Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Caretaker Sparkle: ROOM 237

from top: "Autobiographical Nexusplation" (Erich collage), ROOM 237, THE SHINING.

ROOM 237, Rodney Ascher's documentary about THE SHINING's many interpretations, is a lightning crack to the head, the rush of oxygen into the brain via such sudden trepanation is invigorating even as your reality fades. Paranoid psychosis is very contagious and even more terrifying than the film itself, it mirrors all our film deconstruction / analysis any piece of art, especially one that taps as many deep murky subconscious aquifers as THE SHINING. From the 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 professors caught in publish-or-perish bid for tenure, to the gonzo freaks like me who see what we want to see through magic glasses, it's all valid, regardless those who consider every Rorshach blot solvable might think. Those of us who aren't nailed to the cross of reductionism, we know the truth - the blot is fluid in its interpretation, the more it starts to move around on the page, to animate itself. To fix it to one meaning is death, or boredom, which is worse.

'See,' he entertainment PR gods have conditioned us to 'recall' movies with an ever-dwindling series of studio-sanctioned iconic images and quotes that work as 'touchstones' - "Say hello to my leedle fren" or "Frankly, Scarlet..." . In  THE SHINING's case it means the grinning Jack Nicholson Torrance peering through his bathroom axe crack exclaiming "Heee-rree's Johnny!" The more it's reduced to that, the fewer interpretations our left-hand sides of the brain allow. But hey, 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, Mr. Torrance. the SHINING is all about losing all connection to icons, all signifiers, until objective consensual 'meaning' vanishes into the fog of the purely subjective, and even Shelly Duvall starts seeing the ghosts. 

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 a good liberal arts education, enhanced by some wild psychedelic experiences along the way ("ahem"), making them 'legally insane' (as they used to think tripping more than seven times did to you).  Ascher has taken the kind of patient intellectual time a paranoiac collage demands, showing the same thoughtful approach to the subjective nature of human analytic perception that Kubrick did with the source material. As a result, the madness of cabin fever within Kubrick's film (the death of consensual reality when the 'real' world is cut off) 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 otheer 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--does it make it less valid if I didn't 'intend' that?). 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 succeeded, 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, for me, come when one fan talks about playing the film twice at the same time with two projectors, one running the film backwards, and overlaying the images (below). The effect is so perfect  -- at least in the parts they show us --- that it seems intentional on Kubrick's part. Who knows? 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 which the ROOM 237 Strategem is employed by me for all of the Kub's films. 

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).

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 chosen 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 subconscious is doing just that, refusing to recognize itself in the mirror, so intentionally misreading the symbols, dismissing that which would incriminate it), but for better or worse or much, much worser, the dark heart is in there. The obelisk in 2001 teaches apes how to use his first tool, not for constructive purposes, but crush their enemies skulls in, 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 the aggressors. Our genes survived centuries because our ancestors killed the meek competitors for the bread of the earth. The strong apes procreate and endure, the weak die and are killed --or endure only as food for the living. We can judge the evil of the Nazis all we want, but what makes America 'great' in the end is that we wiped out millions of people and got away with it, and they didn't. We were lucky - we were were massacring a people with no relatives in the legal profession, or with friends in high places. No sense of the mad colonial game that had caught on over the 'civilized' European nations, we just walked right in and took their shit. And when they squawked, killed them down to the infants.

And above all, there were no video cameras. No Twitter. No UN. No witnesses = no crime. At any rate, we got what we wanted, and now we're really sorry. Not enough that we'd give anything back, though.

"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 that the old growth trees and stark Donner Party 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 on 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 only does 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. Where would our moon landing be without the Russians snapping at our heels (as in Floyd's stonewalling the Russians in 2001)? War without a divided self is impossible. Jack is told he must kill his family because the boy has contacted an 'outside party' (Jack has made contact with the 'inside party' which is fine - he's white). 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" 

Still, even half one of my fish doesn't buy everything. And ROOM 237 itself seems to be snickering at some of these more loco ideas, such as the singing of The 3 Little Pigs refrain ("I'll huff and I'll puff") as a link to the Holocaust.

