The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980)

shiningIt is difficult to know what to say about The Shining, especially as so much has already been said, some of it of dubious merit.

Like Stephen King, I am baffled as to why people find it so scary; unlike him, I rate it way more highly than his original novel (and the miniseries does not even get a look in).

It is a film I never used to like much, although I always admired its soundtrack and steadicam (Kubrick is so very effective when tracking-in that you can forgive him for his lesser parallel tracking, but, to be fair, Jean-Luc Godard’s not as good at the former as he is at the latter). And I have always been a little taken by the simple tricks Kubrick deploys – an omission here, an ambiguity there, and what Michel Chion describes as his ‘commutative editing’ – to make his films seem enigmatic and profound.

This time round, the film grew on me. I have no idea if this is because I finally watched the 25 minute longer US cut (although some months ago Roger Luckhurst predicted such an outcome, and I learned a long time ago he is usually right about stuff). I was struck very forcefully this time round by the visual and aural resonances with 2001 – and partway through the job interview scene, I stopped hearing the dialogue as being badly-delivered and started hearing it as a development of the earlier film’s depiction of linguistic thinning and debasement. Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) channels the performance of sincerity and the platitudinous corporate drone of Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), and everyone sounds like they are delivering lines because that is what so much of human identity and interaction consists of – performativity.

When I recently read King’s novel, I posted about its proleptic depiction of precarious, disciplined neo-liberal labour. This is developed in Kubrick’s film. The Overlook itself, despite it age, resembles one of the non-places of hypermodernity described by Marc Augé: those spaces that are the opposite of utopia because they exist and do not contain any organic society. For all the historical markers we see on display – from those big cans of kosher dill pickles in a hotel that would once have been restricted, to the Native American designs and images on the walls, to the very 1970s purple penis carpet – it is oddly dehistoricised. It is a space that might even confound Steve Buscemi’s5609791_std CHET! in its obscure blurring of ‘trans’ and ‘res’. The Torrance family, that signifier of a private realm outside the world of work and exchange, that gesture towards organic society, is destroyed by the relentless demands of the Overlook, which is only concerned with Jack as labour-power.

The Shining shows the coming proletarianisation of the American middle class, or perhaps merely charts the delusion of social mobility at the core of the American Dream. This is Jack – the terrorised and terrorising, self-surveilling, self-disciplining and other-discipling sadomasochistic subject of a monstrous power. Just the way capital likes it.

shiningAnd management doesn’t care for one moment that he has produced the treatise on work-life balance. To the Overlook, it’s just a paper trail to prove the staff have been consulted at.

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Room 237 (Rodney Ascher 2012)

large_7EDxLdQ8bBG8YC2JAnhvoVhTe3This is easily the most fun and interesting, and least time-consuming, of the various associated texts I’m working through in preparation for teaching The Shining as a cult movie (King’s novel, the miniseries, and Doctor Sleep, which should be done soon). It is a documentary in which five people explain what they think the film is really about: the Native American genocide; the Holocaust; Kubrick’s faking of the Moon landing film; the legend of the minotaur; and the dark violent sexual nature of human beings. (The latter two are the sketchiest, so it is hard to be certain what their central claims are, or if they actually have central claims – and I am sure I must have missed something about the last one since that’s hardly unusual material for a horror movie.)

Students anxious about analysing films often frame their suggestions with a nervous ‘I’m probably reading too much into it, but…’, while also seeming to assume that the process of analysing a film is to dig down and find a secret hidden meaning. Their development as critics usually involves learning to think differently about the nature of texts and the processes by which meanings are made. Meanings aren’t hidden deep within, like pirate treasure, but are the product of engaging with the details of the film in relation to various contexts. There is no ‘reading into’, there is just ‘reading’, because all the information is there on the surface to see and hear.

However, on listening to the (admittedly fragmented) presentation of Room 237’s five featured exegeses, I began to think that maybe I was wrong – that maybe there is such a thing as ‘reading into’ a text.

room-237-1And I admit, when the NASA conspiracy guy explained that the letters on the key tag, ROOM No 237, were able to spell just two words, ROOM and MOON, I did blurt out ‘moron’.

But that is a little unfair.

