Thursday, May 16, 2013

Retracing Recent Ramifications of Thought, Part 2 (Room 237 and beyond)

"What do we know about what we put into anything? Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong? Do any of us know what we are creating?" - James Joyce
I've been remiss not to have mentioned Room 237 on this blog yet. I first learned of this film last October when Chuck Klosterman wrote a review for it at Grantland and began: "I just saw a documentary that obliterated my cranium. It's the best nonfiction film I've seen all year." From there I was compelled to read every Room 237 review I could find, then searched desperately for a way to see it (unsuccessfully until just a few weeks ago), and have frequently been bringing up the film as a conversation piece with friends.

Room 237 quickly turned into a mini obsession for me because the premise of the film---creative interpretation of art---aligned exactly with what I've been pursuing for a couple years now. It is a documentary by Rodney Ascher exploring alternate interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining through the voices of five people outlining their own unique theories. Their analysis, through which they verify a specific subjective interpretation by pointing out numerous correspondences throughout The Shining, is exactly what Salvador Dali referred to as "paranoiac critical analysis," a critical approach I've written about here and in my monograph on Dali and James Joyce.

As the ultimate auteur who carefully pieced together every single element that appears on screen, Kubrick's artistic style lends itself perfectly to this type of deep analysis. Microscopic scrutiny of minute elements reveals a wealth of possible meanings. Hence, the cans of Calumet baking powder displayed in some kitchen scenes hints at an underlying theme of Native American genocide, or so argues Bill Blakemore. Frequent occurrences of the number 42 allude to the Jewish Holocaust since Auschwitz opened in 1942 says Geoffrey Cocks, a noted scholar on Nazi Germany who sees the film through those goggles.

Juli Kearns, with a New England accent sounding a lot like Doris Kearns Goodwin (of Ken Burns Baseball documentary fame) graphically outlines inconsistencies in the architectural arrangement of The Shining's Overlook Hotel, indicating a spooky morphology in the building itself. Colorful Kubrick obsessor John Fell Ryan chuckles through his discussion of minor continuity errors which are, he argues, edited that way intentionally to add a further element of eeriness and subtly shock the viewer's unconscious. The most compelling (and initially ridiculous) argument in the film is made by Jay Weidner who posits that The Shining is Kubrick's confession that he helped the American government fake the Apollo 11 moon landing.*

*Though he makes it clear he is not stating the moon landing didn't occur, only that the footage was faked. Here's my take, for what it's worth: I had heard this Kubrick moon landing conspiracy theory prior to seeing the film and brought it up in a late night outdoor discussion under a full moon with some folks. They knew all about it already. A Houston native told me the story of growing up attending high school with the children of NASA employees, they told him the moon landing footage was indeed faked but we absolutely did go to the moon. The real footage was burned up in the Earth's atmosphere upon return, they said. That Kubrick was working closely with NASA on 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film featuring plenty of moon surface scenes) all throughout the 1960s adds to the intrigue of this whacky idea. True or not, it has to be the coolest conspiracy theory I've ever heard.

The entire documentary is presented through a cut-up of scenes from The Shining and various other film clips with voiceovers of the analysts detailing their stories and ideas. We don't see any of the usual documentary-style scenes of sedentary people talking and there's no narration aside from the interviewees telling their stories and theories. This immersion into the worlds of the obsessed observers actually brings the film some humor as the speakers occasionally go off the edge in their theories (most memorably when it is asserted that the face of Kubrick appears airbrushed into the clouds during the opening sequence).

You can see why it's such a popular documentary, one seemingly ordinary Stephen King-adapted horror movie being pieced apart and revealed to be an intricately layered puzzlework makes for fascinating and provocative viewing. The thought of Kubrick The Master crafting the facade of a subtly eerie horror flick while stuffing into it a moon-landing conspiracy, Native American genocide, the Holocaust, and myriad other elements through the density of symbols suddenly perks up the antennae, making one consider and appreciate the capacity of film itself as an art form.

(I must mention here the fantastic work of Rob Ager who breaks down the symbolism and multiple meanings/messages contained in films through video clips and long essays you can find at his website. He has lots of great stuff on The Shining over there, ideas that Room 237 didn't touch upon, for example his analysis of the theme of gold and the Federal Reserve, which I highly recommend checking out.)

Room 237 not only highlights the rich rewards of deep film analysis (spotlighting the genius of Kubrick), but more importantly--for me--it celebrates the interpretive style that Dali dubbed the paranoiac critical method, wherein the content of artwork is "soft" and able to be shaped and molded by the viewer according to their personal projections. As the film's director Rodney Ascher explains, Room 237 is "about what happens when the movie leaves the filmmaker’s hands, and the audience is left to put the pieces together with whatever tools they have."

