but there's a strange satisfaction, a hope, that sooner or later even the most arcane and oblique subliminal messages we leave in our art or writing will be found by someone, or something, after it crosses time's ocean, and that the one who finds it will recognize they are not alone in being obsessive and reading way too much into everything they see.

But the really trippy moments come when one fan plays the film backwards over the film moving forward simultaneously, so they overlap over one another (below). The effect is so perfect  -- at least in the parts they show us --- that it seems intentional on Kubrick's part. Who knows, it might be, as we learn here Kubrick had a 200 IQ and was very well read on all sorts of horrors and sought to encode a lot of subliminal information. At any rate, Ascher clearly uses the idea of subliminal strange messages to heart, and with it the understanding perhaps of the joys to be found when when signifiers-signified chains are finally broken in the mind. When we no longer know what is coincidence, intentional, what you see vs. what there is, when symbols no longer point to one thing, then the true ambiguous freedom created by our super ego's surrender becomes electric.

Backwards and forwards - makes Wendy an alert girl
In other words, even if it's not intentional, if it's there it has meaning. In the ingenious editing schemata of ROOM 237, images we forgot from the film are taken out of context and highlighted for their otherworldly brilliance - and they connect perfectly to shots from Kubrick's other masterpieces. 2001, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, even DR. STRANGELOVE all bring home the vibe of pure murderous madness that most war footage cannot capture (1). Hence as illustrations here, some of my own collages, mixing THE SHINING with the films 2001 and CLOCKWORK which were his preceding best films, and one can argue SHINING is his last great one, unless you dare to count EYES WIDE SHUT, which in my mind is the work of a man having a nervous breakdown from trying to crack open Tom Cruise's hard nut candy shell (PS - I recently reviewed EYES with the ROOM 237 mind control enhancement vision, and if I don't quite love it any more than I used to, I am now more unnerved by it, truly).

"Pull it Togetherless"  (note phallus fingers)
The mission of Acidemic - inherent in the title - stems from the original phrase of Aldous Huxley, "if the doors of perception were cleansed everything, would appear as it really is, infinite."  I mention this because cleansing the doors of cinematic perception is Kubrick's task in all his films, though in this case he's using beauty and formal design to shine light on the darker truths we'd prefer to keep hidden (and perhaps when we find his films boring it is because our subconsious is doing just that, refusing to recognize itself in the mirror), but for better or worse or much, much worser, the dark heart is in there. The obelisk in 2001 teaches apes how to use tools, not to build bridges but to crush their enemies skulls, so they--the chosen, the apes who dared touch it--can vanquish and destroy those who refused this knowledge, who listened to God and didn't eat from the forbidden tree. It is who we are, our genes, the mighty procreate and endure, the weak die and are killed, they endure only as food for the living. We can discuss the evil of the Nazis all we want, but what makes America 'great' is that we too wiped out millions and got away with it.  We were massacring a people with no relatives in the legal profession, or with friends in high places.

And above all, there were no video cameras. No Twitter. No UN.

"We're going to make a new rule" 
That kind of genocide seems barbaric now, to us, but part of that is because it is so far away in the past, or so it seems. Kubrick is maybe telling us those trees and mountains may have taken pictures as durable as any Panaflex. At any rate, it may feel that way to Kurbick, for if he studied history what other determination could he arrive at? The Gandhis are few and far between and they suffer well but hardly cinematically. A Kubrick hunger strike film would be unbearable. We want to see the crimes behind our fortunes, what outside/alien force, its technology 'indistinguishable from magic' - gave our parents the evil cajones to pay for our schooling and grad present Jaguar? The nice guy parents spend money of funerals and bail bonds, and anything left over goes to the church plate, or lottery tickets. The guys who get 'help' are the killers, the parents with smart investments.


