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Emmys 2017
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'Room 237': Exploring Stanley Kubrick's 'Shining' influence

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Kubrick LACMA Exhibit

Kubrick has also played an important role in the changing ways in which moviegoers talk about movies and the ways people relate to media. During the sixties and seventies, when Kubrick was making the majority of his masterpieces and newspaper and magazine critics drove the conversation about film, few filmmakers produced better fodder for their heady deep dives and contentious debates over auteur theory and New Hollywood. For moviegoers of the time, a Kubrick film wasn’t just a remarkable occasion for thought-provoking spectacle, but thought-provoking commentary, too. He could also get the critics fretting about the future of cinema, as well. For example, Pauline Kael (no big Kubrickian) used her infamous take-down of A Clockwork Orange in The New Yorker, published in January 1972, to ring an alarm about the strains of sensationalism and cynicism seeping into pop culture. Her 40-year-old shriek still resonates today:

“At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de-sensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. … This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it’s worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what’s in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?”

There were those who disagreed with Kael (the typical rejoinder: A Clockwork Orange was an ironic outcry against the very trends Kael deplored), as well as those who agreed to some degree and then changed their minds, a common occurrence in Kubrickian studies; his films defy today’s race-to-be-first snap judgment analysis. In an essay he wrote defending himself against a charge that A Clockwork Orange promoted “anti-liberal totalitarian nihilism,” Kubrick argued that his film “warns against the new psychedelic fascism — the eye-popping, multimedia, quadrasonic, drug-oriented conditioning of human beings by other beings — which many believe will usher in the forfeiture of human citizenship and the beginning of zombiedom.”

To be honest, I’m not sure I know what he meant by that — even Kubrick’s soundbites are open to interpretation — but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it has nothing to do with the fact that Kubrick was desperately trying to open our eyes to a sinister CIA plot to brainwash the world with MK-ULTRA mind-control tech and Satanic sex magic. What I find most interesting about A Clockwork Orange when viewed through the lens of that evocative quote is the film’s pessimism about media and cultural products to refine mankind — a rejoinder to the Romantic notion that poetry and art could do a better job at making us better people than religion and political systems. I think of the scenes that show Alex the Pop Junkie. Picking up popsicle-sucking girls in the record store filled with magazines and music, including (how self-aware/self-implicating) the soundtrack album to 2001). Locked in his bedroom, pleasuring himself while gazing at his Beethoven window shade, his imagination firing with sensationalistic imagery culled from television. Maiming the writer and raping his wife while “Singin’ in the Rain” after a night of vigilante brutality, masked and costumed, no less. And of course, the bone-headed, freedom-squelching attempt to rehabilitate Alex with drug-assisted cultural conditioning, poisoning his pop triggers with a feeling of nausea. (I wonder what Kubrick would make of our YouTubey, Twittery, media-saturated, media-extended citizenry. I wonder what a Kubrick version of The Walking Dead might look like.) A Clockwork Orange basically says that 2001’s poetic waltz of alien-assisted human progress is a mystic-hooey pipe dream. In fact, every Kubrick film after 2001 seems to refute — or at least challenge — the rousing swell of optimism that ends the movie. The closest thing we get to a happy ending in a Kubrick movie after 2001 is the final moment of Eyes Wide Shut, when the married couple played by then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman — shelled but not quite shattered after a dark night of corrupted intimacy and psychically blended (and pot assisted) revelatory adventures — resolve to go home and start over/soldier on by making love, although Kidman’s character pitches the idea in the coarsest way possible.

Today, Kubrick films are ideal specimens for a new kind of critical dissection, one found within the larger realm of Web-based fandom that has become a forceful voice, for better or worse, in the cultural conversation about film, and specifically among those who love to get lost in the movies through repeated viewings and scene by scene/frame by frame analysis/fetishizing made possible by the home entertainment and Internet revolutions. Chuck Klosterman, in an essay at Grantland about Room 237, calls this kind of engagement “immersion criticism.” He writes: “It’s based on the belief that symbolic, ancillary details inside a film are infinitely more important than the surface dialogue or the superficial narrative. And it’s not just a matter of noticing things other people miss, because that can be done by anyone who’s perceptive; it’s a matter of noticing things that the director included to indicate his true, undisclosed intention. [Klosterman’s emphasis.] In other words, it’s not an interpretive reading — it’s an inflexible, clandestine reality that matters way more than anything else. And it’s usually insane.”

