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Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Room 237 (2013)

* * *

Director: Rodney Ascher

If you go into Rodney Ascher's documentary Room 237 hoping to receive an explanation of what Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is "really" about, you're going to be disappointed. The documentary presents several theories (and a couple of "half" theories) but you won't come out of it with an understanding of any of them as the definitive explanation - you're probably more likely to come out of it believing that there is no definitive explanation. As a companion to a great, but enigmatic film, Room 237 may be disappointing, but as an exploration of the way that audiences seek to find meaning in film, how minor details are latched onto in order to hold a theory together, how we bring certain ideas into films and then order the details onscreen to fit what we already thought, Room 237 comes close to brilliance.

Room 237 features many theorists who all passionately explain what they believe The Shining is about. To them it is, alternately, a metaphor for the genocide of Native of Americans, the Holocaust, Kubrick having faked the moon landing, and sexual disfunction, amongst other things. Some theories seem to hold more water than others, based on what you can see in the film, but even then there are caveats. For example, I think the theorist who argues that The Shining is about the genocide of Native Americans makes some strong points, however, the fact that his theory begins with a tagline he sees on one of the posters is problematic because that's not something that's actually in the film and likely not something even a director as controlling as Kubrick would have had any say in. Other theories, meanwhile, are less compelling, such as the theory that the film is about sexual disfunction. That theorist offers only a couple of examples to support his theory, one of which is that if you watch a certain scene frame by frame you'll eventually get to a frame where a character stands next a desk and the position of the paper tray on the desk makes it look like an erection. I think you actively have to be looking for penises to begin with in order to see that, but I'm sure there are people who spend every movie actively watching for penises, so...

Some of the theories are not really theories at all, but strongly felt observations. On theorist argues passionately that a poster of skier in the Overlook is actually meant to suggest a Minotaur. I don't at all see a Minotaur in that shadowy poster and I don't really know where the theory can go from there - is Danny meant to be Theseus? The theory, if it is one, is never followed through to its end. Other observations, however, are interesting even without having an alternate narrative built around them. A lengthy discussion about how the layout of the hotel never coheres, which includes detailed drawings showing what's known of the rooms and hallways of the hotel, is fascinating and it seems likely that Kubrick did design the film so that audiences could never feel truly oriented to place so as to heighten the sense of danger and psychological terror. Similarly, an observation about a crushed red Volkswagon in the film serving as a means of Kubrick taunting author Stephen King seems entirely plausible though, again, that isn't really a "theory" in and of itself, unless the theory is that Kubrick was kind of a jerk.

A lot of ideas are thrown around in Room 237, but those ideas aren't really what makes the film interesting. What's interesting about the documentary is how one film can inspire so many wildly different theories, each one passionately held to and investigated, and how no artist can ever have full mastery of his or her work. Art outlives the artist, which means that interpretation outlives intent. There's a story about Bertolt Brecht when he was writing "Mother Courage and Her Children." His intent had been that Mother Courage would be a villain, an indictment of war profiteering, but instead the audience saw her in sympathetic terms as a "survivor." Brecht reworked the play, making her even more shrill and unlikeable, but still could not shake the audience's identification with her, at which point he threw up his hands and declared, "The audience is wrong!" An artist can design a piece of work but has no control over how the audience is going to engage with it and so the question is no longer whether Stanley Kubrick used The Shining to confess that he faked the video of the moon landing (the theorist of Room 237 is very careful to state that he only believes the video to have been faked, not the actual moon landing). The question now is, does it matter? Kubrick is gone and what's left is what people can find in his films.

Although the focus of Room 237 is obviously on The Shining, I don't think you need to be a fan of Kubrick's film in order to be entertained by this one. Broadly speaking, it's about fandom generally and the passion bordering on obsession that fans can bring to a piece of entertainment (and, bear in mind, it's easy to be an obsessive fan in the age of the internet; the theorists of Room 237 began their quests at a time when all they had were VCRs to work with), and how that passion comes to exist almost to the exclusion of the entertainment in which it has its root. For the theorists of Room 237 their obsession with finding meaning in The Shining seems to be less about the film itself (in that their pleasure does not seem to come simply from watching the film) than it is about the act of investigation - that is ultimately the true passion, digging into the film, examining every inch of every frame, every detail no matter how minor. Some of the theories they come up with may stretch credibility, but it's nevertheless interesting to listen to them describe how they came to these ideas, and their enthusiasm for the subject helps make it so fascinating.

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