That Show You Like Is Coming Back In Style: What the Heck is Twin Peaks?

twin peaks llama

By now you’ve heard the good news, because when it was announced, the internet freaked the f-ck out: Twin Peaks is returning for a nine-episode run on Showtime in 2016. And depending on who you are, you have a lot of questions. The practical among you are probably wondering how they could ever hope to resolve that killer cliffhanger now that actor Frank Silva has died. The conspiratorially minded will be asking if executive producers David Lynch and Mark Frost were planning this comeback since the show first went off the air. Or, if you are one of my co-workers, you may just be asking, “What’s Twin Peaks?”

If you fall into the third camp, this post, which is adapted from my response to my co-worker, is for you:

You asked about the show Twin Peaks yesterday, and I wish I had been able to give you a more succinct description that properly captured how compelling this weird and memorable show is.

The show is equal parts murder mystery, quirky comedy, surreal nightmare and soap opera. The plot kicks off with an honest, open-hearted, slightly odd FBI agent traveling to a remote northwestern town to investigate the grizzly death of a beloved local prom queen. The town is filled with off-beat, funny characters and gives off an idyllic charm, but as he pulls back the curtains on this beautiful little slice of America, he reveals a surreal and withered soul.

A lot of TV shows have been inspired by some aspect of it or another—The X-Files wouldn’t have had FBI agents investigating supernatural and alien activity in remote locations without Twin Peaks; Desperate Housewives wouldn’t have taken a cynical look at suburban utopia through the lens of satirizing soap operas without it; some of Lost‘s most striking images came straight from it, too—but no TV show had ever tried to bring together all of the styles and tones of Twin Peaks and no one has ever attempted it since.

It was roughly 28 episodes long. It was messy. It was impenetrable. It was hilarious. It was frightening. It gave us some of the most bizarre images TV has ever produced. And it was awesome.

The weirdest thing: It was on normal, broadcast TV.

Of course, it only lasted two seasons.

It was spearheaded by acclaimed film director David Lynch, whose affable, aw-shucks demeanor belies the fact that he is a master of surreal horror and nightmare logic. (As evidence, I offer this simple scene from his film Lost Highway. Here’s hoping you don’t watch it alone.)

The fact that the revival is only nine episodes long and Lynch is directing all nine episodes of them is good news: The show’s first, abbreviated season is universally regarded as its best. Its focus blurred and its quality dropped when Lynch took a less active role in its longer second season.

Nine episodes directed by David Lynch on Showtime in 2016. Other than that, we don’t know much. David Lynch and producer Mark Frost are contacting actors to verify their availability, but even that isn’t a guarantee of who will be involved.

For now, all we can do is hope that David Duchovny makes a triumphant return.

Around the Web: “Doctor Who” and The Wheelhouse Review

If you’re interested in learning more about my personal insecurities, finding a foothold on the steep slopes of Doctor Who or just complaining about those darn millennials and their cell phones, you may be interested in an article I just wrote for The Wheelhouse Review.  Head on over to read more about how Doctor Who‘s recent season premiere is basically the same experience as a trip to a bookstore or a 20-something’s failed relationship.

Punk Jews and Jesus Freaks: Around the Web

I recently wrote a short review of the documentary Punk Jews for Sojourners. Head to Sojo.net to check it out!

eWriters: The Future is (Almost) Here

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 8.59.23 PMThe paper notebook is one of the best technologies ever developed: You can mind map, outline, write, sketch and more—all within one high-resolution, immediate-response interface. Being able to do all of that on a computer requires several suites of programs and specialized hardware. (I use OpenOffice, MindNode, Scrivener, Adobe Illustrator, a Wacom tablet and more.)

What pen and paper offer in flexibility and freedom, though, they take back in access and convenience. I can’t carry all of my old notebooks with me at all times. If I’m at work and want to remember something from a project I worked on a month ago, I’m out of luck—by now, that notebook is tucked away on a shelf behind my desk at home.

The go-to solution for a lot of people is Evernote—it’s the darling of most people who want on-the-go access to their information. And it does offer great access to your information from anywhere at any time. However, Evernote has a cumbersome interface for creating new notes compared to the simple, flexible elegance of pen and paper. And entering information directly into Evernote also locks you into a linear, rich-text-based interface—sketches, charts, diagrams and mind maps aren’t an option.

