Strange Takes on The Shining (1980)

Something about The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King, inspires people to imagine this film in different ways. For example, is it possible to create a trailer for a “happy version” of this story? Given that the movie is about a man who goes into a homicidal rage and tries to kill his family with an axe, this might seem like an impossible task. Well, apparently that’s not the case, as someone has done it:

And is it possible to make scenes about a man in an axe-wielding homicidal rage funny? Well, yes–with the aid of a laugh track, that is. This clip gives cringe comedy a whole new meaning:

The following clip takes the same approach and goes it one better. Here The Shining is recast as an episode of Seinfeld with a little Benny Hill thrown in for good measure:

Now to take things in a different direction. Kubrick offered his audiences little explanation of his films beyond general remarks. Audiences were left on their own to wonder what his films were really about. Recently I read The Shining Revealed by Paul Whittington. Whittington argues that The Shining can be understood in Freudian terms as the story of Jack’s internal struggle pitting his id against his ego and superego, and through the Freudian concept of “the Uncanny“. Kubrick uses a number of devices toward this end. For example, Kubrick makes use of mirror images throughout The Shining, and in Jack’s case mirrors reflect his id. Whittington downplays any paranormal explanation of the story, arguing that the Overlook Hotel is not haunted. All can be explained through Freudian analysis. Well, except that The Shining also has a number of references to the genocide of American Indians. He makes a number of interesting observations but these two interpretations (a Freudian analysis of Jack’s twisted psyche and an allegory of the genocide of American Indians) do not sit easily beside one another. As an aside, The Shining inspired Paul Whittington to create Android 207, an interesting stop motion black-and-white short film about an android in a maze.

Another book also argues that The Shining is about genocide, but not that genocide. In his book Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust, author Geoffrey Cocks suggests that Kubrick was preoccupied with the Holocaust and that this is the subtext in The Shining. I haven’t read this one, so I can’t evaluate the argument.

And then perhaps the strangest interpretation of all, one that has inspired not one but two documentary films on the subject, is the notion that The Shining presents a confession of sorts by Stanley Kubrick for his role in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing. This is a multi-level conspiracy theory. First, that the moon landings were faked, and that NASA enlisted the services of Stanley Kubrick to pull this off after seeing how convincingly he was able to portray space travel in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Second, that Kubrick then embedded clues confessing his role in this deception in The Shining. I’m not going to even try to explain how these guys came up with this theory. You’ll just have to see for yourself. Here is The Shining Code.

The more celebrated film that relates this conspiracy theory is the documentary Room 237, which is currently in limited release around the country. After a recent showing in New York, Leon Vitali, who served as Kubrick’s personal assistant, called Room 237 “pure gibberish.” But I love a good conspiracy theory–the crazier the better–and that makes me want to see this movie even more. I hope to catch it in a couple of weeks when it comes to DC.

Trippy Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

This is the fifth installment in an ongoing series devoted to movies with psychedelic themes. The subject of this post is the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey directed by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick wrote the screenplay in association with Arthur C. Clarke, and Clarke wrote his own version of the 2001: A Space Odyssey as a novel. Spoiler alert: as always, the following discussion contains spoilers.

When 2001: A Space Odyssey was initially released it received some negative reviews, most notably from Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker, who called it “a monumentally unimaginative movie.” MGM had spent $12 million on the film, the most they had spent on any film to that time, and they were worried about the effect this would have on the film’s box office. Initially billed as “An epic drama of adventure and exploration”, audiences were not prepared for the film’s slow pacing or its philosophical ambiguities. MGM brought in Mike Kaplan, who referred to himself as “the resident longhair in the publicity department of MGM”, to rethink the film’s marketing. Kaplan was aware that that the underground press had embraced the film and he decided to tap into the 1960s “youth revolution”. He noted that younger members of the audience and liked to get high during the concluding section of the film, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, and he designed a poster for the film to highlight its appeal to the counterculture. The poster read “The Ultimate Trip” and featured the image of the “star child” from the film’s final frames. Ultimately 2001: A Space Odyssey has come to be regarded as a classic with a reputation as psychedelic film.

