Cryptically dull – Enemy and Under The Skin

Both of these films have been many times recommended to me by email as being worthy of deeper analysis so in the last couple of weeks I managed to watch both.

While I’m not the type of viewer who demands to be led by the hand in terms of how a plot is presented to me, I do expect to be at least moderately entertained by an unconventionally told narrative. Both Enemy and Under The Skin failed for me in this respect. The modern art house cliche of being sluggishly slow-paced for the sake of it is present in both films. Part of the problem is that particular shots start or end by lingering for a good five to ten seconds on something that doesn’t need to be watched for more than two seconds. There simply isn’t enough going on in the visual frame or the soundtrack to maintain interest. Another problem is that certain plot or character revealing events in the film, while being told unconventionally, are repeated four or five times when just once or twice would easily do the job.

In Enemy the lead character’s identity confusion is put across far too many times – I felt like the film had too little to show so was simply padding itself out to reach the standard minimum run time for a feature. At least a half dozen such scenes could have been edited out and replaced with something else, such as expanding the opening sequence, which generated interest and then was largely abandoned for the next hour of the film. A few more of those interesting spider metaphor clues might have been better too.

In Under The Skin the alien in a human disguise is devoid of empathy for human beings … and the point is made over and over and over and sometimes in the least subtle ways. She abandons a crying infant boy on a murky beach after his father has drowned trying to save an older sibling. The child will clearly die alone. This easily establishes the lead character’s lack of empathy in a way that barely needs any further reinforcement. A good half dozen other “she has no empathy” scenes could have been dropped. There were also too many scenes of men being led to their deaths in a mysterious black liquid. Just one would have done the trick more powerfully.

As readers will know from my film analysis articles and videos, I’m perfectly willing to take the time to sit down and study a cryptic film to try and figure out what isn’t being told outright, but I find it hard to be motivated to do this when I find myself bored by repetition in my very first viewing.

Both of these films are also based on novels, neither of which I’ve read. According to the Wikipedia write up, Under The Skin simply offers more information than the film does. If that’s true then the film is likely a 108 minute advertisement for the novel and would probably be inefficient to stand alone as a story that can really communicate its ideas. A shame because director Jonathon Glazer’s film Sexy Beast is my favourite British film of the last twenty years (not that it has been up against much worthy competition).

The novel of Enemy apparently lacks the film’s spider metaphors, so at least on that level I feel I can take the film on its own merits. Forrest Wickman of Slate magazine offers an interesting and plausible interpretation of Enemy. Normally, with a film like this, I would seek my own interpretation before reading someone else’s, but Enemy didn’t quite stimulate me enough to make me want to watch the film again.

Unfortunately, for me Enemy and Under The Skin are both standard examples of a type of misguided “alternative” film making that too many film makers are drawn to. Cryptically interesting communication that is then spoiled by unnecessary repetition and snail-paced editing. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll give these two films another visit, but for now I’m not inclined.

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David Cronenberg’s lack of understanding for Stanley Kubrick and The Shining

Based on some of his mid-career works such as Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch and Existenz (several of which are on my to do list for future film analysis) David Cronenberg has long been a permanent figure among my top twenty-or-so favourite film directors of all time. I’ve found many of his interviews about his better films, and the psychology behind them, incredibly informative and, in particular, his most surrealist works have provided partial inspiration to me as a film maker working outside of the lame dialogue / exposition form of storytelling commonly referred to as the “screenplay”.

 

So it came as a surprise and a disappointment to me today to read in the Guardian newspaper about Cronenberg’s recent dismissal of Stanley Kubrick as a primarily commercial film maker compared to himself and his assertion that The Shining is a poor horror film that supposedly reveals Kubrick’s lack of understanding of the genre. Despite my great respect for Cronenberg’s better works, I’m compelled to respond with a number of relevant observations of my own about the comparisons between the films of Cronenberg and Kubrick.

 

In 1983 Cronenberg released his film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, which was four years after Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining was released. Unlike Kubrick, Cronenberg’s effort was very faithful to the source novel. Compared to his preceding three films (The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome) Cronenberg seemed to suppress his own “body horror” aesthetics to make a simple, commercial supernatural horror film. The result was a competent film adaptation of a competent, but not particularly special, novel by the supposed “master of horror” Stephen King (I prefer Clive Barker personally). Cronenberg played down his own artistic leanings so much that if his name had been removed from all marketing materials for The Dead Zone, then we could just as easily assume it had been directed by, say, Brian DePalma.

 

It’s arguable that, in the light of preceding successful film and tv adaptations of Stephen King books (Salem’s Lot, Carrie, The Shining, Creepshow a pattern that has since bred finance for dozens more, mostly pathetic, easy money film adaptations of King novels), Cronenberg saw in The Dead Zone an opportunity to make an easy commercial hit. Tobe Hooper, Brian DePalma, Stanley Kubrick and George A. Romero had laid the ground work with their successful adaptations of King novels and Cronenberg was next in line. Unlike Kubrick’s efforts with The Shining, Cronenberg appears to have made little effort to expand his version of The Dead Zone artistically beyond King’s source novel or technically in terms of film making craft. Let’s compare the two films in a little more detail.

 

Kubrick’s Shining involved pioneering use of the steadicam in combination with incredible set designs. Cronenberg’s Dead Zone is an assembly-line, by-the-numbers affair in terms of cinematography and set designs, perhaps with the exception a few images such as the long shot of a wet tunnel murder scene that looks, possibly by intention, somewhat like a spider web.

