Wednesday, May 21, 2014
On the off chance you haven't heard about The Sacrament, it's the newest film from Ti West (The House of the Devil) - his first feature in the three years since The Innkeepers. If you've been keeping up with him, watching his features and contributions of V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, this is exciting news. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to temper it a bit for you, because The Sacrament might have been a tense thriller, but it isn't. Instead, it's fraught with bad decisions in the narrative structure, in adapting its source material, and most of all, its central conceit: the dreaded "found footage" subgenre.
Patrick (Kentucker Audley, Ain't Them Bodies Saints) is a fashion photographer in New York who hasn't seen his sister in a long time. She had serious drug problems, and while cleaning up, she joined a religious community in rural Mississippi. While relaying the story to friends, Sam (AJ Bowen, The Signal), a reporter for an online news site, gets the idea to film their reunion for a story. Patrick's sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color) sent a letter explaining that they've left the country to create "heaven on Earth" without interference, so Patrick, Sam, and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies) land outside of their undisclosed location. After passing through a heavily guarded entrance, they find themselves in Eden Parish, a community that seems too good to be true, where everyone is happy and self sufficient, under the protective watch of Father (Gene Jones, Oz the Great and Powerful). But all is not what it seems in Eden Parish - Caroline is behaving... strangely, and Father has his own plans for the journalists.
*, not only does this synopsis sound very familiar, but I'm sorry to say that you already know exactly how The Sacrament is going to play out. Other than changing the names and moving the time period from the 1970s to the present, there's very little variation on the basic story of what happened to that religious sect, all the way down to their paranoia about the government and even the method by which the Massacre ends. There are hints that something else might be afoot earlier in the film, but those plot threads are abandoned quickly or given more mundane explanations (in particular what Caroline wants with Patrick). If you don't know anything about Jonestown, you might be a little less tuned in to where things are going (unless you watch the trailer, which gives everything away), but the disappointment that West didn't do anything interesting at all with the story is still going to dull the experience.
West reunites with some of his fellow cast members from You're Next (he has a cameo in the film and SPOILER a pretty good death scene): Bowen, Seimetz, and Swanberg. Beyond the main characters, there isn't much in the way of Eden Parish's faithful that make much of an impression beyond basic "types": the nurse, the old lady, the teenage boys, the little girl who doesn't talk, the suspicious mother. They don't enhance the world West is building, but instead just serve a purpose in moving the story along to its inevitable conclusion. It's a shame, because one of the things I've really enjoyed about West's films are the characters, who you sympathize with and want to spend time around.
Maybe it makes up for it that The Sacrament is not what we've come to know as a "Ti West" film, at least based on his last two (and generally, much enjoyed) efforts. The hand-held, shaky camerawork brings a sense of immediacy that's a stark contrast to the tracking shots and long takes he employed to such great effect in The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. It's an admirable step away from what he's known for, an extension of his segment in V/H/S (admittedly, one of my least favorite sections of that anthology), so in some sense it's commendable West is stepping outside of what he's known for in the horror genre. That said, "found footage" may not have been the best choice to branch out into.
To West's credit, he finds a way to avoid most of the problems with "found footage" by appropriating Vice News (with their permission, I would gather), a media organization that goes into areas of conflict or otherwise "verboten" places to cover news stories that wouldn't be featured otherwise. Their handheld style works well within the "found footage" tropes, and it explains why someone would continue filming well past the point they should. But it's a double-edged sword, because The Sacrament isn't strictly "found footage" - early in the film, it's clear that the footage we're seeing has already been professionally edited with informational text overlaid on the image. While it may not be immediately apparent, you slowly realize that whatever happens to the protagonists, somebody made it out and cobbled this footage into a Vice "report," which robs the second half of the film of much of its tension.
It also creates a massive plot hole later in the film, when Patrick loses his camera (that he's been shooting B-Roll on) and Father asks Caroline to continue filming ("this is important"). At this point, Jake has been separated from Sam and Patrick, so he has one camera and Caroline now has the other. And yet, as Father begins talking to the people of Eden Parish about their dire circumstances, West begins switching to a shot / reverse shot editing style that Caroline couldn't possibly be filming. Even if she somehow filmed all of Father's speech and then turned around and filmed the community long enough for Jake to later edit it together, it doesn't make sense that she would think to do that in the moment.
Honestly, I began to wonder if The Sacrament had switched over from "found footage" to a traditional film, because there was no rational explanation for the editing in the last thirty minutes of the film, and that isn't even the biggest plot hole. By necessity, I'm going to have to go into SPOILER territory, but if you already know how the Jonestown Massacre turned out, it's not going to surprise you much. Jake finds Sam, still alive, in Father's cabin, and Patrick's camera is on a table, filming (for some reason). Sam is tied up and Father is blaming them for his decision to kill everybody with the poisoned Kool-Aid, and then Father kills himself. Jake unties Sam, and they leave - without picking up Patrick's camera. Half of the movie was filmed on Patrick's camera - footage we've already seen, and they just leave it there.
