Wednesday, February 26, 2020

"Doctor Sleep" - Embracing the Ghosts of the Past


As a lifelong Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick fan, I was oddly not that interested in the Doctor Sleep movie when it first hit theaters. I knew I would eventually watch it, but it wasn’t a priority. Maybe it was the fact that the novel didn’t stick with me all that much (I remember liking it, but I have very little memory of it now), or (more likely) I wasn’t crazy about the idea of someone attempting to make a sequel to The Shining. Doctor Sleep was always going to be a unique adaptation because writer/director Mike Flanagan had to decide whether he was adapting the novel or making a sequel to Kubrick’s film. It turns out he was doing both. Flanagan was able to retain the spirit of the novel (which I do remember being very much about addiction) while continuing the story of The Shining with all of Kubrick’s changes (like the Overlook still standing, for instance). In theory, this sounds like an uneven mess, but somehow Flanagan pulled it off (for me, at least). Doctor Sleep completely pulled me in. I’ve watched it four times in the last two weeks, and I bought the Blu-ray just so I could see the three-hour director’s cut. As much as I love it, I still wonder if I’m judging it by its own merits, or if I just liked revisiting Kubrick’s classic.

Is It Good, or Is It Nostalgia?

First off, I do consider Doctor Sleep to be a good movie on its own for multiple reasons. It has a consistent, dark mood that I love. The performances are great, and the casting in general is spot-on, especially Kyliegh Curran as Abra (Stephen King teenage characters can easily become flat out ridiculous, especially the supernatural ones, but thanks to Flangan’s adaptation and Curran’s acting, the character works) and Carl Lumbly as Hallorann (he didn’t just do a Scatman Crothers impression, he added depth to the character as the film’s, or at least Dan’s, moral center). 

More than anything, Doctor Sleep works as a film about addiction. There is the obvious addiction stuff with Dan’s alcoholism, but the True Knot are addicts, as well, feeding off the “steam” of special young people. The ghosts of the Overlook are addicts, too, and they make for the most powerful representation of addiction in the film. Alcoholism, much like the ghosts of the Overlook, follow Dan throughout his life. When looking at the film from an addiction standpoint, you get to see every level of it. The True Knot are the active addicts, doing whatever they have to to score. Dan is the recovering addict, doing fine but battling the ghosts of his past every day. Even Abra represents a form of addiction in that she is susceptible to addiction and must keep things at bay her whole life to avoid going down that path (which is why she now has to keep the Overlook ghosts locked up at the end). 

Doctor Sleep stands on its own the most when you consider its presentation of addiction. But it’s still impossible to think about this film without acknowledging Stanley Kubrick’s film, The Shining. And while I truly enjoy this film for all the reasons above, I only love it because it returns to the Overlook. In fact, the Overlook’s constant presence in the background of the film (more prominent in the director’s cut) is what made me excited about the film from the beginning. By the time the film actually makes its way back to the Overlook at the end, I was all in. 

So it’s hard for me to judge this movie on its own when I consider all of that. Any film that recreates that red bathroom from The Shining is going to get a positive reaction from me. I’ve written about nostalgia many times before because nostalgia works on me. But it does need to be handled correctly. I can see people watching the last thirty minutes of Doctor Sleep and finding it pandering with all its recreations and references. But I think it is all mostly necessary for the story of the film and the theme about addiction and facing your past. The Overlook had to factor into the story for Dan because his alcoholism is really about his desire to forget his past. Recovery has led him to acknowledge his father and his past, and his encounter with the True Knot was the final push that required him to face it full on, even giving his life so that Abra could live. Just like his dad (in the novel), Dan defeats his addiction for good by destroying the hotel. (Of course, it’s kind of a dark metaphor to say that only Dan’s death truly ends his addiction, but for many people, addiction is a lifelong process.)

Even bringing back Jack Torrance (played by Henry Thomas in a wig that I thought could have been better) is necessary. Dan’s addiction is about his father more than anything, so what better way to confront than to visit his dad, now a bartender urging him to drink? Jack only factors in for a few minutes, and, thankfully, Thomas gives a restrained performance rather than going full axe murderer from the get-go. It makes for a more interesting interaction between father and son and allows Dan to finally deal with the biggest ghost of his past.

Returning to the world of The Shining is warranted, but that doesn’t mean Doctor Sleep is perfect in this regard. Recreating and reusing scenes from that film feel more like fan service than necessities (but I’m okay with it because I just love seeing all that stuff). Even the most pointless fan service evoked a smile from me. When Dan visits Dr. John’s office, it is an exact replica of Ullman’s office from The Shining. I cannot think of any logical reason for this other than a nod to the fans. Perhaps you can argue that Dan is following in his father’s footsteps with the job interview or something, but it still doesn’t really add up. No, that office looks like that for dorks like me to notice. 