 

Kubrick’s Shining plays with concepts of the past and future throughout – Danny’s horror visions of the dead twins, ghostly hag in the bath tub and river of blood are striking and have etched themselves in cinematic history as great horror moments – and the cryptic moments of Jack Torrance talking to ghosts of the past and showing up in an end photo still stimulate interpretational debate today. By poor comparison, Cronenberg’s Dead Zone’s only significant non-dialogue feature is the occasional appearance of the central character within the past and future events he experiences telepathically, but it’s purely cinematic and has little effect on the story.

 

Christopher Walken’s central performance in Cronenberg’s Dead Zone is competent, but does not stretch the actor’s abilities in any sense, while Kubrick extracted one of Nicholson’s most intricate and renowned performances for The Shining, achieved through large numbers of takes and a great deal of on-set experimentation.

 

David Lynch and Martin Scorsese have referenced their admiration of Kubrick’s Shining by including music from The Shining score in their own movies (Inland Empire and Shutter Island, respectively) along with visual references/homages to Kubrick’s film. Scorsese has, in interviews, also voiced his admiration for Kubrick’s only horror film. The Shining also consistently appears high in critics’ choices of all time best horror films, while Cronenberg’s Dead Zone scarcely gets a look in.

 

In summary, Cronenberg’s Dead Zone is an efficient, and unimaginative, straight adaptation that reveals almost everything it has to offer in a single viewing, while Kubrick’s Shining virtually rewrites King’s novel for increased cinematic impact and rewatch value … and it succeeds. Anyone who thinks Kubrick was wrong to make so many alterations in his adaptation should check out the faithful, Stephen King endorsed, tv mini-series of The Shining released 17 years after Kubrick’s version – it isn’t a patch on Kubrick’s version. If it was, people would be raving about it.

 

Could it be that Cronenberg feels a little bias against Kubrick’s The Shining, being that his own film adaptation of a Stephen King book has not achieved comparable cult status? Despite Cronenberg’s claim that he is the more personal and less commercial film maker, the difference in stature between Kubrick’s Shining and Cronenberg’s Dead Zone suggest the opposite. Kubrick stamped his own personality on The Shining in a way that prompted initial, and misplaced, rejection from several critics and particularly angered hardcore Stephen King fans, while Cronenberg played it commercially safe and artistically restrained with the Dead Zone. Kubrick took risks. Cronenberg didn’t. Kubrick had statements of his own to make. Cronenberg didn’t.

 

Cronenberg has, admirably, made some very challenging films that break the standard rules of cinematic storytelling, such as Videodrome and Naked Lunch, but this is in stark contrast to movies like The Fly, The Dead Zone, and Eastern Promises, which are quite straight forward. With the exception of The Fly, Cronenberg has never really been able to successfully combine his trademark personal “body horror” films (his early background in biological sciences are frequently cited as the source of this) with his ability to direct by-the-numbers commercial genre films. Despite strong special effects and what some might perceive as exploitation gore, surrealist Cronenberg films like Videodrome and Naked Lunch were box office failures. Naked Lunch was, in fact, such a huge financial disaster that Cronenberg has only made one venture into “body horror” since (1996’s Crash, also a box office flop). Even his sci-fi film, Existenz, which included interesting “body horror” elements, was a commercial bomb.

 

By contrast, Kubrick’s The Shining is very light on gore and has just one “body horror” scene (the rotting hag in Room 237) and was a commercial hit. Kubrick didn’t fail to understand the horror genre at all. It’s quite the opposite. With his one attempt at the genre he made a movie that, artistically and commercially, was superior to virtually all of the eight or ten horror films Cronenberg has made, despite horror being Cronenberg’s speciality. If anything, I’d say Cronenberg has a limited understanding of most genres, demonstrated by his less impressive work outside his own “body horror” forte. Whereas Kubrick’s filmography is one of the most thematically diverse of any film maker in history … Dr Strangelove (comedy, nuclear politics), 2001: A Space Odyssey (sci-fi, technology), Lolita (drama, relationships), The Shining (horror), Full Metal Jacket (war), Eyes Wide Shut (conspiracies, relationships, sexuality), Barry Lyndon (historical drama), A Clockwork Orange (sociology, politics, violence, propaganda) and all of these films are still socially relevant.

 

A key element in Kubrick’s repertoire was what I call the “double narrative”, meaning that a film can have a commercially accessible surface story to satisfy broad audience tastes, while also containing subtle clues hinting at an alternative narrative of a more personal nature to the film maker. It’s a type of film making that requires a level of effort and imagination that, to date, I have not seen at work in Cronenberg’s films.

 

Rather than taking his own box office failures as awards for “personal” film making, Cronenberg ought to recognize that a great film maker doesn’t need to alternate between making unimaginative commercial films one year and alienating audiences with full on surrealism the next. It is perfectly feasible to be artistic and commercial at the same time. This is one yardstick where Kubrick surpasses Cronenberg. After getting his commercial flops out of the way early on, Kubrick had a run of nine commercially successful films from 1960 (Spartacus) through to 1999 (Eyes Wide Shut). Most of those films, such as Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, have triggered intense public debate of social issues that Cronenberg’s personal films have never matched outside of the limited horror genre audiences they appeal to.

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Rob Ager’s take on the Room 237 controversy

A couple of years ago director Rodney Ascher contacted me to ask if I’d like to record an interview for a documentary film he was planning, which would showcase a variety of people’s interpretations of The Shining. The one thing that all of the interviewees had in common was that they believed that Stanley Kubrick had encoded hidden messages in his famous horror film, though these interpretations varied wildly.

 

We discussed the project further and Rodney seemed like a really genuine guy, but I eventually decided not to be interviewed for the film. My first and foremost reason was that I’d have no control over how the sections of the movie relating to my interpretations would be edited. When I publish a new film analysis of my own the information is carefully sequenced and I usually try to anticipate and respond, within the analysis itself, to the majority of key questions and points of disagreements that might be raised. But to let someone else edit the presentation of my work would most likely distort it, and I didn’t know Rodney Ascher well enough to trust his judgment.