The ever-didactic The Onion AV Club spoke to Kubrick's assistant to see if the insane theories on the film were 'correct' mainly:
"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" 

It is course contrary to purpose to ask the assistant if Kubrick intended any of this as a secret code. ROOM 237 itself avoids all contact with the actual filmmakers. It's rare filmmakers are as able to deconstruct their unconscious' secret code as obsessive viewers who see the thing in itself, as divested of authorial post-release meaning-assignation as a patient trying to argue what his dreams mean with a therapist. 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 schizophrenic on some level. At least theyknow how to look deeply into the crystal ball, and as long as it’s well written I’ll read good crazy over banal sane any day, To the average bore, a crazy person is merely one who really sees just how awfully close death and blood and pain is to the surface of our skin-thin reality at every given moment. The problem is, the schizophrenic 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. As the Yogi says, any man who only trusts his five sense, who only believes what he can see right in front of him, is a truly gullible idiot, and should be fleeced immediately.
One bar chocolate Beyond

"Pull it Together"  (note phallus fingers)


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, for this isn't a film about fighting back and acting logically and the audience shouting at the screen "bitch don't open that door!" For there is nowhere to run. Help will not be coming. Sheer overwhelming horror is the only 'sane' response when one sees 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: A SPACE ODYSSEY. This was apparently, largely, because of Malcolm McDowell, who said Kubrick was easy to work with "if he trusted you." If he didn't trust you, as he didn't trust Shelly Duvall or Scatman Cruthers, he puts actors through 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 (or Von Sternberg forcing Marlene to ride the steps up to the bell for the final scene of THE SCARLET EMPRESS until she looks as crazy as her late ex-husband) Are the great artists of our time all just naturally screwed up bully sadists, punishing actresses who won't sleep with them? 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. Malcolm seems to tap into that kind of berserk madness for CLOCKWORK, as does Nicholson, (and Peter Sellers, of course) all 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. I personally think it's just fine - he's clearly an average idiot in the early stages of alcoholism aspiring to write, but really just a bum. He married Wendy probably because he likes feeling superior to her. He's canny enough though to tap into frequencies that entice him. He has no problem seeing the ghosts and delving into madness. He's all in. 

"Grady's Correction"

In EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) it's clear that the one with the effortless crazy, the 'caretaker sparkle' in Kubrick's next married couple depiction is Nicole Kidman. Kubrick's first genuinely sexy yet complex female character (i.e not a sex object but a woman who likes sex and men and has no problem fantasizing about men other than her narcissist husband and then torturing him by telling him those fantasies. She plays a woman who likes she likes to have sex; husband Tom Cruise only likes to imagine himself having sex, because he could then see his sculpted body in the full length mirror. In SHUT, Cruise is a cipher trying to break into a a social circle that sees through his facile front in ways he cannot. His sexual life is built on jealousy and a kind of abashed tourism. 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; but he's finally trying to see rather than just be seen seeing. One wonders the extent to which this role reflects Kubrick's distrust of Cruise, who has a habit of trying to take over shoots with his intense energy.

The actors with the shine in his eyes, the one who can do both: who can be seen actually 'seeing' the world outside the mirror: 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, that he seeks in his performances. He knows 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. 

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 weird liminal space that reveals itself when one is cut off, in effect, from a consensual reality--the inner self and outer reality merge. Even BARRY LYNDON touches 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 killing a man in a duel, so needing to flee town, and being robbed of all his possessions on the way by a highwayman (a scary, very eerie moment that functions as a kind of herald / guardian of the next reality (doorkeepers abound in Kubrick: Lloyd, the debonair dance partner of Nicole Kidman in EYES). 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, 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 core, the center of the bouncy rubber center of the conscious personality's tennis ball. When the system that controls consensual reality is highjacked by a figure from the unconscious, the result is... well... violence, armageddon, and occasionally a light show. 

But along the way, the system breaks down: Jack continually lets his family get away from him, the troops refuse to charge into certain death, HAL goes insane, Lyndon refuses the call to bravery, Kidman escapes the devilish dance partner and Tom is rescued from his trip "over the rainbow" in EYES.

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. Did the stress of 'faking the moon landings' lead to his being terrified and weirded out by the reptillian illuminati ceremonies he witnessed amongst the paperclip Nazi/NASA/Illuminati elite, so that he feared for his life if he ever returned to America? Or is 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 3 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 parents, the normies, have all gone to bed, as it were, and taken the tiresome curtain of tedious convention with them. We can drop our sanity, or decency and normality, at last, and 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.

1. One of the theorists, a photojournalist, notes most newsreel war footage is faked after the fact
2. Thinking on Full Metal Jacket - the whole film being about the process by which that madness is achieved, 
I don't think any of the actors convincingly achieved it the way, say, Kevin Dillon did in Platoon..

More Erich on Kubrick:


  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.

    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.

  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!

  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...

  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

  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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