Friday, May 16, 2014
Further Reflections on The Shining and Room 237
There are other ways to watch Room 237 and The Shining: in several ways, the most crucial one fundamentally changes the other, but it's worth exploring the additions (or subtractions, in one case) to the existing films to see how they help or hinder the last two reviews. We'll start by taking a look at the commentary track included with Room 237, one that includes a new voice and a new set of theories previously mentioned (but not included) in the documentary proper. After that, I'll take a look at the "International" cut of The Shining, one that remains a point of contention in the "which cut is the 'Director's Cut'?" debate.
If there's anything left out after Room 237's audio commentary track (maybe the significance of Wendy reading The Catcher in the Rye at the beginning?), you'd be hard pressed to think of it once MSTRMND (aka Kevin McLeod) is finished. It's mentioned in the film that he was approached to add his perspective and declined, for reasons he gets into during the commentary. McLeod watched the finished film and was impressed with Rodney Ascher's approach to presenting information without editorializing or highlighting one particular theory, and decided to include his thoughts on The Shining, as well as cognitive development, linguistics, and the development of cinema as a medium of expression.
He also introduces concepts like "mode jerks" and "isomorphic imagery", and draws several more parallels that would support Bill Blakemore's argument about The Shining's metaphorical connection to Native American subjugation. In fact, he draws a better parallel to the Mayan sacrifice than John Fell Ryan does by connecting it to the room beneath the stairs, which McLeod dubs "Sitting Bull's Temple." He also points out the significance of July 4th, 1921 (the second time a statue devoted to a Chief was struck by lightning) and explains the painting next to Ullman's office represents a warrior holding the scalp of his victim.
This is not to say that all of MSTRMND's commentary is beneficial to the overall cause of Room 237: he often goes off on tangents, only some of which seem to be connected to the argument he's making, and while the quotes from linguists, cognitive researchers, and Mircea Eliade are interesting, he doesn't always manage to link them to his argument. Rather, he simply brings them up, sometimes in mid-sentence, and continues as though they were logical extensions of what he was discussing. His notion on film as language, particularly in the new "mash-up" culture we live in, are interesting, but it's hard to tell exactly what point he's trying to make at any one point. It feels like his theories are still developing, and while he'd like to share more, he hasn't necessarily formalized them.
I'm not entirely certain what happens at the end, but the commentary doesn't actually last out the entire film - McLeod is talking about Peter Jackson fooling audiences into thinking that Tolkein's racist (and simplified) notions of "The Other" in The Lord of the Rings is actually modernized enough not to be read as an antiquated take on war and history, and then the track simply stops. The last ten minutes of the commentary is isolated score from the movie, without any closing thoughts or attempt to tie together the last ninety minutes of analysis together. Still, the MSTRMND / McLeod track is as good of an argument to watch Room 237 again as I can give you - it does tie many of the seemingly disparate elements together while rarely rebuking any reading of The Shining.
What might seriously complicate the readings of The Shining in Room 237 is the existence of a much shorter (119 minutes as opposed to 144 minutes) version of the film that Kubrick recut after the American premiere. As I mentioned in The Shining review, Kubrick had already asked projectionists to remove a 2 minute coda from the end of the film, but before releasing the film internationally, he decided to remove an additional 25 minutes. The differences are jarring, to say the least.
In fact, Dick is no longer introduced in the film - Kubrick cuts out the entire introduction of the Gold Lounge, including meeting Hallorann - and jumps directly into his scene in the kitchen with Wendy and Danny. There's no real sense of narrative flow anymore, and if you've seen the longer version recently, the changes are abrupt and arbitrary. The introduction to the Colorado Room ends right after Wendy asks Jack if he thinks the hotel is "swell," Jack's interview is half as long and Bill Watson's already small part in that scene is reduced to one cutaway reaction shot. Ullman doesn't even mention the maze anymore, so the foreshadowing about how easily one could get lost is gone entirely.
Kubrick's edits make sense in some ways: many of the largest excisions happen early in the movie, and almost all are expositional. He removes information that is repeated later (what happened to Danny's shoulder, for example) or scenes that may feel repetitive (Hallorann calling the Forest Service a second time) but there's a great deal of nuance left out in this shorter version. The "International" cut of The Shining plays more like a conventional horror film, promising ghosts and violence and not taking too long to get to them (Danny enters room 237 at around the 40 minute mark in this version). More problematic are the sometimes arbitrary plot holes created by removing so much material so early in the film.
Take, for instance, the complete removal of Danny's doctor early in the film. It's already created the problem that we don't know he doesn't remember his visions, but it also removes any reference to Jack having a problem with alcohol or that he's been sober ever since the incident with Danny's shoulder. Couple that with removing the portion of Jack's interview where he mentions he was a teacher (but isn't anymore) and the fact that he really needs this job (underscored later in scenes which aren't cut) and there's a better portrait of his fragile mental state heading into his dream of cutting Danny and Wendy "into little pieces." While it still makes some sense that Wendy would assumed Jack hurt Danny when he wanders into the Colorado Lounge with bruises on his neck, the family history is missing entirely, reduced to a (now) somewhat vague setup when father and son sit on the bed.