There have been a few attempts to marry the flexibility of marking up a sheet of paper with the convenience of on-the-go access to your old notes, but they all fall short. Smart pens, sensor-loaded notebook cases and page scanners all let you still use a pen and paper, and then offer systems for downloading digital copies of each page in your book. But these tools generally require adding too many extra steps to the process between using your notebook and having local, digitized notes. And even when you use them as intended, you still blow through notebook after notebook in quick succession.

What we really need is a way to automatically make our hand-written notes and hand-drawn sketches available on the go that doesn’t add extra steps to a workflow. We need a way to build a digital archive of notes and sketches with a process that’s as simple as “Take out your pen and write.” And if we can do it without burning through notebooks, that would be a plus.

Enter the eWriter

A month ago, I ordered the Boogie Board Sync, the flagship of Improv Electronics’ “eWriter” line.

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 8.53.07 PM

Improv Electronics’ Boogie Board eWriters are built around a bi-stable LCD display, similar to the Kindle’s e-ink screen. It’s a static physical display rather than a constantly refreshing electronic display, so looking at it is as easy on the eyes as looking at a page in a book.

Using a stylus, you sketch or write on the Boogie Board Sync’s e-ink display like it’s a sheet of paper. (Unlike a sheet of paper and because of the current limits of the technology, you’re writing white-on-black instead of black-on-white. Improv Electronics says they’re working on changing that.) When you’re done with a page, you can save it to your Boogie Board Sync’s memory and sync your work to the Boogie Board app on your phone or computer.

Syncing your work to the Boogie Board app is the only way you can view a page once it has been saved and cleared off the screen. This is a technical limitation inherent in the type of display technology these devices use. It’s not terribly inconvenient, as I almost always have my iPhone with me, so I can always flip through my recent notes there.

You can also easily set your app up to automatically dump all of your Boogie Board notes into a dedicated folder on Evernote, essentially creating a virtual Moleskine that you can access from anywhere.

Trying out new technology is often difficult—just dabbling in something new is often a guarantee that you’ll end up clinging to the old out of inertia. So when my Boogie Board arrived, I told myself that I’d give it a fair shot by putting my Moleskine away and going a full week using the Boogie Board 100% in place of my normal legal pads and notebooks.

A month later I still haven’t touched a legal pad or a Moleskine again. I haven’t felt like I’m this deep into the future since the first time I used an iPhone.

What’s Great About the Boogie Board?

When I first took the Sync out of its box, I thought that the form factor would bother me: The bezel seemed larger than it needed to be and its gentle curves could have risked making it unsuitable for professional settings. But it turns out that when you hold the device one-handed, the scalloped bezel hugs your palm and arm like a painter’s pallet. This frees you from the need to either have a stiff-backed notebook or else always be near a flat surface to write or sketch. Jotting notes in bed or doing quick sketches on an elevator has become easy and comfortable.

Writing on a Boogie Board Sync is a really tactile experience, albeit slightly smoother than pen on paper, somewhat like using a ballpoint pen on an acetate. Because you are making strokes on the page through a physical process rather than an electronic one, the page is perfectly responsive to your pen: Your strokes get heavier and thicker as you increase pressure. Unlike with the host of handwriting apps on the iPhone and iPad, there is no lag between making the stroke and having it appear on the screen.

Anyone who cherishes the physical sensation of pen on paper (or who cares about the fact that writing longhand engages your brain differently than typing does) should have no problem using this. I’m a staunch pen-and-paper user—and had even switched to fountain pens in the year leading up to trying out the Boogie Board—but I was quickly sold on the experience of writing on a Boogie Board.

Having that ongoing archive of all of my notes that’s not restricted by the notebook’s page count is a dream come true. And at only $80 on Amazon, the Boogie Board is already well on its way to paying for itself. Even if I didn’t value the time I spend looking for my current notebook amidst a stack of used ones and looking through older notebooks to find a particular note, I’d make up the $80 in just a couple months by no longer buying Moleskines, pens and legal pads.

As an added bonus, you can also use your Boogie Board Sync as a pen-style mouse for your computer (like a downmarket Wacom tablet) or you can use it to turn your computer or smartphone into a virtual whiteboard.

