Category: Film


The Shining

I just finished watching the documentary Room 237. This is not a review of the film, but I found it interesting enough to watch. It probably is something you should see if you’re a fan of the film it references – Stanley Kubrick’s, The Shining.

The basic content of the film is interviews with several people who analyze the film for hidden meanings and conspiracy theories. Some are interesting, and some are just plain wacky.

The one piece of information that has stuck with me has to do with numbers. Specifically repeating numbers. Mirrors play a big role in The Shining, and mirrored numbers play a large part as well. Specifically the numbers 12 and 21 and their doubles 24 and 42. What fascinates me the most is how big a role the number 42 plays (I don’t know why it fascinates me, but so be it). Here are the occurrences of 42 in the film:

  • When Danny is talking to Tony in the mirror, he has a shirt on with the number 42.
  • Danny and Wendy are watching the film “Summer of ‘42” while Jack is upstairs (supposedly) sleeping.
  • Room 237, when multiplied together equals 42.
  • The number of letters and spaces in “All work and no play makes jack a dull boy” – 42
  • When Jack visits the Gold Room and walks up to the bar, the stools are arranged four on the left and two on the right.
  • Mr. Halloran’s license plate of his rental car has an obvious 42 on it.
  • There are 42 vehicles in front of the Overlook at the beginning of Jack‚Äôs interview (not including the Sno-Cat).
  • 42 is the number of times Danny says Redrum near the end of the film.

Most of the above information comes from this post about the numbers, though I did think of the 42 letters and spaces of “All work…” before I saw this site ūüėČ

Time to watch The Shining again and find some more number 42’s.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Alex Eylar:


I can’t imagine it will take too long to read this post. Mostly because I don’t want my words to get in the way.

This post is about lots of people. Teachers. Storytellers. Humans. But it’s about two people in particular. One Teacher and one storyteller. Jeffrey Wright and Zack Conkle. Mr. Wright is a teacher. Physics to be exact. Zack is a storyteller. A filmmaker to be more precise. Both are incredibly gifted at what they do. It is completely obvious. That they are so talented makes it easy to learn from them.

The messages from the above short film from Zack are many, but the core message comes out in anyone human in the form of tears. Love. It’s what teaching is all about, and what storytelling is all about. We teach because we love. We teach through storytelling because we love. That teaching and storytelling are about love is what makes them powerful. If you don’t see the power in Mr. Wright’s teaching, or the power in Zack’s storytelling is love, please try again, but I think most will see it plainly.

Zack Conkle was (and forever will be) Jeffrey Wright’s student. Zack sees the power of love as a key element to his films. Zack has many more stories to tell, but the love from his teacher will be a part of them all. So if you haven’t already, WATCH THE DAMN FILM ALREADY!

Zack’s other film, Marrying at 100, is also on Vimeo.

On Film Criticism

little boy thumbs up

When I was a student at SUNY Cortland, I took a class called Film Criticism. It was taught by an instructor whose name I have forgotten at the moment, but he was employed as a film critic by an Oregon newspaper at one point. His charge to us from the beginning of the course was to write film reviews that were equal in quality to those found in the New York Times. A lofty challenge indeed. This was in the heyday of Janet Maslin and Vincent Canby. We were also exposed to Pauline Kael who could work herself into an almost orgasmic state over a good movie.

My go-to guys (film critics) previous to this class were Siskel and Ebert, whose show “At the Movies” on PBS was a staple for me and my brother. Like all “popular” film critics, they had a signature appeal, a gimmick. Thumbs up or thumbs down. Like them or hate them, they taught me about film. What to look for and how to “see” a film. Sounds obvious, but really seeing a film takes effort and knowing what you’re looking for. Gene Shalit had his mustache, Rex Reed had…whatever he had, and Siskel and Ebert had their thumbs. It wasn’t all they had or the show would have lasted less than a minute to “review” a few films.

Anghus Houvouras theorizes that Siskel and Ebert killed film criticism with those selfsame thumbs. They made film criticism into an exercise of consuming fast food, says Houvouras. This criticism certainly looks to have generated conversation, though not of the kind that he would approve. He is also not a fan apparently of Twitter.

Twitter has continued this trend: the reduction of complex thought into 140 characters.¬† Film criticism continues to die one tweet at a time.¬† Twitter is where discourse goes to die.¬† And anyone claiming they’ve had quality discussions on Twitter probably aren’t the best conversationalists.

Well, that’s that then (or is it, the conversation continues on Twitter).

Look, what Siskel and Ebert did was have a conversation about films. A thumb up or down was a recommendation, but with a conversation behind it. The show left you with lots of reasons why or why not, but it left you with the answer to the question “do you recommend this movie?” Now what movie studios did with those recommendations is another story. Movie posters would often feature either or both Siskel’s and Eberts’ Thumbs up review. There is obviously something behind this or the thumbs would have no meaning to millions of people.