The behavioral modification techniques of CLOCKWORK and FULL METAL JACKET are examples of dehumanizing conditioning that has backfired, and then the last minute rescue of Tom Cruise in EYES as if some patient girl plucked the ape's hand from that obelisk at the last minute, keeping us, as it were, blind forever. Through evil parents a child has the luxury to be good. The ape-like violence may be what holds us back, keeps us in a continual loop of paranoia and hostility, but it fuels our drive forward into the unknown. Where would our moon landing be without the Russians snapping at our heels (as in Floyd's stonewalling the Russians in 2001)? It's like war without a divided self, impossible. Jack is told he must kill his family because the boy has contacted an 'outside party' (while Jack has made contact with the 'inside party'), in other words, the boy has 'talked' to the Russians; he's betrayed the trust of the big other...  He's "disclosed."

"Maisie Squared" 
Hence I made the collages in this post from images taken not only from THE SHINING but 2001 and CLOCKWORK ORANGE, to tie them all in together the better perhaps to illuminate continuing themes on the nature of perception, the manipulation of consciousness for external purposes, and the dawning of madness almost as a stage of advanced hyper-evolution.

"He went and did a very silly thing" 
Even ROOM 237 seems to be snickering at some of these more loco ideas, such as the singing of The 3 Little Pigs wolf cartoon as a link to the Holocaust. The Onion AV Club spoke to Kubrick's assistant on the film to see if the insane theories on the film were 'correct:'
"The suggestions that Kubrick was commenting on the Holocaust by having Jack Nicholson echo an old, anti-Semitic Disney cartoon by reciting “Three Little Pigs” (it was improvised in the moment) or do his writing on a German Adler typewriter (it was Kubrick’s and it looked good). Or the theory that briefly glimpsed cans of Calumet baking powder are supposed to be reminiscent of the Native American genocide (the cans had pretty colors). Or that Kubrick was actually retelling Greek myth by featuring a poster of a Minotaur (“It’s a downhill skier,” Vitali says. “It’s not a Minotaur”). Or that Kubrick was admitting complicity in faking the moon landing by having Danny wear an Apollo 11 sweater (a friend of the costume designer knitted it, and Kubrick wanted something handmade (more)
"A few extra foot-pounds of energy per second" 
This is of course imbecilic When a baseball flies at your head out of nowhere do you call your assistant and let him know you plan to duck? No, then how can you say you really ducked the baseball? Our unconscious is where real art comes from, without it all you have is cold, dead craftsmanship. And, while the craft is solid in THE SHINING, if any film can be said to exist almost entirely in the unconscious it's this one. The Onion article backtracks on that to point out that Of course, all of Vitali’s protests ignore the separating of authorial intent that is key to any deconstruction of a work of art, as well as the fact that Nazis are still clearly watching Vitali from their secret, Indian blood-powered moon base. So take this all with a grain of salt. Yeah but which part? Using the phrase 'grain of salt' to describe both your inane moon vest anecdote AND Vitali's assertions is very slippery. In the end, the only one who looks untrustworthy is.... you, AV Club!

That'll teach you to ignore my letters!

"Forever and ever and ever"
 Call the critics in ROOM 237 paranoid, overreaching, seeing too deeply, perhaps paranoid schizophrenics on some level, but at least they know how to look deeply into the crystal ball, and the lunatic is, in the end, merely one who really sees just how awfully close death and blood and pain is to the surface at every given moment. He goes crazy because he can't shut it out of his mind, it doesn't go away after eight hours like it does for the humble tripper. Maybe our teeth really are used by someone as crystal sets to receive our thoughts... stranger things are used for stranger purposes every day. It's only madness when you lack the self awareness necessary to distrust your senses.