Syncing and Evernote Implementation: A Mixed Bag

Evernote is good enough at doing a lot of things, but the only thing Evernote is actually great at is holding on to a whole bunch of stuff and letting you get to it from anywhere. The process of actually entering, categorizing, tagging and sorting through all of that stuff can be a chore.

The most visible genius of the Boogie Board Sync is the freedom it offers through its great pen-on-e-ink interface. But just as genius is the way the Boogie Board Sync leverages that interface to take advantage of Evernote’s biggest strength without subjecting you to some of Evernote’s biggest weaknesses. By allowing you to still act like you’re using pen on paper, the Boogie Board doesn’t force you to adapt to a whole new way of producing and storing information. Digital technology is finally adapting to you, rather than asking you to adapt to it.

The Boogie Board Sync’s sync system is good when it should be great. The device allows you to automatically download your sketches and notes to your computer or smartphone and then automatically dump the downloaded pages into Evernote, but you need to keep the Boogie Board App open for those processes to run. The option to run all of those processes in the background rather than staying parked on the Boogie Board app would be an improvement. An option to streamline the process even further and save storage space by having the sync app skip local storage and copy the files on my Boogie Board straight into Evernote would be even better.

But what would really make the Boogie Board Sync a must-have for everyone who has been reluctant to loosen their grip on pen and paper would be grouping pages written in quick succession into single notes when uploading to Evernote. At the moment, your Boogie Board pages all go into the same notebook, but each page is its own note within that notebook. For students taking notes in class, professionals hopping from meeting to meeting or journalers scribbling down their thoughts on a subway ride, lumping together pages produced in quick succession would probably save time and stress. Adding this clock functionality could mean adding hardware as well as firmware, which could mean increasing the price or shortening its week-long battery life, but that extra little courtesy to the user could go a long way toward building good will.

The Verdict

The Boogie Board doesn’t need to be in everybody’s hands yet, but it should at least be on everybody’s radar.

I’ve been using mine for a month to journal, take notes at meetings, sketch design concepts and conduct interviews. Every time I pull it out, I get the same reaction: “What is that?” No one who has seen it has heard of it before. That needs to change.

Techies, productivity nerds, journaling fanatics and creative professionals: This device is ready to go and will suit your needs. I can’t see any reason for you to not have already placed an order for one. This is potentially a game-changer for you—and at the very least it’s already a paper-saver.

We’ve always known that smart pens and Evernote’s branded Moleskine are really just half-measures in our attempts to marry the best parts of analogue and digital, but the Boogie Board Sync finally gives us something better to measure them against. This should be the foundation for the way people bridge digital convenience and analogue flexibility.

Improv Electronics has plainly been refining the idea behind its Boogie Boards over several iterations. It has improved rapidly, and I’m excited about the direction in which they are moving. In just four years, Boogie Boards have gone from glorified Etch-a-Sketches to the gift from the future that is the Boogie Board Sync. Their ambitions for the technology are clearly aimed in the right direction—we just don’t get much articulation of their long-term goals for the technology from any of their marketing or PR.

I’ll probably do another post taking a look at the way they describe their products publicly versus messaging that would position them for faster adoption some time soon. In the mean time, though, here’s hoping Improv Electronics can step up their marketing and PR, because you really shouldn’t have needed me to explain what something this good is.

Ugh! Seriously? Enough With The Photoshop Already!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Scarlett Johansson:

SJRedCarpet

Image courtesy of wherever it was I pulled it from via Google Images.

You may recognize her as a very attractive woman. Just posting this image is probably giving some impressionable readers undeserved body image issues.

This is Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

You may recognize it as a movie about a spy who really likes America fighting against…um…a soldier? Who really likes winter?

This is what Scarlett Johansson apparently needs to look like in order to promote Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

Image courtesy who the heck cares? It's free publicity for their movie, this is exactly what they wanted.

Image courtesy who the heck cares? It’s free publicity for their movie and that is exactly what they wanted when they put this image online.

The question isn’t, “What the heck is wrong with that woman’s waist?,” because by now we all know the answer to that. The question now is, “Who the heck really said, ‘A woman who probably has a team of full-time employees training her to keep her body looking a specific way doesn’t give people an unrealistic enough expectation of a woman’s body, so let’s just puppet warp her midsection all to hell!’?”