Critics were giving stars to movies long before thumbs.¬†Roger Ebert addresses the ratings system by answering the critic who says he “gives out too many stars“. Ebert has called the thumbs system “wacky“, but in the end says it answers the basic question. That’s the point. A period at the end of the sentence. Yes or No. Go see this movie or don’t. The review has more information if you want. It’s up to the reader. Of course a thumb rating has shallowness to it, but so does an Oscar if you reduce it to the Binary Theory. To paraphrase President Obama, they didn’t build that, you did.

So in the end, I’m kind of in the middle. Anghus doesn’t get everything wrong – his headline did ELICIT a reaction – but his criticism isn’t so right either.


P.S. I still disagree with Ebert’s “thumbs up” on The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Flickr photo by Michele Truex.

The Up Series

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” – attributed to¬†Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuit Order

I’m thinking a lot about documentaries lately. I’ve got no less than two classes working on them this semester. I took great pleasure in producing (a short) one last semester for an EDUCAUSE focus session that featured my colleagues at UMW, along with other faculty, staff, and students. I’m also working on a resource to help students create them, so in turn I’m thinking about some of the greatest documentaries ever made.

The above quote, supposedly from Francis Xavier of Jesuit fame, is the framing of what is collectively known as the Up Series. Michael Apted was a researcher on the first film of the series, Seven Up, which began to tell the story of a group of children all at the age of 7 years old. The series begins by asking the children some different questions about their lives, their dreams, the opposite sex, and race among other things. Every seven years after that, Apted has revisited (and directed) the subjects, first with the follow-up film 7 Plus Seven. Then with 21 Up, 28 Up and so on all the way to 2012’s 56 Up.

Not only is the Up Series a documentary, but the seminal “longitudinal” documentary, and therefore belongs on any list when thinking “best of”. What fascinates me most about this documentary is that the storyteller bias is in a strange way magnified as it spans it’s almost 50 years. The idea that questions that are asked of these children, and how they answer the questions in subsequent years, constitute “their lives” reveals itself to be quite tricky. In the first film one of the 7 year-olds maps out all of the schools that he will attend in future years, from prep-school to university. In one of the follow up films, when he has finally achieved what was previously stated (save substituting Oxford for Cambridge), he complains that he did indeed achieve it. What wasn’t shown was all of the hard work, and anguish, and sleepless nights. For as long a time as this documentary spans, the parts of the story that get left out are equally massive.

Recently, WNYC’s On The Media program revisited the series and spoke with Mr. Apted. It turns out he didn’t know that the previously mentioned 7 year-old, named John, had lost his father and wound up getting a scholarship to Oxford because of financial difficulties. John complains that the director made it out to be a “indestructible birth-right”, when it turned out to be a struggle. Apted still argues that there was a strong “guiding hand” and an “empowered” background. John’s father died when he was eight or nine. So the question remains was the “man” made at seven?

The films are generally about class and how life paths go in such unpredictable directions. There is a strong focus on education and choices made, or not made, that determines those directions. It is also about politics and religion and race as some of the subjects discuss how those parts of society fit into and affected their lives. I haven’t seen 56 Up yet, but supposedly because of the political situation in England with the financial downturn and subsequent austerity programs, the now 56 year-olds are quite politically vocal. I can’t wait to see it.

Ultimately we have to decide if we see enough of the man, or woman, in the 7 year-old to prove the Jesuit thesis. However, the journey is equally fascinating and we see many different people all in the same body as they grow to adulthood. And even how they change in adulthood. One of the participants, Neil, complains that even though he has received hundreds of letters where people proclaim to know exactly how he feels, they still don’t REALLY know. We are a product of our life and we are all unique no matter how much we still try to classify ourselves and others.

By the way, the whole series, except for 56 Up is available on Netflix streaming. I strongly encourage you to see it.

How I Survived Christmas 2012


Messin’ with Cratchit

As I mentioned in a previous post, Christmas can be a difficult time to get through. I decided on a multi-pronged approach to survive my 2012 Christmas season. The first tactic was to not travel. This was not originally part of the holiday plan, but as it turned out it was crucial. The second was a fairly standard tactic. Watch some good movies (and if I could, get my 10 year-old son to watch with me). The third tactic was to make sure I exercised. Normally that means cycling, but this year I turned back to running. It is still unclear to me why I did, but it has been a change of pace that has hit the right chord.

