'Room 237': Exploring Stanley Kubrick's 'Shining' influence
It was 45 years ago this weekend that Stanley Kubrick gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey, a vision of the future that still beckons, even if the title is out of date. Something similar can be said about the extraordinary artist who made the masterpiece. History tells us that Kubrick died in 1999 at the age of 70, but our current pop culture tells us that his singular genius remains relevant and challenging to those who make movies, those who consume movies, and those who write about movies for a living. We see homages to The Shining in NBC’s new horror drama Hannibal andto Dr. Strangelove in JJ Abrams’ forthcoming sci-fi adventure Star Trek Into Darkness. We see his influence on an array of filmmakers, including Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle, who tells EW that his 1996 dark comedy Trainspotting about desperate, druggy British droogs was an attempt “to make a more accessible version of A Clockwork Orange.” Steven Spielberg — who has already expressed his intense Kubrickianism by taking on one of Kubrick’s legendary unmade/abandoned projects, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) — recently announced his intention to raise up another Kubrick orphan by producing a TV mini-series based on Kubrick’s screenplay about the life and times of Napoleon. “Stanley Kubrick,” a major exhibition exploring the filmmaker’s life and career, is currently enjoying a long, popular run at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In death as he did in life, Stanley Kubrick abides. For better…
And weirder. Now in select theaters (and slowly expanding nationwide): Room 237, an engrossing documentary about the richly odd legacy inspired by a horror movie now considered an all-timer, but which left critics more cold than chilled upon its release 33 years ago. Did you know that Stanley Kubrick shot The Shining to make a secret statement about the Holocaust? To cryptically confess his participation in a NASA conspiracy to produce fake film footage of the first moon landing? To slyly criticize American consumerism and superficial pop culture? But he did! The signs and symbols are there! It’s all true… according to a subculture of armchair semioticians and Kubrick aficionados who insist the cabin fever creepshow about a really bad husband, father, and writer driven to be worse by a haunted hotel is dense with hidden narratives. “The Shining presents itself like puzzle to be solved, albeit a puzzle missing a piece or two,” says Room 237 director Rodney Ascher. “It lodges in your mind like a pebble in your shoe and invites inquiry and obsession.”
Which is something you can say about almost any movie made by Kubrick, who specialized in thematically rich, intricately constructed, fascinating-frustrating elliptical cinema. A photographer before he became a filmmaker, Kubrick had a natural knack honed by careful practice for making indelible images and iconic moments. Kirk Douglas strutting the trenches of Paths of Glory (1957). Sue Lyon sucking on a lollipop in Lolita (1962). Slim Pickens bronco-riding an A-bomb in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Malcolm McDowell’s pried-open eyelids in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Moon Watcher’s bone throw jump cut in 2001. “I. AM. SPARTACUS!” “Danny isn’t here, Mrs. Torrance.” “I … am … in a world… of sh-t.” This. (Thank you, Stanley Kubrick, for the only reason most of us know 2 Live Crew.)
Kubrick was a maverick who made most of his movies for Hollywood studios yet for most of his career stayed far away from them. In the early sixties, the New York native moved to England to shoot Lolita (1962) and never left. He set up a proverbial one-man filmmaking operation (supported greatly by his wife, Christiane, and her brother, Jan Harlan) and got tagged as a recluse. Control-freak perfectionism contributed to this image. So did his utterly unreasonable, absolutely outrageous, and really rather unforgivable desire to limit his interaction with journalists. (Kubrick was a canny marketer, too, who understood that the scarcity of himself made his brand and products more valuable.) Warner Bros. released his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999, shortly after his death. Kubrick — who never won an Oscar for directing (he was nominated four times) — was a notoriously meticulous craftsman and incomparable innovator who pined for humanity’s improvement through stories, which, paradoxically, were often skeptical if not plainly cynical about our ability to change. He sought to make cinema that first dazzled your senses, then stirred your mind to deep thought as you wrestled with the ideas embedded in strong, clean graphics and expressed through carefully constructed scenes. Accepting the Directors Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 via a videotaped speech, Kubrick connected with the mythic tale of Daedalus, the wise, ingenious artificer who built the Labyrinth, and a certain pair of wings that were improperly employed by his haughty son: “I have never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.’”
