Criticism — From the June 2013 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Criticism — From the June 2013 issue
In Barcelona I have a car waiting to take me to Sitges, a half-hour drive down the Catalan coast. I’m two days ahead of my cousin Tim, who arranged for the car, or who arranged for the person who arranged for the car, and who was still in Hamburg for a screening of his documentary, Room 237. The film is an investigation into the multiple, cryptic, and somewhat ludicrous meanings that a number of obsessives claim Stanley Kubrick planted in his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, a novel that has no similar allegations — that is, that it’s about something other than what it is obviously about: a possessed hotel and its deranged winter caretaker. Sitges was the next stop on Tim’s tour of international film festivals.
Among the theories held by the fans interviewed in Room 237: (1) The Shining is really a veiled confession by Kubrick that he conspired with NASA to fake the footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing; (2) it’s really about the genocide of the Native Americans; (3) it’s a commentary on the Holocaust; (4) it’s not a horror story at all but actually a very slick vehicle for pulling off a series of seemingly pointless subliminal erotic gags. When I first saw Tim’s documentary, it was hard not to feel that my cousin had at last found the right pulpit for addressing the subject of belief — something from which we had both more or less extricated ourselves, not without gore, as the elder sons of sibling pastors from the Midwest.
I didn’t know Rodney Ascher, the director, but it seemed clear Tim had found his cosmic twin. The two had met up after discovering that they’d both made short films spoofing the evangelical comic-book tracts of a man named Jack Chick. Rodney adapted one about a kid who overdoses on speed and goes to hell. Tim’s was about the perils of Ouija boards. They put together an anthology of these Christian cautionary vignettes and called it Hot Chicks. One day Tim showed Rodney a website that outlined the Kubrick-staged-the-moon-landing theory. They decided to make a short film, maybe something to put on YouTube.
But then they started digging up all these other equally intriguing theories and realized there was more than enough for a full-length film. (Interpretations of the design in the Overlook Hotel’s carpets alone — a match for Apollo 11’s launchpad, a simplified depiction of the act of intercourse, a symbol of the whole course of our genetic history — was probably enough for a TED talk.) They submitted the finished film to Sundance, where it picked up a distribution deal with IFC. Variety called Room 237 “one of the great movies about movies”; LA Weekly said it was a “brilliant work of alternative film criticism”; and Alec Baldwin tweeted from the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes: “Saw Room 237 tonight. Bee-fucking-zarre . . . ” Soon De Niro and Madonna were asking for screeners.
In an article in the New York Times (“Cracking the Code in ‘Heeere’s Johnny!’ ”), one of Tim’s subjects was quoted as saying that the imagery in The Shining was “as good a visual metonym for the horror of the 20th century [as] has ever been filmed.” One could likewise argue that Room 237 creates a perfect “visual metonym” for the age of the remix. While the Web is hectic with the labor of vidders and mash-up artists and other pirate cineastes, no work in this genre has ever been released as a feature-length movie, let alone made such usufructuary hay of the fair-use doctrine. Hours of interviews with Kubrick’s devoted conspiracy theorists were recorded for Room 237, but the visuals from start to finish are a montage — there are clips from The Shining, of course, but also from Schindler’s List, Scooby-Doo, Fellini’s Satyricon, All the President’s Men, Dr. Dolittle, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Brain from Planet Arous, and about forty other films.
Despite the rave in Variety, I did not think Room 237 was a “movie about movies.” It was a movie about fans — a special kind of fanatic who is haunted not by what a work of art says but by what it doesn’t. The Shining can assimilate any new interpretation you might be inclined to impose on it. It’s welcoming that way, like a hotel with infinite accommodations.
Once delivered to my own hotel, which was also HQ to the Sitges Film Festival, a genre fest devoted to horror, I sit in the lobby and watch the aficionados and professional makers of disembowelment and dread pass by. The cover of that day’s edition of the festival tabloid is the poster for Room 237: a bright patch of the Overlook’s brown-and-orange-hexagon carpet and, in the center of one hex, playing with his toy cars, little Danny Torrance, the boy who shines.