The first two hours of 2001: A Space Odyssey offer little in the way of psychedelic imagery or influence. The concluding sequence, however, is extremely trippy. After disconnecting the malfunctioning HAL 9000 supercomputer, astronaut Dave Bowman pilots the pod toward the monolith, which is floating in space. Everything comes into alignment and Dave enters a color field. The dazzling show of visual effects goes on for over nine minutes. Initially Dave’s expression is one of wonder but it doesn’t take too long before he’s overwhelmed by the experience. As the scenes start to take on recognizable shapes once again we see Dave’s eye in extreme closeup through a variety of color filters. Finally when the ship comes to rest in a strange, elegant yet antiseptic room, Dave goes from having convulsions to seeing his life pass by a rapid succession, and then is reborn as a star child–the next level of human development–when the monolith reappears.

In a Rolling Stone interview Kubrick was asked about the influence of LSD on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I have to say that it was never meant to represent an acid trip. On the other hand a connection does exist. An acid trip is probably similar to the kind of mind-boggling experience that might occur at the moment of encountering extraterrestrial intelligence. I’ve been put off experimenting with LSD because I don’t like what seems to happen to people who try it.

The mind altering that takes place in 2001: A Space Odyssey comes as a result of contact with the monolith that appears at various points through the film, and the monolith is presented as an alien entity completely outside of human experience. In the opening sequence, “The Dawn of Man”, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “Encounter in the Dawn“, the monolith leads Moon-Watcher (as the main ape-man character is called in Clarke’s novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey) to use tools and weapons. The monolith is next seen centuries later in an excavation site on the surface of the moon. This part of the story was initially based on another Clarke short story, “The Sentinel“, where the monolith sends some sort of signal upon its discovery by humans. In the movie, the signal brings about a mission to Jupiter aboard the spaceship Discovery to find the receiver. Dave Bowman is the only astronaut to survive the trip, however, as the on-board computer, the HAL 9000, tries to kill the crew before they reach their destination. Dave outsmarts the computer, however, and disconnects it so that he can carry out the mission. He finds a companion monolith, which leads him  into the psychedelic color field and on his journey toward the next stage in human development. The monolith makes one more appearance at the end of Dave’s life, bringing on his rebirth as a star child.

Clarke’s novel version of 2001: A Space Odysseyoffers some clues as to the purpose of the monolith and its effect on those it contacts. The monolith is presented as advanced being that inspires creative thought through patient, repeated engagement. Kubrick’s monolith is more enigmatic and viewers are left wondering what it all means. I don’t claim to have the final word on that subject but I do have my own interpretation. Rob Ager‘s observation that the monolith represents a movie screen turned on end is persuasive. We never see the monolith oriented horizontally like a movie screen in the film, but about 1:40 after Dave enters the color field, the orientation of the light show shifts from vertical to horizontal, suggesting that viewers should alter our perspective in the same manner. Once that shift occurs, the color field changes to images suggesting the birth (or rebirth) of the heavens, followed by a descent to more familiar landscapes, though still rendered with psychedelic colors. I would argue that the monolith-as-movie-screen is not meant to be taken literally, but rather as an image of our dreams projected, limited only by the scope of our own imaginations.

 

2001: A Space Odyssey has a point to make about our relationship with technology. The faith in HAL as an infallible computer leads to disaster, and only when Dave is able to overcome HAL is he able to continue on the journey and be aided by the monolith. At one point Frank Poole (the other astronaut aboard the Discovery) responds to a question about what it’s like to be in “hibernation,” that is, held in suspended animation in a technological capsule. “Well it’s exactly like being asleep. You have absolutely no sense of time. The only difference is that you don’t dream.” Our reliance on technology has taken away our ability to dream. Only after Dave frees himself from HAL is he free to dream again. And while it is overwhelming at first, ultimately it allows him to progress to the next level of human development.

