Undermining Auterism #4: The Fallacy of Artistic Intention in Room 237

16 May 2013 at 00:03 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

Room 237 may be the first documentary of its kind. The film explores fan readings of the seminal 1980 horror film, The Shining, by combining the footage of the films of Stanley Kubrick with the voiceover explanations of five fans explaining their theories. Each reading can be supported, but some pieces of evidence feel like Rorschach ink blots, and all five theories rely heavily on the concept of the auteur. Ultimately, Room 237 fascinates more for the ways it reveals the reading practices of fans than for any great light it actually shines (no pun intended) on the text itself.

The five narrators each explain a theory about the underlying meaning of The Shining. Two theories align the bloodshed in the film with acts of genocide, with one fan claiming that the film is about Native American genocide and the other arguing for the Jewish Holocaust. The third reading connects the text with the myth of the Minotaur, while another fan suggests that the film can be read as Kubrick’s admission to staging the Apollo 11 moon landing. The final reading argues that the film grapples with sexuality and, like all of the other readings, points to images of repression to forward its case.

The interpretations on display in Room 237 vary greatly in terms of validity. The Native American genecide reading may be the most plausible due to the Overlook Hotel’s western decor, lines of dialog (“White man’s burden!“), and the hotel’s location upon an Indian burial ground all lending credibility to the concept. The minotaur reading also seems valid due to the actual labyrinth featured in the film and the formal similarities between the tracking shots within the labyrinth and the Overlook Hotel. The scene in Room 237 certainly supports the reading around repressed sexuality; however, I’m less convinced by the Holocaust argument and find the Apollo 11 theory laughable, as these two readings rely primarily upon minutiae, rather than upon plot points.

Therein lies the fascination of Room 237: all five fans point to incredibly specific details from the mise-en-scene as clues for their solution to the puzzle that is The Shining. Everything from a can of Calumet baking powder, to a German typewriter, to an Apollo 11 sweater becomes a sign hinting at much deeper meanings within the text.

A still from The Shining which features the Calumet baking powder can. Image taken from mindswork.co.uk

Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater. Image from nationalreport.net.

The most absurd examples of hyper-attention to detail include a viewer who insists that a cloud resembles Stanley Kubrick’s face, another who compares a skiing poster to an image of a bull, and my favorite would be the paper tray that looks like a phallus. These examples require the keenest attention of the reader to have noticed such abstract uses of the mise-en-scene. They demonstrate who viewers interpret details creatively to support a unifying theory of the film.

Such specific, detailed readings also rely heavily upon assumptions about filmmaking that overestimate the artistic control of the director in the crafting of a film. The fans describe the pains taken by Kubrick in the placement of objects, and while it’s true that such details can be significant, the idea that the director has control over all of these specifics overlooks the fact that film requires collaboration: art directors, costume designers, set directors–all take part in the decision-making process. In a film of The Shining’s complexity, there are just too many details for all of them to have been intentionally chosen by the director.

One of the fans acknowledges the fact that artistic intention may be difficult to argue but claims that intention doesn’t matter when it comes to postmodern film criticism. This is true–fans give meaning to the text with their readings, regardless of what a filmmaker might intend to convey (think queer readings of The Wizard of Oz). My favorite example of fan appropriation from Room 237 would be the the screening of The Shining with the film running backwards superimposed on top. See the trailer for that screening here:

By superimposing the reversed version over The Shining, fans demonstrate the power of synchronicity and the symmetry of narrative. For me, this use of the text proves far more interesting than the tenuous possibility of an all powerful director placing objects in front of the camera to communicate a message. For this reason, Room 237 as a whole is more compelling as an exploration of fan appropriations of text, rather than its elucidation of The Shining‘s overarching meaning. It demonstrates that the viewer, as much as the director, creates meaning when reading a film.

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Undermining Auteurism #3: Crispin Glover

2 April 2010 at 15:01 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

When I initially viewed the trailer for Hot Tub Time Machine, I had very little interest in going out to see it during its theatrical run. The viewing public has been subjected to far too many movies of late about a group of men going on an adventure together where bonding and hijinks ensue (i.e. The Hangover and pretty much anything starring Vince Vaughn). But then, I learned of the involvement of the eccentric character actor Crispin Glover, and suddenly the scales tipped. I’m thinking I might actually go watch this for the sheer pleasure of seeing what it is Mr. Glover might do with his small part but inevitably big character.

This got me thinking about Glover’s role as an actor in shaping films and the ways in which actors in general challenge the idea of the auteurist director. While some folks might argue that casting in fact proves the premise of auteurism since it demonstrates how a director’s casting decisions impact a film, I would challenge that assertion by suggesting that casting is not simply a director selecting players from a variety of choices; ultimately, actors (and their agents) must agree to a project, granting them some degree of agency (though certainly this would not have been the case in studio system in which actors were contractually obligated to perform in a certain number of pictures). Furthermore, actors clearly exercise agency in their performances; otherwise, why would we feel the need to honor them during award season? Ultimately, then, the actor contributes to the end-product of a film and as a result has some degree of authorship.

Glover specifically has developed a star persona that embues the films he performs in with a particular charm. You can see this energy in one of his earliest film performances in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Without Glover, the film would be just another formulaic installment in the series; with Glover, you get awkward dance sequences and one of the best kills in the series preceded by one of the best lines in the series:

Of course, Glover may be best known for his role in the 1980’s sci-fi comedy classic, Back to the Future, in which he played the nerdy, timid George McFly, father of protagonist Marty McFly. While credit is due to the screenwriters of the film, Glover’s delivery of lines like “Lorraine, my density has bought me to you,” “I’m just not very good at… confrontations,” and “Hey, you! Get your damn hands off her!” make for some of the most memorable moments in an already terrific film.

It seems, however, that Glover’s early work merely hinted at the potential zaniness of the actor. His turns in River’s Edge and Wild at Heart, for instance, are some of the strangest characters I can remember:

What’s more, Glover fueled his reputation as one of the strangest personalities in the industry with his bizarre appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, on which fans continue to speculate to this day. Here’s the original clip and then the follow-up appearance:

With a reputation for weirdness, Glover has built an odd filmography, combining smaller roles in mainstream films (The Doors, the Charlie’s Angels remake and sequel, and more recently, Alice and Wonderland and the aforementioned Hot Tub Time Machine) and “independent” features (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) as well as a few starring turns in Bartleby and Willard. Below, the trailer for the latter:

Glover has used the paychecks from these bigger roles to fund his own projects such as the experimental films What Is It? and It is Fine. Everything is Fine

Having seen neither film, I’m not sure what to make of Glover’s use of racist imagery and actors with down syndrome. I would probably find all of the above problematic in some way. Still, the bizarre content and especially the exhibition of these films (Glover presents the films in person and follows the screening with a slideshow and q&a session) intrigues me nonetheless.

In a career full of fascinating turns, I find Glover’s work as an author most compelling. Glover takes hardback books that have become public domain and turns them into stories by redacting passages and adding new ones. One book called Rat Catching is based on a 1896 manual for capturing rodents. Below are a couple of pictures:

A page from Rat Catching by Crispin Hellion Glover. Image courtesy of Flckr.

Another page out of Glover's book. Image also courtesy of Flickr.

These books encapsulate what Glover does in all of his performances: he takes the content he is given and puts his own spin on it, dramatically impacting the text as a whole. He becomes one of the text’s many authors through his presence on screen, like so many actors whose names may not make the marquee.

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