Room 237 gives us a fascinating if largely unwitting exploration of textual heuristics, epistemological limits and the uneven distribution of cultural capital.

sh_monarchTake, for example, Juli Kearns’ claim that the image of a skier on a poster is actually the silhouette of a minotaur. It does not look like one to me, but when she explained what she sees I understood what she meant. It is more convincing than someone else’s claim that the clouds in the opening titles contain an image of Kubrick, but it is still utterly unconvincing. The disproportionate bull-like upper torso is very obviously a hunched figure in a bulky ski jacket.

But perhaps she does not mean it is actually a picture of a minotaur, merely that it was deliberately chosen because it resembled one.

On the opposite side of the doorway, she notes, is a picture of a cowboy on horseback. A centaur, you might think, but no. Her point is that it is a mirror image: a cowboy opposite a bull-man. And it seems that it was only after noticing this ‘picture of a minotaur’ that she began to notice all the labyrinth imagery in the film: the maze, the model of the maze, the corridors and sometimes contradictory layout of the Overlook. What remains not just unclear but downright mystifying is why she needs to build her argument on a questionable interpretation of the skier poster rather than on, say, the film’s obvious and undeniabe labyrinths – and why she never seems to ask why Kubrick organised his version of the story around mazes, corridors and horizontality.

Part of the answer to the constricted nature of these five interpretations lies in the suggestion made by one of the exegetes that Kubrick was a bored genius who he decided to fill The Shining with puzzles and/or clues. A disappearing chair, the disappearing Dopey sticker, a mid-sequence costume change, an apparent reversal of the pattern in the carpet, all of which can be explained as continuity errors, are suddenly transformed into acts of conscious intent. Which enables you to continue believing in Kubrick as a genius who controlled absolutely everything that appears in his films. Which in turn separates from the dull herd those viewers who can pieces together his clues. Which brings the elect into the sacred presence of the author-genius, who slays ambiguity, guarantees meaning and dispenses certainty.

However, the whole proposition that this is what a genius would choose to do suggests a poor understanding of genius, and of creative endeavour. Kubrick ceases to be a person and becomes like that magical autistic guy in Cube (1997), able to do really hard maths without any of the visible effort the female character must put into calculating primes and primes of primes. Kubrick becomes a black box, a monolith, and only some primates get uplifted. Understanding how texts generate meanings is transformed into a paranoid-autistic hermeneutics, like in The Da Vinci Code, with one true meaning to be unearthed. Or, as Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) says to Danny (Danny Lloyd), this is ‘not [about] things that anyone can notice but things that people that can shine can see’.

Like when one of the exegetes argues that the recurrence of the number 42, the fact that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) uses a German-made typewriter and the graphic match evident in the dissolve from  a pile of luggage to a group of guests is more than enough to prove the film is about the Holocaust.

The paranoid aspect of this spills out beyond the film when the NASA conspiracy guy claims that he is under state surveillance and that he fully expects an IRS audit next year. (Intriguingly, he insists that the Moon-landing itself was not faked, just the Moon-landing footage, but he never explains why NASA would do this – although he does dismiss someone else’s claim that it was to keep us from seeing the towering alien city in the Sea of Tranquillity.)

vlcsnap-2012-11-03-17h36m26s183While watching Room 237, I could not resist constructing my own version of its real secret meaning which is also clearly bullshit. The exegete who sees the film as being about the genocide of Native Americans makes much of the prominence afforded to cans of Calumet baking powder. However, he completely misses the genuinely prominent placing of packets of Oreos – next to Jack when he wakes up on the sacks of salt, and then on the extreme left of this shot, clearly mis-shelved behind Jack and the baking powder cans (misdirection!). ‘Oreo’ is slang for a middle class African American, who might look black on the inside but is really white on the inside. Such conservative figures, who align themselves with white culture, function to conceal the supposed threat to white hegemony – especially white masculinity – posed by African Americans.

The same exegete notes that the five o’clock shadow of Bill Watson (Barry Dennen) makes him look mixed race, but quite ludicrously suggests that this aligns him with the native American, when clearly his major domo status – which includes walking behind hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), being expected to sit quietly to one side, and being ordered to perform menial tasks – positions him as an African American servant, like the butlers played by Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.