Enough with this crap.

Reliving The Horror

I’ve been watching Daniel Anthony Torrance suffer for nearly seventeen years.

As a child, Danny was beaten by his alcoholic father, who then locked him and his mother in an empty hotel secluded in the Colorado Rockies. For months, Danny and his mother suffered horrific threats. They were forced to view violent, sexual and torturous images. Repeatedly. Nearly continuously. And after every means of communication with or access to the outside world was cut off and there was no longer any hope of outside intervention, Danny’s father attempted to kill his wife and child with a hammer.

This is the story of Stephen King’s The Shining.

When I was twelve years old, I took in Danny’s story in the form of a TV miniseries, a classic horror novel, and Stanley Kubrick’s unsettling film. I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve lived through the story of that horrific winter in Colorado.

Copies of Stephen King's The Shining and Doctor Sleep

Shock and aw.

But when I began reading Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s long-gestating sequel to The Shining, and I began reading about Dan Torrance’s dissolute adulthood, I started to cry. I didn’t realize until this weekend just how badly I had wanted the little boy from The Shining to be okay, how hard I had hoped over the last seventeen years that the same psychic gift that allowed Danny to survive that horrible winter in the Overlook Hotel would also offer him the emotional and psychological resources to recover from it.

Instead, Doctor Sleep shows us an adult Dan discovering that drugs and alcohol don’t just help him bury his memories—they also help him tamp down his psychic gift and shut himself off from the world. Reading the new book’s opening chapters and watching Dan circle the drain, committing as much violence against his body and his future as his father ever did against his mind, my heart sank.

But the book goes on, and as it does, so does Dan’s life. He finds Alcoholics Anonymous, stops drifting, and, in a plot thread that provides some of the book’s most lyrical and humane moments, earns the book’s titular moniker while working at a New England hospice.

I mention lyrical and humane moments. At their worst, King’s hordes of imitators resort to schlocky shock-horror to get a reaction from their audience, pummeling the reader with violence for violence’s sake. But King himself has, believe it or not, always excelled at well-observed human moments. We all have split-second thoughts that we would never want to share—moments of anger, disgust, self-aggrandizement, lust and condescension to which we’d never admit. King’s talent for finding those fleeting thoughts, diving into them, exploring them in depth is unparalleled in popular fiction. (Maybe even in literary fiction.) And at his best, the supernatural elements of King’s stories have always served as our entry point into exploring very real, very present anxieties that plague our modern life.

I’m pleased to say that, despite the body-swapping and the roving horde of psychic vampires, Doctor Sleep belongs in the rolls of King’s best.

The book is filled with what seem at first to be (somewhat clumsy) artistic flourishes, like the almost on-the-nose metaphor of a young Danny learning to bottle up his demons. In other places, King seems to be giving his audience a sly wink: A young girl’s habit of rubbing her mouth only seems justified as an in-joke for those of us who remember Dan’s father in detail because we grew up squeezing our copies of The Shining hard enough to leave finger dents in the pages.

But most of what I thought was clumsy in the first half turn into important plot points later in the book. (Spoiler in white text: Adult Dan learning to release those demons and be rid of them is key to the final resolution of the plot.) And even the parallels that looked like in-jokes turn out to matter in the world of the story, too.

King sometimes has a tendency to contort narratives into happy endings that feel forced. With a book like this, that seems inevitable: Despite the horror of the story, forty years of readers have grown to love The Shining. The tendency to let all of that good will seep into the fabric of the sequel must have been incredibly insidious. But by the time Doctor Sleep crescendoes on the site of the old Overlook hotel where The Shining took place, that one big, heart-warming plot twist that felt too convenient by half one hundred pages earlier actually feels earned twice over. Maybe it was just the decades of good will I have built up for the property, but I reached the end satisfied.

As I finished the book, I couldn’t help but think of the beautifully animated interlude in the middle of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows about three young men who struggle to come to terms with the reality of death.  After all these years, Danny’s life is complete, and we can bid farewell to the ghosts of the Overlook, waving to them the way one waves off an old friend.

This Could Be The Year That We Save The World

Story is an essential component of human society: Story is how we get to know one another, how we come to understand the world, and how we decide on and live out shared values.

