'Room 237' and the Ongoing 'Shining' Mystique

It's like the Beatles and the whole "Paul Is Dead" thing transported over to celluloid, but instead of records and album covers, we have scenes and visuals and veiled references.

We critics face this dilemma every day. We walk into a screening, not knowing what to expect, and come out convinced we've seen a work of brilliance...or something worth shoving down a sinkhole. In between lies the real issue, however. Sometimes, a movie makes us, well, think. It makes us wonder. It challenges our perceptions as well as what we think, or anticipate, a film will forward. It becomes a question mark, a challenge to revisit at a later date. Such is the case with most of Stanley Kubrick's creative canon.

From his initial mainstream movies to his later, auteur work, the genius behind such memorable motion pictures as A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Dr. Strangelove, and of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey loved to play with form and meaning. Take the starchild from the end of said 1968 masterpiece. From the moment astronaut Dave Bowman entered the monolith to the sequence where he shape-shifts, evolving along alien-influenced lines, viewers were more than puzzled. When the giant floating fetus took position over the planet Earth for the stunning final shot, more than a couple of film fans were scratching their heads in a collection "huh?"

So it makes sense that his interpretation of Stephen King's best seller The Shining would produce an equal amount of speculation. Deviating wildly from the literary horror maestro's text and taking into consideration material and motivations outside the novel's known elements, it's either a flawless fright film, or a serious sign of aesthetic disrespect. It's also begat a kind of cult of obsession of analysis. Again, this is natural. If Kubrick didn't like what King had to say (basically, isolation and personal demons mixed with a haunted hotel equals a bad time for the snowbound caretakers of same), then what, exactly did he want to say? And if he was such a meticulous filmmaker, often spending days on a single scene or shot, why are there so many obvious continuity and spatial errors present?

These are the puzzle pieces, snippets of possible truth just waiting for someone to come along and stitch them all together. Thus we have Room 237, a documentary where several of the more sensational theories about Kubrick's moviemaking motives are explained. Talking with the people who've developed these ideas (with one conspicuously MIA) and illustrating their points with examples and additional evidence, the film makes a compelling case for this director as a devious trickster. But when words like "genocide" and concepts like The Holocaust are thrown out there for discussion, the whole enterprise turns suspect, and kind of silly.

It's all home video's fault. Before the advent of the Betamax and the VCR, film fanatics had to attend specialized screenings at colleges and/or museums to muse on their favorite titles. There wasn't a fount of available review material, meaning that you couldn't just sit back, in the comfort of you lair, and revisit a film over and over and over again. Today, this is the norm. You can decipher all the philosophical clues the Wachowskis inserted in The Matrix trilogy until your Neo is your Nietzsche. You can fast forward and freeze frame, picking up all the little hints that an otherwise overworked filmmaker secretly inserted into their effort. It's like The Beatles and the whole "Paul is Dead" thing transported over to celluloid, but instead of records and album covers, we have scenes and visuals and veiled references.

In Room 237, there are at least five main theories. They include the idea that Stanley Kubrick was hired by the US government to fake the footage from the moon landing (oh -- we landed on the moon, but the images we all saw were not actually from the planet's surface. They were faked in a Hollywood studio -- studio 237) and that The Shining was his admission and mea culpa. Then there's the bow to white majority influx into the west and the destruction of the American Indian. Yes, someone does link the horror film to The Final Solution, arguing that it was Kubrick's way of explaining such an inhuman atrocity to the naive viewer, and there's even mention of Greek mythology and the Minotaur. Along the way, everything from the patterns of the various carpets to the purpose behind Bill Watson (hotel manager Stuart Ullman's assistant) are parsed.

It's all a perfect storm of fetishism. Kubrick was, by his very nature, an ambiguous and open ended filmmaker. Many of his movies fall into the category of telling tabula rasa, meaning you can see what is present and read anything you want into them. Scholars on the auteur argue that this is the only way to understand the man, since when he wanted to be specific, he was very specific (see The War Room in Dr. Strangelove) and, indeed, when faced with an enigma like 2001, the pitch of "a film about alien first contact" just doesn't cut it. But The Shining has an initial purpose -- to horrify. It is Kubrick making macabre. Why all the other meanings?

The answer, of course, is inherent in the material. Even to a die-hard Stan Fan, The Shining is a bit of a disappointing riddle. King devotees continuously rip the end result (though the writer didn't do much better with his literal TV mini-series take on the tome) while others admire its technique while lamenting its lack of scares. Sure, you can see shadows in the corners, or run the film both forwards and backwards and watch as the double exposures create clever little "insights" into the experience. But just like taking out your copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and syncing it up to The Wizard of Oz, much of this is haphazard explanation. The clues are coincidental conclusions, one's reachable by accidents, not actual design.

Which raises the final question, to wit: which is it? Is it a Holocaust allegory? An apology for lying about the space race? A meditation on the Native American massacre at the hands of the white man, or is it really a mere experiment in temporal and logistical displacement and disorientation. I can't be all, since no one, not even Stanley Kubrick, is intelligent enough to turn a story by Stephen King centering on an isolated family in crisis into a Nazi fever dream where Cherokees are killed off while astronauts flaunt their rear projection realities, all on a set where hallways go nowhere and office windows highlight impossible spaces. So which one is right - and why? Why that conclusion? Of course, we will never really know...perhaps because it's just a horror movie.

Still, this is the power of repeated viewings. It's also the excesses of overexposure. Room 237 offers up some intriguing possibilities. What The Shining really means - if anything, and beyond the obvious - will always remains a mystery. Besides, they failed to feature one of the best theories out there: that we never really see Jack Torrence as he really is. Jack Nicholson is the "ghost" possessing the man. That's why his image is in the group photo from 1921. Think about it. Someone else did. A lot.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.