Lately I’ve been obsessed with Stanley Kubrick films. I mention The Shining in class quite often to my students and how it represents an incredible example of psychological dread built into a narrative. A slow and constant ratcheting of tension. (I find myself mentioning films in general quite a bit in creative writing regarding matters of narratology.) And some of my students hate the differences in the film from the Stephen King novel. They say the film is long, slow and boring. Yet like Rob Ager  on his website or in his YouTube film analyses I have to agree that the film is superior and generates a “subliminal onslaught” creating such a tension and tone of fear that goes beyond the novel.

And I do think the film scarier than attacking hedges as in the novel and jump scares built into nearly every popular horror film lately. Especially the Paranormal Activity films. The craft and the mysteries at the center of Kubrick’s film though drive my multiple viewings.

I also like that the story is about a writer trying to get ideas down and ultimately unravelling.

A few summers back I sat in Mary Gaitskill’s workshop while she lectured on this feeling or mood that comes from an irrational level through a text—the feeling or the tone. She stated this was beyond literal interpretation; it was the soul of the book. In the story it is what cannot be manifested in life. It’s all created by phrase and tone. She kept referring to it as the soul or the unseen. The idea is to use something not important to take yourself and reader somewhere very deep. Language creating images and the subliminal to radically enhance what we interpret. At her fiction reading  one night she read from her story “The Other Place” and demonstrated how every detail of the writing and language can help to slowly build that sense of dread. That story is about a father and son and we never are literally told what “the other place” means for the narrator as character but we sense and we infer. I remember her completely committed to the character’s voice and mannerisms. The voice and language created the soul or guts of the writing.

Kubrick utilizes subtle symbols and images to build meaning in a similar way. The music is intimidating and the pacing slow and steady. Important scenes are cryptic and become ambiguous and meaning is never directly stated as in the events of Room 237. The room becomes a central component of the events of the story. The room exists as the unsayable. The secret room existing at the center of the film and crucial to the answer behind Jack Torrance’s madness and kept hidden from his family–perhaps repressed by his family. The suggestion of child abuse and effects of alcoholism never directly shown but alluded to and left to seep through the plotline and symbology.

Reminds me of Donald Hall’s essay The Unsayable Said and his metaphor of the secret room existing at the center of each poem that the artist is trying to create. The literal and subliminal brought impossibly together he writes. Hall explains, “the poetry adds the secret (unsayable) room of feeling and tone to the sayable story.”

To further my study of the film I’m eagerly awaiting the documentary Room 237 directed by Rodney Ascher. The trailer states that the documentary is filled with interviews of thinkers and writers discussing Kubrick’s hidden meanings. Everything from moon landing conspiracies to pedophilia I imagine. (Jay Weidner’s interpretations which I’ve read before I imagine might be the oddest.) I’m interested in hearing the many other differing interpretations and evidence as to what has made this film so debated nearly thirty years later.

Some nights when I’m supposed to be working on my big fat failed novel.  When I am supposed to be sleeping. Or grading. I can’t and so I sit and listen to books on tape. A few months back it was Jesus’ Son. Something about Will Patton’s voice that grabbed me. This time out I have been obsessing over Ethan Hawke reading Slaughterhouse Five.

Maybe it has something to do with my hesitation to dig in to some memories. And then dig in to the revisions. Maybe, like Vonnegut’s characters–coming to me via Hawke’s whispering performance–I’m up at night obsessing over the memories and the dilemma of how to organize my stories. How to give them structure. How to do them justice. How to deal with people who are dead and gone. How to try and recreate their errors in the writing. To try and re-imagine them and understand.

It makes me think of Alberto Giacometti’s surrealist sculpture “the Palace at 4am” and how it influenced or inspired William Maxwell to return to his memoir or writing. How it represents that dread in the middle of the night that comes to people.

I tell my students to find those stories that are so difficult for you that you stay up late thinking and rethinking their importance. The stories that give you Phillip Glass–The Hours soundtrack–kind–of–dread in the middle of the night when decent folks are sleeping. When even my dog is snoring. Perhaps I should tell my students what you do when you find the ghosts from those stories and how to keep them at arm’s length so you can just get some rest.

The sad situation reminds me of Amy Hempel’s first assignment in her workshop. To paraphrase: find the story that reveals deep secrets that reveals and breaks down your innermost sense of self. I guess I’m stuck on the “breaks down” part now that I am hundreds of pages in to my manuscript and the characters based on dead folks from my youth.

More on this as I think of it.