It is not ten in the morning when I pick up my press pass, and then I make the mistake of going to see a movie about an island of demonic children who torment some attractive gringo tourists. It doesn’t sit right with my jet lag, so I dedicate the rest of the day to exploring the hotel, shaving, and reading on my balcony. Tim’s movie doesn’t start until eight thirty tonight, anyway, so it seems prudent to spend some time soaking my head in the sun rather than sitting in a theater watching movies with titles like Happy Birthday Mr. Zombie, Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead, and A Fantastic Fear of Everything.
When night falls, I wander the labyrinthine streets of the medieval seaside village, with its sparkling nightlife, outdoor cafés, candlelit tapas bars, and palm trees wound with Christmas lights on the Plaça del Baluard. When I arrive at the Prado theater, I am just in time to get the last seat in the darkened balcony.
The movie has already begun. Tom Cruise, wearing a black trench coat, walks down an empty London street and stops in front of a theater to examine a poster for The Shining. The poster gleams yellow. Cruise stands there, in contemplative slo-mo, reading the tagline: the wave of terror that swept across america is here. About the time we get that the clip is from Eyes Wide Shut, a man in voice-over begins to say how he first saw The Shining while working in Europe as a bureau chief for ABC News.
I went in to see this movie . . . right near Leicester Square in London, um, and I remember it quite clearly from, I can even remember the seats we were sitting in. If I went back to that theater I could point them to you, um, sorta near the back and over to the left. From the moment of the opening astonishing helicopter shot I was terrified! . . . We left the theater . . . and I was like, What was that? What was that? What was it, what was it, what was it? And I think my visual imagination looked at that Calumet Baking Powder can —
We are now in the pantry of the Overlook Hotel with Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers, who plays the psychic cook Dick Hallorann, who will tell Danny to stay out of room 237.
— the one right behind Hallorann’s head when he was talking to Danny. I knew what “calumet” meant — it meant “peace pipe” — and I thought to myself: Peace pipe, Indians. Oh my goodness, they’re all over the place in that movie! And I suddenly said to my friends: That movie was about the genocide of the American Indians!
Later a split screen shows a group of pilgrims chopping logs, swinging axes, clearing the land, some old western clip, while on the right Jack Nicholson chops down the bathroom door behind which his wife and son cower and scream.
“I had my first religious experience seeing the film 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968,” another voice says. Over images of HAL 9000 and stressed-out astronaut David Bowman, he continues, “I never in my life envisioned that a movie could do what this movie was doing, and it was showing me things that I had never seen.” After the narrator saw The Shining, he realized 2001 was a confession:
I wasn’t sure I was right for the first hour. I wasn’t sure I wasn’t blurring the line between what I wanted to see and what I was seeing, and then at about fifty-eight minutes in the film was the famous scene where Danny’s playing with his trucks and he stands up and he’s wearing the Apollo 11 sweater. Then I knew I’d nabbed it.
A third voice:
I kept watching the film again and again and again, and since I’m trained as a historian, and my special expertise is in the history of Germany, and Nazi Germany in particular, I became more and more convinced that there is in this film a deeply laid subtext.
We see Jack’s typewriter, a blank sheet rolled in, the instrument of the caretaker/failed writer.
“Why a German typewriter?” the voice continued. “I began to see the number forty-two appear in the film, and, for a German historian, if you put the number forty-two and a German typewriter together you get the Holocaust.”
The number forty-two is suggested again when Wendy and Danny watch Summer of ’42 (on a TV that, another theorist points out, has no power cord). When you first see Danny standing before a mirror talking to his finger, the sleeve of his shirt says 42. The historian also troubles himself to count the cars in an aerial shot of the Overlook’s parking lot: forty-two.