Now, you could argue that they came back to Eden Parish and the camera wasn't somehow confiscated by local authorities or the FBI and that Jake and Sam managed to edit it back together, if not for the fact that the guard who saves them by shooting another guard promises he's going to "burn the whole thing down" once they've left. Since the office is already on fire after Caroline's self-immolation (Jake makes a point of filming the burning building), there's no reason not to take the guard at his word, and the final text on-screen indicates that "Sam and Jake are the only known survivors." So how, exactly, did we watch everything Patrick filmed from the interview with Father until the end of the movie?
I don't want you to leave this review with an entirely sour taste in your mouth, and it is worth pointing out that West does generate some palpable tension in the middle of The Sacrament. It's largely due to the appearance of Gene Jones - the other half of No Country for Old Men's "friend-o" scene - as Father: he embodies the presence and charisma needed for a "cult leader," one you can feel immediately, and Sam's interview quickly turns into Father's critique of their presence. There's a sense of menace in that sequence that West excels at, and if he could have infused more of The Sacrament with that unease, it might have overcome some of the structural deficiencies. Bowen and Swanberg are pretty good in what are mostly reactive roles, and Seimetz does a good job at masking Caroline's intentions early in the film. It's just that most of it collapses as the story enters its third act.
The Sacrament isn't my least favorite Ti West movie (that would still be Cabin Fever 2, which I doubt a "director's cut" could salvage), but it's the one I'm the least likely to revisit. That's a shame, because I had high hopes for it, and I'm still a big fan of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. It should be interesting to see where he heads next, stylistically and from a narrative perspective, but as somebody who studied Jonestown extensively in college, The Sacrament just didn't work for me. I'm not sure that it will for other West fans, but you might give it a shot if no other new movie sounds appealing. Not much of a recommendation, I know, but it's the best I can give you for this one.
* I'm deliberately not linking to anything related to Jonestown on the off-chance you have no idea what that is and want to watch The Sacrament. I'm starting to think it's the only way this movie might be interesting, from a narrative perspective.
Friday, May 16, 2014
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.
Monday, May 12, 2014
A friend of mine is a Philip K. Dick scholar, and he has been using The Exegesis for research on his dissertation. Or, as his wife calls it, "that book that crazy person wrote."
When I was in tenth grade, my English teacher proposed a challenge wherein we needed to read Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and make the case that it was a poem about Santa Claus. Being young and full of myself, I thought this was a patently ridiculous idea (a Google search might surprise you on how it maybe isn't), and wrote in a composition notebook "sometimes a cake is just a cake" (yes, I not only was full of myself, but I also misquoted Freud). Accordingly, a young Cap'n missed the point of the entire exercise: with enough supporting evidence in the text, it is possible to find enough in an ambiguous work of art to make a claim that it "means" what you think it does.
You might also remember that I once applied this concept (in jest) to a "critical analysis" of the film Splatter University, re-framing an otherwise rote slasher film as a commentary on Reagan-era indifference to gender politics and class structure in America. If you try really hard, you could make that argument, although I highly doubt the filmmakers intended any such thing. On the other hand, when a filmmaker, nay, an auteur of the caliber of Stanley Kubrick is involved, it's much easier to make the case that the secret meaning of his film is exactly what he intended. After all, the mercurial and often meticulous Kubrick hid many details in almost all of his films, and for years audiences have been poring over them, looking for secrets, which brings us to Room 237.
Director Rodney Ascher decided to take a more novel approach to Room 237, and rather than gather a list of well known names to sit down and discuss the various themes and hidden meanings in The Shining, he instead turned to the internet. Ascher draws from five sources (Bill Blakemore, Geoffery Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner) in Room 237, each of whom have their own particular "take" on what Stanley Kubrick was really up to. As they speak, appropriate clips provide a visual aid to their analysis. As with many theories you'll find on the internet, they range from surprisingly plausible to barely credible.
(While The Shining is the primary source of footage in Room 237, it also relies heavily on clips from Eyes Wide Shut, as well other Kubrick films and less immediately obvious sources. Footage from Lamberto Bava's Demons pops up continually, mostly because of the many shots of an audience watching a film, but I also noticed clips from Spellbound, Wolf, Faust, All the President's Men, An American Werewolf in London, and Schindler's List, to name a few)
Room 237 often uncomfortably straddles the line between a strict adherence to the infallibility of "Auteur Theory" and a relativist (or, at least, post-structural) position that any argument has merit if the film is ambiguous enough to support your claim.
