Thursday, January 23, 2014

Falling Down the Kubrick Rabbit Hole

Since first hearing about the documentary Room 237 about a year and a half ago, I've become increasingly interested in the artform of Stanley Kubrick and the internet's rich array of exploration into his work. At this point, it's become a minor obsession of mine.

Much like James Joyce, Kubrick was an artist capable of building layer upon layer of meaning and reference into his work. His movies amount to moving-picture puzzles that invite the viewer to dive into them and try to uncode their messages according to their own perspective. When asked to explain the meaning of any of his movies, Kubrick was always deceptively vague and wouldn't offer much, preferring to let the films stand for themselves as works of art to be interpreted. Asked about the symbolic meanings contained in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick once said:
"They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded."
Personally, I haven't really gotten much enjoyment out of any of Kubrick's movies, haven't even seen any of them more than once. They strike me as too dark. Although I do recall that upon seeing A Clockwork Orange for the first time, knowing virtually nothing about it or its director, I declared to my friends that whoever made this movie is an absolute genius.

But it's the world of Kubrick analysis and interpretation I've found to be endlessly fascinating, much the way my fascination with Joyce's work began long before I'd read any of his books. The medium of film seems much more ripe for such deep analysis, though. Great as Finnegans Wake or Ulysses are, there's only so much you can squeeze into a sentence or paragraph, whereas a master filmmaker can insert a staggering amount of material into one shot and this is exactly what Kubrick---a true visual artist who was a renowned photographer prior to getting into film---specializes in.

The Room 237 documentary introduces some of the alternate theories and interpretations about The Shining but in digging around the internet, one soon finds that it barely scratches the surface. (And, having now watched Room 237 many times, I must admit it's got some issues---audio is often too low and it's more than a bit boring sometimes. Nevertheless, I still love it.)

The labyrinthine maze in the film (which was not included in the Stephen King novel the movie was based on) seems to be a perfect symbol for The Shining. One can easily get lost meandering through this haunted-hotel-centered film and its multitude of confounding twists and impossible corridors. While most of Kubrick's filmography can be studied and pieced apart for their myriad meanings, The Shining seems like it may be the most compact and densely allegorical, taking place at the top of a mountain and featuring just one small family.

I've spent a lot of time listening to interviews with Kubrick aficionados on the Movie Geeks United podcast's Kubrick Series Uncut and I find their passion to be contagious. This whole Kubrick adventure has really amplified my enjoyment of the medium of film in general, but I can't think of any other director who inspires such fervent admiration and devotion to his films. That's part of the message of the Room 237 documentary: that Kubrick, or The Shining in particular, has inspired an army of intense devotees who use the internet to share their exegeses of his work.

One of the most intriguing and quirky of these Kubrickians is John Fell Ryan who runs the Tumblr blog KDK12 where he shares stills from The Shining and other Kubrick films to highlight subtle messages contained therein. He was featured in Room 237 in which he discussed his "radical projection" version of The Shining where it is played forwards and backwards simultaneously, revealing a shocking symmetry of themes and symbols. My feelings on this: first it seemed intriguing, then it seemed totally inane and worthless, and now the more I've learned about the movie I've become awed at how precise the forward/backward parallels are, especially since the mirror is a key symbol in the film.

There's loads of provocative stuff presented on his blog. An interesting set of posts notes a pattern in multiple Kubrick movies where we see a monolith (or table) and a woman-in-trouble on screen in one scene, followed immediately by a sequence of moving through a colorful hallway. Our interpreter explains that "woman in trouble" is a common industry shorthand for cinema or even storytelling itself, and at least one prominent Kubrick interpreter has argued convincingly that the famous monolith symbol represents the movie screen itself. Traveling down a colorful hallway? Certainly seems like a symbol for cinema to me.

Even for someone as notably precise, painstakingly intricate, and all-controlling as Kubrick, some of the parallels and interpretations summoned up out of his work could not possibly have been intentional. This was what I tried to touch on in my previous Room 237 post, that art can have a life of its own, especially when you're dealing with an artist like Kubrick (or Joyce) who is so strongly tuned into the mysterious creative impulse. I think when you put enough of yourself into an artwork, you're going to drag the unconscious mind into it as well, and the unconscious (the world of dreams and mythology) speaks a timeless/spaceless language.

Does that account for the spooky synchronicities highlighted by Ryan's juxtaposition of scenes from The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey? I don't know. But they sure as hell fit together pretty well.

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I cannot talk about this stuff without calling attention to the work of film analyst extraordinaire Rob Ager. While the Room 237 folks can be a bit quirky and off-putting (I've watched the film with friends who flat out reject it all as bullshit), the work of Rob Ager has more elegance to it. His website Collative Learning features in-depth analysis of the themes and subtexts in many popular movies, Kubrick's of course well represented.

