“The Shining”

A chance to revisit “The Shining” on the silver screen

Arts calendar: See Jack Nicholson's maniacal leer in all its grotesque glory, view an artist's take on the atomic bomb, hear an organ concert of hymns

Given the volume of commentary, criticism and amateur blogosphere speculation that has accumulated since 1980 about what happens in The Shining and what it all means, it’d be a mighty achievement to actually produce some new, original insight into Stanley Kubrick’s film, based on the horror novel by Stephen King.

What strikes me is the way it lives on in our imaginations and the fact that so many feel compelled to keep the discussion going. It’s not a fate one would have predicted after those first, lukewarm and even negative reviews in 1980. (“I can’t recall a more elaborately ineffective scare movie,” lamented The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold.) But in 2018, is there anyone who wants to revisit (or even remembers) Terror Train or Motel Hell? No. But if you were to put The Shining in, say, the Elsinore Theatre in Salem, would that pique your interest?

Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” wears pretty much the same expression critics had in 1980 when Stanley Kubrick’s horror film was released. It has since produced an astonishing volume of commentary by viewers bent on unraveling the film’s visual riddles and enigmas. It will be screened Wednesday at the Elsinore Theatre in Salem.

It does mine, and not just because it’s a chance to see Kubrick’s amazing images on the big screen. Consider, too, that when The Shining shows at 7 p.m. Wednesday, it will be on a screen where it very likely first appeared. Multiplexes were a rare thing back then, and the majestic Elsinore was a theater where blockbusters opened.

The Shining is the perfect example of a film that improves with age and repeated viewings, though one is obliged to note one uncomfortable truth about its making: While Kubrick and the crew went out of their way to ensure that child actor Danny Lloyd was shielded from the story’s horrific aspects, he wasn’t so kind to Shelley Duvall. Watching the sequence where Jack Nicholson stalks her up a staircase, it’s impossible for the viewer familiar with Kubrick’s perfectionist drive not to wonder: Was this the 127th take, or had they topped 100 yet? Knowing all this today, it’s unsettling to realize that part of Duvall’s on-screen distress and exhaustion was, thanks to Kubrick, all too real.

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The Babadook is real

The emotional resonance of Jennifer Kent's new horror film gives it the power to do more than just scare.

(Note: this article contains spoilers for the plot of The Babadook)

In a house stunted by an old tragedy, a boogeyman comes a-knocking. He’ll make you afraid to go to sleep. And you can’t get rid of him…

After the untimely death of her husband several years ago, Amelia has had to raise their son Samuel alone. The boy is unhappy, acting out at school and anxiously preoccupied with monsters. One night, there appears in the house a mysterious picture book about a sinister visitor called “Mister Babadook,” who dresses all in black, with a top hat and a masklike face. Reading the book kickstarts a nightly campaign of terror that leaves them both tormented by fear and sleep deprivation, teetering on the edge of sanity.

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A debut feature from writer/director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is a horror triumph: story-driven, emotionally mature, vulnerable without sentimentality, unconventional but still firmly rooted in its genre. It’s rich in genre tropes but doles them out carefully, like Tarot cards that can unlock hidden meanings. William Friedkin, the director of the The Exorcist, has championed Kent’s film as a new classic to shelve beside the likes of Psycho and Alien. It’s playing now at the Hollywood and Living Room theaters and on VOD.

All the greatest horror films exist on two planes simultaneously. The monster is at once dangerously present and unmistakably symbolic. Kent understands this, and tilts her story on the ambiguity – what, exactly, are we watching? A troubled child acting out? The unraveling of a mentally unstable woman? Or is the creature real? The danger certainly is. Kent seems deeply indebted to the superlative horror trilogy of Roman Polanski, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant and Repulsion. In his films, mental illness is always a possible explanation for the ordeal of his heroines, but a misguided and insufficient one.

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I find Polanski’s horror films deeply feminist. His notorious crime is all the more painful to consider when you appreciate the depth and sensitivity with which he portrays his female characters. Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby and Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion are women who shoulder abuse and exploitation, whose sanity is called into question by their peers but whose struggle is championed by the filmmaker. Even The Tenant, which stars Polanski himself, takes up the theme of a woman without allies, who is twisted and warped by her poisonous surroundings. The Babadook’s weary Amelia (Essie Davis) is a perfect Polanski-style heroine: pleasant and deferent on the surface, while cracking under the pressure of bearing much more than she should have to. Davis’ wide-ranging, fully embodied performance swings back and forth from fragile to vicious.

Pacing will make or break any film, but none moreso than horror. The Babadook simmers long on a very low flame. Like The Tenant, the first quarter or so of the film is staunchly non-supernatural, concerned only with the mundane misery of the protagonist. Amelia lives her life without extra money or romantic companionship or a creative outlet. Poverty and isolation are their own horror stories. Madness is drizzled in gradually, tinting the narrative until the whole screen is saturated.