For example, one of the theories is predicated on the suggestion that Kubrick was "bored" as a filmmaker headed into The Shining. He had "mastered" the art of making movies and Barry Lyndon was a "very boring movie," so The Shining was his attempt to reinvigorate himself. There's a half-truth in the second half of this argument, but it ignores a few important truths that are apparent in any "making of" The Shining available:
1) Kubrick was coming off of the critical drubbing of A Clockwork Orange (a film he pulled from theatres in the United Kingdom) and the commercial failure of Barry Lyndon, which led him to abandon Napoleon, the movie he passionately wanted to make.
2) He had also expressed his admiration for Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and Eraserhead as elevating horror films and felt he needed to answer the challenge to make his own. One of his collaborators posits that Kubrick felt they had "passed" him and he wanted to make the ultimate horror film. This does not necessarily reflect a director who had reached the apex of his creative abilities and felt "bored" heading into The Shining.
More baffling is the declaration(s) at the end that most (not all, mind you) of the commentators admit that the Auteur's intentions may not match their theory, but the point of postmodern film criticism is that the creator no longer has any say in the interpretation of their art. Which is fine, except that every single one of them predicates their theory on the basis that Kubrick. Did. This. On. Purpose. And. I. Found. It. The irony is mind boggling, and yet none of them seem to appreciate it.
All too often the theories start out making interesting points and then simply fall apart: early in the film, a visual discussion of juxtaposition during the long dissolves goes on too long, leaving the commentator grasping at straws. Long after he's stopped making any sense, he's reduced to pointing out things like "this man is carrying a chair in - where is he going?" and "at the very end of the shot, right before Kubrick cuts, you can see a man carrying a carpet upstairs." Much ado is made about the fact that the Torrance family has "too much" luggage, but the point is left hanging there without any specific reasoning.
(It later turns out that the "carpet" insight comes from someone involved in Room 237 because he shows The Shining playing forwards and backwards simultaneously. This leads to a segment involving carefully selected moments where the overlapping images create an interesting dichotomy, although he often only adds the insight that it's "pretty cool.")
I was quite taken with the "impossible window" argument in The Overlook from the woman who took the time to study the layout of the hotel, because you take it in stride while watching the movie, but there's actually no logical place that window could be in Ullman's office. It's a great visual centerpiece in that room, but like many areas of the Overlook, it can't possibly exist spatially. Unfortunately, her observations on the film quickly collapse into "that poster of a man skiing looks like a minotaur," which, while having a through-line in other Kubrick films, is a stretch at best. The reason she leaps to the conclusion that it's a minotaur (juxtaposed with a cowboy on another poster) is based on an actually valid point that Ullman already told Jack there's no skiing at The Overlook, but she side-steps this to fixate on a tenuous, at best, visual connection. In fact, it hurts her analysis of The Overlook being similar to the hedge maze by insisting that Jack is the Minotaur the poster is referring to. By the end of the movie, she's reduced to comparing the ghost with an axe wound in his head to a story her son made up, and marvels at the "synchronicity."
Other theories strain to make any sense at all: the commentator who fixates on The Shining's perverse sexuality takes us on a frame by frame analysis of Ullman shaking hands with Jack, implying that where Ullman is standing makes him look like the paper tray he's next to is giving him a "full erection." He then goes on to explain that during the opening credits, right after Kubrick's name leaves the screen, the director inserts an image of himself into the clouds. Despite the frame by frame analysis of this, I couldn't see it, and at one point he even says "I'll have to Photoshop this to show you what I mean." A suggestion that Wendy hitting Jack with the bat at the top of the stairs is somehow comparable to a Mayan ritual sacrifice goes nowhere (and is never addressed again).
This is not to say that Room 237 is completely without plausible, if not outright fascinating insights. There is no logical reason that Jack Torrance would be reading Playgirl while eating lunch before he tours the Overlook with Ullman and Watson. But he is, and while there's no clear explanation provided, it does mirror the phallic imagery on the floor of room 237. The dissection of Danny's rides through the floors in the hotel have some very insightful suggestions about not only the geography of the Overlook, but also the symbolism of where he finds room 237 (above the Colorado Room) and the Grady twin ghosts (in the servants area, near his own room).
Perhaps the most interesting theories come from the alternating views of two men who view The Shining as Kubrick's attempt to address the atrocities of the past. One chooses to focus on the massacre of Native Americans, a small detail in the film that provides plenty of good evidence. His argument that the elevator (which, logically, would go below into the foundation, where the Native burial ground was rumored to be) spilling blood is a metaphor for violence escaping, whether we want to see it or not, has a certain resonance, even if other points miss their mark a bit. I'm not sure that I buy his argument that the phrase "Wave of Terror Sweeping Across America" from the British marketing is a coded reference to Native American slaughter and subjugation, but for the most part he makes salient points in his analysis.
