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Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Bonkers School

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

A couple of weeks ago, I screened a copy of Room 237 for myself and a couple dozen friends. When I talk about Room 237 I call it a “documentary” in quotes, because it’s one of those narratives that is technically nonfiction but realistically not quite rooted in reality. These are, admittedly, sometimes my favorite form of documentary. Not only are they entertaining, but they offer endless opportunity to sharpen critical thinking skills.

In the loosest possible sense, Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, but really it is a sort of ode to overinvestment. It was assembled by Rodney Ascher, whose feelings on The Shining aren’t made visible in the film, and it documents the critical theories of five people for whom The Shining is a large part of their life — one of them makes maps of the layouts in the film, and another has written at least one book about it. Some of them believe that the film is an allegory for genocides such as the slaughter of Native Americans or the Holocaust; one, memorably, believes that Kubrick has distilled all of history into the story and made a film about “pastness”. My favorite is the man who believes that The Shining was made to tell the story of Kubrick’s personal experiences during his faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (He’s careful to say that he thinks the moon landing happened, just that the film footage we saw is fake.)

It is evident, much of the time, that these people are desperately projecting their own wants and feelings onto the film. A ski poster turns into a minotaur; a can of baking powder indicates the broken treaties European colonists made with Native Americans. A dissolve where a handful of tourists become a pile of luggage references the death-camp train deportations of the Holocaust. What appear as continuity errors to the rest of us — a suddenly-missing chair, a set missing some of its dressing, or a bathroom that seems to co-occupy space with a ballroom — appear to the subjects of the film as precise and specific choices meant to indicate their theories are correct.

It’s not that these things can’t be true — but it’s not terribly likely. A friend of mine pointed out that while Kubrick was indeed a control freak who micromanaged every aspect of the film, he also often changed the script from day to day, meaning that the cast and crew frequently had little clue what was going on. Continuity, as with many films, was not necessarily top priority. (Kubrick was also spending much of his time terrorizing Shelley Duvall.)

The further the film runs, the more you see that these people have spent a lot of time studying and analyzing the film. It’s hard to come down on them for that; we do the same in fandom with our favorite media. It also becomes evident that perhaps they have spent a little too much time on it. One of them, whose young son is sometimes heard yelling or crying in the background of his voice-over, admits with a giggle that he thinks his life is becoming The Shining. Run far, run fast.

The interpretations offered by these people derive from what I call the Bonkers School of Criticism, where the personal desire of the critic combines with the interpretive nature of all media to create a deeply bonkers theory of the media’s deeper meaning. There’s nothing wrong with in-depth analysis. There’s nothing wrong with deliberately misreading a text, either. Sometimes it’s fun to think what things could mean, even when you know the creator probably won’t go there and never intended to hint they would. But when the desire to see a specific reading overtakes the desire to accurately represent the work — when you believe the bullshit you came up with to entertain yourself with — you get the Bonkers School.

One of the saner participants in the film seems like she potentially has some really interesting things to say about Kubrick’s use of a hedge maze in the film, a setting that wasn’t present in the original novel. The association of the narrative with the concept of the labyrinth — a maze with a monster at the center — is an intriguing aspect of the film to explore, and was almost certainly something Kubrick intended, particularly since he put the climax of the film in the maze. That’s the tragedy of the Bonkers School — you fly right past “relevant” on the road to “pet theory”.

Erotomania is the delusion that some stalkers suffer, in which they believe the focus of their obsession is sending them secret messages in the way they dress, talk, and behave — even in the way they interact with their stalkers on the rare occasions they may encounter them. It’s not that any of these people think that Kubrick was aiming the message specifically at them, but they do think Kubrick was aiming a message at people like them — people who are, it’s implied, smart and special enough to understand his true, hidden meaning.

I’m a big proponent of trying not to let ego interfere with the work, when one is creating — but until I stopped to think about Room 237 for a while, I didn’t consider the idea that ego can interfere with the act of experiencing creation as well. It’s easy to say that people who attend the Bonkers School need a reality check — but perhaps more truthful to say that the best remedy would be an ego check.

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A Moving Experience

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’ve set this to autopost — well, really, all of these posts are set to autopost, that’s how I roll — but the point is, with this one, as you read it I am supervising the move of all my worldly goods from Wrigleyville on the north side of Chicago to the Prairie District on the south side. Hopefully it’s going well.

You learn two things, generally, when moving:

a) How much stuff you have
b) How little you need for basic survival

Of course, one aspires to slightly more than basic survival, which is why I have eight boxes labeled “kitchen” and about four labeled “linens”. In my defense, they’re small. I don’t have that many boxes of books, because I used to move a lot and books are heavy; I was a super-early adopter of the ebook, though I still don’t own an ebook reader proper.