 

Another reason I didn’t take part was because, having already studied how journalists and media organisations operate, I knew that a lot of reviewers would simply pick out the most ridiculous interpretations by the least credible interviewees featured in the Room 237 film and prominently showcase them as a straw man way of discrediting all interpretations of hidden messages in The Shining.

 

And a third reason I didn’t take part is because, being that the structure of the film itself would supposedly be neutral as to whether any of the interviewees claims were true, the film would inadvertently promote the idea that all interpretations of movies are equal in validity, which would essentially mean that they’re all worthless – the idea that art is never about what the artist is communicating and is only about what the viewer projects into it. I call it the blank canvas theory, but as an artist and film maker myself I know that some people do get some of the messages in my work while other people misinterpret them, and most often it’s based on how much they managed to observe and cross reference when viewing the film. For example, if someone said that my feature film Turn In Your Grave was an allegory of Pretty Woman they’d be categorically wrong. However, if they said that the film was partially a commentary about how people often act like they’re in a movie without realizing it, they’d be right. I know this because I wrote and directed the film and encoded hundreds of clues to that effect. Movies are not blank canvases. If they were then people would happily sit and look at a plain white screen for two hours and enjoy it as much as the latest action-packed superhero blockbuster.

 

Regardless of my not taking part in Room 237 I did actually enjoy the film, even though most of the theories in it are at odds with my own published analysis of The Shining. Just because I disagree with some of these interviewees doesn’t mean I have to dislike the film. And it doesn’t mean I have to categorize those people with the boringly predictable label “conspiracy theorist”. A film director encoding hidden messages in his work doesn’t even qualify as a conspiracy because a conspiracy requires that two or more people engage in something intentionally secretive. A director is one person. So a more accurate term would be “hidden message in a movie theorist”, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue so well, does it?

 

My favorite part of Room 237 was the section about John Fell Ryan superimposing the film backwards over itself. I don’t personally think there was any intended meaning in it as far as Stanley Kubrick’s direction is concerned, mainly because the film has been released in at least three different run times, which would create three differing versions of the forward backward edit, but nevertheless I found the superimposed footage hypnotic to watch from a purely experimental view.

 

One issue I had mixed feelings about was that it wasn’t always made clear in the film which interviewee was being interviewed at which point. Anyone not familiar with the interviewees could have easily assumed that, say, Jeoffrey Cocks was theorizing that the film was about the moon landings, when it was actually Jay Weidner who gave that interpretation. In that respect I’m glad I wasn’t interviewed for the film, but at the same time the mixing up of the ideas sort of allows viewers to judge each theory on its own merit rather than the identity of the speaker.

 

Interviews aside, I actually enjoyed Room 237 more in terms of how the film was pieced together visually. And I’ve been impressed by the broad selection of highly symbolic posters and trailers made for the film. The trailer involving a river of blood and cassette tape coming out of a VHS recorder was a nice little nod to my video Something In The River of Blood. The film makers also used lots of footage from different movies, many of which are among my favourites. There was also a very frequent visual implication of a fractal narrative, of movies within movies, even though I didn’t hear any of the interviewees talking in such terms. And, amusingly, it’s something I’ve hardly heard commented on in reviews of Room 237. To me it was like director Rodney Ascher and producer Tim Kirk were the hidden interviewees, communicating their ideas visually, which is something I approve of because one of the best ways to teach people is to actually do what you’re talking about as you’re talking about it.

 

Overall I personally felt that maybe 20 to 30% of the interpretations in Room 237 were plausible and I am biased in that respect in that some of the interpretations overlap with my own. And, like most people who’ve reviewed Room 237, there are things in it that I think are plain ridiculous, but those details don’t make me angry, as they do some reviewers, and I don’t feel the need to respond with spiteful attacks on the interviewees.

 

And this leads into the key issue I wish to explore in this article, which is the fascinating subject of how the media have responded to Room 237. Frankly, I was surprised that the Cannes film festival agreed to show the film, so well done to them for breaking the mould. From the initial reports I read, Cannes was a bit of a dull event in 2012, which made it easier for Room 237 to stand out among the other films.

 

The big marketing bonus for the film has been that it has divided critics and audiences. Positive reviews tend to cite that you don’t need to believe all the theories presented to enjoy the film. The theories are interesting anyway in that they show how powerfully movies can affect people and how differently that affect can be from person to person.

 

But something I find very interesting about both the positive and negative reviews of Room 237 is that the majority of reviewers tend to favour certain theories over others, which goes completely against the idea put forth by the negative reviewers that all of the interpretations are ridiculous. As an example, David Hagley wrote a piece for Slate magazine titled Yes, Super Fans of The Shining Are a Little Nutty. As is often the case in journalism, all Hagley has done is rehash an article from a major newspaper that appeared the day before. In this case he is referencing David Segal’s New York Times article, in which Kubrick’s personal assistant Leon Vitali is quoted stating that the majority of the theories in Room 237 are gibberish. However, toward the end of his rehash article Hagley goes against Leon Vitali’s dismissal of Room 237, stating his own opinion that it’s quite plausible that The Shining has a hidden theme regarding genocide of Native Americans. He’s admitting that The Shining may have hidden themes, which goes completely against the title of his article.

 

Ironically, other authors at Slate magazine have written positively about my own interpretations of movies, one regarding 2001: A Space Odyssey and, in another, journalist Forrest Wickman put forward his interpretation, inspired by one of my short videos, that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is, beneath its horror film surface, a statement against animal slaughter house cruelty. So it’s not just individuals posting on the internet who perceive deeper themes in movies. Journalists sometimes do as well.