Even the elements of fan service don’t bother me, though. They’re a nice little distraction that adds to the movie more than takes away from it. Mike Flanagan found a nearly perfect balance with Doctor Sleep. He knew that he couldn’t ignore Kubrick’s film, so he embraced it. And perhaps he catered to the fan’s a bit, but he also treated the source material with the reverence it deserves. Doctor Sleep was never going to be a movie that could be completely judged by itself, and Flanagan faced that rather than shying away from it. Because of that, Doctor Sleep is good on its own, but the nostalgia makes it great.

Why Do I Own This?

As I stated above, I bought this because it was the only way for me to see the director’s cut. But I would have bought this anyway. I watch The Shining once a year, and I will most likely always watch this right afterward. And buying it for the director’s cut was worth it. I love the slow pace of The Shining, and while the theatrical cut of Doctor Sleep already takes its time, the director’s cut really gets to stretch its legs. Mike Flanagan, like Kubrick, created a world I wanted to spend as much time in as possible, so the longer director’s cut is right up my alley. Also, the red bathroom wasn’t in the theatrical cut, so watching the director’s cut is worth it just to see that set recreated.

Random Thoughts

I knew I was going to like this when I heard the music at the beginning. 

The stuff with the woman and the toddler is pretty fucking dark. Especially when you consider the ghosts of them that show up later. 

In many ways, this movie is much darker than The Shining.

"That's nice, sweetie." Watch the attitude, birthday party magician.

The killing of the baseball boy is one of the most disturbing scenes in recent memory. 

Hey, I buy the same brand of boiled peanuts as Rose the Hat! Or is there just one brand of canned boiled peanuts?

Glad to see Dan likes to read Playgirl just like his dad. Even reading the same issue Jack was reading at the Overlook.

The looks Cliff Curtis gives Ewan McGregor when he talks to Abra in the car remind me of Tom Sizemore looking at Damian Lewis in Dreamcatcher after Lewis took a phone call using a fucking gun as a phone. 

I fell in love with this movie when they reused the helicopter shot from the beginning. 

They should have left the sets constructed and turned them into a tourist attraction. I, for one, would have made the trip just to have a drink in the Gold Room. 

Henry Thomas plays Jack much saner than Nicholson ever did.

I can't believe they didn't use the red bathroom in the theatrical cut. 


Sunday, February 23, 2020

"The Shining" - Mood Over Matter


I didn’t get a chance to see Doctor Sleep when it was out in theaters, but I was very excited for it, especially when I found out it would be both an adaptation of King’s book and a sequel to Kubrick’s film. I wanted to see how writer/director Mike Flanagan handled that tightrope act since Kubrick deviated from King’s text in major ways (for instance, the hotel burns down in the book while it’s still standing at the end of the film. To prepare to watch Doctor Sleep I revisited The Shining, a movie I’ve probably watched two dozen times. It’s not my favorite Kubrick film (that would be Eyes Wide Shut, the Kubrick film I’m simply obsessed with and write about at least once a year), but I still love it and watch it at least once a year. Thanks to the internet and the documentary Room 237, The Shining is probably Kubrick’s most analyzed film. For whatever reason, I prefer to just watch The Shining at face value.

Mood Over Matter*

*Note: If all of this sounds contradictory it’s because I wanted to emulate the confusing nature of the film itself and not because I’m an unfocused writer. 

As someone who has written three articles about Eyes Wide Shut, I realize the irony of suggesting someone watch The Shining without trying to “figure it out.” When it comes to Kubrick, though, I guess I just have the capacity to truly obsess over one of his films, though I love them all. I’ve watched Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket countless times (I’ve seen his entire filmography, but those films are the most rewatchable for me), but Eyes Wide Shut is the only one that inspires me to take a deep dive into every aspect of it each year. 

This is not a knock against any of Kubrick’s other films, especially since nearly all of them could be analyzed just as much as The Shining or Eyes Wide Shut. More importantly, all of Kubrick’s films are truly mesmerizing in their creation of mood and atmosphere. In other words, you can just enjoy his movies the old fashioned way.