(I must pause to mention my old neighbor in San Diego named Francisco who would always read my blog and who insisted I check out Ager's work years ago. Thank you, Francisco. I should also note that Ager was contacted to appear in Room 237 but declined. He speaks about it here.)

To see a great example of the excellent work done by Ager, check out his breakdown of the meaning behind the gold watch in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

His videos have quickly become one of my favorite things about the internet. Sadly, some of my favorite ones (like his thorough explication of the Federal Reserve subtext in The Shining---edit: this is now available again, by popular demand) have been removed from YouTube so he can sell them on DVD but if you're enough of a movie fan, they're worth buying, and there's still plenty of free stuff available on the internet.

He's got a lengthy written analysis of The Shining where, among other things, he goes into the disturbing subplot of Jack sexually abusing his son Danny, unlocking the meaning behind the notoriously bizarre bear-costume scene toward the end of the film. (A long and very well put-together YouTube video explaining all of this appeared temporarily but has since been removed and put onto a for-sale DVD. Again: worth it.)

Let me also recommend checking out his documentary Hidden Cinema which explores the art of encoding messages in film.

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A few weeks ago, I went to one of Austin's unique gems, Vulcan Video, to pick up the DVD of Room 237 so I could check out its extra features. When paying for my rental, I asked the counter clerk if he'd seen the movie and what he thought about it. Mind you, to work at this store one must pass a series of rigorous tests to prove your status as a true movie buff, and no I am not kidding. The clerk told me that he had read every Kubrick book out there, seen all his movies many times, but had shied away from watching Room 237 despite its rave reviews because he doesn't believe in conspiracy theories.

I explained to him that the film features five people presenting their interpretations of the film, only one of whom can be said to present a "conspiracy theory", that being Jay Weidner who makes the (surprisingly entertaining and compelling) case that The Shining has a subtext of Kubrick admitting he helped the US government film a fake moon landing. Weidner is definitely a bit of a whacko but his interpretation of the film is actually highly fascinating and he is by no means the first person to insinuate that Kubrick filmed a fake moon landing. He also isn't arguing that our astronauts never went to the moon, only that the footage was faked. If this stuff sounds vaguely familiar, you might be thinking of the 1997 movie Wag the Dog in which the US government hires a filmmaker named Stanley (hint) to fake a war to deceive the public.

As I corrected the store clerk, Room 237 is not a conspiracy film, it's a film about various readings of The Shining. But getting into the world of Kubrick you'll quickly find that many of his movies do have frightening subtexts (the sexually abusive father theme referenced above is one example), and certainly there is plenty of material that seems to fall in alignment with so-called conspiracy theories. You can't watch Eyes Wide Shut, with its unforgettably weird orgy party of society's elite, and not think about conspiracy stuff. It seems to be a main thread in all of his movies since Dr. Strangelove, whose title character is an ex-Nazi scientist brought in to work for the US government, suggestive of the real life Operation Paperclip. Giving further credence to the Kubrick conspiracy stuff is the fact that he was notoriously reclusive, just like another legendary and paranoid artist of the 20th century, Thomas Pynchon.

Descending deeper into the Kubrick rabbit hole, one eventually must confront the mysteries and weirdness of Eyes Wide Shut. This was Kubrick's final film and he died four days after screening the final cut to Warner Brothers. For a relatively simple film without any special effects or acrobatics, it took an absurd amount of time to film, 15 consecutive months which is a Guiness World Record. The reason for this is ostensibly because Kubrick the perfectionist insisted on crafting every scene a certain way, and embedded countless hidden meanings into a movie that, on the surface, centers around the challenges of a marriage.

The film stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and it was around the time of the filming of Eyes Wide Shut that Kubrick's daughter Vivian was essentially kidnapped and brainwashed into the Scientology cult, never to speak to her father again. This discussion of the film by noted Kubrick scholar Michael Ciment touches upon its references to Kubrick losing his daughter to a cult and the consistent theme of mind control throughout Kubrick's oeuvre.

Of course, there's lots more to all of this. I really don't know much about it. The further one falls down the rabbit hole, the deeper the rabbit hole seems to get. I began peering into this stuff because of a fascination with the kaleidoscopic nature of Kubrick's art and the unparalleled detail  and nuance he applies to his craft. I didn't intend to dig into the dark world of sex abuse and cults and Operation Paperclip. Unfortunately, it just so happens that the great artists of our time are tuned into this stuff, as again witness the paranoid Pynchon. Our epoch is imbued with an aura or paranoia, of this there is no doubt. And it takes a great artist, a real hero, to confront it directly.

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