Couple that with the fact that, in this version, we've never seen The Gold Room before Jack goes in and sits down at the bar. It was never introduced in the movie, so for the audience of this cut, when Jack goes in to The Gold Room, it's for the first time as far as we know. The significance of his sitting at the bar, and the musical sting when he leans over to look for something to drink is lost because a) we don't know he's struggling with sobriety and b) we don't know that Ullman removed all of the alcohol on closing day. Instead we're left with Jack saying he's sell his soul for one beer, and then Lloyd appears. Kubrick judiciously edits this scene to remove Jack's line about sobriety and Lloyd's comment about women, but keeps the rest of the scene mostly intact. The supernatural element is more pronounced in the film, but Jack's sense of desperation is less apparent, which makes his susceptibility to it less clear.
Are these the sort of changes that would ruin the movie for someone who hadn't seen the longer version? Probably not. It was readily apparent to me, but it's worth noting that I very recently watched The Shining in its unabridged (?) form and could spot what was missing. It's quite possible that if you haven't seen The Shining recently, you might only faintly be aware something is... off. That may be the best way to put it, especially during the tour of The Overlook - the pacing just doesn't feel right. I'm going to abstain from weighing in on whether the longer or shorter cut is Kubrick's "preferred" version, because I've heard it both ways, and considering that if he wanted something to disappear (the coda to The Shining, the excised footage from 2001), it generally stays that way, there must be something about the "American" cut that he liked. At least enough to keep both cuts around.
While it doesn't change a newcomer's ability to enjoy The Shining, the shorter cut does significantly alter something else: Room 237. For several of the participants, key pieces of their argument - one that hinges on Kubrick's intentional inclusion of a "clue" - have been removed by the very person they say put it there. The two theories that are harmed the most, in fact, are the two more plausible ones - that Kubrick included details making reference to the slaughter and subjugation of Native Americans or that The Shining is a veiled attempt to deal with the Holocaust. Many critical components of their analysis don't exist in the shorter version.
What's curious about this cut of the film with respect to Room 237 is, in the case of at least one of the participants (Bill Blakemore), the first time they saw The Shining was Kubrick's truncated version, and it's significant because of how that affects their central thesis. Now I'm not saying that Blakemore didn't eventually see the longer version (he had to in order to reach any of his conclusions), but his position is that The Shining is an exploration of the way that European invaders systematically wiped out the Native population in what became America. The problem, at least initially, is that Blakemore states at the beginning of Room 237 that he saw The Shining when it opened in the United Kingdom, and that means he saw a version missing most of what he points to as evidence.
For example, the portrait of Sitting Bull in the Colorado Room isn't in the "International" cut - you might see it in passing as Danny is riding around, but because the tour of the room ends before they've even discussed the history of the mural in the main room, there's almost nothing to take away from that scene. It's hard, in fact, to make out much of anything he noticed other than the cans of Calumet in the storage room, as a result of the diminished presence of the Colorado Room, and it also impacts MSTRMND's reading of Jack being hit above "Sitting Bull's Temple," since you don't know that part of the room really exists.
Blakemore actually mentions the "International" version in a brief deleted scene, although to my disappointment, he uses the opportunity not to explore the differences but instead to an answer that Kubrick gives him about why both exist. Through a mutual friend, Blakemore gets the question "did you keep the longer cut around to force Americans to see more of the Native imagery?" and when the answer came back "No, I just liked the shorter cut," he decides that he doesn't want to take Kubrick at his word. Why? Well, because a good theory shouldn't be shut down by the source. It again goes to the problem of relying on Auteur Theory to make your case and then disregarding it when the director disagrees with your reading. I still struggle with rationalizing the concept of "he did it on purpose, unless he says he didn't, in which case he did and he is lying or it doesn't matter what he says."
Geoffrey Cocks' Holocaust reading isn't quite as hobbled, but the wholesale removal of the scene where Wendy and Danny are watching "Summer of 42" and Wendy seeing the room of skeletons (the only part of the ending that is significantly altered) removes two less apparent "clues" from the film. It's impacted less than Blakemore's reading, which is pushed so far into the background its barely noticeable, but the larger issue seems to be that the shorter cut of The Shining complicates Room 237. The central premise of the documentary is that there are so many strange details in The Shining - ones that don't or barely serve the narrative - that they have to be there for a reason.
So what happens if the person who supposedly put them there to "tell" us something decides he doesn't want them in there for a large chunk of audiences? There are people out there who never saw the version of The Shining examined ad nauseum in Room 237 and who will be, accordingly, very confused about where some of this footage comes from. Even in a world where alternate cuts and Region Free players are prevalent among truly rabid cinephiles, Room 237 feels like a uniquely American take on The Shining. Ascher makes the judgment call (on some level) that the longer version is the more important version to analyze, and disregards the fact that most of the world never saw the missing 25 minutes of footage, some of which is central to the documentary.
Is any of this truly important in the long run? I suppose not - no more than figuring out where the smoke is coming from in The Overlook early in the film or why Dick Hallorann doesn't look at the one window with a light on (and is also open) when he pulls up next to it. The shorter cut is an interesting diversion, an example of a director feeling unsatisfied with his film and altering it (Lucas-phobes, beware!*) for release elsewhere, and Room 237 is essentially a curio - less successful than it sets out to be, but nonetheless an amusing experiment. It seems doubtful that anyone's really "cracked" The Shining, or that there's necessarily anything to "crack," although I doubt we've seen the last of relativism in film analysis.
* Speaking of which, Lucas figures prominently into McLeod / MSTRMND's analysis of The Shining and filmmaking, and it turns out Weidner considers him to be part of an "inner circle" of directors who have real power in Hollywood and who knew that Kubrick "faked" the moon landing. Weidner also claims Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog is a thinly veiled in-joke to Kubrick about the moon.