Room 237 and The Shining

A few months ago I saw the movie Room 237, a documentary about obsessive super-fans of Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining, who have watched it more times than you’ve seen Star Wars and developed interesting interpretive theories about Kubrick’s film. These range from the relatively plausible (small incongruities aren’t continuity errors — they Mean Something) to the jaw-droppingly bizarre (it’s Kubrick’s way of confessing that he helped fake the moon landing).

Most movies of that type would really be about the fans — showing them, letting us into their lives — but this movie is focused on explicating their ideas. We hear their voices as they talk about their theories and what led to them, layered on top of scenes that are mostly from The Shining and other Kubrick movies. (Although there is one hilarious clip of Stephen King freaking out at a television set which I am pretty sure is from Creepshow. This is used to illustrate the fact that King himself is not a fan of the Kubrick movie.)

If that premise sounds interesting to you, I would recommend Room 237, although it drags a bit at the end.

There was one peculiar recurring theme in what the fans had to say: several of them indicated that they didn’t like The Shining the first time they saw it. So if you don’t like a movie the first time, why watch it again? And again? And again? I don’t know. In a couple of cases it sounded like they were Kubrick fans who felt like they must be missing something, if they didn’t like a Kubrick movie. But I was intrigued by the idea that sometimes great art isn’t something that you perceive yourself liking right off — maybe you even think you hate it — but there’s something odd about it that won’t leave you alone, and so you keep going back to it, and eventually you realize maybe you do like it, but it’s a strange new sense of the word “like” that was so unfamiliar to you that at first you didn’t even recognize it as liking.

Kinda how the bickering couple falls in love in a romantic comedy, come to think of it.

I’m always a bit wary of artistic interpretations that are too sweeping — oh, this IN FACT means that — but the theories in Room 237 got me thinking about what I would say the film means, if I had to write an essay on the topic.

It’s an indictment of the modern patriarchal nuclear family. I saw the central metaphor as one of isolation: the snow isolates the Torrances from the rest of the world, reflecting the way the nuclear family unit is isolated from traditional community supports, while the hotel’s huge spaces isolate them from each other.

I wanted to test my theory by seeing The Shining again, but it was late and I needed to catch a bus so I started reading the book instead. Was the book an indictment of the patriarchal nuclear family? It definitely conveyed the sense of a fundamental taint or curse passed down from father to son (Jack’s father to Jack — and, based on the pre-press for the sequel Doctor Sleep, from Jack to Danny). A lot of the book’s conflict is centered around traditional ideas of manhood and the man’s role in the family. The reason the Torrance family is at the Overlook in the first place is that “winter caretaker of spooky hotel” is the best job Jack is able to get after a series of serious career screw-ups related to alcoholism and fits of uncontrolled temper. And one reason they don’t leave when things start to get weird is that their financial prospects would be so grim if Jack fails, once again, as a provider. The whole family is trapped by their dependence on Jack, who in his turn often feels burdened and resentful of their needs. But at the same time, whenever his wife Wendy challenges his authority, he becomes even more angry and resentful.

So you have two fundamental ideals at war in the patriarch’s heart: I need to protect and provide for my family, but I am also the authority figure who needs to keep them in line.

These ideas can seem like they’re in harmony when everything is going right — if the patriarch and the rest of the family agree about what to do, no “keeping in line” is needed and so he can go on perceiving himself as the source of authority. But when things start to go wrong, these ideals come into conflict, and one value has to yield before the other. Which is the greater value?

In a heartwarming family comedy, authority might yield before protection. In a horror story, Jack’s psyche breaks down to the point where he’s trying to “keep them in line” by WHACKING THEM TO DEATH WITH A ROQUE MALLET. In fact, one of the interesting things that happens in the book is that in a brief moment of lucidity during the climax, Jack whacks his own face with the roque mallet until it is mostly unrecognizable. This both reinforces the idea of the hotel’s evil as a possessing force, and provides an explanation for why Danny’s clairvoyant “shining” has been showing him this moment for months, but he was never able to recognize the identity of the monster coming for him. (Of course, it is strongly suggested that he probably could have recognized the monster, had he really wanted to.)

