Friday, April 12, 2013
Room 237 (***)
Directed by Rodney Ascher
In the middle decades of the twentieth century, a powerful literary movement thundered through America called the New Criticism. It was started by John Crowe Ransom and popularized by towering literary figures like T.S. Eliot. This new way of analysis stressed close reading, attempting to find the true meaning and status of a work, particularly how it can work as its own "self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object" (thanks Wikipedia). This movement was probably the way literature was deconstructed up until about 1975. That is, until people found the process tedious and unnecessary (there's only so many times you can find meaning in The Waste Land before you'd want to put your head in the oven). I feel like the New Critics would have really loved Room 237 and its five contributors who go deep down into the abyss to find what they feel to be the true meaning behind Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror film The Shining.
Room 237 presents us with five distinct theories pieced together through images in the foreground and background of The Shining. As we see these images from that film and numerous other Kubrick pictures, we hear the voiceovers of Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, Jay Weidner, and John Fell Ryan. All five have a relationship with The Shining that I feel safe saying no one else has, but what's striking about Room 237 is just how similar their viewing experiences were. It speaks a lot about Kubrick that so many people can watch his movies the same way and take away such different things. How different? It's almost flabbergasting the conspiracy theories that come out of this collection if people.
Blakemore sees The Shining as Kubrick's referendum on the genocide of the American Indians. Cocks sees the film as a comment on the Holocaust. Weidner thinks that the entire film is actually Kubrick's guilty admission that he helped fake the footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Kearns sees the various images in and throughout The Shining to be distinct references to minotaur mythology (yes, that kind of minotaur). Lastly, Ryan is the only contributor that doesn't come to the forefront with a specific theory, instead waxing poetic on the astonishing visual concepts throughout the film. At one point, Ryan shows us what it looks like when the film is played both backward and forward at the same time on top of each other. This footage creates several fascinating contrasts of images from opposite ends of the movie.
What is the point of all of this? The New Critics would probably argue (and Weidner claims in the film as well) that all of viewpoints are actually true, because whether Kubrick meant it or not, these were the meanings that imbued themselves upon these five viewers and that art is the sole intelectual property of the person analyzing it. Now, one Kubrick's aides from the filming of The Shining has very loudly called the entire movie a bunch of rubbish. Now, that kind of seems mean-spirited in the sense that I'd think close to nobody would watch this movie, listen to all of these conspiracy theories and actually believe them. So whether or not you enjoy this movie really depends on how much you'd enjoy watching a group of people talk about their own personal, obsessive viewpoints that are actually just a heaving pile of bullshit.
Me? I really found the whole thing great to watch, but I also love to watch those people talk about how they believe Paul McCartney has been dead since 1966. It's a testament to Rodney Ascher, the director, that these cases are presented with such sincerity and absolutely no irony, when it would have been so much easier to make fun of them. I guess that's why I enjoyed it. These people truly do believe the insanity that comes out of their month. And its probably judgmental to use the word "insanity", but its a hard word to dismiss when you hear someone talking about Kubrick referencing minotaurs. Ascher treats these people like definitive scholars whose arguments are rooted in logic, and that only works in this film if these people really followed this stuff like a religion. And that's exactly how these people act.
I don't think a film like this could work with any other filmmaker other than Kubrick. The man, whose process was infamously meticulous and particularly punishing on actors (Scatman Crothers apparently had to do so many takes of being murdered within axe while shooting The Shining that he broke down into tears), was probably the closest thing to a pure artist that a filmmaker has ever come. But his disdain for the basic mechanics of narrative made some of his films a bit of a bore (2001, Barry Lyndon) and toward the end, his films were so obviously focused on cinematic perfection that the nuance of screen acting and dialogue were watered down to something more resembling a gorgeous painting than a film. Films like The Shining and Full Metal Jacket lack so much in character development that you have to push forward some silly meaning onto the beautiful images or you're left with a pretty shallow experience.
If the previous paragraph didn't make this obvious, I am not a Stanley Kubrick fan, though I do recognize him as a one of the seminal giants of cinema. I think Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest films I've ever seen, but I think everything he made afterward was one big pat on the back after the other. In fact, I think The Shining might be my least favorite of them all. It's performances are processed and over-the-top, and the most egregious thing of all is that I didn't find it very scary (and I'll admit that I'm pretty easy to scare). But Room 237 shows why Kubrick should be revered. His films leave themselves open to interpretation, which is not impressive in and of itself, but they provoke such incredible thought that it almost isn't that surprising that the theories throughout this documentary exist. Sometimes all it takes is a baking soda can or a poster of a skier (oh wait, I mean minotaur) to push your mind toward a certain thought. Kubrick is the only filmmaker that could inspire an entire movie filled with those certain thoughts.