The holiday break began with a real treat. A revisitation of the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour. Originally shown on Boxing Day, 1967 in Great Britain, the PBS “Great Performances” presentation included interviews with some of the principal figures involved in the film. Including Paul and Ringo. It was followed by a re-airing of the film. My son was fascinated by it. The break ended with watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My son still talks about scenes from this movie.

Christmas Eve I had the idea of watching A Christmas Story. My son, however, is kind of at that stage where everything needs to be novel, and the idea of watching this movie again was not at the top of his list. We stepped through some of the movies that I had available on my Apple TV and towards the end was Scrooge. Also known as A Christmas Carol. And not just any version either, but the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer. A few times during the movie I looked at Aidan and his face was contorted trying to figure out what the Dickensian dialogue was saying in modern English, but he got the gist of it. Wait ’til he groks the idea of this story being an indictment on 19th century capitalism, then, like his father, he’ll really enjoy it.

Of course, eventually, there is the scene of Scrooge’s (literal) awakening. I’m hoping that it is having the same effect on my family, but it is (as it always is) an overwhelming rush and tingling of joy. Scene after scene after Scrooge (Sim) awakes from his nightmare is pure indescribable joy. Eye-watering, head-shaking, manic-ridden joy! What makes Mr. Sim’s performance that much more complete are his interjected facial expressions of contrition between his fits of giddiness. He knows he has been a fool, and an ogre, and himself – a humbug. I would argue it is one of the most profound and moving performances of human metamorphosis in cinema. It is that reminder that we are a product of our past, and how we live and act in our present, will determine the type of future we will have.

So it may sound trite, but a film at least helped me to navigate Chrsitmas 2012. I’m already looking forward to a more joyous 2013. Happy New Year!

A Storyteller’s World

Much research is spawned in DTLT as a direct result of casual conversations with my colleagues, faculty, and staff. I can’t even remember how Martha and I got talking about what babies, who are unable to talk, are thinking at any given time, but I was reminded of the film Baby Geniuses. Released in 1999, it had mild commercial success, but not so much critical acclaim. The sequel to that movie Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2004), was roundly panned and received a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.¬†It was the last movie that Bob Clark directed. He was killed, along with his 22 year old son, by a drunken driver in 2007.

The Christmas holiday’s are a bittersweet time for me. I have wonderful memories growing up and loving the holiday season. It is difficult as an adult today not to be repulsed by crass commercialism, and by fights breaking out in box stores for things that will ultimately become gifts for “loved ones”. Around the time I was moving into adulthood, 1983, the movie A Christmas Story came out. It was, as they say, an instant classic. It has grown in status to compete with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol (the 1954 1951 edition with Alastair Sim) as “favorite Christmas movie”. Bob Clark directed A Christmas Story, and while it is surely irreverent, it has an unmatched sweetness to it. Clark’s story gets me through Christmas every year.

ClarkWORLD¬†(2008) is a documentary about a storyteller, Bob Clark, who directed A Christmas Story, Baby Geniuses (and BG2), as well as films the likes of Porky’s¬†(1982) and the¬†sequel,¬†Porky’s II: The Next Day¬†(1983),¬†¬†Black Christmas¬†(1974),¬†Murder by Decree¬†(1979), and¬†Tribute¬†(1980). To say that’s an eclectic career is an understatement, but that’s what makes Clark’s story so compelling. Each film project that he undertook was a story in itself, for example¬†Black Christmas it turns out was the precursor to “slasher” films and with direct lineage to Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Murder by Decree was a film that brought together the likes of¬†¬†Christopher Plummer¬†and¬†James Mason, along with¬†Genevi√®ve Bujold,¬†Donald Sutherland,¬†John Gielgud, and¬†David Hemmings¬†(among others). However, A Christmas Story gets the most attention in ClarkWORLD, which includes an interview with Peter Billingsly, who played “Ralphie”. It deserves the attention.

One of the documentary’s opening scenes is with Clark’s long-time assistant driving through the Everglades in Florida looking for the canal where Porky’s was shot. Clark went to school at the University of Miami where he studied theater. Clark mentions off-handedly about the Miami film scene, which I would have loved to hear more about. But there are many interesting and heart-felt stories about Clark and the projects that he selected or that were foisted upon him. Ever heard of Rhinestone (1984)? Go ahead, look it up and be amazed.

So finally, I have to admit, that I have a certain guilty affection for Baby Geniuses. I like its premise and that is that babies contain universal knowledge up until the point where they “cross over” and learn to talk. If we could only learn to communicate with them before they lose that knowledge. OK, so it’s not a great film and it’s on Roger Ebert’s “most hated” list, but I hated The Gods Must Be Crazy, so we’re even. The point is that Clark saw something in the premise and he attempted to tell the story. Sometimes it doesn’t work out.

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