Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: Room 237

Evidently the product of one too many dormitory pot parties, Room 237 purports to expose hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining by intercutting audio from interviews with "experts" alongside a few diagrams and (mainly) footage from assorted films by Kubrick and others. (MST fans should be on the lookout for Urbano Barberini, a.k.a. Tarl Cabot, in one occasionally re-used shot.) While I can honestly say I've never seen a movie quite like this, that's far from a compliment.

What I have seen are a few of the wall-of-text, black-background Shining analysis websites that Room 237 mentions, and even these virtual watering holes for crackpots are more persuasive than just about anything presented in this film. Room 237 runs the gamut from the Native American motif (intentional, and therefore not hidden) to Danny imagining literally everything (if so, kid's got some serious psychosexual baggage for his age) to supposed subliminal minotaurs (I guess if you have astigmatism, maybe) to the Holocaust (which everything can be about if you try hard enough) to the Kubrick-faked-the-moon-landing theory (can we PLEASE be done with that now). Moreover, every interview subject seems to think that an observed (or imagined) connection inherently counts as proof. I haven't seen this much reaching since my last trip to Sam's Club.

Kubrick films lend themselves to this sort of hyperattentive analysis, perhaps none more so than The Shining. And I've got nothing against deep, detailed readings of films that merit it—I'm pretty sure I wrote at least one autism-spectrum-y college essay about 2001: A Space Odyssey, easily one of my favorite films of all time.

But there comes a point where you have to add critical thought to the process of pointing out creepy moments of symbolic serendipity. Almost none of the interviewees in Room 237 admit the possibility that their respective houses of cards are built on the flimsiest of evidence. Perhaps the filmmakers weren't trying to endorse their arguments, but the presentation style certainly makes it seem like they were.

The aspects of Room 237 that don't induce eye-rolling are few, but worthy of mention. First, the documentary has a pretty much continuous score, and it fits the darkly revelatory tone. (How they got Bear McCreary, I don't know.)

Second, near the end there's a sequence explaining what happens when you project the film onto itself in reverse. There are a few intriguing little "whoah" moments shown, but while the interview subject insists this was Kubrick's intent, I'm more inclined to attribute it to coincidence combined with Kubrick's patterns of shot framing.

And lastly, one of the interviewees has a theory that's less conspiracy-nutjobby and more literary-criticismy. He posits that what The Shining is ultimately about isn't just the genocide of Native Americans, or just the Holocaust, but (he quotes Eliot) "the nightmare of history"—the darkness that can overwhelm a sufficiently diligent student of humanity's past, and how to fight that darkness. Still a bit of a reach, in my judgment, but much more arguably so—and a horror film that dealt with that theme less opaquely would be quite awesome indeed. (Not that The Shining isn't awesome, but it's a much different style of awesome.)

And as long as we're ruminating vainly on what might have been…I wish Room 237 would've been made by Werner Herzog. (Yes, I could say that about almost any movie, but stay with me here.) Herzog might have included much of the same footage, all the diagrams, and probably even creepier music—but (A) we would've seen his interview subjects and (B) he wouldn't have edited their comments so flatteringly…resulting in a movie about unreasoning obsession about a movie about insanity, instead of a movie about wishful thinking about a movie about whatever one's pet theory is.

In short, this one's a waste of time if you're in the habit of poking holes in weak arguments. On the other hand, I have a hunch Kubrick would've gotten some perverse enjoyment out of Room 237.

Star Score: 1 out of 5

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