From the moment Thespis first stepped out of the chorus and became the first actor to speak words in a play, drama has been the way many of the stories most important to society get told. From Aeschylus’ The Persians to Norman Lear’s All In The Family to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the most popular drama reflects and comments on the ways we are responding the questions our context pose to our essential humanity.

And as societies changed over time, the general trend of cultural and technological development has been to place greater and greater emphasis on drama’s visual elements: Changing architectural trends made it possible for larger audiences to have clearer views of the stage; the ability to project giant glowing images on darkened walls gave every audience member the ability to see an actor’s every expression; televisions invited actors into an audience’s living room for family scrutiny.

Now, during an era when technology allows people to pour themselves into TV shows on noisy trains, stare at their screens while waiting in line and cradle movies in their bed as they fall asleep, dramatists often rely on actors having a specific look to make a certain point about their inner character or to explore a certain theme.

In order to continue producing the kind of drama that we need to develop, refine and evolve our culture, we need talented, inspired writers and directors who are empowered to produce the best work they possibly can. Until recently, when story-tellers needed an actor to portray a woman with dark hair, fair skin and light eyes, their options were limited, and the most prominent of them was Zooey Deschanel.

And I hope we can all agree that that should never happen.

ZD

No dramatist should be reduced to that. I don’t know Zooey Deschanel personally, so I have no idea whether she’s a nice lady or not. I assume that she is, because I don’t have any evidence to the contrary. And she has a nice voice. And a very striking, very specific look. A look that I can understand a director wanting or even needing in specific roles. However, when you give her lines to memorize and then recite as though for the first time, she becomes a personality vortex that drains the life out of any scene she’s in. She makes it harder for other people around her to act.

For example, in a film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that featured a charmless Ford Prefect and a Zaphod Beeblebrox whose second head was hidden beneath his neck, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian was the big problem. Believe it or not, she was the worst thing about Tin Man, a mini-series created to punish people with indiscriminate taste. Even in movies that are otherwise good—movies like Elf and Almost Famous—her performances are jagged blemishes in otherwise polished, beautiful feats of entertainment.

The thing is, this isn’t 2004 anymore. This is 2013. Zooey Deschanel isn’t the only dark-haired, fair-skinned, light-eyed actress in Hollywood: Alison Brie exists. Lizzie Caplan exists. Alexis Bledel keeps disappearing for a while then popping back into the world again. Hell, Silver Linings Playbook proved that, in a pinch, we could also just dye Jennifer Lawrence’s hair and put her in a movie instead of Zooey Deschanel. There are plenty of better options for finding a female actor who fits the part. Any part.

Alison Brie, Lizzie Caplan, Alexis Bledel, Jennifer Lawrence

Q: Which one is a better actor than Zooey Deschanel?
A: All of them. All of them are better actors than Zooey Deschanel.

There are plenty of actresses with dark hair and light eyes now—there’s no need to keep putting Zooey Deschanel in movies and on TV.

And please, for the good of future generations, don’t watch New Girl. You’ll only encourage her.

Congratulations, America: This is your fault.

Well, Bunheads is cancelled. I hope you’re happy.

Sutton Foster macing children

You mean I maced those kids for nothing?


For those of you who weren’t paying attention (which, statistically speaking, is pretty much all of you), Bunheads was a dramatic comedy about a dance-prodigy-turned-showgirl trying to start a new life in a small coastal town. It was breezy, humane, literate, quirky, heart-wrenching and, above all, fun. Watching it would have been the easiest way in the world to get better TV shows made and fight the cultural tide of degradation of women, as I’ve mentioned before, but apparently none of you wanted to have fun while doing a little bit of good at the same time: ABC Family executives have said that the ratings were terrible and there wasn’t enough growth in digital viewings after the season ended to justify making a second season.

For anyone who is still interested in checking out this weird, wonderful show, Amazon Prime members can stream it for free (for now). Everyone else, I hope you enjoy Law & Order: Graphic Descriptions of Sex Crimes and Two Broke Girls And A Bunch Of Racist Caricatures, because it’s apparently what you’re already watching.

