Obsession Grows Tedious in Room 237

Being a Shining fan—of both the book and the movie—I was curious to see Room 237, the documentary about the many theories spawned by Stanley Kubrick’s movie. I’ve seen Kubrick’s version of The Shining more than five times—maybe even more than that—and never read too much into it. I always thought it was a damn fine movie, and I particularly liked the device of Danny’s index finger being his imaginary friend Tony (sometimes simpler is scarier) and Scatman Crothers’s performance as Dick Hallorann. After seeing the movie, I can never imagine anybody else as that character.

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I’d been waiting a couple of weeks to see the movie and was grateful that the IFC Center was still showing it. After buying my ticket and entering the theater, I was thrilled to recognize it as the one where I saw Ron Perlman in The Last Winter several years before, and I remembered a nice red-and-black bathroom tucked away in the basement. I never made it down there, though, sidetracked by a display of T-shirts that at first glance appeared to be logos of heavy metal bands. Looking closer, though, the names were of arty directors in the style of heavy metal bands—there was Fassbinder, Herzog, and my personal favorite, Carpenter. I’m not sure about the trademark issues for this, but it’s a fun idea.

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We went upstairs to a theater that I hadn’t been in before and waited…and waited…and waited for it to open. After being seated in the lobby for more than twenty minutes, the crowd had grown large and people actually formed a line to get into the movie theater. Reluctantly we joined them, but it didn’t make a difference as to better seating choice. The theater was full of overstuffed purple-and-white seats that were all sprung, and my chair felt like my father’s broken-down La-Z-Boy. My friends and I got four seats together, and all felt the same way about the chairs. Such a shame, it’s getting harder and harder to find a good, comfortable theater in New York.

Smart-people shorts were shown before the movie—one about politics and another about how Iraqi citizens who had risked their lives to help the U.S. armed forces during the war were now not being allowed promised refuge in the United States (as a result of their help, they were being assassinated by enemies). A woman came in late during these shorts and took the aisle seat next to our group—I knew we should have shifted over one more to close the gap. She had the smallest bag of popcorn in the world, and I didn’t think anything of it, except That should go rather quick.

The documentary Room 237 starts out strong with one man’s theory about what the Calumet baking powder means in a few scenes of The Shining, where the cans are prominently displayed. The theorists’ faces are never shown. Instead, the movie’s visuals are clips from the The Shining that have been slowed down to a crawl so each and every detail of a scene can be analyzed; some behind-the-scenes footage and stills of the movie are also shown. This part I really enjoyed, as I could appreciate how much really goes into building a scene. It was mesmerizing to see Jack Nicholson psyching himself up for his famous ax-wielding scene off camera and almost whacking one of the film crew in the head, and there are so many in-jokes in The Shining that I had never picked up on before because the images fly by so fast.

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The faceless theorists of Room 237 started to get on my nerves, though. A speaker starts out with a theory on the movie—some are very strong and hold up—but then after you’ve started down the path with them, quite a few veer off into Crazytown. It reminded me of being in a bar, where you meet somebody for the first time and think, Wow, this guy seems really nice and smart, but then the conversation takes a turn and you realize the person is batshit crazy. The problem becomes how do you extricate yourself from this conversation?

With Room 237, I had paid $13 to be part of these conversations, so I was damned if I was walking out. I tried to tune out the annoying theorists, but then I ended up picking up on the peccadilloes of audience members around me. Like the woman with the smallest bag of popcorn in the world, which she made last for forty-five minutes by eating it kernel by kernel, all noisy, openmouthed chewing. After that, she took out her iPhone and made Facebook status updates before leaving, bored. Not to worry, a guy behind us started up being annoying once she left, with big, rumbling snores.

I think my threshold was very low because the theorists were annoying me, and I didn’t feel like I could trust any of them, and that in turn dialed up the annoying quirks that I can usually tune out.

James Smythe’s Rereading Stephen King Series Is Brilliant

I stumbled across James Smythe’s blog series for The Guardian while having my lunchtime Internet break at work, and I was immediately taken by the concept. Like me and so many others, Smythe has been a Stephen King fan since childhood, rereading his novels over and over again so much that he is intimately familiar with King’s work and recognizes the bigger patterns in it overall.