Deliverance

CNN recently reported that the movie Deliverance has reached its 40th anniversary.

Like a lot of people, I suppose, I’ve always found Deliverance to be a particularly disturbing movie. Hearing Ronnie Cox’s observation that many may have missed the artistic essence of the movie, I decided to read the novel by James Dickey the film was based on. Time magazine selected it as one of the 100 best novels published since 1923 (the year Time began publication), but after reading a couple of negative reviews I was prepared to dislike the book. Instead I found the book an absorbing and compelling story. I then watched the movie again with Director John Boorman’s commentary on (the 35th anniversary DVD edition), and found it be just as powerful and disturbing as I had remembered. Still, I have a couple of reservations about this story. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Though time has not diminished the visceral power of this film, this story has served to reinforce negative stereotypes of life in the South. Boorman decided to film Deliverance in Rabun County, Georgia, as he thought it well represented Dickey’s fictionalized north Georgia location. I’m sympathetic to the view expressed by Stanley Butch Darnell, Chairman of the Rabun County Commission, who felt that Deliverance showed the people of Rabun County to be “ignorant, backward, scary, deviant redneck hillbillies and that stuck with us through all these years.” In the director’s commentary, Boorman discussed his efforts to film the locals as they lived. At one point the camera peers through a window to see an old woman and a young girl living in poverty, and Boorman makes a point of saying how he this was filmed without any kind of staging. An effective shot, to be sure, but how representative is it really? I looked up statistics for Rabun County, Georgia, from the 1970 census, which was taken just about the time Dickey’s novel was published. The 1970 census shows that Rabun County ranked low in terms of educational attainment. At a time when just over half of all adults in the United States had graduated from high school, less than 30 percent of people living in Rabun County had completed high school. Still, just over 20 percent of Rabun County residents were living below the poverty line, which put it at the about the 25th percentile of counties in terms of poverty. Put another way, while poverty was certainly a problem in Rabun County, the great majority of its residents were not living in poverty in 1970.

As an aside, the CNN piece is misleading in its own way, as well. Showing multi-million dollar homes and upscale art galleries gives the impression that Rabun County has been completely transformed into a haven for the wealthy since the days of Deliverance, but this isn’t supported by the numbers, either. According to the most recent American Community Survey data, 80.5% of Rabun County residents have at least a high school diploma (the national average is 85%) and 23.2 % of families with children live in poverty (as compared to 15.7% nationally). So while Rabun County has made great strides in terms of educational attainment, it still struggles with poverty, not to mention that only 2.1% of county residents make more than $100,000. I guess my point here is that selective use of imagery inevitably provides a distorted portrait of an area, be it an exaggeration of poverty as in Deliverance, or an exaggeration of affluence as in the CNN piece above.

If Deliverance had simply portrayed the rural folk as living in squalor and suspicious of outsiders, it would be easier to disregard the stereotypes. Dickey’s story, however, ventures into far darker, more menacing territory. As Boorman notes in the director’s commentary, Dickey pulled him aside and told him that everything in the story had actually happened to him. Boorman, who generally found Dickey to be difficult, didn’t believe his story. The two repeatedly clashed as filming got underway and Dickey apparently knocked out some of Boorman’s teeth. Despite their antagonism, Dickey appeared as the sheriff at the end of the film. Whether or not Dickey was raped by mountain men, he used this violent act as part of a broader symbolism of “the malevolent forces of Nature,” to use Boorman’s words.

In Dickey’s story, the suburbanites, with the exception of Lewis (played by Burt Reynolds in the movie) have lost their connection with Nature. Rather than being “Mother Nature,” in Dickey’s writing Nature is masculine, and Dickey equates Nature with raw sexual power–and the sexual imagery, particularly homoerotic imagery, is pretty thick in Dickey’s novel. The narrator, Ed (played by Jon Voigt in the movie) is much more passionate in his description of Lewis’s muscles than he is in describing sex with his wife. The four suburbanites who take canoes down the river have been emasculated by their safe, comfortable lives and do not understand the true power of the river. Interesting to note that the movie spends less time on their backstories than the trailer for Deliverance.