I had already watched a screener of Room 237 once before, with my wife and my mother, who was curious what had become of Tim’s aborted film career. My mother made it through a few minutes. My wife survived until we heard from Subliminal Guy, who, like many others, admitted to experiencing confusion after his first viewing of The Shining: “I was disappointed, but I still watched it every few years. I couldn’t understand why I was so attracted to watching a film that I actually didn’t like.” Until, eventually, he discovered that inside The Shining were hundreds of coded messages that spoke to the core of human sexuality.
You have to be able to be a complete fanatic like I am in order to find all this, but, you know, um, I’ll give you my favorite. I’m only gonna give you one, but I’ll give you my favorite. When Jack meets Stuart Ullman [the hotel manager, played by Barry Nelson] in the office at the very beginning of the movie? And he reaches over to shake Jack Nicholson’s hand? And so step through that scene frame by frame, and the minute, the moment, the frame that he and Jack Nicholson touch hands . . . you can see that the, uh, there’s a paper tray on the desk, and as soon as they touch hands the paper tray turns into a very large straight-on hard-on coming out of Barry Nelson. Yeah, it’s hilarious. It’s a joke. A very serious joke, but a joke by Stanley. And there’s many of these in the film.
The interview subjects, whose faces we never see, are allowed to go on and on. (Tim later told me they sent each subject a tape recorder and then conducted the interviews via Skype.) One of them, a film archivist, is just about to make a point about something Jack is doing in the lobby when the interview is interrupted by a crying child. Nicholson is left paused, halfway out of his chair, while we eavesdrop on a woman groaning in the background, “I’ve got it”; then the archivist returns and points out that the magazine in Nicholson’s hand is a Playgirl, specifically the January 1978 issue, and so we too can investigate this clue for ourselves, the cover with its headline — how your tax dollars give new identities to convicted criminals — blown up beside Nicholson. If you later google “Playgirl January 1978,” as I do, the first hit is an analysis of The Shining. This is also the case when you google the date below the photograph in the final shot of the movie: July 4, 1921. (The camera slowly pushes in on an image of a group of revelers in the hotel ballroom, and there’s Jack in the center, waving.) It’s as if all referents, whatever they may be, have been folded back into the movie. The Shining acts like a kind of cultural black hole, or maybe a bottomless elevator shaft, sucking everything in — myth, meaning, pattern, parody, context, irony, interpretation — until it’s all crushed and flattened to where one no longer needs to connect the dots because there is only one dot.
Two days later, after Tim and his wife, Stella, and their four-year-old, Briar Rose, arrive in Barcelona, we arrange to meet at a playground across from Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família. When I see Tim stroll into the playground, holding his daughter’s hand, I realize that I have not seen him in ten years, not since our grandmother’s funeral, an event that was, in its own way, a real horror show. Tim has gone a bit wide in the face and has a definite Orson Welles look going on — quite different from the scarecrow punk who used to live with my family summers between semesters studying screenwriting at Vassar, chain-smoking and scribbling in the spare bedroom one door from mine. Having him around was without question the best thing that ever happened to my early adolescence. Now, as he crosses the park, Tim is talking to his daughter. “Yeah, that’s poop. Yeah, that’s trash in a can. Yes, dog poop.”
I was in college when Tim sold his first screenplay, for a truly amazing amount of money. For several years it stayed like that — Tim the family rock star, selling more scripts, working with big studios — but then things started to slow down, until at some point he was no longer a screenwriter. The unsympathetic gossip in our family was that he had somehow failed, that it was drugs, it was booze, who knew, and the next I heard he was working in a studio film archive sorting through old westerns.
Tim settles down on the bench beside me and right away he seems stressed. He says, not joking, how he still half-expects somebody to jump out from the bushes with a cease-and-desist order, especially now that Room 237 has been released in the United Kingdom, where Kubrick lived.
He says he and Rodney educated themselves about copyright infringement from the start, since they knew they were going to be using a lot of clips. “But at the same time we were like, we don’t really know, we don’t really understand it. This thing’s probably unsalable — is it even legal to show at a film festival?” He no longer smokes, and I notice his gestures seem a bit forlorn without a cigarette.