 

Regarding the NYT article by David Segal, I’d like to share some observations. The first, and this should be pretty obvious to all concerned, is that Leon Vitali is neither a screenwriter nor a director. He may have been present on The Shining set as a logistical assistant, but it doesn’t mean he knows why Kubrick made each directorial choice that he did. For example, Vitali claims that Jack’s “three little pigs” line was made up on set in a discussion between he, Stanley and Jack Nicholson. However, as a director myself, I’ve often made thematic use of improvised lines and spontaneous on set script changes, and I don’t always let my crew know why I accept or reject certain ideas. If I did, I’d have to spend 80% of my time on set explaining my decisions to the crew and 20% actually directing. The truth is that a director makes dozens, sometimes hundreds, of tiny, unspoken aesthetic choices when shooting an individual scene and the majority of those decisions are not explained outright to the crew. So I think Vitali is wrong about the “three little pigs” line being nothing more than incidental. The Shining film is actually full of cartoon references (including several dialogue references such as Danny watching Road Runner cartoons and being referred to as “Doc”, and Wendy talking to Halloran about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to find her way around the kitchen). Kubrick did the same thing in his next film FMJ, which included multiple instances of Mickey Mouse related props and dialogue. Regardless of Vitali’s attempted dismissal, it is actually very plausible that Kubrick used these cartoon reference in relation to Jack Torrance being a symbolic big bad wolf chasing a road runner Danny Torrance.

 

As another example of Kubrick thematically using something that is reported to have spontaneously been made up on set, we have the scene of Jack throwing the tennis ball in the Colorado lounge. This is widely accepted to have been improvised by Jack Nicholson, but I spoke to Joan Honour Smith, who spent a lot of time on The Shining set. She explained to me that Kubrick saw the young actor Danny Lloyd playing with a tennis ball and decided to incorporate it. So, was it Jack Nicholson or Danny Lloyd? Which rumour is true? Either way, Kubrick went on to use the tennis ball again in the scenes of Jack looking at the table top model of the maze and Danny entering room 237. And here’s a quote from the film’s composer, Wendy Carlos, which I found in Vincent Lobrutto’s biography of Kubrick. Note the additional thematic use of a ball.

 

“There were great gobs of scenes that never made it into the film. There was a whole strange and mystical scene in which Jack Nicholson discovers objects that have been arranged in his working space in the ballroom with arrows and things. He walks down and thinks he hears a voice and someone throws a ball back to him.” – Wendy Carlos discussing production of The Shining score, P447 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent Lobrutto

 

Also note that this unused scene includes arrows, which fits with the Native American genocide interpretations of The Shining.

 

So to say that the tennis ball, or any other detail in The Shining, can be proven meaningless because it wasn’t pre-scripted is ridiculous. It’s a non-argument. People create metaphors spontaneously and subconsciously every day in their choice of clothing, facial expressions, body language, choice of words and tone of voice. This is also true of film directing.

 

The NYT article ends on an important note. Vitali admits that he never spoke with Stanley about the meanings of The Shining, which is also true in the majority of reports I’ve read from Kubrick’s other collaborators. Vitali then says that he thinks Stanley “wouldn’t have wanted to listen to about 70, or maybe 80 percent of Room 237”. Why only 80%? Why not 100%? It seems that Vitali either suspects, or knows, that some of the interpretations in Room 237 might be true after all.

 

A relevant side note is that Leon Vitali also played the mysterious Red Cloak character in Kubrick’s final film EWS and he is actually named in a newspaper within the film as a fashion designer who had an affair with the prostitute character Mandy, who dies during the course of the film. Considering that Vitali played Red Cloak, the implication is that Mandy had an affair with Red Cloak (click here to see my short video on the subject). Did Vitali even know that Kubrick was going to utilize his name in this way in the final cut of the film?

 

Something else that conflicts with the complete dismissal of Shining interpretations featured in Room 237, a dismissal which is now often attributed to Vitali’s comments for the NYT, is this interview with Jan Harlan for the Guardian. Harlan, who was the exec-producer of The Shining and Kubrick’s brother in law (which means he is even more likely than Leon Vitali to have some idea about Stanley’s intentions), stated outright that The Shining is not Stanley’s apology for faking the moon landings, but then stated that the spatially impossible layout of the Overlook Hotel was deliberately done to disorientate the viewer. The spatial disorientation theme was featured in Room 237, as outlined by Julie Kearns. If Jan Harlan’s statement is correct then it casts serious doubt on Leon Vitali’s complete dismissal of Room 237. Either Vitali didn’t mention to the NYT reporter that the spatial disorientation theme was true, or he simply didn’t know about it because Stanley didn’t tell him. More likely it was the latter.

 

Now there’s one particular critic whose response to Room 237 I believe exemplifies the negative, small-mindedness typical of those who are afraid to accept the intellectual challenge of complex, multi-layered movies. His name is Jim Emerson and his review is posted on the website of America’s most famous film critic, Roger Ebert, who sadly died the day after Emerson’s review of Room 237 was published. Regardless of Ebert’s death, I must take strong exception to the childishness of Emerson’s review. He uses hostile terms like “Room 237 conspirators” and tries to attack director Rodney Ascher for having made the film in the first place and even attacks him for taking a neutral stance on the content of the interviews. So let me get this right; Emerson would consider Room 237 a more mature film if Rodney Ascher had set out to blatantly discredit his interviewees instead of allowing the audience to make up their own minds? Predictably, Emerson’s review uses the straw man approach, focusing primarily on the moon landing hoax theories to tar all of the theories in the film with the same conspiracy theory brush. And he finishes with this:

 

“In the end, once the film is released, the filmmakers’ intentions don’t really matter anymore because it belongs to the audience.”