PART II: THE RIGHT MADNESS FOR AN OVERSANE WORLD

Shelly Duvall's stretchy face used to really bother me as Wendy until ROOM 237 'corrected' my perceptions. Now I know why her mouth gets as wide and long as the Munch figure when they're confronted with the horrors and that this isn't a film about fighting back and acting logically and shouting at the screen. The sheer overwhelming horror that is the only 'sane' response to an insane world, that life is just a transparent overlay on death. Lift off the transparency and boom- there they are--the corpses and ancient evils. Apparently one of Kubrick's quickest shoots was CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which came out a mere four years after 2001, happened largely because of Malcolm McDowell, who said Kubrick was great, "if he trusted you." If he doesn't trust you, as he didn't trust Shelly Duvall or Scatman Cruthers, it seems to have been a living hell, with torturous exercises like filming one walk from a car into a hotel like 40 times over and over, for no other real reason than to maybe to 'achieve madness" the hard way or maybe to just be a sadist or maybe because Kubrick actually was looking for something he couldn't explain. Hitchcock apparently did this when his hot ice queens invariably spurned his grubby advances, such as forcing Tippi Hedren into that bird-filled room over and over for two straight days, or making Kim Novak jump into the freezing San Francisco bay over and over after getting his take in the first shot. Are the great artists of our time all just naturally screwed up bully sadists? Is that all art is?

Hitchcock certainly got his insanity money's worth out of Hedren in that climactic final bird scene, and to my mind that's what Kubrick is trying to do with Duvall, because by SHINING's climax Wendy doesn't even look human anymore, she's just giant eyes on a stalk of crazy fear. Malcolm seems to tap into that madness no problem for CLOCKWORK, as does Nicholson, both of whom  apparently got favorite treatment. No wonder Kubrick was so contemptuous of Stephen King's claims that in Nicholson's interpretation of Jack starts out crazy he has nowhere to go, crazy-wise (I paraphrase).

For Kubrick there is always father to go crazy-wise. Starting out at a Nicholson-smarm level crazy is as far sane as Kubrick wants to ever get. 


In EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) it's clear that the one with the effortless crazy, the 'caretaker sparkle' is Nicole Kidman. Kubrick's first genuine female character, she likes to have sex and Tom Cruise only likes to imagine himself having sex, because he could then see his own little ass in the full length mirror. In SHUT, Cruise is a cipher trying to break into a dimension that sees through his facility in ways he cannot. Even driven by jealousy into the mire of sexual perversion and high strangeness he still is never able, except maybe by the very end, to see the world except in reverse angle, the 'selfie side' of the camera app; he's finally trying to see rather than be seen seeing.

The actor with the shine in his eyes, the one who can do both: he can 'see' all right. Malcolm. Jack. Nicole. Hayden. Sellers... As Mick Jagger says in PERFORMANCE, "the only performance that truly makes it is the performance that achieves madness." It's this madness Kubrick aims to achieve, for there can be no falseness in madness. It's either there or it isn't. If it's not there, maybe 40 straight takes of the same scene will help the actor find it. 

The gold room in The Shining is where Jack experiences his relative distance even from the majority of ghosts, who ignore him as he wanders around with his drink (which he doesn't ever sip from), and has the advocaat spilled on him. Nicole Kidman's immanent desirability in Eyes Wide Shut means that she is never safe from being hit on the very minute she is alone and seems bored in the (same) gold room. This smooth talking yet vaguely sinister figure she dances with is her own private Lloyd the bartender, an animus of sexual mystery, providing the direct connection to the unconscious core of sexuality Cruise's character lacks (i.e. her bourbon is named sex; his is named Tom Cruise).
 Kubrick gets a clinical reputation but it's only because he is going places that would collapse into complete subjection without cold mathematical logic. All of his films are about the cold break of time when one is cut off, in effect, from a consensual reality, when the inner self and outer reality merge. Even BARRY LYNDON focuses on this, via the maze of presumed identities played by Ryan O'Neal, the blank canvas of a soul whose life is never the same after winning a duel and being robbed by a highwayman. PATHS OF GLORY finds it in the transitions between men suffering in the trenches and the pampered cluelessness of the generals in their lofty mansion toasting the glories of war amongst themselves --each side clueless about the other to the point of contempt. The generals essentially are like the ghosts of the Overlook, Grady's urging of Jack to 'deal with' his family mirrors General Ripper's unauthorized military air strike, or the Highwayman's cold, terrifying instructions in LYNDON, or the ordered execution of the three soldiers in PATHS. Kubrick brings this cold, clinical reason deep into the murky homicidal core of man's decision-making skills, the unconscious self-sabotaging remainder. Jack continually lets his family get away from him, the troops refuse to charge, into certain death, HAL refuses to admit his mistake, Lyndon refuses the call to bravery, and only our isolated flying boys have what it takes to get the job done, because only Slim Pickens is high enough to see they're all just ants.

