As we fumble towards some kind of symbolic permanence in our lives we sometimes land where we shouldn’t, in places that have long since belonged to someone else. We call those places ours but they aren’t really; they are rooted sometimes in darkness, inhabited by ghosts, or corpses, or bad memories.
The dark side of our American past is juxtaposed with our endless reach for the dream — but our past remains in our architecture — the limbs of who we were, and maybe who we’ll always be. Three directors puncture that dream of belonging somewhere, and their films often caution us that being tied to a place turns into a claustrophobic nightmare.
With Room 237 opening, it seems we will never be able to fully let go of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With Bate’s Motel being a surprisingly good update to Hitchcock’s Pscyho we are also compelled to keep Norman Bates alive. And in David Fincher’s Panic Room, even without the lurid subtext that probably has kept Psycho alive, and the semi-comical but nonetheless fascinating lead as realized by Jack Nicholson in the Shining, it nevertheless comes down to the same thing Psycho and The Shining are really about: the director and his camera.
In The Shining, Psycho and Panic Room whole structures were built for the sole purpose of the directors getting the shots they wanted. It seems simple enough, for those kinds of directors who need complete control of the frame. It is particularly evident with Kubrick and Fincher, who drill into walls and depict a structure that, when you step back from it, could not really exist in real life. The extended walls, the absurd height and width of rooms, give us the impression of the smallness of people within them.
In Psycho, the bigness of the place is not on the inside but on the outside. The house had to loom over the motel, to loom over Norman’s eventual “career” and to show us the shadowy figure of mother in the window. You’d never really know what was going on inside, you could hardly imagine, in fact, because what you see is something so seemingly normal – a woman passing in front of a window, pacing, perhaps, to pass the time. What it really was — a son dressing up in his mother’s clothes to keep her memory alive.
And murder. And blood. Oh god, mother, blood!
In The Shining, Jack Torrence brings his family to the Overlook — a place that is full of the laughter and joy of vacationing families in the warm months but one that is handed over to the spirits when it is swallowed up by the layers of snow in the winter months. You’d never know that this vacation spot was the place of nightmares. And murders — children being axed to death. And yet, Jack Torrence is trying to make something of himself for his family’s sake, for his own sake: he is going to be a real writer. But he is seduced by the place itself and the place is a hotel that needs new souls but particularly the soul of Danny, his son.
In Panic Room, a recently divorced mother brings her daughter to live in a place that seems to symbolize what you get when you divorce a rich man. It is too big for them, and it’s unlike any interior film set you’ve ever seen because it was built that way. It wasn’t built to reflect reality; but the endless reach for something you can never really get. This is the giant fireplace in the castle built by Kane for his young wife – did it ever bring them happiness, even for a second? But does it nonetheless symbolize some kind of American dream realized? Absolutely.
In Panic Room, the past of the place is brought immediately back the moment the new inhabitants move in. The paranoia of the previous owner, himself tangled up in the American dream of swollen, unnecessary wealth — his family fighting over his fortune, his panic room built to protect him should people try to steal all of his money, and his hidden millions, buried underneath it — all to say “mine.”
Trapped along with what the criminals want in the panic room, Jodie Foster does the only thing she was born to do: protect her daughter. This is really what The Shining comes down to also — a mother fleeing a dangerous situation to protect her son. And all the while both are fighting not just the evil forces but the structure of the place itself — a panic room without connectivity with either a cell phone or the phone inside they forgot to set up. A bathroom window that Shelly Duvall can’t fit through. Vulnerable children, heroic mothers, and giant, unnecessary walls representative of everything else that doesn’t matter closing in on them by the second are much of what drives The Shining and Panic Room.
Psycho also has a strong female uncoiling the mystery, driven by her need to find out what happened to her sister. The money is the McGuffin — that unnecessary thing that seems to be the motivating force behind Marion’s murder. But of course, as the psychologist explains at the end, these were crimes of passion, not profit. Psycho is a story as much about the house, that iconic structure, as it is about the events that unfolded there — the past, where Norman and his mother were “more than happy.” The way the world turned its back on the place when they built the new road — and how Norman murdered his own mother and her lover in a jealous rage. The house bears witness to everything that happens inside it and those memories seem to color the walls, but particularly the bedrooms of the mother and Norman.
In Psycho and The Shining, the rooms themselves uncover the past in absurd ways. Shelley Duvall witnessing the emergence of ghosts dressed up in fuzzy bear costumes, or Vera Miles seeing Norman’s own stuffed animals, seemingly in exactly the same place she found them. The past clings to the present, refusing to let it go.
The explanations offered up in Room 237, a film I have not yet seen, seem to want to find a way of explaining a film that never explains itself. It’s about our treatment of American Indians, no, it’s about the Holocaust. It has to be about something because at first glance there seems to be nothing there. What we were expecting to see, what was in Stephen King’s great book, isn’t there. There are lots of shots of Jack Nicholson in a hallway, of giant staircases, of big unholy cans of fruit cocktail… but what does it all mean?
