Thursday, February 21, 2013

Room 237

 Is Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic The Shining really about the holocaust? How does it figure in the genocide of the Native Americans? Can it be used to prove that the moon landing was a hoax? It may sound ridiculous that one fade-in shot of Jack Nicholson's hairline suggests Hitler's mustache, but try telling that to a handful of hardcore devotees who have dedicated the last 32 years to studying all 146 minutes of the beloved horror film frame by frame by frame. You may see a simple-minded horror movie, they see a great deal more.
The Shining is one of those rare horror films that is loved even by those who don't like the genre. Here was the story of an alcoholic writer (Jack Nicholson) who takes a job as the winter caretaker at a Colorado resort where he and his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will be snowed in all winter while he tends the boiler. The haunted history of the century-old hotel causes the dad to go insane while the son uses his psychic abilities to call for help. Simple, right? Some say, not so fast.
Rodney Asher's documentary Room 237 (named for the haunted hotel suite in the film where three ax murders were committed) explores in exhaustive – and sometimes laughable – details about the lengths that five people have gone through to break the film down looking for clues, signs, symbols and subtexts of every size and shape. Some of their theories reside within the film, some have relevance to history. Others are just plain wacko.
The five subjects are never seen on screen. We hear their voices and they all share a commonality, they have seen something in The Shining that the rest of us seem to miss. One of the interviewees points to a wrecked truck, seen on screen for a few seconds, and suggests that it was Kubrick thumbing his nose at writer Stephen King, who famously hated the film. "I've wrecked your book," he suggests, "and here it is for everyone to see." Another asks why Jack Nicholson's character is seen at the beginning reading a Playgirl magazine – does he have homoerotic feelings? Another interviewee traces the patterns of Danny's Big Wheel rides through the hotel hallways – the path of one of his treks is in the shape of a key. There is also the symbolism of the large Calumet cans seen in the pantry at the film's opening. One of the interviewees says that they are meant to suggest Native American ghosts in the hotel. The real Calumet, Colorado, you see, is a legendary ghost town.
Some of the information is interesting. One of the devotees suggests that the hexagonal carpet pattern has something to say about Danny's state of mind. Remember the scene where he is playing on the carpet and a ball rolls into his space from out of nowhere? We see the shot from overhead and the ball comes into the frame along the carpet pattern that seems to lead right to Danny. In the next shot we see him straight-on and the hexagonal pattern is closed. Was this a continuity error, or was Kubrick trying to suggest something? What is he also trying to suggest with a sticker on Danny's bathroom door that disappears from shot to shot.
Other suggestions are just plain stupid. The silliest offers the idea that Kubrick himself filmed the fake moon landing after the releasing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 because the film proved that his special effects team could do it convincingly. It is thought that The Shining offers clues to a confession by Kubrick. Notice the rocket on Danny's sweater.
In truth, if this were another filmmaker, the theories could be thrown out with the trash, but Kubrick was such an eccentric, a man whose work was a tapestry of maddening detail that we are forced to look at these outlandish theories and wonder if he had them in mind from the start. Did he mean for a skier in a poster to represent a Minotaur? From another filmmaker probably not, but from Kubrick, who knows? What makes Room 237 work is its obsessive detail. The interviewees have obviously spent many days and nights searching each and every tiny frame looking for some connection that suggests something more than just an entertaining horror movie. For film buffs, this film may seem invaluable. The effect of the film is that it offers so much unseen detail that we may never have notice while watching the film, that it makes us want to revisit the film and search for clues on our own. The film is so full and so intricately detailed that there still seems to be a lot of room left to explore. There are plenty of rooms that can be explored . . . forever and ever and ever and ever.

Searching for Sugar Man

 This is a music biography with a bit of a difference. Normally when we settle down to watch one of these we know in advance what the artist's music is like. Even if we are not committed fans we usually at least know something. In this documentary this will simply not be the case for the vast majority of folks who decide to watch it. For this reason, Searching for Sugar Man is somewhat unusual.
Its subject, the singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, recorded a couple of critically praised but commercially disastrous albums in the early 70's. He was quickly dropped by his record label and then basically vanished from the public eye for over quarter of a century. Rumours of his on-stage suicide circulated as fact. Where the story becomes a little unexpected is that through word of mouth he became massive in South Africa of all places. In the apartheid years his music developed a following that rivalled bands like the Rolling Stones. His lyrics hit a note with white liberals there and his albums became anti-establishment classics. Many of the people who would make important contributions to overturning the apartheid regime were influenced by Rodriguez. But the thing is, he knew absolutely nothing of his fame and popularity there. He received no royalties at all for the 500,000 albums he sold in South Africa. When interviewed, his label boss Clarence Avant gets a little shifty when asked about this. It seems that Rodriguez had been dealt a somewhat bum hand.
The second act of the story began when one of the South Africans who loved him discovered when speaking to an American friend that Rodriguez albums were impossible to buy in the States. This was something of a revelation, as up until this point it was generally assumed that he must have been a peer of Bob Dylan and just as popular. This led to a quest to discover more about the man; it led to the incredible discovery that he was still alive and living a modest life in Detroit with his daughters. The man himself was utterly unaware of his cultural impact in South Africa. The South African's subsequently organised concerts back home and so Rodriguez went there in the late 90's. A nobody at home, there he played to crowds of tens of thousands of people of all ages in the spectrum. They all seemed to know his records off by heart too. It was a revelation to witness this strange but uplifting story arc.
It's difficult to really know why Rodriguez never made it at the time. Many now classic acts such as Nick Drake never made it during their recording careers either. Sometimes a combination of things just conspires against a musician and Rodriguez seems to have been a victim of this circumstance. His music certainly is good - and there are nice animated segments to go along with some of his songs here – but it's difficult to say how good on one viewing. Certainly there were a lot of singer-songwriters in the early 70's on the back of Dylan. But what makes this documentary so interesting is not just the discovery of something hidden and good but also the realisation that a mass cultural happening could occur on another side of the world without it's figurehead knowing the slightest thing about it. It's overall a fascinating story and one for all music fans.