In the rush to finish the film for Sundance, Tim and Rodney showed a rough cut to their lawyers, who said, “This is a great movie, guys, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The consensus seems to be that they’re within the legitimate bounds of the fair use: their appropriations are “transformative” rather than derivative. (Still, a week after Sitges, at the London Film Festival, the director John Landis will give Tim a severe dressing-down during a Q&A: “You steal from everyone, from Universal, from Fox, from Warner. . . . You even use something from one of my films, and you recut it — if you’re going to use it, let it play!” This being a clip of American Werewolf in London where a squad of werewolves dressed as Nazis machine-gun an innocent family. “How do you think you’re going to get away with this?”) In the end, Tim and Rodney worked out a deal with Warner Bros., which holds the copyright to The Shining, to show a lengthy disclaimer before the credits.
“I mean, it’s been wonderful,” Tim continues, “but on my end, I gotta tell you, it’s just been really stressful.” He exhales and then focuses on his hands for a minute with a meditative expression. “I’m kind of looking forward to this being over.”
During his hiatus from moviemaking, Tim worked for a cemetery in Los Angeles called Forest Lawn Memorial-Park. He had stumbled upon the place when he and a pal were driving around on Christmas Eve looking for shortcuts to Dodger Stadium. (This was before Tim got married.) They drove through the cemetery until they saw a weird cathedral at the top of a rise that looked out toward the Hollywood Hills. “It’s like that big —” He twists around to gesture toward la Sagrada. “It’s like that. It’s like somebody’s vision, you know?”
The cathedral was open, and inside they found a giant empty theater of plush red velvet seats. Soon a recorded voice announced that they were about to behold the greatest religious painting in the history of the world.
“It’s bigger than a football field.” Tim tracks his daughter’s movements up the playground ladder. “And it’s Christ just before his crucifixion. He’s standing — it’s kinda cool — he’s standing kinda looking up at the cross, you know? It’s got Golgotha, it’s got the marketplace below, it’s got all this shit behind, you can see the garden of Gethsemane, and then they had this little light show” — he puts on a hushed narrator voice — “ ‘In the morning the King was brought before the people,’ and then the light show would pick out people.”
Tim ended up making friends with the operators, getting to know all the doings behind the scenes, and more or less infiltrating the place like a poltergeist. When they decided to redo the voice-over for the cemetery’s centennial, they hired Tim to write and direct it. At first he tried to tell them not to replace it, because even if he hated it, he also loved it, but, Tim being Tim, he ultimately couldn’t resist the chance to screw around with the levers from the inside. He mostly tried to honor the corniness of the original, but he altered it just enough to make it his own. It now plays seven times a day on the hour.
“I would love to take Briar and have her laugh at it, you know, but there’s no way.” He turns serious. “I don’t ever want her to see that thing. It’s the core of everything that fucked me up, man.”
Before Tim arrived I had taken a quick tour of Gaudí’s holy spaceship. Undeniably Kubrickian. I had passed under the Passion façade, with the whole familiar tableau in reinforced concrete. Jesus hanging from an I beam. A Roman soldier stabbing a sword into the side of the cathedral, as if the building itself were possessed. I had squeezed in among the torrent of pilgrims, who were bathed in crimson light from the stained-glass windows. I stared up past the soaring columns and into the hyperboloidal vaulted ceiling.
The bright open space of the basilica made me think of my favorite part of Room 237: the analysis of the Overlook Hotel’s uncanny architecture by the solitary female voice-over — Juli Kearns — with her exquisite diagrams.
“I mean the light coming through there is glaring,” she says of the window in the general manager’s office. “This is an impossible window . . . It is physically impossible. It cannot be there. It should not be there. There’s no place in the hotel for this window to exist.”