6336382_f260But the task of  looking after Danny, The Shining‘s Shirley Temple equivalent, is displaced on to Hallorann. Significantly, it is only after Danny – who, like Hallorann and Hallorann’s grandmother can, ‘shine’ – states his preference for ‘chocolate’ ice cream that Hallorann calls him ‘son’. No wonder Grady, in the red bathroom, warns Jack about this ‘nigger’ interloper, coming to replace him as Danny’s ‘real’ father. (And since ‘the shining’ seems to skip a generation, Hallorann is simultaneously positioned as Danny’s grandfather – that is, Jack’s father.) No wonder Kubrick replaces Jack’s light-coloured typewriter, a symbol of paternal authority and of entry into the Lacanian symbolic order, with a darker model partway through the film…

1350845502845114This explains also Kubrick’s decision about the final images of the film. White masculinity, frozen out of the picture, stuck in a lost past.

This is – of course – not remotely what the film is about. And I really hope no-one takes it seriously, but y’know how the internet is…

Uncertainty (Scott McGehee and David Siegel 2009)

936full-uncertainty-posterand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Uncertainty (2009) is, as you would expect from the writers/directors of Suture (1993) and The Deep End (2002), its bold experimentalism – not so much with the narrative structure that attempts to construct the perfect date movie by intertwining two different versions of the same day depending on whether the protagonists decide to go to Brooklyn or Manhahattan and, respectively, into a family melodrama or a conspiracy thriller, while also confirming to each gendered-genre viewer that the other gendered-genre viewer’s preference is lame, but with the valiant – and entirely successful attempt – to outdo Stephen Sommers’ similar effort in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) to make a film so meh that not even the presence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (doubled!) can save it…

The Shining (Mick Garris 1997)

Stephen_King's_THE_SHINING_(mini-series_intertitle)Stephen King just won’t let it go.

There is an ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of Doctor Sleep (2013) that, under the guise of clarifying that it is a sequel-by-popular-demand to his 1977 novel rather than to Kubrick’s 1980 film of The Shining, says of the latter: ‘many seem to remember [it] – for reasons I have never quite understood – as one of the scariest movies they have ever seen’ (483). The next paragraph does not proclaim the TV miniseries King himself adapted as superior to the movie, but it does sing the praises of his more-or-less-reliable-hack director Mick Garris’s Psycho IV, as if to trump Kubrick with a Hitchcock.

It is coyly done, as if King knows it is not at all convincing.

But anyway, as part of my ongoing preparation for teaching Kubrick’s film as a cult movie, after reading the novel I watched the miniseries over several nights. I would have got through it sooner, but after episode one my ever-patient housemate cried no más, and scheduling became an issue – poor thing missed out completely on the slightly less terrible second and third episodes…

The main problems with the miniseries are its plodding adherence to the novel and the deadening literalness of its treatment of the supernatural elements. All it takes is that first glimpse of Danny’s (Courtland Mead) imaginary friend Tony (Wil Horneff) bobbing about in the air to realise quite how brilliant Kubrick was to have Danny (Danny Lloyd) talking to his finger instead. (Probably didn’t help that it immediately took me back to being thirteen and watching Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979) miniseries and bursting out laughing at the supposedly scary bit when the fat vampire kid taps on the window.)

These two intertwined problems began to fill me with dread when the first episode started obsessing about the topiary animals, trying to make them ominous. Will they be brought to life as badly as the cgi hosepipe? How could the bush-animal attack sequences – presumably originally inspired by Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Veldt’ (1950) – possibly work?

I generally find Bradbury overrated, but even I must concede the novel’s reworking of this material makes make him seem subtle.

Screen shot 2012-02-29 at 13.50.16Garris very sensibly, if not very effectively, relies on camera movements, editing and switching-in props to bring the topiary lions to life. Until the ‘cliffhanger’ ending of episode two, the final shot of which shows Danny being stalked unaware by three cgi shrubs. (They do not appear again except fleetingly in the climax of episode three. Thankfully.) To be clear, this is not ragging on the special effects because they are bad, but because they are badly chosen.

Generally, the physical effects work best, but there is something so amiss about the individual episodes’ and the series’  pacing that they too become a problem. The first couple of times a door opens or closes or an object moves mysteriously is fine, but you pretty quickly find yourself wondering whether it is always the same bloke hidden just out of shot pushing the door, how much he gets paid, what he had for lunch… Not so much ‘how did they do that?’ as ‘why?’ And it does make you wonder what exactly they spent the $25 million budget on.