The second interpretation is that The Shining is, in some way, Kubrick's opportunity to use horror as a genre to address the atrocities of the Holocaust without directly mentioning them. He begins his analysis with the German typewriter and the continued imagery of the eagle and the number 42 (the year the "Final Solution" was implemented) or its variations. He admits it's "a stretch," but 2x3x7=42. Wendy and Danny are also watching "The Summer of 42" on TV, Danny has a number 42 on his shirt, there's a 42 on Dick Hallorann's license plate, and the number seven repeatedly appears in the film. He also (correctly) connects the number 42 to Lolita is an indicator of trouble for Humbert Humbert. On less numerical terms, he addresses the use of a funeral march to open the film, or the potential significance of the POV in the opening helicopter footage.
His main argument, that it allows audiences to deal with the horrors of the Holocaust without directly realizing it, ties into the advice that Tony tells Danny "it's like pictures in a book - it isn't real," in that the past is no longer real, but it is something we have to deal with. The aforementioned luggage dissolves into a group of people in the next shot, which is a curious juxtaposition further enhanced by post-war photos of piles of luggage at concentration camps. If anything, he stumbles a bit in trying to tie in Nicholson's ad-libbed quotation of "The Three Little Pigs" into a memory Kubrick might have had of the 1933 Walt Disney film, which featured the Wolf in a stereotypically Anti-Semitic "Jew" disguise during one scene. For the large part, treating The Shining's horror as a metaphor for the atrocities of the past does seem to have the most supporting evidence in Room 237.
But then there's the most famous contributor to Room 237. If you've seen the film, you know exactly who I'm talking about and have no doubt been wondering how we got this far into the review without mentioning him. Well, in keeping with his placement in the movie, I felt like he deserved his own segment, separate from the rest. If you've heard nothing else about Room 237, you've probably heard about the guy who is certain that Stanley Kubrick hid a message in The Shining about his own involvement in a particularly famous moment in American Conspiracy Theory History. But first, in the interest of fairness, let me set up his argument, as ridiculous as it often sounds:
The first time he saw The Shining, much like Stephen King, Jay Weidner was frustrated at all of the changes made in the adaptation. In fact, he didn't watch it again until the Blu-Ray came out, but when he did, he became fixated on the deviations from the book to the movie. Fair enough, but here's where things go off the rails (I'm sorry, I can't be objective about this): he already believed the rumor that Stanley Kubrick was involved in, if not directly responsible for, filming the "fake" moon landing in 1969, and that 2001 was Kubrick's "test footage" for faking a moon landing. He goes on and on about the techniques used in 2001 also being used in the moon landing "hoax," including strategic camera placement and the use of rear screen projection. But here's where it gets really fun.
He is convinced that the reason Kubrick deviates from King's novel is as a clandestine way of admitting his involvement in the "fake moon landing" scheme, and while he could probably just leave it with his best (and really, only) case in Danny's Apollo 11 sweater, he just can't stop there. Jack's frustration that Wendy wants to leave is Kubrick's own anger with his wife about the contractual obligations he's under to fake NASA's big moon landing. The pattern on the carpet outside of room 237 is a similar shape to the launch pads in Florida. But here's the crown jewel, my favorite piece of "really?" and the one that's no doubt had my friends turning the movie off without finishing it: the meaning of changing the room number from 217 (in the book) to 237.
There is a longstanding story in the making of The Shining that the owners of the hotel asked Kubrick to change the room number so it wouldn't hurt business. Weidner took this to believe they meant the hotel in Oregon (where the exterior shots of The Overlook were filmed) and not the hotel that King based The Shining on, so when he called to check and see if they really had a room 217, they didn't, and he determined Kubrick lied about the story. Why? Because Room 237 was the studio he shot the "fake" moon landing on, and he wanted everybody to know. But he's not content to stop there, so we need to look at the sign on the key to Room 237, which has the words "Room No. 237." He takes this to mean that somehow the capitalized letters are significant, and manages to warp this logic around to argue that what Kubrick really meant is that 237 is the "Moon Room" because "the only words you can make with those letters are 'moon' and 'room.'"
And he firmly believes that while NASA might have sent someone to the moon (they're very angry at him) they "faked" the landing everybody knows and that Stanley Kubrick was involved in it. The Shining is his admission of it - coded, of course - but it couldn't be clearer. He ends his comments by assuring us that he's being watched and fully expects more scrutiny after Room 237 is released. So if you couldn't finish the movie because of this guy, I totally get it. There's a certain kind of crazy that's really hard to wrap your brain around, and he gets his own undiluted segment of the film to just go for it. It's a shame, because you will miss some of the very best points about the atrocities, but I can understand why at least two people I know gave up on the film.