For filmmakers who aspire to use Hollywood money to finance their personal visions, Kubrick is the career role model. Says Christopher Nolan, the director of Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, who’s about to embark on his own space odyssey with his next opus, Interstellar, due next year: “I think anyone who is working [for the studios] looks to Kubrick as the great example of someone who is able to make films that were very personal to him, very idiosyncratic, with a great degree of passion, while collaborating with the studios and making what he did fit within the economic models of their times.”
NEXT: To touch the Monolith… or not.
Kubrick’s work remains important to filmmakers who work in current popular genres like sci-fi and horror (and work to transcend them) in large part because Kubrick only made genre films, from film noir to period epics, war films to horror movies. Some (snooty) critics, wanting to distinguish Kubrick from mere mortals, argue that auteur made “meta-genre” films that riffed on popular trends. Hence, The Shining is a response to the conventions and idioms of the horror movie, Full Metal Jacket (1987) to the (Vietnam) war movie, Eyes Wide Shut a response to the erotic thriller. (Imagine Eyes Wide Shut starring Fatal Attraction/Basic Instinct-era Michael Douglas. Makes more sense, right?) (Right?!)
And then there was a certain sci-fi opus that seeded and nurture the evolution of Generation Geek, an odd and trippy experimental film spanning millennia yet set largely in the year 2001, about starving herbivore ape-men, gracefully pirouetting space stations, homicidal post-Singularity computers, and the reinvention of humanity. “My parents were science fiction fans, and so they decided to get their Star Wars-obsessed son onto the hard stuff at a very early age,” says Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World director Edgar Wright. “I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in pan-and-scan form on television, but it left a huge impression. Subsequent and frequent big screen viewing has made me more and more obsessed.”
2001 was Nolan’s first foray into the Kubrick stargate, too. “I saw it when it was re-released in England in the wake of Star Wars’ success and the craze for science fiction,” says the Memento helmer. “My dad took my brother and me to Leicester Square, which is where you’d find the biggest theaters in London. I remember very clearly just the experience of being transported to another world. I was a huge Star Wars fan at the time. But this was a completely different way of experiencing science fiction. I was seven years old, so I couldn’t claim to have understood the film. I still can’t claim that. But as a seven year old, I didn’t care about understanding the film. I just felt this extraordinary experience of being taken to another world. You didn’t doubt this world for an instant. It had a larger than life quality.”
Nolan adds: “When I tell people this story, they often find it unusual that a child of that age would want to see 2001. But the truth is all of my friends went to see 2001 in the year after Star Wars. We would all sit and talk about what it meant. It was ‘pure cinema.’ The fact that it’s challenging cinema in an intellectual sense doesn’t bother you when you’re a kid. You just appreciate the feeling of the movie.”
Kubrick was an original who never wrote an original screenplay, preferring instead to adapt other material for the screen, though he reworked the source so much, the result felt wholly original. He created storytelling and visual strategies that were unique to each movie, stretching himself and the medium to do so. We remember 2001 for its static grandiloquence, expansive spaces, and Douglas Trumbull’s cutting-edge special effects. We remember The Shining for its gliding, stalking camera work, courtesy of an extensive, artful use of a then-new moviemaking tool, Steadicam, and its massive, maddening, monstrous location, a character unto itself. Yet in the aggregate, we see Kubrick’s personality, philosophy, and ticks shining through all of his pictures, from the layered wit to their deliberate pacing, recurring motifs (eyes, especially, and that terrifying, titled head glower), and fixation with bedrooms, bathrooms, and below the belt physical processes of human beings. (Somebody should really write a critical survey of Kubrick’s work through the filter of his many master suites, lavatories, entitled Stanley Kubrick: Bed, Bath & Beyond.) And there’s the Kubrickian “hero,” often pessimistic portraits of futility, obsession, and hubris, thwarted by the society they wish to keep or subvert. Lolita’s deluded, doomed Humbert Humbert. The ill-fated titular 18th century social climber of Barry Lyndon. Joker, the Vietnam-bound idealist who girds himself with glibness and irony to survive a dehumanizing war culture in Full Metal Jacket.
