Saturday, 22 December 2012

[Review] The Shining and Room 237 - The Kubrick Conundrum

The Shining (1980)

Director - Stanley Kubrick
Country - USA, UK 
Starring - Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall
Running Time - 144 minutes

A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil and spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.

Room 237 (2012)

Director - Rodney Ascher
Country - USA
Starring - Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner and Buffy Visick
Running Time - 102 minutes

A subjective documentary that explores the numerous theories about the hidden meanings within Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. 

Back in cinemas, Kubrick's hotel based horror is often considered the scariest film ever made. It's story of an omnipotent hotel and it's insane caretaker are stuff of pop culture legend, racking up a number of memorable scenes that are a sure bet to appear in the local pub quiz's 'film round.' Over thirty years have gone by since the original release, yet there is still nothing quite like The Shining. Kubrick's isometric composition confines us within the endless corridors and hallways. His ingenious use of (at the time, new) steady cam create a trans-dimensional presence of evil that is in constant pursuit of the family and sound design that creates a truly oppressive and inescapable sense of dread. The Shining is perhaps the first modernist horror film.

King's 'bad place' novel is as much a story of the supernatural as it is a study of fatherhood and alcoholism, an element downplayed here. This film is very much a product of Kubrick, leaving it intentionally vague by cutting much of the books exposition - yet he added as much, including some of the film’s most famous sequences. The focus here is the presence of an unsettled and discontented past, whether or not that is a result of the Native American genocide we will come to later, but as an intense wailing dominates the soundtrack in the opening, there is a sense of historical patterns being reiterated on a personal scale. 

It is through his cinematic techniques that the film becomes a fascinating study of atmosphere and multi-layered film making. The interior of Kubrick's Overlook Hotel is filled with a number of impossibilities, even the moment we see it. Corridors lead to nowhere, doors exist where no room possibly could and the ominous maze changes its layout as the film progresses. Kubrick refuses to let us settle, even on a subconscious level, creating a tiered, spatial labyrinth inhabited by and indeed reflected in his unbroken tracking shots with incredibly deep depth of field. Much like the hotel, the film is constantly shifting form, initially it links scene after scene together through long fades, only to crash cut through the film with title cards announcing the days. The result is uncomfortable disorientation; we can make no associations between areas despite being based in only a handful of rooms, nor what time has passed. We become lost in both space and time on an unconscious and conscious level.

So intense is the film’s opening act that Nicholson's performance offers up a dark relief as Jack's sanity slips away and he is a reduced to a manic scene chewer. By contrast Duvall, whom Kubrick was displeased with, looks exhausted from the beginning, which diminishes the effect later on. Young Daniel Lloyd however is astonishing; the real horror lies in the inevitability of his eyes as he stares blankly at the television screen. There is very little let up in The Shining, ghosts do not disappear in the day time (on the contrary, it is when they are most restless) and all members of the outside world are nothing but voices over the radio.

One must note that it is the American release that is touring the country; the film is a further twenty minutes long, rather unjustifiably. Presented in 1:1.78 compared to the 1:1.85, it loses a level of self-encompassing grandeur. Other changes include; conversations being extended, atmosphere-breaking shots of Halloran travelling to the hotel have been added and in the film's climatic descent into chaos a rather 'Scooby Doo style' shot of cobwebbed skeletons serve to (perhaps intentionally) undermine the relentless horror. I can assuredly add that these additions add nothing of substantial value to the movie, and that the shorter European release should be the desired version. 

The Shining is a near-masterpiece; it transcends its individual flaws to become a purely cinematic experience. It ends on one of the most enigmatic images in horror cinema, refusing catharsis for the viewer. It becomes an extension of its setting, nestling deep within our memory, living through the past. We find ourselves trapped there, slipping through time until we are just another face captured on the night of July 4th, 1921.  

But what does it all mean? 

Well Rodney Ascher's documentary Room 237 has assembled five of the most esteemed Shining-obsessives to decode and evaluate every scene in an attempt to find the key to unlocking Kubrick's horror-opus. 

The speculation surrounding Kubrick’s intent with The Shining has always proved more interesting than the nature of the film itself. For years there have been rumours and theories have flown around as to what it is really about. The genocide of the American Indians? The Holocaust? The Moon landing!? Ascher's documentary gathers and presents these theories in a delightfully stylish fashion. Gathering archive and historical footage as well as clips from Kubrick's complete canon, he is entirely self-aware of how preposterously fascinating some of the ideas are.

To detail much of the theories in this review would be to spoil a rather eye-opening experience, whether you buy the ideas or not, you are at least guaranteed some decent bar-talk should the topic arise. However Ascher's film transcends a mere introduction to film criticism, becoming a study on the nature of that criticism itself. We are to take from how Ascher presents each analysis, that one’s own interpretation of a film is merely a reflection of our own experiences and ideas imposed onto the films textual coding.

When we do finally reach the infamous Moon landing conspiracy, I was almost on the verge of calling quits, the evidence offered little support to an already Ludacris proposition and I felt they had pushed it too far. Yet right at that moment, in a shot of pure cinematic bliss that is equal parts hilarious and chilling, little Danny Torrance stands up in direct view of the camera wearing an Apollo 11 jumper. Suddenly everything fell back into place. I may not believe it, but damn if it didn't make me giddy. Though my favourite of the analytical techniques came from an art exhibit, exploring the mirrored theme running through The Shining by playing it forwards whilst super imposing the film running backwards on top. It doesn't have the key to any conspiracy but it has some fantastically eerie compositions. 

At the end of all this, there is almost too much to say. What is The Shining really about? For me, it is not the stuff of conspiracies and genocide, but rather a reclusive Kubrick's attempt to interact with his audience. After the commercial failure of the perfect-but-distilled Barry Lyndon, he saw an opportunity, through Kings' novel, to play with and even manipulate his viewers. Playing it intentionally vague, inviting us to pour over every frame inch by inch in search for meaning. I see The Shining less as an exercise in subliminal symbolism, (though there is enough evidence to interpret it that way should you so choose,) and more a canvas of multi-layered disorientation and cinematic playfulness, not to undersell Kubrick's genius. Ascher's documentary is at once a testament to the director's flawed masterpiece but also a fantastic examination of individual perception.

The Shining remains a canonical horror film, its genius lies not within its convoluted story or even its multi-layered symbolism but its film making. A uniquely cinematic terror. There may be no key, there may not even be anything to unlock, but it wants you to try. The Overlook Hotel is a special place alright; its omnipotent presence hangs over all who chose to enter into its labyrinth of corridors and hall ways. No-one will see the same thing; its form, it's meaning are a product of the viewer. One thing we can be sure of, there is a Room 237 for all of us.

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