Room 237 sounds like a great idea, in theory, but the reality is far more frustrating. Every now and then, the disparate theories come together to focus on one concept (the maze), but just as often they grasp at straws (there's a truly superfluous section devoted to the character of Bill Watson, the second man interviewing Jack, that fails to posit one interesting explanation for his presence). It's like taking a night class for film students where the teacher just sits back and lets them go: you're stuck in a room for an hour and a half listening to competing interpretations of a movie delivered passionately by people who a sure they've cracked the code. The logic is rarely sound - some of it barely sounds like logic at all - but sometimes they make good points. You don't get to join in, and while I appreciate the concept of Ascher's to avoid the normal "talking head" documentary, the execution of Room 237 doesn't have me convinced that overlapping their theories really helps, particularly in the early going when you don't know whose position. It can make four of the five commentators difficult to distinguish, particularly the three older men. Yes, they're introduced with a title card explaining their history with the movie, but then Ascher dives right in with the analysis.
More problematic is the construction of the arguments. In the age of the internet, the concept of post-modern or post-structuralist criticism is more prevalent than ever, but it exists awkwardly alongside a stringent adherence to Auteur Theory in Room 237 in a way that proves such a thing can't possibly work. I understand why my professors in school insisted that I remove the director's "intent" from analysis of films, because it allows you to more openly explore the art without the artist "interfering." And it is true that when art becomes available to the masses, it changes, both to the audience, the author, and the work. So the foundation of Room 237 is a solid one, but the choice of Stanley Kubrick, a director revered for being both meticulous in his direction and intentionally vague about his themes, may not have been the best choice. In the end it sounds like five people saying "Kubrick fits my vision of the film because he didn't do this by accident and his own intention doesn't matter," and that sentence doesn't make sense. It was an admirable experiment, and an interesting one to watch, but not a successful one.
More often than not, it feels like "that movie those crazy people made," which sounds more interesting than it is. However, if Ascher had some interest in applying this approach to the films of David Lynch, nobody (including Lynch) know what they're really about...
Friday, May 9, 2014
I've been slowly working my way through Stephen King's Doctor Sleep, which is much better than I expected it to be (his recent output has been hit-or-miss). For those of you who managed to miss out on the hoopla surrounding its release, Doctor Sleep is a sequel (of sorts) to The Shining, one that centers on a grown Dan Torrance who crosses paths with a roaming "family" that feeds on people with the "shine." In a lot of ways, King is doubling down on the differences between his book The Shining and Stanley Kubrick's loose adaptation, which has come to dominate popular culture. When people think of The Shining now, they predominant image in their minds is going to be Jack Nicholson.
Since I'm not done with Doctor Sleep yet, it wouldn't really be fair to compare the book(s) with the film, although I'd recommend you read The Shining before you read Doctor Sleep (people coming to King's sequel with only the knowledge of what happens in the film are going to be very confused by the immediate appearance of a character that dies in the movie). Reading the book did put me in a mood to watch The Shining again, and since Room 237 arrived from Netflix, that seemed like a good time to revisit the film. (I'll look at Room 237 separately in a few days).
What people tend to forget - or simply don't know because they haven't seen it - is how deliberately paced The Shining is to keep audiences off kilter. It's not simply that Danny's imaginary friend "Tony" has an inherently creepy voice, or that the film is punctuated with slow push-ins on Nicholson staring, often ending in smash cuts to title screens, but the overall atmosphere of The Shining is one of discomfort. Before it's even clear that the Torrance family has serious issues, the film exudes a sense of foreboding doom, one that builds to a fever pitch well before Jack finally snaps.
At the same time, Kubrick is careful to never explicitly acknowledge whether The Overlook is haunted or if Jack is simply feeding off of the isolation to finally abandon his façade of being a good husband and father. (SPOILERS AHEAD) In every shot involving Jack talking a ghost, you'll notice that there's also a mirror, save for the scene where Grady unlocks the storage closet and let's him out. It is, aside from Wendy's journey through the hotel at the end, the only time the dead patrons of The Overlook go from phantoms to active participants in the madness. Danny's visions of Grady's daughters and the blood flowing from the elevator can, one could argue, simply be a reflection of his "shining." This doesn't necessarily explain who opened room 237, although Wendy never sees it, and she's the closest thing we have to a "reliable" protagonist in the film.