Analyzing a film can be enjoyable, as well, but for me, at times it can feel more like an assignment than a hobby. With Eyes Wide Shut, it never feels like a job; I truly enjoy pausing the film to analyze individual frames, and I like looking up all the crazy theories out there about it. When I watch The Shining, I just don’t want to do any intellectual work when I watch it. When those credits start and that music kicks in, I just want to sit back and spend a couple of hours at the fucked up Overlook hotel. In fact, I would want to stay at the Overlook if it really existed. It’s such a strange and beautiful hotel that Kubrick created. There aren’t many horror films in which I wish I could live in the setting, but perhaps it’s more about how Kubrick presents it all.

The mood of The Shining is what has always worked the most for me. The famous steadicam work, the music, the amplified performances, the imagery, and the general sense of foreboding throughout are enough for me. That isn’t to say that I just sit there drooling while I watch this movie. I can just turn off the analysis portion of my brain and still enjoy it. 

That written, I still analyze The Shining from time to time when I watch it, but I try to stick with what is clearly on screen rather than try to find hidden meanings in set decorations (like baking powder canisters positioned to remind us of genocide or a skier on a poster representing a Minotaur or any kind of number fuckery [Danny has a "42" on his shirt early in the film which means this film is clearly all about the Holocaust]).

Mirrors are the most important part of the film for me when I want to dig a bit deeper. A lot of shots are shown in a mirror or with a character facing a mirror, and mirrors are all over the hotel. There’s something to be said about the duality of a person with all the mirror stuff, but I like to think of them as adding to the overall uncertainty of the film. Where others look at the stuff that doesn’t make sense, like the impossible window in Ullman’s office or Danny’s impossible circuit on his big wheel, and try to apply it to whatever theory they’re pushing, I see things like that and chalk it up to the Overlook being a haunted mindfuck of a hotel where physics, among other things, no longer operate like they do in the regular world.

Uncertainty is something that usually bothers me in a film, which is why I obsess over Eyes Wide Shut, but I embrace it in The Shining because the uncertainty is part of what establishes the mood. I don’t know exactly what is going on with the Overlook, and neither do the Torrances. To me, that is the reason for many of the inconsistencies with the film (AKA the continuity errors that aren’t allowed to be considered errors because it’s a Kubrick film [more on that later]). 

It’s a rare situation, but I find the uncertainty of this film enjoyable and rather than try to figure it all out and start to map out Overlook hallways (kind of like how I look at reflections in windows in Eyes Wide Shut to figure out that Bill apparently took a taxi to go across the street from the nightclub to the costume shop), I just accept it. Out of all the theories out there, I posit this one: is it possible that in a film that features mazes and mirrors prominently, we are meant to be confused by it rather than solve it? Perhaps that’s me being lazy, but with The Shining, I find it more enjoyable to let inconsistencies just be a part of the experience rather than a piece of the puzzle to be solved.

Maybe Kubrick Just Made a Movie Some People Didn’t Like. Or (Excuse the Blasphemy) There Are Mistakes in This Film.

First off, I am a fan of Room 237 despite my aversion to conspiracy theories about this film (I find a lot of them interesting, but I disagree with a lot of them and would rather just enjoy the movie as is). What I don’t like about that film is the fact that nearly every contributor who presents a theory says something along the lines of not liking the movie at first, or they present Kubrick as an infallible filmmaker.

I get both points of view because I do the same thing with my favorite filmmakers. There’s no way Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson or Nicolas Winding Refn or Darren Aronofsky, etc. made a movie I didn’t like, right? I must be missing something. I’ve come around on that in the last few years, and I can now admit I don’t like some movies my favorite filmmakers made. That written, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and rewatch the film at least one more time. 

I am all for giving the best directors a second chance when it comes to a movie, but I don’t start applying conspiracy theories to make myself like their work. Usually, it comes down to not knowing what they may have been going for the first time around. Inherent Vice comes to mind. I liked it at first, but for the most part I found it unnecessarily confusing. Upon a rewatch it occurred to me that the confusion was part of it, and the film was more of a hazy comedy than a detective story. It’s not as if I rewatched it and came away saying, “Inherent Vice is actually about the fall of the Ottoman Empire.” Maybe it is, but if I’m doing that much work for the film, then I think the filmmaker has failed.

The works of filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick certainly deserve a more discerning eye than your run-of-the-mill directors. But if you feel the need to run the movie forwards and backwards at the same time to discover what Kubrick “was really trying to say” then I think that says more about you than the film.

As for my own experience with The Shining, I don’t recall ever being disappointed by it. But it came out before I was born, so when I got around to it, it was already considered a classic. Perhaps if I had seen this opening day with expectations sky high and found the story way too simplistic for the likes of such a filmmaker, maybe I would have been looking at the set decorations more than the main plot too.

Is It Possible That Kubrick Didn’t Plan Things as Much as You Thought, or (Gasp!) There Are Mistakes in His Films?