Via Hollywood Reporter

A Dose Of Realism: Arrested Development 2.0 Doesn’t Look Very Good

arrested-development-season-4-netlfix-promo-tobias-cut-offs__oPtLook, I’ve lived through Lost. I understand that when you’re a fan of certain TV shows, anticipating the show’s return can be as much a part of the fun of being a fan as actually taking in the show itself. In that spirit, I’ve been riding the wave of Arrested Development mania that has been built up over the past year, cresting (and breaking) with this weekend’s debut of season four on Netflix. I’ve made my cutoffs, I’m preparing the ingredients for a Skip’s Scramble, and I’m having friends over to watch at least all of it this weekend, just like dozens of you.

I want to caution you, though: It might not blow you away.

The Prosecution presents exhibit A, a scene from the new season that was released last month as a promotional piece:

Now, you may recognize that there is a joke in there: That Buster Bluth has an uncomfortably intimate relationship with his mother. However, you’ll probably also notice that this scene goes on for far too long. The first three seasons of the show crammed so many jokes into every frame that every time I watch an episode (even an episode I’ve seen scores of times like “Afternoon Delight”) I’m still finding new jokes tucked away in the corners. There was never an inert scene, let alone one that dragged on for a full minute and a half after it ran out of new jokes to throw at you.

The Arrested Development of old was no stranger to repeating a single joke. And it wasn’t even a stranger to repeating the same joke several times in the same scene. But when it did, each repetition revealed something about the characters and/or added to the humor of the situation. In less than a third of the time of the scene above, the series’ original run could tell a joke, repeat it, repeat it again, comment on it, and use it as a way to exposit the Bluth family dynamics:

(Gob seeing everyone doing their chicken dance and exclaiming, “Wait! I have the perfect thing!” before running away to grab his chicken mask was lobbed off of the above clip.)

So, the show may not be as fast-paced, generous and rewarding as it was in its younger and our more vulnerable years.

And secondofly, as Exhibit b, I present to you the recently released Season Four trailer:

There are a LOT of jokes in there, and only two of them are funny (or at least only two of them made me laugh): Michael screaming when he grabs the car door handle, and the woman at the bar disgustedly telling Gob that she has lupus.

I’m not saying don’t watch the new season. We should all watch. I want so many of us to watch that we bring down Netflix’s servers and make them regret not having this available on DVD and BluRay. (Seriously, Netflix, it’s the one historically profitable part of your business and it’s the one you keep trying to kill off.) I’m just saying, let’s all set our bars a little lower. Better to be pleasantly surprised than to see the thing we love crushed under the unbearable weight of our own expectations.

Did you people learn nothing from Lost?

Revisiting The Shining

A long response to a long-awaited documentary just as soon as I wax nostalgic about the documentary’s subject…

I don’t hold much in common with my parents, especially when it comes to the cultural experiences that we most enjoy, so what common ground we share is precious to me. My father and I commune over the Daniel Craig-era James Bond movies. Though I lean more toward Bobby Darrin and Dean Martin than Frank Sinatra, I still inherited a love for the Rat Pack from my mother. And one thing all three of us have in common is that none of us are horror junkies. Or even horror enthusiasts. I’m probably the most open to violence or brutality in a movie if it serves a worthwhile artistic purpose, but horror for the sake of horror has never been something any of us are interested in.

Except for The Shining.

Steven Weber in The Shining

“The Shining?” Is that about a dreamy croquet star?

When I was twelve years old, ABC began heavily promoting a mini-series based on Stephen King’s novel The Shining. It was going to be three feature-length installments about the Torrance family—recovering alcoholic father Jack, suspicious mother Wendy, slightly psychic son Danny—who are snowbound for three months in the Overlook, a grand hotel with a rich and checkered history. To complicate matters, the hotel is haunted—either by literal ghosts reliving the hotel’s decades of violence or by the metaphorical ghosts of Jack’s anger, alcoholism and failed ambition.

My mother told me that when she was just out of college and working as a nurse, she made the mistake of picking up The Shining and reading it while she was exiled to the graveyard shift at her hospital. After that, every gust of wind set her on edge. For weeks, she had to beat against irrational terror with the knowledge that it was just a book in order to work up the courage to do her nightly rounds. She handed me an issue of TV Guide that led with an extended feature on the upcoming mini-series, and said she’d like to watch it with me.