The Shining has a strong undercurrent of "is this happening or isn't it," and is punctuated with lots of odd details you might take for granted the first time you watch it, but with repeated viewings become more and more obvious. Danny and Wendy are watching a television that isn't plugged in. Jack's typewriter abruptly changes during the course of the movie. The layout of the hotel doesn't seem to match where the characters are at the end of the film (pay close attention to where the Torrance's room is in relation to the front of The Overlook when Dick arrives compared to the paths Jack and Wendy take to get to the lobby). Every moment, every scene, is slightly off kilter, designed to keep audiences from ever settling in. The Shining is a masterful example of a horror film where very little actual horror occurs, but where the viewer is terrified of what will happen.
Remember, Jack only kills one person in the film. That's it. He threatens Wendy and chases Danny through the hedge maze, but the only person who is murdered on camera in The Shining is Dick. We only see Jack after he's frozen to death, right before the final shot, the ambiguous extension of Jack visiting The Gold Room of the 1920s. Grady tells him earlier in the film that "you have always been the caretaker," so how much of what happens in The Shining really did happen?
After the film premiered in the United States, Kubrick insisted that projectionists remove a two minute coda where Ullman visits Wendy and Danny in the hospital. He tells them there's no trace of Jack's body, but then gives Danny his father's tennis ball, and laughs. It's certainly a more conspiratorial ending, and I can understand why he dropped it, but that's not the only change Kubrick made to The Shining.
I'm not sure how many American fans of the film are aware of this, but as a result of the critical reaction to The Shining (it was, in case you didn't know, nominated for two Razzies*), Kubrick recut the film for international release, removing thirty minutes. There's an ongoing debate about which version is his "preferred" cut, with many insisting the shorter version is, in fact, the one Kubrick intended to be "his" cut. The person who wrote IMDB's "Alternate Versions" page claims "the144 minute 'US version' is often erroneously called the Director's Cut when in fact director Kubrick regarded the 113 minute version as the superior cut of the film" but somehow the longer American cut is still primarily the one available on home video. I only bring this up because the original Stanley Kubrick collection released on DVD in 2000 was approved by Kubrick (before his death) using masters from 1989, giving him plenty of time to decide which cut of The Shining to use.
While I am waiting to watch this shorter, 119 minute version (the disc should be arriving soon), the list of scenes removed makes the film seem more overtly supernatural: much of what's cut involves the strong hints of marital and familial discord in the Torrance household, including the examination of Danny after he passes out and the subsequent conversation between Wendy and Danny's pediatrician about the dislocated shoulder incident, or half of Jack's interview (the part specifically about him being a teacher and looking forward to the solitude). Parts of the tour of the Overlook are missing, including the explanation that there's no alcohol, and Danny and Dick's discussion about parts of the hotel being able to "shine" are gone, as are parts of scenes with Jack and Lloyd the bartender. The "skeleton" scene with Wendy has been removed, as are Hallorann's attempts to contact the Overlook before he flies from Miami to Colorado.
All told, it sounds like serious tonal shifts in the film, and some of the transitions have been described as jarring, so I'm looking forward to seeing this shorter version. As it is, the 144 minute version of The Shining has an ominous, hypnotic quality to it, one that feels designed into keeping you off balance and unnerved. I'm curious to see the effect of dropping so much of the secondary details about Jack, Wendy, and Danny on the film. Expect a supplementary review after it arrives and the Cap'n has had time to digest it.
As it is, I'm still continually evolving on The Shining: it's a film so layered with details, with apparent contradictions within the story, that I can forgive abandoning much of what King wrote in favor of a more ambiguity. Yes, it's impossible not to see Jack Nicholson and know that he's unbalanced from the first interview, and yes, Shelley Duvall's Wendy is already teetering on the brink of a mental collapse before the family leaves Colorado (due, in large part, to Kubrick's deliberate cruelty to the actress during the nearly year-long production). It's up for debate to how much of the long shoot contributed to what could be continuity errors and what might be deliberate (as we'll discuss in the Room 237 review), but I suspect many of those will go largely unnoticed until you've seen The Shining many times. For a first time viewer, it adds to the sense of unease about the world being presented to you in the film. While The Shining might not be my all time favorite horror movie, I certainly contend that it does a damn fine job of creeping me out.
* Worst Director and Worst Actress, if you can believe it.
Monday, May 5, 2014
A note from the Cap'n: Retro Reviews are different from normal Blogorium Reviews in that they deal less with the film and more with the evolving relationship between the movie and its audience (in this case, the Cap'n). As a result, they tend to be more anecdotal and will often lack a synopsis, and will often assume that anyone reading this has also seen the film at some point. For good examples of what a Retro Review is like, I suggest reading Dazed and Confused or Tron entries in the series.