In Dickey’s eyes, the mountain men have not lost their connection with Nature, so in the logic of the story, the mountain men carry out the wrath of Nature through rape. To me, it’s at this point that the logic of the story gets particularly murky. I mean, the most demeaning aspect of the stereotypes of the mountain folk is that they’re all inbred. Perhaps someone with more developed skills in literary analysis can correct me here, but the way I read Dickey is:

mountain men = connected to Nature = fuck pretty much anything

 

Ed becomes more connected to Nature as the journey progresses. Once Lewis is injured, Ed finds his inner mountain man. He puts himself in the mind of the surviving mountain man (the one who had been about to force Ed to perform oral sex before being interrupted by Lewis’s arrow), figures out where he will attack next, and scales a sheer rock face to confront him. Ed does the mountain man in with an arrow, so where we once had dueling banjos we now have dueling symbols of phallic penetration.

One last note: this isn’t meant to be a review. My analysis doesn’t do justice to an excellent book and its powerful film adaptation. Instead, I’ve tried to articulate a couple of reservations I have about a story I’ve long found disturbing. But then again, that was probably the intention of James Dickey, as well as John Boorman. They certainly succeeded in creating works that stay with you long after you have experienced them.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, published in 1974, describes a 1968 motorcycle trip by the book’s author, Robert Pirsig, and his son, Chris. For the first half of the trip they were joined by Pirsig’s friends John and Sylvia Sutherland, though Pirsig and his son completed the journey on their own. The book operates on a couple of different levels: 1) as a story about relationships as the narrator, haunted by Phaedrus, the ghost of his former self, comes to understand his relationship with his son in a new light as he struggles to reconcile his current life with the one he led before a mental breakdown; and 2) as a series of philosophical discussions on the metaphysics of quality. Using motorcycle maintenance to illustrate the philosophical component of the story, John Sutherland represents a “romantic” perspective in the sense that he would rather be in the moment and doesn’t care much about the particulars of how it all works, while the narrator represents the “classical” outlook with his attention to the details.

Robert Pirsig describes how Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance came about
in an undated BBC interview

ZMM, as Pirsig abbreviates it, has sold something like 5 million copies worldwide (if the Wikipedia is to be believed) making it the most successful philosophical road-trip novel of all time. Despite the difficulties of adapting such an intellectual book to the screen, Pirsig has had a number of offers to turn the story into a movie. In 2006 Pirsig did an interview with Tim Adams of The Observer that he (perhaps jokingly) claimed would be his last. In his article, Adams writes, “Robert Redford tried to buy the film rights (Pirsig refused).” This statement makes it sound as if Pirsig brushed off the offer with little consideration, but that is hardly the case. Pirsig was actually quite eager to work with Redford and they discussed the project over a period of several years. Robert Redford even makes an appearance in Pirsig’s 1992 novel, Lila, his follow-up to ZMM, as Redford travels to New York to meet with Phaedrus to discuss a film adaptation of ZMM. Pirsig describes how Phaedrus and Redford were having a pleasant conversation before the subject turned to buying the rights to ZMM.

A funny woodenness has crept into his speech, as though he had rehearsed all this. Why should he sound like a poor actor? “I really would like to have the film rights to this book,” Redford says.
“You’ve got them,” Phaedrus says.
Redford looks startled. Phaedrus must have said something wrong. Redford’s biographies said he was unflappable, but he looks flapped now.
“I wouldn’t have gotten this involved if I hadn’t intended to give it to you,” Phaedrus says.
But Redford doesn’t look overjoyed. Instead he looks surprised and retreats to somewhere inside himself. His engrossment is gone.
He wants to know what the previous film deals were. “It’s had quite a history,” Phaedrus says, and he relates a succession of film options that have been sold, and allowed to lapse for one reason or another. Redford is back to his former self, listening intently.