 Gimme the bat!
Kubrick became a recluse towards the end of his life, and its easy to read that his whole career was one long planning out of reclusiveness. The stress of 'faking the moon landings' and the idea that only in deep solitude can one's inner demons really manifest in the external, that reality is only as sick as your secrets, and that when your secrets come out its usually because everyone else has gone to bed.


Writing is like that, when you get deep into your work, time stands still and then vanishes, and the best work always occurs between four AM and dawn. The real genius fiction can only occur when this deep break with conventional sanity is possible and this deep break with conventional sanity can only occur when the cops, kids, and camels have all gone to bed, as it were, and the tiresome curtain of tedious convention, the collective guise of sanity, or decency and normality, at last may part so that one may get a better view of the yawning void outside the window. This sanity (such as it is) is borne bravely by such long-suffering foils as Peter Sellers' Captain Mandrake and the president in STRANGELOVE, Kirk Douglas in GLORY, Shelly Duvall in THE SHINING, Alex's parents in CLOCKWORK. They struggle to carry the torch of conventional reality into the deep troughs of true madness and are suddenly made into the thing that doesn't belong. For the truly mad, it is the ultimate revenge-served-cold satisfaction of our collective unconscious. The sane are now the insane ones, the outsiders are now free to unleash their full potential... and oh how they danced... at Stonehenge.


NOTES:
1. One of the theorists, a photojournalist, notes most newsreel war footage is faked after the fact

ALSO ON ACIDEMIC:

ON BRIGHT LIGHTS:

6 comments:

  1. Interesting timing - I just finished re-watching The Shining not 30 minutes ago, and will be watching Room 237 either tomorrow morning or the day after. So...yeah, I'll be back with further thoughts.

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    1. Yeah, I liked it although I'd heard a lot of tut-tutting beforehand. I don't buy any of the theories as far as intentionality goes (if that matters) - and ultimately the unconscious effect of formal qualities probably account for more of The Shining's power than intellectual/historical references. But the unreeling of theories is a gas and the documentary makes, as you note, an appropriately insular and insane parallel to the insular and insane film it covers. As for the forward/backward parallels (I wish they'd shown the meeting-in-the-middle moment but I suppose eventually some enterprising enthusiast will do that whole exercise in Final Cut and post it on YouTube)...I think that synchronicity is due more to Kubrick's penchant for symmetrical, centered framings than anything else. But this doesn't reduce the power, anymore than Pink Floyd not having a projector with a 16mm print of Wizard of Oz in the recording studio reduces the power of the "Dark Side of the Rainbow" exercise.

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  2. thanks Joel! Glad you stressed the point that the power of the overlapping projections isn't reduced by being an accident, or the result of symmetrical centered images. I thought the same thing myself, but that's how meaning is often generated. Any film that can lend itself to such paranoid study must have something on the ball, though I imagine if you looked deep enough any text could be read to mean anything, but that doesn't diminish the power either, just shows everything's interconnected. The best example of this for me was when my buddy Max and I were watching the DIsney Jungle book with the sound off and for an entire song the hypnotist snake in the film danced in perfect synchronicity to the song on the tape deck. I mean synchronicity happens all the time but this was ridiculous, mind-blowing, like the I Ching!

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  3. That happened to my dad and I once too - in FAO Schwarz on a family vacation, they were playing Pocahontas and Aristocats on two TVs - and the images of the first matched the sound of the second perfectly, lip movement and everything. We even captured the uncanniness on video. But that's Disney for you...full of sneaky synchronicities and subliminal pornographic images...

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  4. and of course they're so copyright lawyered up you couldn't post this collage onto youtube no doubt, they'd be on it like hawks

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  5. Great write up. I wonder if, in fifty years, women that aren't yet born will haunt themselves to Nicole Kidman the way the women of to Marilyn Monroe now.

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