The complete universe of mother and child is contained within their home, and most of the film’s action unfurls between three floors of a cold, gray-toned house. As things become more desperate, the house begins to crumble under the stress, the wallpaper peeling back to reveal a fissure in the drywall. Polanski fans will remember the chilling scene in the The Tenant when Trelkovsky finds a horrible souvenir from the previous renter: a human tooth tucked in a wall crevice. Like Trelkovsky, Amelia and Samuel are held captive not in their home, but by their home, and by the hypnotic draw of the history contained there. What is that history? When the monster begins to haunt Amelia with mirages of her late husband, the pieces fall into place: the Babadook is made of grief. Grief on its own is not deadly, but grief that goes unprocessed for too long (her husband’s death was seven years ago) ferments into something else, savage and frightening and unrecognizable.

When you think of a family held prisoner by the past, The Shining comes to mind. The Babadook has something else in common with Kubrick’s film: the haunting spectre of child abuse. Both films dive deep into the harrowing fear that plagues those who are dependent, that your caretaker could someday be your terrorizer. But in The Babadook, it’s the mother, not the father, who becomes dangerous.

The Babadook taps into the primal dread of a beast: the mother who harms her own children. Or who simply fears that she might. Like Rosemary’s Baby, it distorts dreams of maternal bliss into nightmares: as Rosemary’s Baby makes pregnancy into a hellish, energy-sapping disease, The Babadook presents motherhood as a yoke instead of a gift. Samuel’s volatility and aggressive behavior are too much for Amelia, who yearns for respite from the exhausting duty of being his mother.

Kent gives voice to some raw taboos about the ways that motherhood can fail women – the promised joy of parenting can’t distract Amelia from the void left by the loss of her husband, and at her most monstrous, possessed by the Babadook, she growls at her son, “Do you know how many times I wish you had died instead of him?” What’s truly horrifying about this statement is its honesty.

In one particularly gruesome sequence, Babadook-Amelia reaches into her own mouth and twists out a bloody tooth, the tooth that has ached all through the film (it has to be a hidden homage to The Tenant). Once he inhabits her, the Babadook insists that she do something to ease her own pain. Perhaps he is good for something, after all. The psychological lesson of the film is about the futility and danger of denying your painful emotions. It hurts terribly to confront grief, but the alternative, ignoring it, is much more perilous. And when it comes to mourning, temporarily becoming a monster may be part of the process.

Finally, you can’t get rid of the Babadook, you can only find a way to get along with him.

Film about film: What is ‘The Shining’ really saying?

A new documentary at Cinema 21 revels in the interpretations of Kubrick's horror classic

The Shining 32By ERIK McCLANAHAN

One of my all-time favorite “Simpsons” episodes is from the legendary sixth season. Specifically, the first third of the Halloween episode, in which the once totally brilliant, hilarious animated show riffed on Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” It’s a perfectly calibrated bit of homage and mockery—here it’s called shinning, courtesy of Groundskeeper Willie (“Shhh! Wanna get sued?”)—that impressively distills Kubrick’s horror masterpiece down to seven minutes.

Fans of “The Simpsons” worth their salt know that the writers, at least in the early glory days, were huge Kubrick fans. With all the copious references dropped throughout—Bart dressed as Alex from “Clockwork Orange” in another Halloween episode, Homer as the Star Child when he goes to space, Bart marching his water balloon-equipped soldiers/friends like “Full Metal Jacket,” and so on—they had to be. A lot of us, this writer included, love Kubrick’s films. But few of us have become as obsessed with the greatest filmmaker of all time as the subjects of “Room 237.”

Opening today for a weeklong run at Cinema 21, this innovative and frighteningly entertaining documentary from Rodney Ascher (his first feature-length directorial effort) features five subjects, five theories on what “The Shining” is actually about, hundreds of clips from other movies (not just Kubrick’s), and zero talking heads. You never once see the faces of the voices stitched together that make up the film’s pastiche of sub-textual film criticism (or, Immersion Criticism as Chuck Klosterman calls it). You may not always agree with them, but Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan and Jay Weidner are compelling documentary protagonists, each with a story about what Kubrick actually intended with his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel.

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So, is “The Shining” really a thinly veiled confession from Kubrick to his wife about his involvement with staging the first moon landing? Or is it about the genocide of Native Americans? It’s funny how easily you could slap the subjects of “Room 237” with the same adjectives that followed Kubrick throughout his career: obsessive, reclusive, meticulous, hermetic, intelligent, driven. The film is a wonderfully weird dance of admirable cinephilia and absurd passion, sometimes laughably conspiratorial yet always fascinating.