Another notable Kubrickian signature, especially since Spartacus: His use of wide angle lenses and symmetrical composition. “My favorite image from all his movies is in 2001, when The Monolith aligns with the solar system,” says Wright, whose next film, The World’s End, opens Aug. 23. “I am not sure if I believe in cosmic order, but I believe in Stanley’s eye.”
Bryan Fuller first took a shine to Kubrick via The Shining. The acclaimed creator of TV’s Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls was 10 when he saw Kubrick’s unnerving adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. It struck him like a “Heeeere’s Johnny!” axe to the skull. Fuller was the youngest of five, a movie-hooked loner in the Pacific Northwest, so the story of an aspiring author stuck with his family in The Overlook Hotel and going mental resonated with the future TV scribe. In the pilot episode of his own saga of psychological terror, NBC’s Hannibal, Fuller paid homage to The Shining by replicating one of its many arresting images, a spacey restroom with crimson walls. “That had the biggest impression on me,” he says. “It’s like they dipped the whole set in blood.” Like Wright, Fuller also grooves on Kubrickian symmetry. “There’s something so direct and storybook about the way he presents images to the audience. The beauty and symmetry always keep the audience in a point of view where you’re sitting up straight and looking down the barrel of the story. It’s very enveloping. When I see a Kubrick film, I feel I am cocooned in his story.”
Kubrick’s poised, calculated approach to making an impact stands in contrast to the impatient, busy-busy nature of today’s movies. In fact, for Christopher Nolan, Kubrick’s example is inspiring, humbling, and even kind of shaming. “From a storytelling point of view, from a directing point of view, there is one thing I associate with what he does, which is calm,” says Nolan. “There is such an inherent calm and inherent trust of the one powerful image, that he makes me embarrassed with my own work, in terms of how many different shots, how many different sound effects, how many different things we’ll throw at an audience to make an impression. But with Kubrick, there is such a great trust of the one correct image to calmly explain something to the audience. There can be some slowness to the editing. There’s nothing frenetic about it. It’s very simple. There’s a trust in simple storytelling and simple image making that actually takes massive confidence to try and emulate.”
Nolan cites the bone-throw jump-cut in 2001. This simple gesture was all at once an expression of character, a clever transition between chapters and across centuries that eliminated the need for explanatory dialogue or on-screen text, a philosophical statement about humanity’s relationship to technology and progress, and maybe most important of all… it was just goose-bumpingly cool.
“You look at the cut in 2001, this vast jump forward — the confidence that takes to do that is actually enormous,” says Nolan. “Would I love to do things like that in my own work? Yes. But I don’t think I have the confidence to do that. Which is why there is only one Stanley Kubrick. I do believe he is inimitable. But you can be inspired. You can be inspired to aspire to be that confident.”
Asked if he is looking at 2001 anew as he prepares to shoot Interstellar, Nolan says: “I think anytime you look at science fiction in movies, there are key touchstones. Metropolis. Blade Runner. 2001. Whenever you’re talking about getting off the planet, 2001 is somewhat unavoidable. But there is only one 2001. So you don’t want to get too near to that.”