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Toward the end of Room 237, in the only moment of the film where we hear the interviewer's voice, the simple question is asked, "But why would he make the movie so complicated?" to which John Fell Ryan responds: "Why did Joyce write Finnegans Wake?"

Umberto Eco wrote of Finnegans Wake that Joyce "prepared a machinery of suggestion which, like any complex machine, is capable of operating beyond the original intentions of its builder."

Finnegans Wake gleefully, playfully invites the reader to read "between the lines" (p. 169) of its "superscribed and subpencilled" (p. 66) pages and draw up your own interpretations of it "in the broadest way immarginable" (p. 4). The text asks at one point, "His producers are they not his consumers?" (p. 497) right before alluding to the hilariously long title of a Room 237-esque 12-author collective exegesis of the Wake that was published in 1929 called "Our Exagmination round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress." (Joyce still hadn't revealed his in-progress book's title by that time and wouldn't do so for another 10 years. In fact, connecting things back to The Shining and Room 237, Joyce's original title for the book was Finn's Hotel.)

The style of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut in conjunction with Kubrick's notorious aversion to offer explicit commentary on the plots of his movies surely suggests he similarly sought to let the viewer go at the puzzle from their own angle. My friend Gerry Fialka wrote a colorful piece on Room 237 and other matters and gave it the witty title "Nothing and Stay Out" playing upon the warning delivered by the telepathically endowed character Dick Hallorann when asked what's inside room 237. On a first viewing of The Shining, the film's surface suggests there's not much to it, that it's just another scary ghost film and don't bother looking any deeper. Stay out of the labyrinth. But when you decide to step in and explore Kubrick's Daedalian maze the phrase flips and the movie invites you to endless analysis as you crawl ever deeper into its mysteries. What's in Room 237? Everything and come on in.

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"We are once amore as babes awondering in a wold made fresh"
- Finnegans Wake, p. 336

"Sorcerers say that we are inside a bubble. It is a bubble into which we are placed at the moment of birth. At first the bubble is open, but then it begins to close until it has sealed us in. That bubble is our perception. We live inside that bubble all of our lives. And what we witness on its round walls is our own reflection."
 - Carlos Castaneda
Before we continue, please go take a look at this absolutely brilliant juxtaposition of the final poetic words of Finnegans Wake with visuals from the Kubrick oeuvre assembled by Bill Klaus at his blog iAhuasca.

I'll wait...

We are in a new world now. An electronic global village. Technology has, in the words of Marshall McLuhan, retribalized mankind. When a meteor crashes in Russia, the entire world knows about it and can watch clips of it almost instantaneously. Information shockwaves travel around the globe faster than news traveling around a tribal village. Kubrick was very much a student of McLuhan's work, even invited McLuhan to a private personal showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey (during which, the ol' Canadian professor fell asleep).

Amid a myriad of striking material at that iAhuasca blog is a unique mixed-media device I find very relevant to this discussion, it's a mash-up created by Klaus which he calls "The Kubrick Transformer". This consists of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Pink Floyd's album The Wall all being played simultaneously. Some clips of this can be viewed at Vimeo and the results are, to say the least, intriguing.

We're now getting into what skeptical rationalists shrug off as merely an instance of apophenia, sneering "Well, the human brain searches for patterns, that's all. Nothing to see here." (Nothing and Stay Out!) Perhaps the most famous example of this is the mash-up of The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, another combo that produces eerily harmonious results. Sort of along these same lines, in Room 237 one of the interviewees examines some amusing parallels you'll find if you play The Shining backwards and forwards at the same time.

What does this stuff mean? What do these synchronicities suggest? Why is it relevant?

To begin to try answering those questions, I'll need to introduce a couple more important figures into this discussion.

Believe it or not, McLuhan always touted Finnegans Wake as the greatest guide to electronic media ever devised. When discussing the Wake, fellow Irishman and eloquent mystic-scientist Terence McKenna loved to repeat this quote:
"Yes, before all this has time to end the golden age must return with its vengeance. Man will become dirigible, Ague will be rejuvenated" (FW, p. 112)
Man will become dirigible. Man will become an airship?

Man becomes dirigible

Room 237 mentions how Kubrick studied modern marketing techniques of using subliminal imagery that unconsciously communicates messages to the viewer. In modern times when we are constantly bombarded with movies, TV, commercials, pop-up ads, etc don't you think those intentionally crafted media contain an overwhelming abundance of unconscious material?

McLuhan preached that electronic media creates an environment, enveloping the user into it. The medium is the message, goes his famous quote. The other part of that phrase, though, is the user is the content.