As she speaks, we see a series of animated schematics of the hotel, with white arrows tracing Danny’s Big Wheel circuit past room 237 and black arrows showing his earlier circuit through the Colorado Lounge, where Jack works at his altar-size writing desk. To demonstrate the impossibility of the implied layout of the hotel, Kearns talks us through the scene where Wendy moves down a corridor shakily holding a large knife while, in split screen, we see the letter “W” moving slowly down one of Kearns’s schematic halls, away from the “Office with Impossible Window” and past “Landscape on Wall in Hall Beyond Impossible Window.” After she skirts around the corner, we see the pale blue “W” pass ghostlike through a solid wall, but movie-Wendy continues unimpeded toward the elevators and the lobby, where she stumbles over Hallorann’s body.
Kearns’s analysis makes clear that the most frightening thing about The Shining is the building itself: it is alive; it has intent; it must have beliefs and its own strange interpretation of things; and everything in it is so relentlessly beautifully lit. Unlike most scary movies, which are always springing out at you from the dark, or claustrophobically pinning you to the actor’s face with close-ups, The Shining shows you everything all the time, since Kubrick lights the place up with a million watts and sets you adrift in the seemingly endless depth of field. It is wide-awake horror.
Back in Sitges, the hotel lobby is filled as usual with the true believers, the genre purists, the horror hipsters with their arms crossed earnestly over fanboy guts and Eraserhead T-shirts. Out by the pool, while playing tic-tac-toe with Briar, I see Elijah Wood, who stars in a terrible movie being screened here about a psychopath who scalps women in order to accessorize his harem of department-store mannequins. I overhear a Spanish filmmaker describing for an American panelist a concept for a movie about a world that’s encased in ice and snow, where everyone lives on a train, with the poor in the rear of the train, and I think it sounds like a movie I would like to see. Everyone — including Elijah Wood — is talking about Room 237.
One afternoon Tim and I make camp in a café, having had our fill of movies, including Berberian Sound Studio, which follows the travails of a meek sound engineer who works for an Italian horror studio, chopping apart watermelons and other wet and hackable items of food while watching footage that, we, the audience, can’t see — though occasionally there’s a line of voice-over such as “A dangerously aroused goblin stalks the dormitory.”
We’re talking about fair use again, and how Tim and Rodney’s lawyers listed and color-coded every shot in Room 237 on a spreadsheet, designating in green what was clearly fair use, yellow what was maybe on the line, and red what they would have to license. The lawyers actually encouraged them to use more clips in the film rather than fewer, to build a stronger case for the commentary argument.
I tell Tim how interesting I think it is that most of the subjects in Room 237 either didn’t like The Shining or felt they had missed something the first time.
Tim says how that’s probably where he most identifies with his subjects. “I saw it opening weekend at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and I was a little disappointed, because I was expecting so much from it. It really blew me away, but I was like, What the fuck happened? I just felt like it was saying that there was something bigger going on that I had missed.”
Even though ultimately I like the Kubrick better, I tell Tim, the novel does a better job of making you care about the father, Jack — you want him to win out over his demons. That goes out the window in Kubrick’s adaptation.
“You don’t sympathize with him in the movie,” I say, “but in the book, you’re like, Oh man, you don’t have to be like this!”
Tim says he’s never read the book. He says he and Rodney thought one of them shouldn’t read it.
“In the book,” I say, “he doesn’t want to fuck up. And you really get that — you can’t miss it.” It’s about a man going crazy with the stink of his own failure. It’s all about Jack trying not to lose his temper, to be a good man and not hurt his son. Of course, there’s also King’s whole belabored metaphor of the boiler in the hotel basement, and you know it’s going to explode by page thirty, but that doesn’t take away from the painful empathy you feel for this self-destructive father.
Tim admits that you don’t get any sense of Jack’s trying to connect with his son in the film. “It’s funny,” he muses. “Rodney says he would always watch it sort of rooting for Jack to get his shit together. I was always rooting for him to go crazy — he’s a writer and he’s only eloquent when he’s crazy or drunk. It all played into my idea of a creative life.” He pauses for a moment. “And then it’s just mind-boggling. The bit on the stairs?”
