Inside the Red Room: Kubrick, Rothko and the Power of Art
Just how powerful is art? Can it put you off your food the way love or grief or fear does? Can it slam the breaks on the relentless business of life, fade out the buzz and cut straight through to our most basic emotions: anguish, desire, ecstasy, terror?
A cornerstone of my parents' strategy for raising good Christian children was the strict policing of screen media. PG-rated movies were acceptable, M-rated films forbidden, and the viewing of R-rated material was akin to selling one's soul to the Antichrist. With my viewing options so stringently restricted, I made do with what I could get my hands on. The most accessible contraband I could find within the pre-Internet home of my youth were the trailers found on my parents' more grown-up video selections. It is in this context that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) became unquestioningly one of my favourite films, years before I saw it in full.
Consisting of a short sequence that appears in a slightly different form in the movie itself, the trailer's action is a single long take, with no actors or spoken language. Its action is simple: an empty hotel lobby fills with red liquid with increasing speed and intensity throughout its minute and a half running time. A discordant soundtrack rises kicking and screaming to an intolerable crescendo as the camera – splashed and blackened – surrenders to the film's title. There is no narrative, no characters: nothing but a sense of indefinable, paralysing dread. The Shining trailer was the first time a film moved me in ways both unpleasant and irresistible. It was also – crucially – the first time I consciously understood that cinema was about much more than mere storytelling. To my adult eye, The Shining is still an extraordinary film, but its potency on a subjective level is so closely aligned with my developing film literacy that my affection feels somehow intrinsically sophomoric. I loved it as only young people can love things.
And yet, there is still something in the trailer's aggressive appeal to the senses that I still find myself subconsciously searching to relive, at any moment and any way that I can. I like good film, I admire great film, but what I yearn for does not exist on this taste spectrum: I want cinema to move me, to change me, to make me feel intensely. I have, undoubtedly, seen a great number of films that I have "liked" more than The Shining in the years since I first saw it. However, I have yet to be moved in quite the same way as when I first saw that 90-second trailer.
Until, at least, my first visit to London's Tate Modern art gallery. I had at the time been engrossed in Simon Schama's 2006 art history television series The Power of Art. Each episode combined Schama's engaging mode of biographical and textual analysis with re-enactments, framed around some of the world's most famous works of art: Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath (1610), Turner's The Slave Ship (1840), and Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647), amongst others. The final episode focused on Mark Rothko's Black on Maroon (1958), and a consideration of Rothko's Seagram murals more generally. Commissioned to paint a series of large works for New York's Four Seasons Restaurant, Rothko withdrew permission to install them when he realised they would simply become little more than wallpaper for the wealthy and privileged. Instead, he donated the murals to the Tate, who received news of the artist's suicide the same day as the paintings arrived in London in February 1970.
There are 10 paintings in all, and in the Tate Modern's Rothko Room they loom large in red and black: they throb with an unapologetically visceral presence. The first time I saw them, children ran rampant, adding a surreal din to what was already an overwhelming physical and emotional experience. I was dizzy. My nose bled. Standing before them, I had a distinct sensation of vertigo. This was unquestioningly the closest I have ever come to understanding what I imagine the Stendhal Syndrome feels like, and I am frankly still unsure if the experience was wholly unpleasant.
It was only later that I clicked what primal sense memory the Seagram murals had triggered: The Shining trailer. In his consideration of Rothko, Simon Schama posited that throughout the history of art, there was a governing assumption that "you would need stories, or at least figures, to deliver the poetic rush of feeling: weeping madonnas; voluptuously vulnerable nudes; soulful self-portraits; embattled heroes laid low." Rothko, in contrast, "believed that tradition was all used up; that figurative art no longer had what it took to connect us, viscerally, to the human tragedy."2 We see this in the Seagram murals and I saw it – and still do – in this brief moment in The Shining. It is, admittedly, figurative in some ways: there are recognisable shapes, words, elevator doors, chairs, heaters, a light fitting. Yet rather than beginning with a Rothkoian logic, The Shining here collapses into it, subverting the dominant visual paradigm. The walls leak under the pressure of figurative significance, the mise en scene literally rendered increasingly porous.
In Cahiers du Cinéma in 1965, Jean-Luc Godard corrected his interviewer's observation about the volume of blood in Pierrot le Fou: "Not blood, red."3 In the hands of Kubrick and Rothko (and, for that matter, Godard), red has its own symbolic and sensory potency, and contains its own visceral threat. Like blood and yet not blood, these artworks privilege shades of red, but – just as importantly – also what Schama identified in Rothko's work as "the light-sucking absorption of black."4
In this moment in both The Shining and the Seagram murals, red might evoke somatic vulnerability, but it is the darkness that draw us in. Schama's words about the Tate Modern's Rothko Room apply just as much to Kubrick's iconic hotel lobby: "Whatever that room is about, it's certainly not Now. More like forever." We find ourselves, says Schama, "in the low light, and sense the aeons rolling by; where we can feel beckoned towards those hanging veils with their mysterious inner glimmer; or through the portals that seem to suggest both a vision of infinity and its unattainability."5 This is the power of art, rendered simultaneously both sensorially intelligible and intellectually incomprehensible in this brief moment in The Shining.