 

What a stupid statement. If his blank canvas theory is true then that would render his job as a film critic redundant. Why would we need film critics if films inherently have no meaning other than that which we project into them? Jim Emerson’s response to Room 237 is typical denial from people who don’t want to entertain the idea that some movies might be a lot deeper than they realized. It scares them because it makes them doubt their own perceptual abilities, particularly if film critique is their paid profession – a profession that is now under fierce competition from independent, internet based, film reviewers and analysts. This motive on the part of Jim Emerson, and a handful of fellow “professional” film critics he chooses to quote, is quite evident in another article he wrote, attempting to brand the Room 237 interviewees as crazy “conspiracy theorists” by debunking the film’s featured theories in succession. It comes as no surprise that he does not attempt to debunk the theory that the Overlook Hotel layout was intentionally designed to be impossible (here’s my own version of that theory posted a year before Harlan’s confirmation, and which also generated considerable debate and controversy), nor has he updated the article to include Jan Harlan’s confirmation of that theme in a Guardian interview. He also contradicts himself, just like David Hagley of Slate magazine, by tentatively admitting that there may actually be some truth in the theory that The Shining includes a theme of Native American genocide. Does this mean Emerson now includes himself in the “conspiracy theorist” category?

 

Roger Ebert apparently didn’t even bother reviewing The Shining when it was released. According to one of the Wikipedia references on The Shining, he stated he was unable to connect with any of the characters. Since when do popular film critics avoid reviewing major film releases because they don’t particularly like those films? The standard approach is for the critic to review the new release and explain why they don’t like the film. It took 27 years before Ebert eventually did review The Shining in 2006, but he was still baffled, stating in his review that there are no characters whose perceptions can be relied upon – he describes them all as “unreliable narrators”, even though they weren’t narrating.

 

In his review Ebert asks dozens of questions about the mismatching elements of the story, such as why we see twins who were described as different ages by Mr Ullman and why Jack’s body was never found (a detail that was present in a scene deleted from the end of the film shortly after its release), but offers little in the way of answers. But he did actually get close to unraveling some aspects of the film in that he suggested, after noting the volume of plot changes between Kubrick’s film version and Stephen King’s source novel, that The Shining may not be a ghost story at all – that all of the supposed ghost visions might just be hallucinations as perceived by the different family members. Ebert was actually proposing that Kubrick had taken King’s novel and covertly transformed it into something else, which is exactly what the interviewees in Room 237 are saying. So, considering that Ebert put forward an interpretation of that nature in his review, Emerson’s use of the Roger Ebert website in posting a hostile attack on the Room 237 interviewees as “conspiracists” was both misleading and unprofessional.

 

Emerson may actually be interested (or disappointed?) to learn that Roger Ebert actually contributed to my own interpretation of The Shining by pointing out that when Jack sees ghosts there’s always a mirror of some sort present. (Yes, there are no ghosts. Jack is talking to himself.) Ebert’s comment also led me to notice Jack’s reaction to mirrors, left screen, as he makes strangling gestures, while contemplating having being blamed for strangling his own son.

 

Roger Ebert’s published review of The Shining, 27 yrs after its release, reveals that he knew the film wasn’t the ghost story it appeared to be. He tried to unravel what lay beneath the surface, but was unable to do so, at least within the word count limits of his review. According to Jim Emerson’s logic, Ebert’s speculations about The Shining would place him in the category of “conspiracist” alongside the cast of Room 237.

 

For all the artistically ultra-cynical Emersons out there who believe it is impossible that Kubrick, or any other director, have encoded hidden themes and messages in their movies, I offer two more, highly significant, pieces of information.

 

First, code encryption and decryption was a major topic of personal interest to Stanley Kubrick. Anthony Frewin, personal assistant to Kubrick for over twenty years, describes on page 518 of the Stanley Kubrick Archives book that the 1967 book The Code Breakers: The Story of Secret Writing, by David Kahn, was considered by Stanley to be one of the greatest scholarly works of the 20th century. The Code Breakers is a detailed history of message encryption and decryption, and code breaking was a central plot point in Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove.

 

Second, and again this is referring to Dr Strangelove, which Kubrick released 15 years prior to The Shining, on page 359 of the Stanley Kubrick Archives book are photocopies of two letters that previously sat for decades among Stanley’s collection of catalogued correspondence with fans and critics. The first is dated March 20th 1964 (two months after the film’s release). It is a letter from Mr Legrace G. Benson of the Dept of History of Art at Cornell University in New York. In it Mr Benson identifies and praises Dr Strangelove’s subtly encoded sexual themes. The second letter is a response from Kubrick on April 6th of the same year. Kubrick wrote:

 

“Dear Mr. Benson:

 

Thank you very much for writing such a flattering letter. I am sorry such a well thought out analysis of the picture has to be confined to personal correspondence. Seriously, you are the first one who seems to have noticed the sexual framework from intermission to the last spasm.

 

I will be in New York for the next few months and if you happen to come down from Ithaca, I hope you will give me a ring and perhaps we can have a drink together.

 

Yours very truly

 

Stanley Kubrick”

 

There you have it. In at least some of his films, Kubrick did encode hidden themes that went over critics’ heads.

 

So if you’re interested in the deeper side of Kubrick’s The Shining then I recommend you give Room 237 a watch. Even if 80% of it is rubbish, why ignore the 20% that’s worthwhile? And if you wish to delve even further, being that Room 237 only scratches the surface of the interpretations that are on offer, then you can check out the more detailed online analysis’ of the film posted by those interviewed in Room 237. And you can check out the essays by myself and Kevin McLeod, who also politely declined to be interviewed in Room 237, in addition to the multitude of other “professional” film critics who have, over the years, written their own varied interpretations of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. And of course, don’t forget to carefully re-watch The Shining yourself. Who knows what you’ll pick up on?

