Saturday, 17 November 2012

Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts (2012)

All works of art should be open to interpretation and debate, but how important is it to be able pin down a definitive meaning? Moreover, to what extent do we have the right to say what an artist’s intentions were? The fascinating and compelling documentary Room 237 explores these issues via some weird and wonderful theories about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, from supposed Holocaust symbolism to the seemingly impossible geography of the Overlook Hotel.

Director Rodney Ascher takes the decision to let the people with the ideas talk without interruption, and let the audience make up their own minds. Keeping the interviewees all off camera, the screen is instead filled with a mix of images, mostly from The Shining, (although there is miscellaneous stock footage, and scenes of people sat in a cinema, taken from Lamberto Bava’s Demons), which have been re-cut, played backwards and forward, with certain scenes looped, and certain images emphasised. For anyone who has seen the film several times, this makes for a slightly disorientating experience, watching familiar source material in a completely new context.

Some of the speakers make interesting points regarding the layout of the hotel or the blatant continuity errors, but seem happy to conclude that, if they are deliberate errors, their primary function is to disorientate the viewer and add to the feeling of the world of The Shining being an unreal one.

However, the words of those that claim to see a coherent and definitive layer of symbolism in The Shining quickly start to sound like the kind of poorly constructed arguments that float around things like the September 11th attacks. The proponents often start by fixating on one element (A German typewriter/The collapse of the Towers), blend elements of the real (footage from the film/footage from news broadcasts) with the fictional or speculative (Kubrick wanted to highlight the /the US Government demolished the Twin Towers, or maybe the Jews did it), and the latter is used to as the context to interpret the former.

The "Moon Landings" theory is a classic example of this approach. Start by fixating on one element 

then take bits of dialogue from the film, particularly Jack's "Have you ever thought, for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers?" speech, mix with something completely baseless, in this case the idea that Kubrick helped fake footage of the first moon landing, and interpret: The Shining is Kubrick’s way of saying sorry to his family for getting involved with the deceit of the US Government.

Where they lack imagination is being unable to believe that someone/something as powerful and organised as Kubrick/The Government, could possibly NOT have some overarching plan, or, even more unthinkable, could be capable of simple human error. They also seem unable to accept that the primary function of The Shining is simply to disorientate and disturb the audience, an opinion I am inclined towards, based both on my viewings of the film, and a quote from Jan Harlan, who was not only the Executive Producer on the film, but also Stanley Kubrick's brother-in-law:
"The audience is deliberately made to not know where they're going. People say The Shining doesn't make sense. Well spotted! It's a ghost movie. It's not supposed to make sense."
Room 237 does raise an interesting question of to what extent the audience can take control of the meaning of a work from an artist, especially one who is no longer alive to confirm or deny the more outlandish theories. It certainly sounds, at the very least, presumptuous to say definitively “well what Kubrick meant was…”, but if you can see the story of the decline of the Native Americans in The Shining, fine. Marvelling at how people join up the disparate dots of their ideas is a fun game, and part of what makes the documentary so enjoyable. As each absurdity was trumped by another, the audience I saw it with frequently laughed aloud. However, it did not always feel they were doing so in a mocking way, as sometimes it felt more like the laughter produced when you are shown a particularly baffling magic trick.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Beast in the Cellar (1970)

With a nicely lurid title, and the knowledge that this film is brought to you by Tigon, the same company that produced bona-fide classics like Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw, my hopes were high for the Beast in the Cellar. Unfortunately, flat direction, wooden performances, and a dull, confusing, and overly talky script derail an interesting premise.

Soldiers at an Army base near a village in the north of England are being gruesomely murdered, and while the police think the culprit may be a leopard, two elderly sisters think the real solution may lay closer to home, and may have links to a terrible story from their past, and a terrible secret in their cellar.

After an effective if pretty standard opening, where the first hapless victim is dispatched, and we see everything from the (unseen) killer's point-of-view, the script then settles into a long, virtually uninterrupted scene of sisters Ellie (Beryl Reid) and Joyce (Flora Robson) discussing, well, just about everything, from vegetables, to village gossip, to World War 2, and murder. After roughly 15 minutes, any hope the dialogue might start to take on Pinteresque dark undertones had evaporated, but thankfully, the film cuts to a soldier and his date getting interrupted mid-coitus, and the poor man meeting a gruesome end at the hands of the still unseen killer.

By this time, I did start to wonder if during production there had possibly been a clash of intentions. Maybe writer/director James Kelly had wanted to do a creepy psychological drama, and the producers had wanted something with more flesh and blood in, but if that was the case, the end result is a failure for both sets of ambitions.

The drama simply falls flat, with every aspect mishandled. The dialogue is pretty dire, as mentioned, or ridiculously portentous, ("You two have a healthy appetite" says a man while making a grocery delivery that largely consists of enough meat to feed an army), but even a talented, and normally reliable actress like Beryl Reid can't breathe any life into it, and her one note performance, as the slightly more comical and less intelligent of the sisters, soon becomes grating. Flora Robson does better as the sterner, more sinister (and more intelligent) of the two, but the rest of the cast performances range all the way from wooden to cardboard.

The sex and violence aspect is also a failure, mostly because there is not enough of it to compensate for the other facets. The murders are competently staged, with the killer kept out of sight and some fast montages of blood, skin, and eyes, but they just do not happen often enough to liven up the flaccid script. There are Freudian undertones in the way that Ellie talks with rapt, dreamy eyed admiration about her father, but these not expanded upon, either for serious or titillating purposes.

In addition, while I do not often carp too much over plot holes, there are a couple of points about the story, one unexplained and one explainable, that I found just too distracting. Firstly, how, without the aid of a supernatural curse, mad scientist etc., does an emaciated cellar bound creature get so strong and violent? Secondly, why does the sight of a soldier in uniform send said creature into a Pavlovian rage, when the sight of one of the sisters in one seems to calm him down?

The music score and cinematography compound the other problems; the former is over-emphatic at the wrong times, often undermining any attempts to build up suspense; the latter has too much outdoor footage, buried under murky day-for-night. This is surprising, considering the film had not one, but two perfectly talented directors of photography, Harry Waxman (responsible for The Wicker Man, amongst many other classics) and Desmond Dickinson (A Study in Terror). However, without knowing what sort of time and budgetary constraints they were working under, it would be wrong to criticise them personally.

Given the role that war and its aftermath on people plays in the origins of this very dysfunctional family, it might be possible to read The Beast in the Cellar as an attempted anti-war statement, and in the hands of a better writer/director it may well have been. Instead, the end result is a bore, bereft of drama, chills, atmosphere, or even titillation.