Last week, Paul and I saw The Shining at Central Cinema. It was fun to see it on a big(ish) screen. I was too young to go see horror movies when it came out, so I’ve previously only seen it on video. The theater experience really enhances a few notable elements of the film — for example, the way the Torrance family seems lost in the vast, echoing, mazelike corridors of the Overlook hotel, or the disorienting effect of the strongly geometric carpet patterns. The movie’s shots tend to be framed very symmetrically, which is probably why it works to do that thing where you project The Shining running backward onto the same movie running forward. (Which I missed when it played at SIFF, but I saw a few moments of it in preview, and it looked oddly fascinating.) Kubrick repeatedly uses Jack’s image in the mirror in a way that seems to suggest both that he is being reflected back on himself, and also that his identity is changing, becoming an evil inverse of itself.

The first time I re-read The Shining, years after reading it for the first time and years after seeing the movie, I was a bit embarrassed to realize that the movie’s pivotal scene — where Wendy finds that all Jack has been typing this whole time is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy ” over and over — was not actually in the book. It’s such a concise, poignant, chilling, and darkly hilarious depiction of writer’s block exploding out of control to become insanity — how could that not be in the book? But it isn’t. In the book, Jack’s writing project is a history of the Overlook Hotel, which leads to him doing endless hours of research instead of writing. This functions as the book’s mechanism for sharing the Outlook’s troubled history with readers. It works fine in the book, but doesn’t have the jaw-dropping gut-punch of Wendy’s discovery in the movie.

A movie always practices shorthand — a long string of degradations and atrocities throughout the hotel’s history all get filtered down into one: Grady, the previous caretaker, who murdered his wife and twin daughters before killing himself. (Creepy twin girls in blue dresses is another indelible image that pretty much belongs to the movie.) Of course, of all the atrocities to keep, this is the one that not only pertains most closely to Jack’s situation, it is also the one that furthers my “indictment of the patriarchal nuclear family” theme. Jack and Grady’s ghost have a conversation in an unsettling red bathroom, during which Grady expresses the idea that a man has to “manage” his family at all costs — which includes murdering them if they won’t obey.

One big difference between the movie and the book — the book Shining is mostly an alcoholism metaphor, and Jack-as-patriarch has a clear Jeckyll and Hyde dual nature. When he’s good, he’s genuinely good and the family is very loving — but with the evil influence of the hotel, bad Jack eventually wins. The movie Shining has almost no emphasis on the role of alcohol addiction as a force in its own right. The menacing hotel seems like an extension of Jack’s fragmenting psyche, rather than the other way around. Jack has actually been deranged and abusive the whole time, and what happens is that the mask of normalcy comes off.

I noticed something interesting about the staging of the scene immediately after Wendy finds his “manuscript.” She is carrying a baseball bat because Danny’s harmful encounter with one of the ghosts convinced her that there was a dangerous stranger at large in the hotel. When Jack confronts her with the full force of his murderous insanity, she is obviously emotionally broken and overwhelmed, but she doesn’t put down the baseball bat. She eventually uses it to knock him down the stairs and into unconsciousness. But I realized that there was something about the staging of her emotional breakdown that led me to expect her to give up and drop the bat, which made the fact that she doesn’t seem surprising. That must be an expectation that was set up by watching other movies and TV, although I couldn’t think of any specific examples.

Anyway, throughout the climax, I liked the way Shelly Duvall played Wendy as a terrified and broken person who nevertheless kept fighting. Usually, when horror movie victims fight back it’s shown as arising out of a more badass and determined emotional state — you know, “I’m not going to be a victim any longer!” But Wendy doesn’t make an emotionally bold stand like that. She screams and cries and jumps and yelps, and keeps fighting anyway. (I’m less happy with the fact that Kubrick is reported to have emotionally abused his actress in order to get that performance.) (Also, this movie seems guilty of the “only black guy in the movie gets it” cliché, when Scatman Crothers’ character gets axed to death by Jack while the same character in the book survives.)

A huge difference between the movie and book is that in the book, Jack’s murderous rampage causes him to neglect the boilers, and the hotel blows up. In the movie, Jack freezes to death in the hedge maze, and the final shot is of a photograph on the wall of the hotel, taken in the 1920s, showing a man who is clearly Jack. Nobody is 100 percent sure what that’s meant to imply — a reincarnation theme? Or the idea that the hotel’s ghost world exists outside of normal chronology, and that when Jack’s essence is absorbed into it, he suddenly exists in hotel world at every point in its own timeline?

Anyway, I think it’s significant that in the book, the hotel is destroyed and this will never happen again, while in the movie, the hotel will continue just as it always has. The destruction of the Overlook seems to imply that we can get out of the patriarchal abuse cycle, and addiction can be overcome, even if both things come at a great cost. The ending of the film is more bleak — Wendy and Danny might have escaped, but the forces that trapped and endangered them remain as powerful as ever.