Saturday, April 06, 2013

There ain't nothin' in room 237. But you ain't got no business goin' in there anyway.

I'm the exact target audience for Room 237. The Shining is my favorite movie, and as I've written before, even after watching the movie countless times over the years and absorbing as much criticism and information about the making of the film as I possibly can, I still find surprising new details every time I revisit it. It's been gratifying to see the film's stature grow over the years - I remember thinking, from the two-star reviews I'd find in TV listings and video guides back in the early '90s, that it was generally considered a bad movie. The only positive recommendations I knew of were my mom's and a reference to Danny's imaginary friend Tony in the "Weird" Al Yankovic vehicle UHF. Thanks to the internet, The Shining found the same validation as many other great movies with mixed receptions have, as fans consolidated and began to share impressions and theories about the film.

In recent years, Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich has hosted a treasure trove of Shining-related ephemera at The Overlook Hotel, and Movie Geeks United devoted a long episode (part of their Kubrick Series) to the making of and various theories - both insightful and charmingly bonkers - about The Shining. It's those more offbeat theories that are the subject of Room 237, which eschews talking heads in favor of audio-only interviews of several devotees of the film sharing their interpretations of its meaning. These interviews are illustrated by clips from The Shining, other Kubrick films and movies by other filmmakers - footage of the cinema in Lamberto Bava's Demons, for instance, is used repeatedly when subjects talk about the theatrical experience. The film is one of the video essays that have become a popular form of criticism in recent years, with Red Letter Media's Plinkett reviews and the more serious essays by Matt Zoller Seitz and others at Press Play being two great, very different examples of the form. Room 237 director Rodney Ascher's approach to the video essay is particularly sophisticated, placing The Shining in multiple contexts so that the film is seemingly engaged in a dialogue with itself, with its fans, with its director's larger body of work and with the medium in general. Not only is it an incredibly fun and sometimes uncanny approach to its subject - I told my girlfriend, about a half hour in, "This is what the inside of my brain looks like" - but it's a brilliant visualization of the way that a relationship between a movie and its fans can be a living, evolving thing.

As for the theories themselves, it's true that some are quite silly - I don't think Bill Watson has a boner in that one shot, the poster on the wall is clearly a skier and not a minotaur, I don't see Kubrick's face in a cloud, and I'm very confident that the movie isn't Kubrick's admission that he helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landing, because the moon landing really happened. It's not important to be persuaded by these theories, though, as the movie is neither claiming they're credible nor making fun of them. Some have complained that Room 237 trivializes film criticism by presenting credible film analysis, such as Bill Blakemore's reading of the film as a comment on the genocide of Native Americans, side by side with conspiracy theories. But I don't think the movie is about "film criticism" as much as it is about how a work of art can inspire any of us to become lost in its mysteries.

Also, some of the interpretations presented here actually are quite insightful - while I don't think The Shining is a literal cryptogram about Native Americans or the Holocaust, it's clearly a movie about how we're haunted by our past sins, not just personally but in a broader cultural sense. Maybe not every Calumet can or German typewriter is a direct comment on this, but it's definitely a movie with multiple layers of meaning. When one narrator points out the frighteningly illogical course of Danny Torrance's rides through the Overlook's hotels on his Big Wheel, with Ascher mapping his route onscreen, it's difficult to reject the sort of dream logic that Kubrick was probably playing with. Perhaps, as another narrator suggests, the movie's many symbols, symmetries and paradoxes are the work of a bored genius. In any case, the thing that resonated with me most deeply was the insistence that Kubrick, who famously favored wide angle, deep focus shots, did so because he wanted every detail of the production design to register. It strikes me as a solid metric of a great director, one that communicates meaning not just with the subject of a shot but with every seemingly peripheral detail.

As I wrote earlier, I'm obviously predisposed to getting a kick out of this stuff - the use of the same sans-serif font, the white-on-black title cards punctuating the different sections of the film, and the quotations of Wendy Carlos' version of "Dies Irae" in William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes' score filled me with geeky joy. But while Room 237 is a treat for fans of The Shining, it should also be a lot of fun for anyone who has been accused of overthinking a movie (or book, or album) they love. It's a fascinating, highly entertaining valentine to cinephilia and the ways that the things we love end up defining us.

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