Suburban children of the 80s and 90s mark the memories of their youth by cultural artifacts as much as by actual experience, and returning to those books, movies and TV shows is frequently disappointing. I’ve been relieved to find that some of the artifacts that were most formative to me still have artistic merit now, two decades later: Ghostbusters is one of the greatest American comedies; The Legend Of Zelda continues to evoke a sense of exploration and possibility unmatched in video games; and my continued passion for superheroes and ancient mythology is well-documented.

Steven Weber from WINGS

That shirt is such a horror!

The Shining was my childhood’s last great enthusiasm. The mini-series thrilled me. Over the course of three installments, Jack’s sanity melts away. Watching Steven Weber, who I had only known as “the guy from Wings,” go from dry drunk to tightly wound ball of nerves to spitting, howling demoniac, was harrowing.

By the end of the second installment, Jack’s anger, unchecked and intensified by his months-long inability to get to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, had boiled over. He no longer cared whether the hotel’s ghosts were real or just figments of his family’s imaginations. He would let them in. It would be easier to just do what they want. He’d kill his wife and son.

Sensing the change in his father’s demeanor, Danny calls out to Dick Halloran, the hotel’s aged and arthritic summer cook, who shares his psychic gift.

“Dick is gonna come back and go tool on Jack!” I remember telling my mother when she asked what I expected of part three. After all, that’s what most stories I had enjoyed up to that point had trained me to expect: An altruistic underdog, strengthened by the righteousness of narrative necessity, would confront the antagonist and emerge victorious.

The next night, Dick hopped a plane from Florida and fought the blistering Colorado winter to come to Danny’s rescue. As he walked into the hotel, I readied myself for warm and comforting catharsis.

"Oh, THAT'S what that's for!"

“Oh, THAT’S what that’s for!”

And then Jack beat him unconscious with a croquet mallet. That was probably my first confrontation with the irrefutable fact that everyone is vulnerable.

A friend’s parents had taped all six hours of the miniseries (on a single VHS, by the way, so the quality was crap). My friend lent me the tape, and I never returned it. I can’t even begin to estimate how many times I watched it.

That summer, I purchased and devoured a paperback copy, and talked at my camp R.A. about the differences and similarities between the mini-series and the book. At length. When I got home, I got on AOL (that’s what we called the internet back then) and started reading everything I could about the mini-series and the book. I learned that Shining fans fell into two camps: Those who preferred the book (and mini-series), and those who preferred Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation. So, I picked up Kubrick’s film, and The Shining became the first cross-media intellectual property that I critically engaged as an adult.

You mean to tell me this guy ever STOPS beating people with hammers?

You mean to tell me this guy ever STOPS beating people with hammers?

I didn’t find Kubrick’s film as satisfying as the book or the mini-series: For one, Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance projected tightly-coiled violence from the opening scene. The horror of the mini-series and the book was in watching Jack Torrance’s rage and indignity escalate, rising from tepid through simmering until it eventually boiled away the mooring he relied on to be a better husband and father. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, on the other hand, was clearly frustrated, violent and abusive from the get-go. His wife lived in terror of him and his son was deeply mistrustful, and there was never any question in their minds (or the audience’s) that he was actively looking for an excuse to beat them again.

Kubrick’s film was also fudgier than the book and mini-series on the question of whether or not the hotel’s ghosts were actually there. Kubrick leaned toward interpreting them as extensions of the characters’ emotions and expressions of their trauma. The book and mini-series, however, leaned toward these ghosts having sentience and agency independent of the Torrance family, and when I was younger, that was scarier to me.

Despite all of that, though, my real reservation was that Kubrick’s movie left me unsettled in a way I couldn’t quite articulate as a twelve-year-old. I found it unpleasant, and I didn’t want to go back to it.

Eventually, though, I started consuming more and increasingly varied books and films. As I did, I began appreciating Kubrick’s ambiguities more. I eventually started to see that Kubrick’s The Shining offered tropes and concepts that I really enjoy—unreliable narrators and a pliable, Borgesian understanding of the flow of history. If the ghosts and horrors in every scene are projections of each of the three Torrance’s psyches, then there’s no way for us to actually know what happened at the Overlook that winter. And if Jack’s occasional moments of deja vu and that maddening final shot of a framed photo of Jack at the Overlook in 1921 mean anything, then this wasn’t the first time the Torrance family died there, and it won’t be the last.