This passage reveals not only that Pirsig had great interest in adapting ZMM as a movie, but also that he was willing to wait for someone he could work with. Pirsig clearly viewed Redford as someone who could do a credible job of bringing ZMM to the screen. Pirsig told Tim Adams, “Redford and I talked to twice. He’s a brilliant guy. I liked him personally. I liked his liberalism.” Pirsig had established a close relationship with his editor, James Landis, while he was writing ZMM, and he appears to have been trying to establish the same sort of relationship with Robert Redford. In 1981 Pirsig wrote a long letter to Redford describing his vision of how ZMM might be adapted for a film. This letter, reprinted in the Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, reveals a great deal about how Pirsig viewed his work. Pirsig suggested using the point of view of the narrator until he reconciles his personality with Phaedrus. For the leading role (which is actually two roles: Phaedrus and the narrator) Pirsig suggested Peter Coyote, then a little known actor who had become friends with his son, Chris. Also, Pirsig offered his 1964 Honda Superhawk he rode in the 1968 road trip for use in the film, though he admitted that it was in need of some maintenance!

I have no doubt that ZMM could have been (and could still be) an excellent movie. For one thing, it would be a road movie, which is always a big plus. The Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as well as the Gary Wegner’s Travelogue and Psybertron have produced maps of Pirsig’s 17-day trip. It starts in my home state of Minnesota and proceeds through some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the United States. Also, the relationships in ZMM are easily accessible and Pirsig conveys his story in a heartfelt way that a movie could capitalize on. Any film adaptation would no doubt simplify the philosophical discussions, but Pirsig was well aware of this as he observed, “Two different books are comingled here, one about ideas and the other about people. If a reader just wants to know about the people, that’s ok.”

In a new afterward to ZMM, Pirsig pondered why a book about philosophy would be so successful. He used a Swedish word, kulturbärer (roughly translated as the cognate “culture-bearer”), to describe how ZMM captured the spirit of the time. Pirsig thought the hippie counterculture had rejected material success without offering a positive alternative. To Pirsig, the hippie notion of “freedom” was essentially a negative goal. Being “free” meant rejecting Western notions of success, but without an alternative this often led to indulging in hedonism. Pirsig felt that ZMM “offers another, more serious alternative to material success. It’s not so much an alternative as an expansion of the meaning of “success” to something larger than just getting a good job and staying out of trouble. And also something larger than mere freedom. It gives a positive goal to work toward that does not confine. That is the main reason for the book’s success, I think. The whole culture happened to be looking for exactly what this book has to offer. That is the sense in which it is a culture-bearer.”

At the end of ZMM the narrator has reconciled himself with his past and suggests that its possible to reconcile the romantic and classical worldviews, not as conflicting viewpoints but as complementary approaches. In this light, the film adaptation of ZMM could have been an answer to the 1969 movie Easy Rider. At the end of Easy Rider, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) enigmatically tells Billy (Dennis Hopper), “We blew it.” Perhaps he was lamenting that they had failed to strive for the sort of positive alternative that Pirsig suggests.

While this conflict may have been more closely associated with time that ZMM was initially published, this basic message of ZMM still has resonance these many years on.So why was the movie never made? Pirsig offers very little explanation on that score, though he does state, “But they insist on the right to change anything they please without asking me.” Despite his desire to see a film adaptation of ZMM, Pirsig was unwilling to give up his vision of how the themes of the film should be communicated to the audience. But while Pirsig may have given up the idea of making ZMM into a movie, Robert Redford was still talking about making ZMM into a film as late as 1997. But even if Redford doesn’t make the film, perhaps someone else will have the opportunity at some point in the future. Pirsig relates, “I told Wendy [Pirsig’s wife] she should sell it as soon as I die. I’m 78 now: someone might as well make some money from it.”