The last line isn’t too pejorative: Klosterman actually enjoys immersion criticism, at least as typified by those profiled in Room 237. (“I hope Room 237 prompts this phenomenon to continue. It’s sometimes illogical, but often amazing. I always want people to go further, even if their espoused destination does not exist.”) Calling it “criticism” might be generous; so much of it reads like Ready Player One pseudo-intellectual gameplay, stage magician sleight-of-hand using plot points instead of cards, or detailed dispatches from misguided meaning-seekers on a Wikipedia-assisted Walkabout through their favorite thing ever. I can say this, because I confess, I am one of them: See my Doc Jensen Lost writing, which, again, for richer or poorer, was filtered through a worldview shaped to a great degree by my religious beliefs and pop-saturated imagination. What I love most about Room 237 is how it reminds us that we engage the movies not with objective eyes and open minds but with our personal histories, fixations, and prejudices, whether we’re aware of them or not, and that what we believe is the “meaning” of a story is often just a precipitant caused by observer bonding with the observed.

Immersion Critics need not be conspiracy theorists (scary or jokey) compromised by confirmation bias, who see the Illuminati written all over Eyes Wide Shut, which, like The Shining, has yielded a surplus of specious academia. They can be people like Rob Ager. Part film scholar, part Robert Langdon, Ager has produced a number of written and video deconstructions about a number of films, including Psycho, Alien, and Pulp Fiction, all housed at his website, Collative Learning. “I find it amusing that there are camps of people who believe Kubrick was exposing vast conspiracies, while other groups claim he was a willing agent in a vast conspiracy to mind-control the public,” says Ager. “The starting point should always be unbiased information gathering followed by unbiased pattern recognition and then the acid test of seeking counter-information.”

Kubrick uniquely nurtured Ager’s desire to play CSI with the movies. Watching the director’s cryptic, unsettling movies poked and poked and poked at his logic brain, leaving lasting marks. “The foremost factor was that his films posed a lot of questions,” he says. “How could a beautiful, colorful, brightly lit Overlook Hotel be so unnerving, even in scenes when there’s nothing overtly supernatural going on? With 2001: A Space Odyssey, the entire Jupiter mission section mid-film was so precise and logical in its depiction that I thought there’s no way that crazy last 15 minutes is just a meaningless special effects show. The ending was saying something, but in a visual language I barely understood. With A Clockwork Orange, I didn’t know whether I was supposed to love or hate Alex. The more times I watched Kubrick films the more questions were popping up. Years later, when I started reading up on Stanley’s production habits and studying the details of his visual direction to further my own filmmaking technique, I accidentally discovered that there were very specific non-verbal hidden messages encoded in his films. These weren’t simplistic motifs like war is hell” or the world is an evil place.” They were complex messages specifically communicating Kubrick’s insights into the intricacies of the human condition and civilization as a whole; insights that were based upon years of his extensive multi-disciplinary research.”

Ager says his rigorous sifting through Kubrick’s cinema has rewarded him with nuggets of revelation. His biggest a-ha, he says, concerns 2001: Ager believes The Monolith — a mysterious extraterrestrial object that initially imparts information, then becomes a penetrable gateway that takes travelers on a spectacular journey of sight and sound (pure cinema!) that dead-ends in a sealed, baroque bedroom in a galaxy far, far away — is actually a movie screen, rotated 90 degrees, and meant to be understood as such. “Within seconds of noticing that correlation,” says Ager, “dozens of cryptic visual moments from the movie suddenly made perfect sense: The vertical to horizontal shift in the stargate tunnel, the monolith floating through space, tilting and threatening to align itself with the letterbox of the screen itself. That was an intellectually overwhelming moment that forever expanded my perception of the narrative boundaries of film itself.” What’s most provocative about Ager’s Monolith-movie screen contention is that it’s part of his larger interpretation of 2001 as being about “the theme of man escaping technological enslavement and returning to his natural state.”

From this perspective, 2001, this alluring and immersive geek trap, could be seen as… a cautionary tale about the dangers of being trapped by geekiness, be it for gadgets or nostalgia or the movies themselves. (Look at your iPhone. It’s a mini-Monolith.) We can all become David Bowmans, sucked through the Monolith’s dark looking-glass and into a solipsistic modal reality, constructed out of cherished cultural references and nostalgia, far away from the real world, from our place in space and time. At the end of 2001, Bowman, wasting away, reaches anew for the Monolith, enters it again, and returns to his world a new creation. Clearly – clearly! — Kubrick’s true, undisclosed intention with 2001 was to opine for cinema that inspires us to engage and redeem our “world of sh-t,” to borrow from Full Metal Jacket’s Private Pyle, not run away from it by escaping into escapism.

Or maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see.

Regardless, to borrow from Kael: “It’s worth some anxiety.”

NEXT: A Kubrickian Exhibition of Kubrickishness