 

Rob Ager

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Skyfall – To the bat cave Mr Bond!!!

After hearing all the mega hype about Skyfall being the best Bond film ever (hype that I frankly didn’t trust) I finally viewed the film this evening. So, initial thoughts …

The intro action sequence was decent enough, followed by a beautifully captivating title sequence. Cinematography was stylish throughout – no shakey cam rubbish like in Quantum of Solace (my personal choice for worst Bond film ever). Some scenes had particularly well-written dialogue for a Bond film. Javier Bardem is great as always in a fairly well written villain role. And … well, that’s the positives for me.

I like Daniel Craig well enough as an actor in general, but he’s never felt or looked right for me as Bond. Though, in his defence, it’s as much to do with how the character is scripted today. Craig era Bond comes off as a guy with an unspecified chip on his shoulder who vents his frustrations against whatever “bad guys” his bosses choose to unleash him on. And he’s largely humourless. I sorely miss the charm and warmth of the Connery and Moore era.

Fans of the more recent Bond style will undoubtedly claim, as I keep hearing, that the old Bond films are cheesy and unrealistic and not dark enough. My retort to that is that the new Bond films are every bit as silly and unrealistic as the old ones, while attempting to appear “realistic” by being largely humourless and gadgetless. Skyfall seemed to be a film that wanted me to take it seriously, but I couldn’t because it’s crammed with ludicrously implausible plot twists and cheesey action. It’s no more realistic than the average Steven Seagal no brainer shoot-em-up. The big evil enemy is a mastermind hacker and ex-agent who just happens to have endless moles planted everywhere in British intelligence agencies and even the British police force – moles who pop up here, there and everywhere to render self-sacrificing assistance to their mastermind leader. We’re given little indication of how he recruited them or why they are loyal to him. All we know is he just has them on his side. It’s ridiculous and seems to have been lifted from The Dark Knight, but it didn’t work very well in that film either imo. Personally I find the over the top styles of the old Bond film more honest, they are pure fantasy/entertainment and don’t pretend to be anything other. I also feel the same about Batman. Give me the hilarious 1960′s series any day … Yes, you read that right. I want hilarious villains, “heroes” wearing leotard’s with their underwear on the outside and flashes of “pow” and “wham” splashed on the screen whenever someone gets hit. I love that stuff. “Realistic” violence is messy, disgusting and not enjoyable … think Goodfellas, Taxi Driver or a more recent little Australian film called Snowtown.

Then there’s the politics. Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism … is the premise of the new Bond and Batman films, which isn’t helped by the simple fact that the war on terror in the “real” world lost it’s credibility years ago. Terrorism plots aren’t engaging anymore. They feel like either propaganda or lazy writing. How about having Bond oust a bunch of crooked international bankers or thwarting a political coup by a group of business plotters? That would feel more real and relevant.

I spent about 50% of Skyfall twiddling my thumbs and asking myself “When’s it going to get interesting again?” and even worse “When is this going to end?” (it is unnecessarily long). The other 50% I was moderately entertained. Like almost every other Bond film of the last fifteen years this feels like a watch once affair.

On some levels there was a very concerted effort to revamp the series with this film. The centerpiece of the plot is a complicated attempt to kill Bond’s boss, but I found this emotionally unengaging. She’s just one person and is even more humourless and cold than Bond himself – I didn’t care one way or the other about her fate. We also get a glimpse into Bond’s orphanage background, which for me made him come off as a guy who works for British intelligence out of an insecure need to belong to, and serve, something larger than himself without regard as to whether that something is actually worth fighting for.

In summary, I found Skyfall technically excellent and moderately interesting, but only fleetingly entertaining. At the moment I can’t even see myself giving it a second viewing.

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Big Man Japan – artificial superheroes and a dash of social commentary.

I seem to be in the minority in terms of my complete and utter boredom with the onslaught of “superhero” movies Hollywood has been churning out in the last ten years. Spiderman 2 had some great scenes and not too bad a storyline, Hellboy 2 was awesome fantasy / action / comedy, and  … well that’s it for me in positives. Especially boring is the trend of trying to make superhero movies “dark” and “realistic”. I can’t take a guy in a red suit jumping around on strings of silk as being anything more than comic fun – and, wisely, Sam Raimi made sure to include a lot of good-hearted humour in the Spiderman films to off-set the essentially ridiculous superhero premise. The same thing worked very well in the first three Superman movies. But, Hellboy aside, the sense of fun is being quickly lost. The makers of the recent Batman movies have over-estimated their source material and tried to make something more out of it than it is – it’s an idiot in a f***ing bat suit and a cape and I cannot take him seriously as he talks in his gruffest Clint Eastwood imitation voice with a pair of bat ears sticking out above his head. Please, please, please bring back the comic humour from the 60′s tv show. These are kids’ movies.

… And thus my wish was granted in foreign aid this week by Hitoshi Matsumoto and his 2007 film Big Man Japan. This insane movie tells the story of a socially inadequate loser who leads a superhero double life, growing to a height of around 100 feet to fight off Godzilla-sized creatures that occasionally attack Japanese cities. The special effects are poor compared to what we’ve come to expect from say the Hellboy series, but the film compensates with mind-boggling and surreal creature designs and the inevitable humour they generate. Balancing this are the ironically emotional mockumentary scenes presenting the lead character’s every day life as a nobody. The contrast is jarring and it works.

But underlying Big Man Japan is a more complex web of social and political messages. This becomes very apparent in the last ten minutes of the film, though I’ll reserve my detailed opinion on it for a possible film analysis video.

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The Man Who Haunted Himself – Roger Moore’s dark side

This old psychological drama movie from 1970 was a pleasant little surprise. Roger Moore plays a company executive who, for reasons unknown, begins driving like a mad man on the streets of London, resulting in a crash and a spell in a coma. After waking up he begins to encounter clues that someone is impersonating him in his work place and social life. Is he suffering memory loss?