I guess, in part, the format is the problem. Economics dictate that a network TV miniseries made in the 1990s can’t be too scary or unnerving or disturbing, so the supernatural horror has to be blandly by-the-numbers and the domestic abuse material has to be displaced as far as possible.

So I have a lot of sympathy for the cast.

Winifred Torrance is a badly underwritten character in the novel – all I can really remember is King banging on about her breasts – and she is no better served by a script that slaps on a bunch of embarrassing clichés. Garris does not seem to have any idea what to do with her, and Rebecca De Mornay struggles. Indeed, in episode one, she even seems to struggle to walk across rooms, although she does do one brilliant bit of almost indiscernible crabstepping down a hotel corridor that is simply not wide enough to accommodate three or four actors walking abreast.

Steve Weber, as Jack, has the easier job – do what Jack Nicholson did but not the way he did it. Even so, it is only when the later episodes allow Weber to ham it up that he becomes even remotely effective, and in the second half of episode theshining1997three, this is largely down to his make-up – which gives him the appearance of a beaten-up, tear-stained clown.

As Danny, basin-cut Courtland Mead clearly shares no genetic material with either of his parents. He looks like one of those profoundly unattractive children who used to get cast in Dallas or Dynasty for no reason other than that their dad was a producer on the show. His performance does get better in the later episodes, and his unexpected ‘I love snow’ song is a bizarre delight, but I kept finding myself wondering whether the alcoholic, physically abusive Jack ever used his son’s enormous teeth to open beer bottles.

Most of the time the three principals, especially De Mornay, have the air of people wondering how much longer they are going to have to keep this up for…

The decision to play Ullman (Elliot Gould) as a mincing lisper is a really poor choice, but not as badly judged as Stephen King’s cameo as bandleader Gage Creed – at least he didn’t black up for his terrible Cab Calloway impersonation. (There is a chummy array of horror-related cameos: Frank Darabont, Peter James, Richard Christian Matheson, David J. Schow – and Sam Raimi stealing the bread from his brother, Ted’s, mouth.)

Pat Hingle, as Pete Watson, is probably the only actor to escape with his dignity intact, professionally ploughing through this nonsense the same way he has done since the 1950s.

But it is Melvin Van Peebles, as Dick Halloran, who has the best line:

911 ain’t the answer, ma’am, only wish it was.

Good to know that baadasssss is still out there.

The_Shining_Melvin_Van_Peebles_01

The Wicker Tree (Robin Hardy 2011)

MV5BMTkyNzkyODE5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjUxNzIxNw@@._V1_SX214_AL_and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Wicker Tree (2011) is not as I initially thought its ability to transform those memories of the Nicolas Cage Wicker Man remake into fond memories of the Nicolas Cage Wicker Man remake, but its ability to make you realise that they were always fond memories…

The Clay’s the Thing

From Bailiwick: Bristol’s Independent Listings Magazine

Jason Wyngarde talks to playwright Peter King about filming, feminism – and working with Ray Harryhausen

Peter King
Peter King

Local playwright and university lecturer Peter King is just back from Hollywood, where stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen is putting the finishing touches to an adaptation of his play, Consciousness Rising.

‘Being home is disorientating,’ King explains, ‘because Los Angeles is so weird.’ His plane only landed this morning and he is feeling rather dishevelled. ‘Half the time you’re astonished the people talking to you can look you in the eye; the rest of the time you’re surrounded by talented, hard-working folks whose names appear so far down the credits not even their mums stick around to see them. And LA’s so familiar from films and TV that you constantly have these moments of epiphany. I was in a bookstore on Venice Beach and I suddenly realised, “My god, this is exactly where the Rock stood in Southland Tales!”’ He laughs. ‘I’m not going to convince anyone that that was an epiphany, am I? I won’t tell the story about traipsing around the Westin Bonaventure, trying to find the spot where Gil Gerard stood in Buck Rogers…’

Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen

The question everyone’s asking, though, is not about LA but about how he got to work with Harryhausen. ‘Ray’s amazing. He’s been doing this for seventy years and he still loves it. His stuff is an indelible part of my childhood. The sword-fighting skeletons, of course, like everyone else. And I really loved the octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea – the effects budget was so tight on