I had the strangest sensation while watching Reality Bites for the first time in a very long time (possibly since it came out twenty years ago): for the life of me, I couldn't remember what happened in the movie. I know I've seen it, and that assertion was reinforced when scenes I could remember vividly popped up (the rooftop sequence at the beginning, the gas card scam, the premiere of Leilana's documentary at In Your Face TV, Troy standing in front of the apartment in a suit), but watching it again, I had no idea where the movie was going. It was refreshing, in a sense, because it gave me the opportunity to watch Reality Bites again for the first time, fondly recalling moments but generally unfamiliar with its story.
Reality Bites is, in many ways, a natural extension of Say Anything, even though they don't have the same writers, directors, or cast members (save for one small role). In the retrospective documentary (from the tenth anniversary DVD) included, one of the producers mentions that he thinks Reality Bites is in the same category as Cameron Crowe and John Hughes films, and I think that's pretty accurate. It has a lot in common, thematically, with Say Anything, as they are roughly spaced apart to deal with graduating from high school (Say Anything) and then college (Reality Bites) and the five years between films is reflective of particular trends from the end of the 80s (Lloyd's fascination with kick-boxing) and the middle of the 90s (the commodification of "Generation X").
More importantly, they both share a similar thematic thread with Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (released, appropriately, between the two films), about the feeling of helplessness and directionless-ness in a world of "what we were promised" vs. "reality." It's a universal theme, and one that resonates particularly with young adults from high school to their mid-twenties - not coincidentally the exact age ranges of all three films - and while I'm a generation removed from the characters in Reality Bites, the experience is still identifiable. More interesting than that was seeing the film from the other side of thirty: in that respect, Reality Bites encapsulates everything that was good, bad, and ridiculous about those heady times of "what do I do with my life?" in the wake of college.
Which brings us to the bulk of Reality Bites' story, if you want to call it that - the love triangle between Leilana, Michael, and Troy. You can probably guess from the poster that's what Reality Bites is "about," and the contrast between the bohemian Troy and the buttoned up Michael is what drives most of the conflict in the latter part of the film, but it might also be the one weak point in the film. For better or for worse, Reality Bites is about Leilana being torn between the world she knows (her friends and a carefree, albeit aimless lifestyle) and the world she feels like she's supposed to be in post-graduation (a career, carving out her own space in the world, responsibility). It's not always clear what side screenwriter Helen Childress is leaning towards, even at the end, when Leilana makes the figurative choice by choosing her lover and the somewhat ambiguous closing shot that follows.
I guess after twenty years, the statute of limitations is pretty much over for SPOILERs, and it's not going to blow anybody's mind that she chooses Troy over Michael, although there's some question of what changes he went through while in Chicago near the end of the film. Michael is amiable, and well meaning, but is never really a viable option for Leilana. What's interesting is that while I initially thought she went with the "Lloyd Dobler" of her respective film, I'm starting to doubt that. Troy is the lovable loser, to a degree, but he's also emotionally manipulative, insensitive, and at various times is cruel to nearly every character, and not simply in a "I'm smarter than you" way. In some ways, Michael is more like Lloyd in that he means well but doesn't know how to function in the world he finds himself.
Now, is it possible that I'm giving Michael more of the benefit of the doubt because where I am in life and what I'm doing is closer to where he is than where Troy is? Yes, that's certainly possible. There is an aspect of being in your twenties that scoffs at characters like Michael (his last name is, not coincidentally, Grates), people who "work for the system." (There's a great joke about that in Ghost World, another movie about post-graduation angst, about a character desperately trying to convince Enid he's not "selling out" by "taking the system down from within"). I'm not saying there's something inherently wrong with Troy's nihilistic take on the world, but when Leilana calls him out on not being able to commit to anything, there's more than a kernel of truth to it. Michael is meant to represent everything that's wrong about corporate America and, I suppose, be a sort of 90s version of an Alex Keaton, but Stiller has an inherent likability that keeps him from being a stereotype.
Yes, he sells Leilana's footage to the network he works for, naively thinking they won't take it and re-edit it to commercialize twenty-something angst in order to sell pizza. And yes, when faced with the truth that of course they would, he rationalizes it horribly (comparing it to tricking children into eating meatloaf), but he does make a sincere effort to make things right before realizing it's too late. He also calls out Troy on his "indifference" act towards Leilana when everybody else feeds off of their "will they or won't they" chemistry. His character represents everything that young people who want to be wild and free are afraid of, and the very end of the film hints that his experience pushes him further down that rabbit hole, but I don't question his sincerity about caring about Leilana for most of the film.
The last part, after the "new apartment" shot with Troy and Leilana, is one of many shots Stiller takes at MTV - a fictionalized version of the documentary with former VJ Karen Duffy and Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando as surrogates for the main characters. In Your Face TV also has a parody of House of Style, with a Cindy Crawford stand-in "reporting" on fashionable gang apparel. Stiller also sneaks in Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner as one of Vickie's many "boyfriends" during the documentary, and a few Real World cast members in small roles in the film. While more subtle than Tropic Thunder, the targets of Stiller's satiric ire are evident even in his first film. What's also interesting is how less overtly comedic Reality Bites is. It's not unfair to compare it to John Hughes or Cameron Crowe films in that it fits somewhere between comedy and drama and slips back and forth between the two, often effortlessly.