Stanley Kubrick took enormous liberties with the book, which in its own way is far more terrifying than the film. Many of the most memorable scenes in The Shining did not take place in the book, like Redrum or “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Kubrick altered the characters to suit the actors — Wendy in the book is not a timid, shaky, borderline irritating nag that Shelly Duvall is. And Jack in the book is not the vibrant, hilarious, iconic character that Jack Nicholson turned him into. Much of why I think The Shining endures is the buried fantasy most husbands have to stalk their wives with an ax. But more than that it’s how Nicholson confronts Duvall that really expresses so much of the general irritation with women overall, their suffocating, mothering nature.
“When you do think we should TAKE HIM TO THE DOCTOR”?
“As soon as possible!”
“AS SOON AS POSSIBLE???”
Those scenes are funny but they are also a little taboo playing out — hatred or resentment of women, the caveman returning to claim his dominance. Kubrick himself has long been labeled a sexist filmmaker. Not coincidentally, so have Alfred Hitchcock and David Fincher. Since all three of these films focus intently on the relationship between mother and child it’s hard to make a case for Fincher falling into that group, though I’ve heard the argument made. After Alien3, Panic Room and Dragon Tattoo I think Fincher has earned his feminist cred and then some. But many critics disagree.
Wendy is the mother of Danny — and to us that makes her a hero — but she is also portrayed as the nagging wife of Jack. And in the book, this is explained much better than it is in the film, which offers us up a projection for our own fantasies of who they are and who they represent to us. Is it any wonder that Room 237 was made? There are so many ways to interpret The Shining and no one is willing to simply accept that Kubrick was making a film about those walls, those hallways, that structure. The Shining is about the hotel, both the book and the movie. But the opacity of Kubrick’s work invites interpretation.
The mother in Psycho is one of the most iconic in terms of American culture and psychoanalysis. Here is your Freudian fantasy of a boy who wants to fuck his own mother played out. We can’t look, we can’t look away. We return to Norman and to Psycho because these threads are still woven through our culture. We all have mother issues, even if we don’t have a mother, even if we are mothers.
We couldn’t let him go, and we can’t let her go, which is why there is a Bate’s Motel at all. The series works because it doesn’t try to be Hitchcock’s Psycho yet it makes us uncomfortable by tapping into what made Psycho so uncomfortable — the deception hidden from view, the psychosis we don’t see clearly until the very end.
What makes these three films work, though, isn’t even the similarities they have to each other — claustrophobia, mothers and children, criminals, death, money, the collapsed American dream but it is mostly their cinematic wonder.
In Panic Room, as the mother and daughter sleep peacefully in their brand new beds surrounded by damp and surprisingly unclean walls, Fincher’s camera does what it was born to do; you don’t build a whole structure for a movie and then not use that structure. He glides up through the ceiling, down around the stairs, through the keyhole, up over the roof and outside. As the three thugs — Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and “Raoul” attempt to break Jodie Foster’s resolve — rigid as steel – so too do they set about destroying the house. Everything gets the sledgehammer, walls crumble, windows break, trimmings are drilled through – somehow I don’t think the house liked that very much and thus, things aren’t going to turn out well for them.
Likewise, what is more memorable than anything else in The Shining is Kubrick’s tracking shots throughout the hotel – a hotel that makes no logical sense either. Down the hallway with Danny on his Big Wheels, closing in on Jack heading for the bar, following along as Wendy wheels breakfast — every frame of that film uses the custom built set to show off that camerawork and maximize the slithery effect of a brand new advancement, the Steadicam.
In Psycho, both the motel itself and especially the house that looms over it were built to get specific shots Hitchcock had in mind. The murder of Arbogast illustrates how they built it for the camera. But also Vera Miles’ walk up the stairs in front of the house – first on her face as she gets closer, then on the facade of the house as she gets closer. Each time we’re wondering, not knowing, what she’ll find up there.
In each of these films the characters are trapped not just by the place, not just by the money that forced them into those situations but also by the weather — hard rain in New York and at the Bates Motel, and snow in The Shining. Psycho and The Shining each have horrific bathroom moments. In The Shining, the woman behind the shower curtain in Room 237, a fantasy nearly played out for Jack — a fresh new babe to screw. But that quickly turns into his worst nightmare — a decaying old naked woman. And in Psycho, poor Marion decides to wash away her sins only to be brutally attacked by Norman as mother.
We are drawn to these characters because they are unsettling but we are also drawn to these films, and these filmmakers, because they are thrillingly visual. Their cameras play visual symphonies, each shot a painting — exacting composition, deliberate use of color (or lack thereof), and always a surprise every time you turn the corner.
These directors are known for their willingness to make audiences uncomfortable, for their refusal to adhere to either the happy ending or to perpetuate the illusion that movies have to always illustrate the better sides of humanity. That makes them not the favorite of Oscar voters — we look to them, though, to help us work through those darker regions of our own minds, our thwarted, unhealthy desires, our failings, our fears and to dazzle us by pushing the envelope of what films, and film cameras, were made for.
We walk away from these worlds thankful that we don’t live in them, our dreams safely tucked away in places whose past is still buried under layers of paint and drywall. People move through them, die in them. The structures remain.