Terror of the sextopus
Terror of the sextopus

that movie it only has six tentacles. Ray was doing a talk about his work at the Watershed, and we just kind of started chatting. He was visiting Aardman animation while he was in town because he was thinking about coming out of retirement one last time and he really, really wanted to do a film in claymation. Something different, something focused on human interactions, and when I mentioned Consciousness Rising – which he’d actually heard of, from a granddaughter, I think – he asked to see a copy of the script. Serendipity. Nothing in life is ever that easy.’

Nothing?

‘Well, we also had amazing luck with the voice cast. I had this list in my head of actresses who could play each of the characters, and we got all my first choices: Isabel Adjani, Holly Hunter, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sarah Polley. There were two minor male characters we added for the film, only a few lines each, but Holly got us John Goodman, and Sarah and Jennifer picked on Don McKellar until he joined in. They all turned down scale, which was all we could afford, for a cut of the box-office, so really they worked for free because they believed in the movie, thought it was important. And once we had those names – along with Harryhausen and Aardman – the financing came together almost overnight.’

Skeleton army
Skeleton army

The film represents quite a departure for Harryhausen, and not just in the style of animation. ‘Well, it does have a fantasy premise of sorts, but yes, it is basically four women sitting, talking and drinking coffee. No mythological beasts, giant apes, Venusian lizards. No dinosaurs.’

So what is it about?

‘I spent years working with students who thought feminism was just this kind of dreary, dungareed monolith, this thing that happened in the past and was over and done with now. I wanted to find other ways to open up its liveliness and diversity, and its relevance. I spent a year working on a novel about Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship with Nelson Algren, but that was really about learning to imaginatively invest in the material, to make it come alive. And then I saw this Russian film, Chetyre, at the Arnolfini. It has this fabulous opening section with four strangers meeting in a bar and idly talking to each other – and that’s when the whole play came to me in a flash. It takes some counterfactual juggling of biographies, but basically, sheltering from the rain one day, de Beauvoir (Adjani) runs into Mary McCarthy (Hunter), Betty Friedan (Leigh) and Helen Gurley Brown (Polley) in a New York hotel. You have these four amazing women: a French existentialist philosopher; an anti-Stalinist socialist writer and critic; the author of The Feminine Mystique and first president of the National Organization of Women; and the author of Sex and the Single Girl and editor of Cosmopolitan. Four women who don’t know each other, the younger two yet to make their marks, all of them feminists but in profoundly different ways. And in their conversation over coffee, their differences of opinion and their common ground emerges. Second-wave feminism coalesces. It’s like the first consciousness-raising session, hence the title.’

Consciousness Rising premiered at the Tobacco Factory to impressive reviews, and the production toured all around the world. ‘I had a great group of women to work with there, as well. I borrowed a trick from Peter Watkins and gave each of them a huge pile of stuff to read about the women they were playing, about the society and culture in which they grew up. And then we just kept on workshopping until we had transformed my rough script into a play. It’s why they get co-writing credits; there is so much in the play that would not have been there without them. For the film, there was a different kind of workshopping – basically me learning from smart and experienced people how to make this into a movie. We opened it up, added some blokes and a couple of musical daydream/fantasy sequences. It’s the same story, but also a whole other can of fish, kettle of worms, now. I saw an almost finished cut two days ago – no, wait, that was yesterday – and Ray had organised a real surprise for me. He only went and put Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing “Natural Woman” over the end credits!

Kaffeeklatsch of the Titans opens in the spring.

It is not in 3D and does not star Sam Worthington.

13/12/10
This is the last of the old ‘by Jason Wyngarde’ pieces I will post here. It is all rather Mary Sue and doesn’t really work, but I have a fondness for it because when China Miéville posted a version on his old blog back in 2010 a whole bunch of people thought it was real. Go figure. (Actually one bit of it is sort of real only it happened differently. I saw Southland Tales weeks after being in the Venice Beach bookstore, but me and The Rock were both once in the same physical space, just sadly not at the same time, and I did get all excited about it. Same thing happened once with Cory McAbee, more or less, and a hotel in Perth.)