Kubrick’s The Shining is a rorschach of a movie, a versatile frame frame on which you can hang any number of interpretations or meta-narratives.

Which is good news for Room 237, a documentary about the various obsessive theories about the film that have sprung up on the back corners of internet forums over the years. The documentary has been making the festival rounds for a couple years, but is just seeing a wide theatrical release now. (Check your listings, you may already have missed it…)

Some of the theories seem sensible, even if their proponents seem extreme. (IE, The woman who began hand-drawing maps of every room and hallway depicted in the film so as to figure out if Kubrick deliberately designed his Overlook to be an impossible, Escher-esque labyrinth.) Other theorists (IE, The historian who insists that Nicholson’s ad-lib of a line from “The Three Little Pigs” as he’s chopping down the door in the famous “Here’s Johnny!” scene is an obvious reference to an obscure Disney interpretation of the fairy-tale, and thus irrefutable evidence that the film is really a backdoor effort to comment on the holocaust) seem to be reaching, tacking their own agendas onto the movie from outside of it. Still others (IE, The commentator who is convinced that he is being spied on by the government because he figured out that the film is a coded confession that the moon landing was faked) are at best fun until you think too hard about the kind of mind that comes up with that.

What is true across the board, and what allows for such varying interpretations, is the fact that Kubrick’s film is passionately, gloriously, masterfully messy. Yes, the Overlook has hallways, windows and doors where there couldn’t possibly be hallways, windows and doors. Danny passes an elevator then rounds a corner to pass a door that should open into the elevator shaft. But are details like these meant to disorient us, to claw at our subconscious, as some of the documentary’s subjects claim? Or is it possible that Kubrick’s set designers included that door because the hallway looked too empty without it?

“Kubrick is a master filmmaker,” several of Room 237‘s subjects say of the random bits of texture they are trying to knit together into a tapestry of significance. “He was obsessive about detail and couldn’t possibly have made such a mistake or done something on such a flimsy whim.”

In response, I point to one the most memorable moments in one of the greatest films of one of history’s greatest filmmakers: the famous kiss in Notorious, by Alfred Hitchcock:

The story behind why this is considered the longest kiss in movie history is too long and too digressive to share here. (Why it is considered one of the most erotic kisses in movie history should, I hope, be obvious.) Hitchcock, however, had this to say about it:

The actors, of course, hated doing it. They felt dreadfully uncomfortable in the manner in which they had to cling to each other. And I said, “I don’t care how you feel—I already know what it’s going to look like on the screen!”

Hitchcock, arguably the most masterful of cinema’s master class, never thought twice about using utterly unnatural blocking or using filmic trickery to fudge logically impossible choreography because it looked better on camera. Masters can aim for something other than naturalism without having an ulterior motive.

Ultimately, though, my lasting impression from Room 237 is one of dread.

We never see documentary’s subjects on camera. They all recorded audio of their commentary and theories on the movie, and the filmmaker cut them together over footage from The Shining broken up by illustrative clips from other films where appropriate. By about halfway through the film, though, I realized I had a growing sense of apprehension, even terror. I couldn’t figure out why: There was no narrative happening on screen to suck me in, and the audio was interesting and even funny, so why the fear?

Because terror is built into the film’s visual geometry. The camera’s smooth, low movements as it follows Danny riding his tricycle in a loop around the hotel’s grand concourse; the way Jack Nicholson’s face is framed so as to leave the shot’s composition feeling unbalanced; and, of course, the film’s painstaking chronicle of Shelly Duvall’s on-camera nervous breakdown. The Shining is a testament to the fact that Kubrick knew—whether academically or intuitively—how to shoot photographs that evoked emotional responses. And the emotional response he wanted to evoke with The Shining was dread.

Room 237 has brought me full-circle with Kubrick’s The Shining. My relationship with it started as a child—purely visceral, purely aesthetic. As I learned more about it, I began engaging it as a text, as an object to be taken apart, reconstructed, understood. Now, thanks to Room 237‘s most extreme possible deconstruction and reconstruction of Kubrick’s film, I’m finally able to engage with it as a purely visceral and aesthetic experience again.

And that’s what I’ve been missin’.

In all seriousness, Steven Weber playing crazy was totally effective.

In all seriousness, Steven Weber playing crazy was totally effective.