“When she’s got the baseball bat?”
In Room 237 the shot is paired with a ritual-human-sacrifice clip from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.
“Yeah,” Tim says, “and he’s taunting her. He says stuff that like, verbatim, my dad would say. Like in the same cadence. ‘Wendy. Darling. Love of my life.’ That is Sam Kirk. . . . When he would get angry. He would get very . . .”
“Exactly. ’Cause you were waiting around for Sam to be cool — a lot — as a kid, and then he would be either really fun, or he would get angry and he’d be really eloquent, and you’d be like, Wow, here’s the guy I like. But it was weird ’cause it was mixed up with anger and often anger at you.”
I confess to the same trait. “When I get really fucking angry I get just deathly. With Julie I will take her apart in eighteen ways, and I hear myself doing it and I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“I know,” Tim says sadly. “I recognized this pretty early in myself. And I’ve been really working not to value that.”
But it’s hard when you’re thinking “I’m so great!” while you’re butchering somebody.
Later Tim and I meet back up in the main lounge off the lobby. It’s a chic space with curvilinear white-and-black couches and mod Scandinavian lamps, and it seems like a good place to have drinks, except for the giant photos of women in blood-drenched teddies. Stella is there with a local couple, friends of friends, and they’re planning a day trip that Tim and I get out of by lying and saying I need to interview him again.
We make faces at Briar from the glass elevator, and she runs around the couches and makes crazy-person faces back at us. Before we complete our ascent Tim says he actually needs to go to the laundromat. Festival-circuit laundry has been accumulating since Hamburg. So we go to his room, where he sorts it all out on the bed and then stuffs it into four or five totes. Before we get back on the elevator he pauses behind a planter and peeks over a railing — it’s six stories of open space down to the lounge. Everybody’s still there, and we can hear their muted bilingual conversation, freed of meaning, drifting up toward us. We put the bags down and wait until they’re gone.
“Knowing you were going to be staying in all these hotels, with all these great corridors, I don’t know why you didn’t bring a Big Wheel for Briar,” I say. “That could have been a great publicity stunt. ‘Oh look, there’s the Room 237 kid!’ ” Tim concedes this is a brilliant idea, a major oversight on his part.
We wait a few more minutes and then go back to the lobby, catching odd glances from a few of the beautiful people who aren’t burdened by huge bags of stinking laundry. We slip out through a basement maze — Tim’s got the layout of the hotel down. Once we’re outside he pulls out a crumpled list of laundromats and a cab takes us to the least enchanted street in Sitges.
For a while we sit watching the sloshing portholes of the washing machines, and he talks about a job he once had working with the video artist Bill Viola. He says the experience opened his eyes to different ways of telling a story with film. The project was called The Deluge, part of a larger installation that Viola had said was inspired by Giotto’s frescoes for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. They filmed out by Long Beach Airport, where they built the façade of a white apartment building, with a red staircase in the center of the set. The piece begins with pedestrians walking by, an ordinary day, and that goes on in slo-mo for about twenty minutes, until you see people, many people, all at once, starting to rush down the stairs in a panic to exit the building. Then a powerful frothing geyser explodes down the stairs, knocking people over, washing them away down the street, followed by chairs, pillows, suitcases, and more bodies carried off in the torrent, until at last the water blows out the upstairs windows. Tim had worked with the special-effects team to set up a system of pipes and pressurized tanks that held a total of 96,000 gallons of water. He’d gotten to turn the release valve.
The laundromat is getting warmer. There is only one other person, an old man folding underwear. Condensation drips down the fogged-over street window and the dryers gust and pant.
After a minute, Tim asks whether I remember what my brother said on the night after Grandmother Betty’s funeral. I know right away what he’s talking about. That morning, everyone had gathered at my cousin Rick’s house. My father had brought his dogs over, and shortly before we left for the cemetery they had rushed outside and massacred all of Rick’s cats.