NEXT: Kubrick, Kael, and Klosterman’s theory of Immersion of Criticism
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:
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
Kubrickamania has inspired a classier, arguably more respectable exercise in immersion criticism in the form of a popular exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art entitled “Stanley Kubrick,” where props, costumes, models, annotated script pages — loaned from the Kubrick Archives — are displayed as art objects, in spaces that powerfully evoke the films to which they belong. The show was designed by Patti Podesta, a Hollywood production designer whose credits include Memento, Homeland, and Hannibal — although she says she wasn’t responsible for Fuller’s Red Bathroom nod to The Shining. “I refused to do it! I personally don’t like it when people quote things verbatim,” says Podesta with a laugh. (To be clear: She has great respect and affection for Fuller.) She says that during her own research into Kubrick, she learned that the filmmaker believed that “reworking things is the only way that we have new thoughts. So quoting one of his sets for Hannibal while I was working with Kubrick’s estate on the exhibition just didn’t feel appropriate.”
In the same way Kubrick took the material of other writers and transformed it into his own artistic statement, “Stanley Kubrick” adapts the contents of Kubrick’s creative life into a narrative that’s about its subject, but contains more provocative meanings under the surface. Podesta says her own “version of a Kubrick conspiracy theory” is that Kubrick was the cinematic analog to Michel Foucault, the French philosopher known for his critical study of Modernism, Enlightenment thought, and the power of societal institutions over freedom and knowledge. (Remember: This is a museum show.) It begins in a spare staging area where two large screens of equal size, side by side like a pair of eyes, play clips from Kubrick films. Yet like the Grady girls from The Shining, they are not twins, even though they seem to be: The screen on the left includes occasional text, the screen on the right does not. Eyes watching eyes, symmetrical composition, an uncanny vibe, a theater of orientation — pure Kubrickishness.
Walking the galleries clockwise, the flow is thematic, not chronological, and associations and ideas are goosed and suggested by critical briefs (an introduction to auteur theory; a reflection on unreliable narrators) posted on the walls. In the heart of the exhibition, 2001, Kubrick’s ambiguous, ambivalent vision of mankind’s evolution, moves briefly into the unfulfilled Napoleon, then skips to Barry Lyndon, a candlelit poke at Enlightenment-era Europe, then falls back to A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s sensationalistic revel in a degraded, degrading society, which then skips ahead to The Shining, the director’s most direct engagement with pop culture, and the exhibition’s most poppy-fun room. Here, the Grady girls are emblazoned on the walls, looming larger than life and hazy as ghosts. Next to them, two long wood-handle axes hang by their sharp, gleaming blades. Jack Torrance’s Apler-brand typewriter rests on an Overlook desk, a still life of failed ambition.
Says Podesta: “Someone emailed me while I was doing the show and said, ‘Well, you are going to reflect the fact that he faked the moon landing in The Shining part of the show, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘No! I’m not going to do that!”
The same day I visited “Stanley Kubrick” at LACMA last January happened to be the same day that saw the premiere of omg! Insider, a new version of the syndicated showbiz program formerly known as The Insider, rebranded to be more relevant to today’s social media-driven market for pop culture intel. “Stanley Kubrick” and omg! Insider — two very different ways to talk about movie culture, one high, one low, and me being me, I can enjoy both. But on that day in January, under the influence of “Stanley Kubrick” and energized by its sophisticated engagement with a director of demanding films, I found myself pining for more high and low, and more specifically, I found myself wanting to contribute more to the former than the latter. (Not that I have the capability; I speak only of the aspiration.)
I mentioned this to Podesta, and she replied with a story. When she was auditioning to design the exhibition, she was asked to make an argument as to why a fine art institution should even be presenting this kind of show. Podesta says her response was this: “Well, if they look at it, Hollywood might remember what they’re supposed to be making.”
“I think we would all like to be as exacting as Kubrick. Look at what he made,” says Podesta. “One of Kubrick’s favorite sayings was ‘Either you care, or you don’t.’ I actually use that now with people that work for me. When they’re being lazy, I say, ‘I’m going to get Kubrickian on you in two minutes if you don’t get with it!’” She laughs, and repeats the mantra. “You either care, or you don’t.”
Many thanks to James Hibberd and Laura Hertzfeld for the reporting help, and Mark Harris, Jeff Labrecque, and Missy Schwartz for their guidance.