I am definitely guilty of this one. Kubrick, more than any other filmmaker, is considered a genius master planner who never made a single mistake in his films. Continuity errors are intentional. Every piece of the set decoration is chosen by him. Every word of dialogue meticulously considered for months, even years, before filming. 

I agree with this, for the most part, but there is something that I and others need to acknowledge: filmmakers, even geniuses, do not make their movies by themselves. Kubrick did use small crews, but if you watch behind-the-scenes material (especially his daughter’s documentary about The Shining), you will see a lot of people working on the film. Because of this, it is theoretically possible that mistakes were made that got past Kubrick. He famously did dozens of takes for scenes, which means things could get moved around between takes. Mistakes are less likely on Kubrick’s films, I agree, but I have to admit that there is a possibility of mistakes. 

The set decoration is a big deal for me. I do believe that Kubrick was obsessive about his sets (most of the films he worked on used constructed sets, and he did have blueprints for everything). But there was a set decorator for each film. I’m sure Kubrick consulted with him on The Shining, but I bet a few things were just up to the decorator. Maybe Kubrick did insist on the Calumet Baking Powder being so prominent, but I bet he didn’t give a fuck where the Oreos and Kool-Aid were located in a scene.

And this brings me to the biggest revelation of the documentary of The Shining: Kubrick was willing to change things up on the day of shooting. There is a scene of him typing that day’s script pages on the set. And Nicholson jokes about not reading the script and just waiting for the new pages that day. On top of that, we get to see Kubrick decide on a shot in the moment. He decided to shoot Nicholson from the floor the day they shot the scene in the pantry. This does not take away from his genius; if anything, it adds to it. He was willing to change things up in the moment if it wasn’t what he wanted now that filming was happening. But it also means sometimes what is in the background is just what was in the background. Maybe it ends up in the shot; maybe it doesn’t. 

Once again, I keep an open mind, and I like crazy theories about movies. But I think we need to take a step back on Kubrick from time to time and regard him as a human filmmaker. This, coming from the guy who’s going to write another article about Eyes Wide Shut at the end of the year, this time focusing on all the artwork in the Harfords’ apartment. (I’m joking, but only because I don’t know much about art and because someone has already done this.)

Stanley Kubrick was a cinematic genius, though. I do believe that. And it is possible that every single inch of the frame we see was thought out. I love that about his work. But I also love his work on a purely entertaining level. So when I want to just enjoy his films, I tell myself this was a genius, but he was also a guy who just liked making movies. Sometimes it’s nice to just be a guy watching those movies. 

A Horror Film Can Be Great Without Being “Scary”

When people ask me what my favorite horror film is, I always pick The Shining. A lot of times the response I get is, “Really? I didn’t think it was very scary.” The truth is, I don’t find it to be all that scary, either (probably because I’ve seen it so many times). But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good horror film. 

Horror, perhaps more than any other genre, relies on mood. Jump scares and clowns with crazy teeth might freak me out in the moment, but if those things occur in an otherwise basic film, then they have no lasting effect. The Shining doesn’t have anything in particular that scares me (Mrs. Massey in Room 237 comes close), but the general feeling of dread and terror stays with me long after I finish watching it every time. That is what makes a horror film great: staying power.

Though I will admit that the overall premise of the film is terrifying. The thought of your father chasing you through a maze with an axe, the thought of your spouse losing their fucking mind then trying to kill you, the thought of a hotel filled with fucked up 1920s ghosts wanting you dead, etc. When you stop and consider these elements from different perspectives, it’s truly horrific. Once again, though, this is not immediate horror. The site of Jack limping through the maze with an axe doesn’t scare me, but imagining myself being in that situation does. 

The horror of The Shining is primarily mental. The plot and mood burrow into your mind to mess with you after the film ends. Other movies may scare me in the moment, but The Shining is one of the few horror films that stays in my head. And I’ll take that type of horror over a jump scare or a clown every time.

Why Do I Own This?

Kubrick’s films pretty much require multiple viewings, and I own almost all of them. 

Random Thoughts 

The main reason I dislike most of the theories about The Shining is because of how they are presented in Room 237. Too many theorists present their interpretations of the film as fact. I can’t stand that. These people did not know Kubrick, yet some of them are claiming for a fact this and that about his intention with the film. Yes, this makes your argument sound stronger, but you’re also fucking lying. Only Kubrick himself can say with fact what he intended, and he would never have done that. If you’re going to present a theory that the filmmaker never stated, then you need to present it as, “Perhaps Kubrick intended…” or something along those lines. This may sound like a pet peeve, but for me, when you start talking like you know what was going on in someone else’s head, especially someone you’ve never met, then I immediately start to doubt everything you are saying. And I know if I go back through my writing, I probably do this a hundred times, but I don’t plan on doing it ever again.