The basic plot isn’t particularly fantastic and the ending is pretty lame, but there are many very good scenes in this film that crank up the schizoid feel to Hitchcock levels. Like the main character, Roger Moore is allowed to show his rarely seen alternative side – as in not James Bond or equivalent – and he’s actually a really good actor, playing both Mr stiff-upper lip executive with marital / sexual problems and Mr evil boardroom shark / gambler.

Add to all this a parallel plot of Moore’s evil double infiltrating and manipulating a large company to secure a strong takeover bid of his own company and you have a film that craftily weaves a message about the self-imposed split personality paradigm which hungry businessmen often seek to inhabit.

Although this film was made three year’s before Moore first played James Bond in Live and Let Die, there’s a crystal ball gag in which his character jokes that the world of espionage isn’t all James Bond and gadgets.

Recommended.

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The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson achieving guru status.

A lot of fans of my videos have asked me to write an analysis of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. I still haven’t done it, even though the film has been on my ‘to do’ list for years. Something has put me off and I think it’s the final act of the film, which I found unsatisfactory. But Anderson’s latest film I found much more satisfying.

Many years ago I read a book on the subject of the father of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t know how historically accurate it was, but it was fascinating and hilarious and for years I’d intended to revisit it. Watching Anderson’s incredible new film The Master I quickly recognized many details  as coming from the realm of Scientology, for example the guru of the story theorizing that each of us have lived millions of past lives (some on alien planets) and that we carry many traumas from those lives in this life and must be cleansed of them by the guru’s “revolutionary” techniques.

It’s easy to assume that Anderson’s new film is basically just a negative critique of Hubbard. Given some of his theories, the Scientology founder is easy to ridicule, but Anderson establishes in an early scene that the man wasn’t untalented – in fact his communication skills were incredibly sharp. The scene I refer to involves Lancaster Dodd (the fictional version of Hubbard in the film) using hypnosis techniques to break down the pathological lying and emotional defence barriers of the film’s main character, Freddie Quell. It’s a very powerful scene, which prevents the film from simply being an anti-Scientology statement. The rough and ready alcoholic Quell is cleverly used, through his questionable “friendship” with Dodd, to make statements about both the talents and shortcomings of L. Ron Hubbard’s motives and brand of communication.

I don’t want to give any more spoilers here, so I’ll simply advise you to get out and watch The Master if you haven’t already. It’s a masterpiece.

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Snowtown – intelligent, challenging and darker than hell – dare you watch it?

I watched a little Australian film from 2011 called Snowtown about three or four months ago … once. And I haven’t summed up the courage to watch it again.

Snowtown is probably the most psychologically dark film I’ve ever seen. If we had to put a genre label on it then we’d likely call it a “serial killer thriller / drama”, though I think of it more as “a challenging document of how savage and depraved humans can become given sufficient paranoia and negative peer pressure”.

I deliberately didn’t read up about the real Snowtown Murders before watching the film. This only made that first viewing all the more unpleasant almost to the point of being unwatchable. Since I’m recommending the film here on its intellectual and social commentary merits rather than commercial appeal (frankly, I find it hard to see any emotional enjoyment to be had from the film) I’m going to give some basic plot spoilers. If you want the full psychologically disturbing impact of seeing the film then stop reading now. If you want to go into the film with a little emotional preparation read on.

Spoilers

Snowtown attempts to tell the story of how Australian serial killer John Bunting persuaded a handful of people to assist him in torturing and murdering 12 people over a seven year period.  The “justification” as largely perceived by the group came from the notion that the victims were paedophiles, but with a specific emphasis on homosexual paedophilia. As the years go on the group begin preying on others within their own group and targeting victims for much more obscure reasons, such as them being “junkies”, “yuppies”, “mentally hanicapped” or “gay”.

Historical accuracy?

Though Snowtown is very well acted, the strong Australian accents and sometimes vague dialogue make the exact events a little hard to follow at times, though this sort of works in that the story is told primarily from the POV of one of the youngest members of the group, James Vlassakis, who was gradually groomed against his will into taking part in the murders. Our knowledge of exactly what is going on is largely restricted to his awareness. This results in a story structure that prevents us from witnessing any of the murders until near the end of the film.

After watching I did a little reading up on the real case, not in a great deal of depth, but enough to ascertain that much of what we witness in the film is speculative, though certainly believable. The murders themselves were of course real, as was much of the evidence of how the victims died, but accounts of how Bunting persuaded his peers to engage in acts of sadism and murder are based on hearsay from the surviving group members. It’s possible that those witnesses played with the truth to deflect blame to one another. The forms of torture administered to some of these victims were so cruel and sadistic that it’s hard to believe that any “normal” person could engage in them, even under strong peer pressure and even against their worst enemies … but the facts of the Snowtown case strongly challenge that wishful assumption. Though I have no desire to describe the grizzly details of the murders, I will say that having already done a lot of research on the subjects of sadism and serial murder while scripting my short film The Victim, I thought I’d read the worst, but this case shocked me further.

Naturally, the film Snowtown does not show us the worst acts committed against the victims. If it did it would be correctly condemned and banned universally. We only witness one of the murders, that of Troy Youde, but what we see itself is disturbing enough because the scene is unnecessarily prolonged in my opinion. I also found it strange that the film shows Troy sexually abusing his younger half-brother James (the protagonist) early in the film. This apparent sexual abuse may have just been hearsay and false justification in the real case, but the film takes it as gospel and shows it. The same also applies to the apparent abuse of James by his Mother’s partner early in the film. Being that James was key witness during the trial of Bunting and his accomplices, and probably with an interest in distancing himself from legal responsibility, I have a question mark on these aspects of the film.