James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.

James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.

King was the author who ushered Smythe into grown-up reading, and the same thing happened to me. My mom was checking in with me when I was eleven years old to make sure that I knew what menstruation was. I let her know that school had pretty much covered this. “Good,” she said. “I just don’t want anything to happen to you like Carrie.” I asked her what Carrie was, and as she told me, my eyeballs got wider and wider, especially when she got to the part about pigs’ blood and prom. I had to read that book! I went to the library to check it out, but Carrie wasn’t there. I settled instead for Salem’s Lot, which kept me awake all night at a Girl Scout sleepover, and I never went back to the juvenile section again. Not when there were so many horrors to be had in the K aisle.

One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister's well-worn Stephen King books.

One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister’s well-worn Stephen King books.

Smythe has grown up to be a writer himself, and he has set himself the task of rereading all of King’s work, aiming to post a blog entry on each work about every two weeks. He estimates this will take him about two years. This is an incredibly ambitious project considering some of the gigantic tomes that King has put out—It (1104 pages), The Stand (original version—823 pages; uncut—1200 pages), Under the Dome (1088 pages), 11/22/63 (880 pages), to name a few. Just rereading one of these books in a week or two’s time is almost a full-time job, and that doesn’t include the writing, research, or critique time that Smythe puts in. Each one of his King entries (he’s at Week Seventeen so far) draws many comments from readers, and Smythe gets down in it with them, arguing the finer points, coming up with Top Ten Favorite King Books and Least Favorite Five King Books as readers ask for such lists. And though he is a King fan, he realizes there are some real clunkers in King’s oeuvre and does not hold back in his reviews. He also mentions his first feelings about reading the book as a child or teen and how he views the work differently now as he rereads, and he is not afraid to change his mind about what he now considers King’s best. Sometimes, the entries get clogged with literary references, especially the short story collections where there are so many tales to cover and quite a few of them feed into King’s novels. How can you not cover them? Also, Smythe is a huge Dark Tower/Randall Flagg fan, which I never quite got into, and he points out appearances all the time. I’d probably like these parts of the blog better if I was in on the joke, and I might give the Dark Tower series another whirl so I can decide how I feel about this omnipresent character. So far Smythe has reviewed most of King’s good work, but I can’t wait to read his critiques of the really bad works, like The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, and Black House (which I couldn’t even finish after reading one hundred pages of the narrator flitting around from scene to scene, “setting” the story). I only wish that it was easier to read these entries one after another. However, this is the book blogs section of The Guardian, so I have to page through or click on links in the sidebar and then go somewhere else to find readers’ comments, which is a big part of the fun with this series. Already, though, I’m envisioning this project as a book, and I hope Smythe does, too, and puts this out in a more user-friendly format. This far in, I can see Smythe having a nice pile of summary, criticism, and memoir that will be book length by the time he’s done. I’m happy to take this trip since King has been such an important influence in my personal and literary evolution. He’s been the backbeat for most of my life, and reading the blog posts and other readers’ comments, I can see that I’m not the only one. Smythe gives me ideas, too, for my own literary odyssey. I believe my lady, Joyce Carol Oates, has written even more than Stephen King. What if I read and reread all of her works in the order they were published? I think I would need more than two years, though, to complete this task, and a Medici-like benefactor to support me during all of this reading and writing.

Another shelf holding our King books--the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.

Another shelf holding our King books–the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.

Week One: Carrie

Week Two: Salem’s Lot

Week Three: The Shining

Week Four: Rage

Week Five: Night Shift

Week Six: The Stand

Week Seven: The Long Walk

Week Eight: The Dead Zone

Week Nine: Firestarter

Week Ten: Roadwork

Week Eleven: Cujo

Week Twelve: The Running Man

Week Thirteen: The Gunslinger

Week Fourteen: Different Seasons

Week Fifteen: Christine

Week Sixteen: Pet Sematary

Week Seventeen: Cycle of the Werewolf

Week Eighteen: The Talisman

Week Nineteen: Thinner

Week Twenty: Skeleton Crew

Week Twenty-One: It

Week Twenty-Two: The Eyes of the Dragon

Week Twenty-Three: The Drawing of the Three

Week Twenty-Four: Misery

Week Twenty-Five: The Tommyknockers

Week Twenty-Six: The Dark Half

Week Twenty-Seven: Four Past Midnight

Week Twenty-Eight: The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands

Week Twenty-Nine: Needful Things

Week Thirty: Gerald’s Game

Week Thirty-One: Dolores Claiborne

Week Thirty-Two: Insomnia

Week Thirty-Three: Rose Madder

Does American Horror Story Have Legs?