Ascher, who’s done a lot of online comedy shorts and worn about a dozen different hats as a filmmaker (editor, cinematographer, visual effects to name a few), has always enjoyed “The Shining.” “I’ve always thought of it as more than a movie, it’s an experience,” he said via phone last week when I interviewed him. “Wherever you’re watching it, the walls of the room close in around the TV, and before long you’re not watching a movie you’re having a dream.”

“Room 237” started when a friend posted a deep, symbolic analysis of “The Shining” on Ascher’s Facebook wall. Before he finished the article, he knew what his next film was going to be, though he figured it would make a good 30-minute short, in three pieces. After his first interview with Blakemore, which lasted more than three hours, he knew there was more than enough for a feature-length odyssey into the way people have interpreted Kubrick’s horror epic, noting the importance of the personal aspects of each subject and how that elevated the material above a dry, definitive scholarly account.

There are some who find “Room 237” and its exploration of the id critic troubling, frustrating, and even exploitative. But I find Ascher’s approach exciting and fresh. He’s tapping into a bold, new critical movement that’s grown with the advent of the Internet, part video essay, part DVD special feature.

Citing the video series “Everything is a Remix” and the Red Letter Media “Star Wars” reviews, Ascher says “237” is certainly a relative of those video essays, but also draws from Errol Morris’s use of multiple perspectives in films like “The Thin Blue Line” and the “cut up techniques” of Bruce Conner or Craig Baldwin. He also mentions his terror as a child of “In Search Of…” episodes and horror movie atmospherics. “We steal from everyone.”

There’s a line in the film about how postmodern criticism dictates, “author intent is only part of the story of any work of art.” It’s the big question the movie asks but doesn’t answer definitely,” says Ascher, laughing. “This is a movie about what happens when this really weird, enigmatic, sometimes troubling movie leaves the artist’s hands and the people on the other side of the screen have to make sense of it with whatever tools they have.”

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“Who decides what a movie is about, the audience, the filmmaker, the critic?” asks Ascher. “Is a filmmaker better off not talking about what his movie is about in order to allow people to speculate? Should he confirm or deny when presented with a solution? What’s going to create the richest experience for the audience?”

Kubrick famously never talked about his films, preferring instead to let audiences decide on their own what they were about. With that in mind, surely he would’ve found the intellectual and entertainment value in this film that he helped inspire, even if he would’ve perhaps kept his opinions on it to himself.

I mentioned earlier that you don’t need to agree with the subjects to enjoy this film. Almost undoubtedly, you’ll scoff at some posits. Hell, a five-minute phone conversation with Jon Tullis, Public Affairs Director for the Timberline Lodge (famously used for exterior shots in “The Shining” as a stand-in for The Overlook Hotel), deflates Weidner’s assertion in the documentary that the Mt. Hood landmark never had a room 217 at all. Weidner believes Kubrick changed it in the film to 237 because it made an anagram for “Moon Room,” where all the answers of Kubrick’s past work faking the televised Apollo 11 moon landing would come to the fore.

That’s not true, says Tullis. “There is a room 217 here.” Former area operator Richard Kohnstamm, now deceased but around when Kubrick’s crew shot at the Timberline, told Tullis years ago that he asked Kubrick to change the number of the hotel room for fear that actual guests who saw the movie would be too scared to stay there. In “Room 237,” Weidner claims this story is false. But according to Tullis, Kohnstamm said he did in fact ask Kubrick to change the number to avoid scaring tourists. “But he never gave Kubrick a number,” says Tullis. “So the conspiracy theorists can still have fun with it.”

Yet this film is great not because every theory is plausible or even 100% factual but because of each theorists’ conviction. They may not be “professional critics,” but they (and Ascher) have given fans of “The Shining” a fun way to re-approach the classic and another rabbit hole to tumble down into, hopefully reemerging with a better understanding of the possibilities of cinema, capable of grabbing hold of all our imaginations with an iron grip.

What’s ultimately positive about “Room 237” is that it forges another path for open-minded, empathetic film criticism. After all, the best critics are those you can’t stop reading even if you disagree, and when you read or hear a negative review, you still are compelled to see the film. Today, anyone with an Internet connection is capable of being a film critic, so the time of the academic gatekeeper mentality is pretty much done. The experience doesn’t end after you’ve left the theater and decided if the film was good or bad. The conversation is just beginning.

ADDITIONAL READING and WATCHING:

Ready to formulate your own theory about Kubrick’s masterpiece? In accordance with this run of “Room 237” at Cinema 21, The Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium is showing “The Shining” Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27. Tickets available online.

Ascher says the film is only the tip of the iceberg in “The Shining” conversation. He wanted to feature plenty more great theories out there, of which there are many varied and interesting views on the film. A few prominent ones, says Ascher:

“The Making of the Shining”

“Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures”

Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #61, features the full interview with “Room 237” director Rodney Ascher.