As for the specific Room 237 theories, here’s why I disagree with a few or at least find them dubious:
Native American genocide: this one works the best, in my opinion, but the insistence that all the Native American art and whatnot in the hotel as a signifier isn’t that big of a deal to me because the lobby is nearly an exact replica of the Ahwahnee Hotel’s lounge down to the decor. Sure, maybe Kubrick selected it because of that decor, but he didn’t design it or anything. 

Holocaust: the Holocaust theory relies on numbers way too much for my taste. I just find number theories pointless because you can alter them however you need to to fit your idea. Whenever someone starts getting into “42 represents 8 because 4 x 2 = 8” I just shut off.

Faked moon landing: Yes, Danny wears an Apollo 11 sweater, but wouldn’t that be a bit obvious if Kubrick was trying to admit to faking it for NASA? And the theorist saying that an argument between Jack and Wendy was the same argument Kubrick must have had with his wife was way too presumptuous. I can’t stand people who present their theories as fact when there’s no way to prove their claim.

Watching the film forwards and backwards at the same time: Yes, a few moments are interesting, but it’s hard to take this one seriously. Who could be expected to ever watch the film this way?

Jack as the Minotaur: I actually like this theory since there is a maze in the film. My main issue with this one is the theorist's assertion that the skier in the poster is a Minotaur.

I cannot imagine Jack Torrance as my English teacher.

Ullman has the widest tie knot I've ever seen. Does this mean something?!

I live how nonchalant Ullman is about Grady killing his family with an axe. He kind of laughs as he explains it. And who would say someone "ran amok" when referring to them killing their entire family?

What makes this an arthouse horror film for me is the blood coming out of the elevator scene near the beginning of the film. The way it's done with the music and cuts to Danny silently screaming and the Grady girls is unsettling and perfectly represents the overall mood of the film.

Wendy tells the disturbing story of Danny's "accident" the same way Ullman talks about Grady.

Stephen King famously dislikes this movie because Jack seems crazy from the start. While he does seem on edge on the drive up and whatnot, I wouldn't call him a full blown axe murderer just yet. It seems like King is forgetting that the bulk of the movie takes place one month into the stay at the Overlook. At this point the hotel has its hooks in Jack, and he's starting to crack. This is why you get the tense scene with Wendy about breaking his concentration, and you start to get the creepy moments of Jack staring off into space for long moments. It is true that Kubrick does not present a gradual descent for Jack, but it is implied that the first month went smoothly, and the film picks up when things start to unravel. 

Plus, I would argue that Kubrick's film is about how Jack has always been this way, and the Overlook is preying/awakening his true nature. King's book was more about a good man who is manipulated by the hotel, but his goodness wins out at the end as he is able to destroy the hotel. I like both the book and the film, but I definitely prefer the film.

The TV they're watching is unplugged. Just another element of Kubrick fuckery.

Hey Jack, maybe don't tell your wife about dreaming about cutting her and your son "into little pieces."

Tyrell from Blade Runner as Lloyd the bartender is perfectly evil.

So Wendy tells the doctor a couple months back that Jack dislocated Danny's arm but had been sober ever since making him five months sober. When Jack tells Lloyd about it, he claims it happened "three goddamn years ago!". This can probably just be chalked up to Jack wanting to believe it had happened longer ago than it really had. But it's more likely like everything else in the movie and is a bit off on purpose to add to the general uncertainty of everything.

"Are you out of your fucking mind?" God, I love Nicholson's delivery of that line.

I have GOT to find out who Dick Hallorann's interior decorator is.

Man, that naked old lady is really jazzed about pulling a fast one on Jack.

It sucks that this was all filmed on a soundstage. I wish these locations actually existed, especially the Gold Room and the red bathroom.

I've always thought that if I ever became rich enough to have a mansion built, I would make sure to have the red bathroom recreated for it. Unfortunately it doesn't look like that's going to happen…

I did find out that the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite was the inspiration for the lobby, and now I know where I'm staying if I ever go to Yosemite.

Wait, is it possible that the hotel ghosts are the masked orgy members from Eyes Wide Shut? I'm joking, but is that less logical than a lot of theories about this movie?

I seem to recall there being an explanation for the bear suit blowjob guy in the book. But I like how Kubrick just decided to keep that image in with zero context. Once again, totally in keeping with the whole not-knowing-what-the-fuck-is-exactly-going-on theme.