From the ages of eighteen through twenty-eight, I moved at least once a year, every year. First for school, then away from school, then to Chicago, where I hit my third apartment in three years and decided I would settle there for a while. Despite a plague of wasps, a recurring stream of mice named Lorenzo (Pope Lorenzo XI, may he rest in peace, was the last of his line), and a hot water tap in the shower that I think may actually have had some kind of ancient curse on it, I stayed put because I was just so damn tired of moving.

(It turns out, btw, when you hire movers rather than moving shit yourself, it takes 90% of the stress out of moving. Who knew?)

In theory, I like travel, and I like to experience new places, especially as a resident. I enjoy learning a neighborhood, so I’ve usually tried to make sure that I am, in fact, living in a neighborhood worth learning. I eventually learned to disqualify certain swathes of the south loop during my home-hunt because they simply had no neighborhood. They were just blocks upon blocks of apartment buildings, designed for people who could drive to more interesting neighborhoods. There’s nothing objectively wrong with that; people have to live somewhere. But it wasn’t for me, an inveterate on-footer with a particular appreciation for awkward architecture.

Moving makes you examine your life pretty closely, not only because you’re packing it all up but because of the stress of moving and the cultural weirdness that surrounds it. There’s a sort of gestalt that says by the end of a move you’re supposed to want to kill everyone else involved in the move, and that there will always be unexpected stresses and last-minute messes. I intend to defy this, but then I’m sure I’m not the first. At any rate, it makes you take a step back and look at who you are and the direction your life is going, because our homes so often define us. Even when we aren’t financially able to choose a home to fit us — perhaps especially then — our homes speak volumes about where we stand in our society.

This is literally the first time in my life I’ve been excited about moving. Every other move in my history was either forced on me by external circumstances or was so fraught with financial and physical peril that it was more terrifying than it was satisfying. Moving from Austin to Chicago comes pretty close to being thrilling, but even then it was a leap of faith — no job, no furniture, no local friends, just me and a couple of suitcases on an Amtrak north.

For me, this apartment is a step into the middle class. Unlike many writers, I don’t fear the bourgeois; I’m looking forward to embracing my new condo culture and learning from it, and maybe punking it up a little.

Hopefully I’ll be able to liveblog the event; if so, keep an eye on my tumblr for photos of my new place, possible mentions of emergency room visits, and an update on the state of every belonging I own.

Where Has All The Reading Gone

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

It was a running joke in my grad school theatre program that nobody had much time for pleasure reading. We were all academics, and we read a lot, but very rarely did we read anything other than plays and theatre pedagogy. I remember encountering one of my fellow students and telling her I was reading a novel, and her sighing dramatically.

“I remember novels,” she said, mock-wistfully.

Her reaction — she was a third-year at the time, and I was a first-year — inspired me to be sure I made time for books. As an undergraduate, I’d seen an article about how theatres and graduate programs weren’t just looking at what your experience on your resume was — they were asking what shows you’d been to see recently, because theatre professionals are infamous for working a lot of shows but not seeing a lot outside of what they work on. So as a theatre kid I committed to seeing a lot of theatre, and when I transitioned into a more literary field, I committed to reading a lot of books. I’ve kept that commitment for many years, and while I don’t quite hit the magic “fifty two books a year” which seems so pleasant and symmetrical, I usually manage to read twenty to thirty.

So far this year I’ve read six, and that’s counting two that I read in very late December of last year. Mind you, I’ve read a lot of comic books, at least a few novels’ worth, so perhaps this year will simply be the year of comics. And the books I have read have been fairly intense: heavy political commentary, literary historical fiction, Lovecraft. Still, time to get back into novels.

As an adult, with a job (really two jobs) and a plethora of transitional events this year, from surgeries to moves to promotions, it’s easy to say that I don’t have time to read because I’m a little busy managing my actual life, but that’s also an excuse that will be valid forever; everyone has a busy life. It takes time and energy to commit to what in the corporate world is called Professional Development — keeping up skills, learning new ones, and understanding the trends and advances in our chosen field. In my case, professional development includes reading, both for pleasure (to remind myself what is pleasurable about literature) and as a form of continuing education. It means you make time for it, even when that’s difficult to do.

To be a writer, particularly a writer who wishes to speak to a culture or from a culture, you have to be a part of the culture, to understand what you can of it. Reading isn’t the whole of that but it is a significant piece, and it’s the easiest to achieve — all you really need is time, and either money or a library card.

Time to get back into it.