When I started watching American Horror Story at the beginning of the season, I think I was as perplexed as everybody else by the number of ghosts who crowded out the regular human cast. All of the different puzzle pieces were shocking and controversial—a gimp in a latex suit, a maid who “belongs” to the house and fluctuates in age between her twenties and sixties (and in personality between sluttiness and stark formality), and nurses in bloody uniforms. It was reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but the story was fractured, as only one aspect could be presented in a forty-or-so-minute episode, and I could only marvel at the strangeness and irregularity of the pieces. At one point, the story wasn’t gelling for me, and I was going to quit watching the series. There’s only so much time and so many series out there. Right before I was about to quit, though, the story started to come together in some sort of coherent fashion.

Now that the series has progressed, and I’ve seen the different decades of stories acted out on the stage of the haunted house, I’ve been thinking about the series’ title American Horror Story, and how all of the stories represent America or American. The series can be quite clever, but I’m not sure how far it can continue now that it’s given away all of its conceits.

All of the stories revolve around the character Constance (tartly played by Jessica Lange), an aging Southern belle who sits like a fat spider in the middle of this web, sucking everybody dry within her reach. She’s a ruined beauty who’s destroyed her face with too much plastic surgery, whose words are honey sweet, but if she doesn’t get her way, she’ll flay you to the bone.

Constance’s children are a wise-young daughter with Down’s syndrome, like one of Shakespeare’s fools who speaks the truth in nonsensical lines; a teen son who’s a psychopath, part of the rash of school shooters taking out classmates with multiple weapons; and a deformed but good-natured ogre locked away from the public.

When the traumatized Harmon family first moves into the centerpiece of the story, the house, husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) and wife Vivien (Connie Britton) are trying to heal their marriage after infidelity, along with their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera Farmiga, who has inherited her older sister’s acting chops). Constance inserts herself into their lives right away—chasing or looking for her daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) who is attracted to the house.

Constance wants the house. She has lost so many of her children to it, and I suppose she wants to be around them all the time. Shortly after the Harmons move into the house, Vivien finds herself pregnant with twins after a sexy night with her husband and the gimp ghost (who she thinks is her husband coming back for a second round). That act galvanizes the house and its ghosts as they move to claim each member of the Harmon family, one by one.

There are two settings overlapping in American Horror Story—modern LA and all of the stories and ghosts from the past that have overtaken the house. However, with each episode, more and more of the human cast join the undead. With each new ghost that pops up, it makes me wonder, What’s the point of using modern LA as a setting? At this rate, Constance is the only human left, and though she is a fascinating character, she cannot carry the series alone in modern LA. That leaves the house as a setting, describing a limbo between heaven and hell, but I’m not finding this very gripping now that all of the ghosts are explained. They can relive their tragedies and interact with other ghosts, but there’s no new ground to cover.

A story must have parameters; that’s what makes a story. You have a beginning, a middle, an end, and the story is complete in and of itself, but a series is always trying to bust out of these boundaries. I think probably one of the goals of a series is to go on infinitely, but I find American Horror Story to be overreaching.

The series’ creator Ryan Murphy has said with the conclusion of this season, he will be focusing on a new haunted house and new ghosts and human characters in the second season of American Horror Story. I’ll dial up a few episodes on Hulu when it starts to see if this is working. I have my doubts, though. The UK series Skins did quite well with a revolving cast, but that fit the season cycle since the show follows school-aged kids and they do graduate and go off into the world. I’m not sure how much more I can get invested in another season of American Horror Story if everybody’s going to be killed and claimed by a haunted house.