I'd be remiss in not mentioning the supporting cast (particularly the adults), many of whom I'd completely forgotten were in the film. Every one of the four main friends in the film come from broken families, although we only meet one. After her commencement speech, there's an awkward dinner with Leilana's mother (Swoosie Kurtz) and father (Joe Don Baker) and their respective new spouses (Harry O'Reilly and Susan Norfleet) that hints not only at the tenuous relationships she has with both parents, but also her unwillingness to accept a "status symbol" (her father's old BMW*). Leilana's first job out of college is working for Good Morning Grant!, hosted by the outwardly jubilant Grant Gubler (John Mahoney, who was in Say Anything), a man who is anything but friendly when the cameras are off. After being fired for sabotaging his show, Leilana seems incapable of making a good impression during interviews with potential employers, who include Ben Stiller Show alum Andy Dick, David Spade, Keith David, and Stiller's mother, Anne Meara. (His sister, Amy, plays the voice of the psychic that Leilana runs up a $400 phone bill talking to.)
The interview scenes, by the way, serve as an interesting counterpoint to how we've seen Leilana up to this point: she seemed to be the most "together" of the four of them, and her blunt dismissal of Vickie's offer to work for her at The Gap does make sense for what we know about her. If she really has a plan and has it together, then it would be a "step down," and insult Vickie takes to heart. However, when Leilana runs out of options in TV production (David flat out turns her down, Meara doubts she can handle newspapers, and Dick is hiring a video pirate), Spade's fast food job turns out to be too much for her to process. Leilana not only doesn't know what the word "irony" means, but she lacks basic math skills. She's not actually as well adjusted as we thought, so Michael's offer to buy the documentary isn't as much of a moral quandary as you would think.
Watching Reality Bites again, with both life experience beyond the characters but also no memory of where the film was headed was interesting. When I first saw it, I was in high school, and at least six or seven years younger than the protagonists. Their cultural points of reference were (and still are) different: watching it now, I still don't have the same affinity for songs like "My Sharona" or "Tempted" that Vickie and Leilana do. On the flipside, seeing the film this much later (and not remembering that it happened at all) gave me a better appreciation for Troy's cover of "Add It Up" late in the film. I'm not sure if it was Troy's room or Leilana's, but one of them has a poster for Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, which struck me as strange, even for 1994. Still, despite being generationally removed from the characters, I can now look back at that heady era of living with roommates and having "big" ideas about life, the universe, and everything. About how if you had just that one shot, you'd make it big time and change the world.
And then reality kicks in, and you have to settle for things and take lousy jobs for menial pay. To work for people who hate that they settled for menial pay and stayed there, and who will take it out on you. For your friends to come and go, and sometimes not come back. And yeah, that reality bites. The movie ends with Leilana and Troy together, like Lloyd and Diane, or "Pink" and Simone, heading off somewhere we can't follow them. It's hopeful, but ambiguous, a reminder of the good times. I wonder if someday I'll be looking at The Big Chill with the same affinity? Time will tell...
* Interesting tidbit: for a movie about twenty-somethings who are outwardly anti-commercialistic, there's a shocking amount of product placement throughout the film. Not only is Troy fired for eating a prominently displayed Snickers bar, but on three different occasions you see the group buying Diet Coke, extolling the virtues of the Big Gulp, using a Sprite can to smoke pot, and mentions of preferring Camel Straights and Quarter Pounders with cheese. The last two, buy the way, come from Troy.
Sunday, May 4, 2014
There was a long piece here about why I wasn't obsessing about Star Wars anymore, but when I went back to look at it, the whole thing seemed silly. I was taking a lot of time to tell you that I wasn't going to worry about Episode VII and would just let it happen, but four or five times as long as the first half of this sentence. But now you know, and accordingly that answers potential questions about Star Wars on the Blogorium between now and December of next year, when I'll presumably review a new Star Wars movie.
Wow, I just said the words "Star" and "Wars" three times in one paragraph. Maybe it is better I do some "conscious uncoupling" from all of the casting rumors and script details. In truth, I haven't been reading anything about it. I did watch The Shining last night. Not sure if you'll get a write up for that one, though. Or Band of Outsiders - there's plenty I'd like to say about both, but it could take a little while to get them in a coherent place.
Anyway, stay tuned for tomorrow, when I'll be taking a look back to twenty years ago - it's a Retro Review of Reality Bites.