We stood in shock, but my father started laughing psychotically. His cheeks streamed with tears, and he was bent over squeezing his thighs, the way he got when he couldn’t stop laughing at something truly profane. I think it was the timing as much as anything that tickled him. The sudden unexpectedness of the violence. I remember wanting to shut him up, but, of course, since we were about to bury his mother, I only waited with the others, uncomfortably, until his laughter finally stopped and was eclipsed by the more familiar expression of smoldering fury.
The thing my brother Jeff said after the funeral was how, in the moment, the only reason he could imagine for our father’s breakdown was that “it must have been some kind of code.”
“I knew it couldn’t really be that he was laughing about the dogs killing the cats,” he said. “I figured it had to be some sort of code.”
You could sense my brother’s doubt: he didn’t really believe this interpretation, but he shrugged because thinking about it any other way was just too horrifying.
That night, Tim and I stayed up drinking till dawn. We were in his motel room on the first floor, and I recall that long after we’d worked out all the possible theories for why our fathers, who were obviously possessed by demons, had appointed themselves men of God, I started to hallucinate that I could see my uncle’s face superimposed on Tim’s, and then, after several more loud hours, we found ourselves in the hallway outside Tim’s door, down on our knees on the dingy motel carpet, kneeling face-to-face, shaking our clasped fists in prayer. Begging more than praying, really: between snorts of unstifled laughter, besotted glossolalia, beseeching Jebus to forgib us, oh pleez pleez pleez forgib us, Jebus, pleez pleez pleez pleez pleez, and on and on, burning and raving, as if to fend off the gray light casting its first pale strands down the long dark hall from the lobby.
I don’t recall the pattern of the carpet, but it is clear to me now that, in a sense, we were inside this movie all along.
I ask Tim what he thinks our grandmother would have thought of Room 237.
“Uh, I think she would have liked the My Fair Lady clip.”
He wonders about our grandmother’s role in our fathers’ twin calling, as I do. She had been the organist in that dill-weed church where the Holy Ghost had taken our fathers by the scruff. Every Sunday she brought the building to life. Manned the stops that controlled the bellows that allowed the pipes to shake the walls with fury.
Tim says he’s consulted Betty’s Bible, searching for clues.
“You have Grandma’s Bible?”
My dad gave it to him, he says, but the inscription looks as though his own dad had given it to Betty after graduating from seminary. He says she underlined a number of passages, including Proverbs 3:5–8 (which she notated as “my favorite”):
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
It’s a point Kubrick, unlike his conspiracist fans, would have agreed with, at least the second part. “While you’re making a film, and you get deeper and deeper into it, you find that in a certain sense you know less and less about it,” he said in an interview.
People can misinterpret almost anything so that it coincides with views they already hold. They take from art what they already believe, and I wonder how many people have ever had their views about anything important changed by a work of art.
When we return to the hotel with the clean laundry, I go up to my room and watch, for the hundredth time, one of the final scenes from The Shining. The bit in the bathroom where the ghost of Delbert Grady — the former winter caretaker — dabs a napkin at the drink he’s spilled on Jack’s coat. The drink is an advocaat: egg and brandy, a horrifying stain if not attacked right away. Out in the hotel ballroom the soiree goes on, big-band music drifting into the scarlet lavatory. Then there’s that wonderful dawning moment between the urinals and the mirrors when Jack recognizes Grady and says he knows that he chopped up his wife and daughters, but then Grady says, “I’m sorry to differ with you, sir, but you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir; I’ve always been here.” It’s an exhilarating moment of transference, the original taking its own uncertain duplicate to task, an instance of delirious, terrifying infringement. And then Grady turns Jack’s attention to the awful business at hand, to the obligation that awaits. It’s work that Jack says he looks forward to with the greatest pleasure. As if all he’d been waiting for was permission to go fetch that eloquent ax.
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
More from Jay Kirk: