Stanley Kubrick and Room 237

At what point does a movie turn from entertainment to iconography? Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is a film that beckons to be seen again and again. Not only because the characters are intriguing and the story irresistibly disturbing, but also because the experience of watching Jack Nicholas as “Jack Torrance” descend into madness, terrorizing his wife “Wendy” (Shelley Duval) and son “Danny” (Danny Lloyd), is utterly mesmerizing.

Due to Kubrick’s stature as one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century, it is not surprising that The Shining has accumulated volumes of film analysis, in addition to being critically acclaimed around the world. As a contribution to the storied tradition of horror, in which psycho-dramas and psycho-thrillers are sub-genres, The Shining, like Hitchcock’s Psycho (1961), stands alone. Such films stand alone precisely because they make you forget that they are part of any genre or historical tradition.


In the case of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 (2012), we are shown what happens when interest in a film turns from admiration to obsession. As we listen to a variety of Kubrick fans, from a professor of history to a playwright, the interpretations of Stephen King’s adapted story slowly progress from the plausible to the outlandish. Of particular interest to me was the thesis stating that The Shining’s subtext was the genocidal push of American westward expansion, which included the decimation of countless tribal communities. When I saw the film as a seventeen-year-old kid I remember being struck by the number Indian images exhibited throughout the Overlook Hotel. However, I’m sure that it ever occurred to me to try and find meaning in the way that the Calumet baking powder tins were arranged in certain scenes, as did one of the film’s interpreters. Nevertheless, Indian history as background—the hotel is built on an Indian burial ground—is something that resonated with me.


The point at which Room 237 ventures into the arcane and peculiar is when interpreters move from talking about the larger themes brought up in the narrative to focusing on the items that are regarded as symbolic. Perhaps the better word is enigmatic. Patterns in the carpet, the placement of a paper tray, the route taken by a big wheel are all subjected to not just analysis but over-analysis, going from Freudian to occult to conspiracy. Phalluses and the Apollo moon mission take turns as the film’s hidden topics. Interestingly, in spite of the meticulous analysis that some went through to substantiate their theories—in one case, the floor plan of the hotel was deduced from a variety of scenes—not all of the major subjects were covered. Most noticeable was the absence of any discussion of Jack Torrance’s alcoholism or his abusive behavior. You do, however, get some commentary of why the main character is driving a yellow VW Bug in the movie when in King’s novel he is driving a red VW Bug.

In the end, I am not sure if I enjoyed Room 237 or not. Some of the more fringe comments were more strained than interesting. At the same time, I did occasionally get caught up in the enthusiasm for the movie, not to mention how seriously the interpreters took their own bizarre notions. Occasionally, it was like listening to someone totally convinced that they were abducted by aliens. For some people, obviously, The Shining is more than just a movie. It is a life-altering experience, in which mysteries abound all over that lonely hotel in the mountains.



Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls’: A Story About Love, Rebellion, and Mass Murder

emma cline

Inspired by the Manson Family murders of 1969, Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls (2016) is charged with the imminent threat of violent tragedy. “It begins with the Ford idling up the narrow drive, the sweet drone of honeysuckle thickening the August air.”  Because the story is based on familiar, not to mention legendary, events you feel that you know what is about to happen. Yet, because the names and places are changed, the story unfolds in a parallel universe in which the unexpected is possible. When will the mayhem erupt and how?

As we look at the world through the eyes of Evie Boyd, a mere fourteen years old, we see a town and a life of small horizons where navigating the heightened dramas of being a teenager is enough to fill entire summers. However, what begins as a coming-of-age story about a girl’s uneasy transition into young womanhood, which is complicated by her parents’ marriage dissolving, turns into a harrowing tale of teenage rebellion.

According to Cline, the motivation for The Girls was wanting to understand the forces that drove the very young women who followed Charles Manson to do so with such wild and murderous abandon. What Cline discovered was that, in Evie’s case, her gravitation to what were no more than vagrants squatting at a nearby farm had less to do with the charms of “Russell” and more to do with “Suzanne,” with whom Evie becomes immediately drawn to like a moth to a flame. As for Suzanne, her feelings for Evie seemed feigned at best, manipulative at worst, which often leaves Evie confused and longing for validation.  Meanwhile, Evie’s normal world of parents, friends, and high school becomes ever more ridiculous in her eyes.  Only when she is with Russell, his right-hand man Guy, Suzanne and the other girls, Donna, Roos, Helen, does she feel like she has a place.

the girls

As her emotional dependence on Suzanne grows will Evie be compelled to partake in the heinous acts that you know are forthcoming?  At one level, The Girls is a compelling thriller in which you anticipate with each chapter that the plot to kill will emerge at any moment.  What will Evie do?  Will Suzanne betray her?  At another level, the book is about the lives of girls and women who pin their self-worth on the fate of a megalomaniac, Russell, whose scraggly bell-bottom aphorisms belie an insanely, not to mention violently, bitter heart. At still another level, which reveals more about me than about Cline’s novel, The Girls is about the inherent destructiveness of an American society that places more value on normality and materialism than on accepting ourselves and each other for all our imperfections.  For when we do not know what to do with our outcasts, then those outcasts grow to embody the unstable resentment that lies in the heart of our communities, waiting to either change the world or explode with devastation.

In the end, I was completely enthralled with Emma Cline’s writing.  Every sentence was a carefully crafted image.  Every paragraph a revelation.  Every chapter a gospel of godless truth.  Cline does not judge her characters, she reveals them.  Nor does Cline ask us to pity Evie, yet we feel her loneliness, naivety, moral core, and foolishness.  In the end, if The Girls is a coming-of-age story it is about how we all must grow to realize that the world is unpredictable, where people and the force of the times in which we live may topple our certainty in an instant.

The Last Exorcism: When Religion Is a Fraud, But Demons Are Real


One of the tried and true story traditions in movie-making is demonic possession, be it in the form of a young girl (The Exorcist, 1973), a house (The Amityville Horror, 1979; Poltergeist, 1982), a ’58 Plymouth Fury (Christine, 1983), or a full-length mirror (Oculus, 2013).  However, because of William Friedkin’s iconic film, exorcism has long had a special place in movie-goers’ imagination.  Similar to The Omen (1976), The Exorcist and the genre it created compelled us to believe that extraordinary things could still happen in an otherwise modern secular world dominated more by the profane language of politics and science than by myth and magic.

In the case of Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2010), you have a story that draws together the influences of The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and Deliverance (1972).  Taking place somewhere on the outskirts of New Orleans, in which the flamboyance of the French Quarter is left far behind, “Cotton Marcus” (Patrick Fabian) is an evangelical exorcist on his way with a film crew—“Iris Reisen” (Iris Bahr) and “Daniel Moskowitz” (Adam Grimes)—into parts unknown for an alleged case of possession.  At the end of the road is the Sweetzer farm, where “Louis Sweetzer” (Louis Herthum) is awaiting their arrival, along with his daughter, “Nell” (Ashley Bell) and son, “Caleb” (Caleb Landry Jones).


Even though it was Louis who called Cotton for help, because of a terse encounter with Caleb while asking for directions, the crew of three are made to feel anything but welcome.  At the same time, Cotton is not there because he is driven by faith and a sincere desire to help people in spiritual distress.  Cotton is a cynic—who lost his faith long ago after his son became seriously ill—who now performs fake exorcisms for the poor and naïve, who are willing to indulge his chicanery in hopes that their suffering and torment will be alleviated.  Louis is one of the willingly misled, as is Nell, who docilely submits to Cotton’s sham of an examination, in which she is diagnosed as being possessed by Abalam, an especially pernicious demon.  While Louis quickly agrees to an exorcism, only Caleb expresses open skepticism toward Cotton’s spiritual prowess.  Unbeknownst to anyone, though, is that the source of Caleb’s animosity toward Cotton will turn out to be an unimaginable phenomenon for this tiny impoverished Parish out in the Bayou.


As for Nell, is she merely an inexperienced girl deeply affected by her father’s agony after losing his wife or is there something else going on?  Did she slaughter her father’s cattle as Louis claimed to Cotton or was it the work of an unidentified assailant, be it human or animal?  As the mystery deepens and Nell’s behavior becomes more psychotic, Cotton and the others soon realize that they are in way over their heads and it is going to take more than their smoke and mirrors show to handle this predicament.  All of this is seen through the eyes of the amateur documentarians filming Cotton’s exploits, which gives The Last Exorcism its unfiltered—though skillfully edited—reality.  The setting, an unnamed and very rural area outside of New Orleans, takes the story where the rules governing modern urban life are suspended, invoking an age-old storytelling custom of placing events far away from the camp, the village, the city walls.  For it is out in the woods, the desert, the swamp where astonishing things can happen.  With the regard to the situation at the Sweetzer farm, then, the story is ultimately about what happens when a sham religion encounters real demons.