What we're ever so slowly creeping towards here is the understanding that electronic man, retribalized man, must learn to navigate his way through the new world we live in. Steer through the storms of electrons. We must awaken to the dashboard of our personal spaceship and float consciously through the abundant ocean of information, media, signals and symbols by our own control, bear the waves and winds of mass media.

Another scientific mystic Irishman, Timothy Leary, had a good perspective on all this. He often used the word "cyber" and was an early enthusiast of the cyberpunk movement. What he continually emphasized, though, was the original Greek meaning of the word "cyber" which is pilot. His book Politics of Self-Determination contains a chapter entitled "Pilots of the Species" about those historical figures he considers to be true cyberpunks, those who refused to be steered by the mainstreams and instead piloted along their own self-determined path.

It seems maybe I've piloted my dirigible far off into space without really getting to the essence of the matter here.

In our electronic global village, the tribal organic ayahuasca psychedelic trip now flips into an electronic iAhuasca mixed-media trip. "An alchemy of media" is what the iAhuasca author calls it. These experimental juxtapositions are intended to shock the user into realizing they are the ones creating the content. A Zen riddle asks, "Who is the master who makes the grass green?" You are. The medium is the message; the user is the content. The content is your own interpretation of it. So wake up out of your numb stupor because you need to be steering the ship, cyber pilot.

*   *   *

With all of that said, I'd like to offer one last juxtaposition---my own simple suggestion for what Kubrick's The Shining is all about.

The ideas of the aforementioned original cyberpunk Timothy Leary have featured frequently in my forays into electronic (and printed) media for a few months now. One very important point that Leary would always emphasize in a most sober and serious fashion is this: the greatest threat to human civilization for the last 25,000 years is the perennial abuse and oppression of women and children by men. Check the statistics.


  1. Great post as usual, with a lot to ponder, even without checking all the links yet. I am one of those benighted souls who never saw The Shining, mainly because I'm not a horror buff and partly because I'm not crazy about Nicholson. And I'd be skeptical about the obsession with Kubrick and all that people read into his work, if it were not for understanding some of this through Finnegans Wake. I think one thing I fail to grasp is a sort of mystery about all this stuff--which I think you probably already talked about in your paper on Dali but didn't cement in my mind, is how what we read into these complex works is also something that is really there, at least in the sense that it can be shared with other people and they see it too. I think it's one thing that we see puns on Marshall McLuhan and our own name and whatever, but quite another that we can follow a whole theme through, like the guy I read who ties the Wake to Kabbalah and has written many convincing volumes following this thread.

    And yes, the abuse of women and children (and actually other men) by men seems to be the great wrong that I am continually hearing now must be addressed. I think the one hopeful thing is that the task now seems to be standing out so starkly.

  2. Seana,
    Thanks for the comment. Though The Shining is intensely scary it's not quite a horror movie, moreso a ghost story.

    Why the initial skepticism on deep interpretation of Kubrick's work? I've encountered the opinion that he's one of the greatest artists of the 20th century more than a few times, though I'm personally not all that familiar with his movies yet. I do remember seeing "A Clockwork Orange" for the first time about 5 years ago, not knowing anything about it prior, and being compelled to declare "Whoever made this movie is a freakin genius."

    The question you raise about being able to detect under-the-surface threads of meaning that happen to really be there is a good one. It's what I planned to address in the next piece of this thought-thread.

    The way I see it: when an artist approaches his creation with a certain intensity of design and craftsmanship, almost becoming possessed with the power of creation pouring out from somewhere deep inside them, they drag out of their insides such deeply ingrained images and symbols that the material is capable of communicating so much more than they consciously intended.

    I had so many notes scribbled down for this piece that I struggled to include it all in an organized fashion, among the things I left out was a quote I saw in a Room 237 review stating that the unconscious is the hero of any great work of art.

    It's the great works of art that usually attract swaths of different detailed theories and interpretations from the dubious to the shockingly verifiable.

    The mind trained to rigorously interpret in such a way though, may tend to do so with even the simplest things. That's the force I believe is at work in consulting the I-Ching or picking a random page in Finnegans Wake and trying to find current events.

  3. I suppose I'm skeptical of Kubrick fandom more than Kubrick himself, as I don't know enough about his work. What I've seen has left me a little cold to be honest. But if I wasn't in a Finnegans Wake group, I would surely be skeptical of the Wake's power as well. And even so, I play the devil's advocate role in our group more than anybody else does. I'm just of that temperament.

    I liked your articulation of the artistic process and the unconscious treasure trove that belongs to all of us. As one of my favorite professors used to say, though more on the subject of different religions, "We are all feeling along the same grain of reality."

    Heard a bit about the Austin group from Tom and Cathy, which they enjoyed. They even had a picture of the event. I'm glad you all had a good turn out.

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