An important film

Historical accuracies aside, Snowtown hits us hard with some important facts about the human condition and some key failings of modern society. This wasn’t a group of born killers. They seem to have just been average people who were led down a very dark path by a cunning psychopath. How much each of them were dragged unwillingly along that path and how much they enthusiastically went of their own free will is open to debate.

It’s also debatable whether John Bunting was the sole influence on the group’s desire to kill. Their perceived justification that they were cleansing society of undesirables, especially paedophiles, was not unique to Bunting or the group. Pathological hatred of paedophiles is extremely common – a subject upon which many people today refuse to entertain notions of mental illness and broader sociological cause, preferring instead an attitude of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”, “execute them” or “make them die slowly”. I witnessed this mentality in 1993 when I was living within a short walking distance of the railway where three year old James Bulger was tortured and murdered by two ten year old boys. The local community was so seething with anger that anyone who was seen being detained for questioning by the police, even when no charges were made against them, was consequentially harassed and threatened. Some families had to be relocated. Hundreds of people showed up outside the courts during trial to scream their hatred and desire for a lynching, but the vans they thought contained the boys were decoys. It was the witch hunt mentality all over again.

Having worked in a paedophile halfway house several years ago, I had a chance to meet and observe several paedophiles in person. I encountered the pathological lying, denial of responsibility, selfishness, immaturity, and social inadequacy that often accompanies these people, but at the end of the day they are people and each one has his or her own unique personality. They’re not always the classic predatory types depicted in the media and, in conversation, many of them express confusions about their own condition in relation to a society in which pre-pubescant girls are seen in the media and on the streets dressing prevocatively.

Snowtown shows us that those who most scream for the blood of paedophiles, or any other group that happens to be hated at a particular point in history, are often guilty of being the very thing they claim to despise. The gang of sadists in this film commit acts that are far crueler than most paedophiles ever get near to committing. A visual hint of this is present in two scenes. When Troy sodomizes his younger brother James, he pins James’ face to the floor. After Troy has been tortured and murdered, James having interrupted the torture to administer a mercy killing, James is traumatized by the experience. Bunting then pins James’ head against a car window as he lectures him about toughening up and the supposed justifcation of their horrific act. James has a new abuser.

Snowtown is probably too unsettling to be nominated for Oscars or widely viewed by the general public. It is bleak, bleak, bleak and offers no reassurance or comfort to the viewer. Despite some strong reviews, I suspect the film will fade into the background of cinematic history, only to re-emerge if and when society is ready to deal with the issues it raises.

 

 

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KUBRICKS – a new indie feature film

A while back we had a handful of mouth watering media coverage of Rodney Ascher’s film Room 237, which explores the growing community of people coming up with deep interpretations of Kubrick’s The Shining.

This new film Kubricks sounds even more off the wall. Dean Cavanagh is interviewed at www.dangerousminds.com about the project.

Are we seeing the beginning of a new trend here? Movies about the man himself? This could get really interesting.

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Prometheus – first thoughts after initial viewing – and no plot spoilers

The formula trailer for Prometheus dampened my enthusiasm to the point where I almost didn’t go to watch it, but then I saw the ‘David 8′ trailer, which is both a Prometheus trailer and a short film in its own right, after which I regained my appetite. It was clear from David 8 that Prometheus wasn’t going to be an attempted rehash of either of the first two Alien films, but that the film makers were going to take the story into new territory. And that’s what they’ve done.

Glancing at other reviews this morning, while trying to also avoid plot spoilers, I was pleased to read that there “wasn’t much action” (so not a commercial blitz like the last few forgettable installments in the franchise – with the exception of Aliens of course) and that it was “thought provoking” and “open ended”.

Having just watched it this afternoon on the good old trusty 2D screen of my local cinema I have to say that, with the exception of two or three scenes, the film thoroughly held my attention from start to finish. It’s multi-themed. It’s not predictable. It’s visually impressive, but not distractingly so. And, to my surprise, it did have a couple of really good scares that were right up there with the most visceral moments of the first two films. One scene had me literally cringing with tension in a way that topped the classic John Hurt “chestburster” scene. The acting is generally good with not too much Hollywood posing and only the occasional “smart-ass” one liner. Fassbender, as widely reported, stands out as the android, David, whose behaviour includes a variety of thematic cross overs with Ash from the original film.

The plot of Prometheus is fairly complex in terms of character motivations. Multiple crew members have hidden and conflicting agendas that come together in interesting ways as the history of the space jockey creature from the first film is slowly, albeit not completely, revealed. That’s all good stuff, but what is surprising is how the film manages to branch into so much new territory without betraying the themes and plot details of the original film. At no point did I feel like I was watching a story written as an after thought, especially since a lot of unused designs and ideas from the production of the first film are brought into the mix.

Thematic elements of Bladerunner (Ridley Scott’s other sci-fi beast) also make their way into Prometheus, as if Bladerunner and Alien somehow take place in the same universe. That’s a nice surprise and gives Prometheus an artistic or auter framing that confirms Scott has genuinely returned to his intelligent sci-fi platform, which many would argue is still his strongest territory.

The only thing I felt created a perhaps unnecessary visual separation from the first two films was that the skies of the LV426 planet are much brighter (correction 8th June 2012 – it was actually a different moon LV223, which also explains several plot discrepancies with the derelict in the first film). The score is fairly standard, but then how many composers today could compete with the legendary Jerry Goldmith? If I had to offer a real gripe it would be that a couple of the supporting cast felt unnecessary and stereotypical, but not to the point of severe annoyance.

Alien certainly is the better film in terms of believable characters, but I always felt that the first half of Alien outdid it’s “creature kills the crew one by one” second half. Prometheus kept me engaged all the way.

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