**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
directed by Rodney Ascher
"A story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analyzed too closely. The ultimate test of its rationale is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. If you submit it to a completely logical and detailed analysis it will eventually appear absurd."
--Stanley Kubrick, interviewed by Michel Ciment, Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, Part 4
by Bryant Frazer Did director Stanley Kubrick encode The Shining with an admission that he helped create phony footage of the Apollo moon-landing in 1969? Well, of course not. That’s nuts. It’s a cockamamie argument. And it’s one of several cockamamie arguments advanced by viewers given a platform for their unconventional theories in Room 237, an odd duck of a documentary about the conclusions reached by five different Kubrick fans upon very close analysis of The Shining.
Dismiss this business about the fake moonwalk and Room 237 has more questions to be answered. Is The Shining really about the genocide of the Native American people? Has the geography of the Overlook Hotel been distorted to create impossible spaces and views? Did Kubrick sneak visual clues to subtext (a minotaur, a boner, a Hitler moustache) into his shots? Does the German-made typewriter favoured by Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) signal that the film is about the Holocaust? And why is Jack hanging out in the lobby reading an issue of PLAYGIRL, anyway?
OK, that last one is a legitimate question. Torrance is definitely reading PLAYGIRL in one scene, and--assuming you read that as a message demanding interpretive consideration rather than, say, as an unscripted joke--it brings into play questions about Torrance's sexuality that could be apropos of something, conceivably. Maybe. Much of the evidence floated for the Holocaust interpretation is unconvincing, ranging from dubious symbolism (eagles=Nazis) to dubious juxtapositions (a pile of suitcases is briefly superimposed over a group of tourists as part of a dissolve) to dubious numerology (2x3x7=42, as in 1942, as in the Wannsee Conference). Never mind the fact that the film isn't set anywhere near Germany (or Europe), nor does it have any story elements that call out to the atrocities of World War II. But the Native American genocide theory is at least superficially attractive. Owing to the movie's Colorado setting, the Overlook hotel is replete with Native American iconography, and it's said to be built on an "Indian burial ground." The rivers of blood gushing from the elevator bays and through the halls of the hotel itself would be a majestic and disturbing memorial.
Yet surely only a special kind of conspiracy theorist still believes the moon-landing footage was faked, and within that small group it's only the cinephiles who insist that Stanley Kubrick must have been involved in engineering it. Still, if we can say, reasonably, given what we know about the director's interests, that an interpretation of The Shining invoking the extermination of indigenous American peoples is not completely without merit, while an interpretation that invokes the Apollo 11 mission is preposterous on its face, it makes one wonder: Where do we draw the line? Where does interpretation give way to obsession, and criticism devolve into masturbatory twaddle?
Room 237 director Rodney Ascher studiously avoids those questions. Rather, he's designed his film as a platform. Five theorists make their arguments about what The Shining actually means, and we never see these people--a decision some reviewers have noted as a stroke of genius on Ascher's part, but one that I suspect is more rooted in financial reality: Instead of flying out to meet his subjects, Ascher spoke to them long-distance and had them make a local recording of their sides of the conversations. (Thus, Ascher's voice is never heard.) The movie's visuals consist largely of excerpts from The Shining itself, most of them time-stretched into a weird, sluggish flip-book motion in post, supplemented by shots from other Kubrick films and a few inserts from unrelated movie titles (All the President's Men, Lamberto Bava's stuck-in-the-movie-theatre horror opus Demons, the faked-Mars-landing thriller Capricorn One, and even An American Werewolf in London make appearances). Too, there are occasional maps and diagrams that are meant to follow little Danny's Big Wheel trajectory through the hotel in those famous Steadicam shots, illustrating the geography of the set. Mostly it's an essay film along the lines of Thom Andersen's great Los Angeles Plays Itself, with the crucial difference that the speaking voice belongs not to the filmmaker himself, but to an assembled chorus of essayists offering different but weirdly complementary readings of the footage on screen.
Because we're given no background information on the contributors, we have no extratextual information by which to judge their credibility. We're left to sort out the arguments on their own merits, or (and especially) lack thereof. That's where the film starts to get a little mind-bending, particularly as Ascher cuts fluidly among the weird theories and the different points of view start to blur, the disembodied monologues taking on the slightly disturbing quality of voices in your head. The title starts to take on a metaphorical significance. Like the TARDIS, or the massively labyrinthine dwelling in the appropriately post-modern novel House of Leaves, Room 237 is much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. It's the place where you sit with this film--any film, really--and evaluate its images and sound, story and characters, symbols and metaphors and secret histories, through the filter of your own experience and expectations. A movie may have as many different meanings as there are viewers to interpret it, and one of the joys of reading criticism is discovering the unexpected insights you never would have devised on your own.
I want to say that Barthes would have loved Room 237, since it presents an array of conflicting and contradictory interpretations that seem cleanly divorced from what Kubrick intended, never mind what the story's original Author-God, Stephen King, had in mind. But even though the Room 237 theorists barely engage with the realities of moviemaking, they all seem to feel that the mere presence of Kubrick behind the camera is their trump card. Kubrick was a genius. Kubrick was a perfectionist. Nothing caught within the view of a camera rolling on the set of one of Kubrick's productions could be out of place, nothing within the frame less than premeditated. Kubrick moved in ways mere mortals cannot begin to comprehend. Therefore, they seem to argue, it follows that deeply crazypants interpretations of the placement of cans of Tang and Calumet Baking Powder, the number of cars parked in front of the hotel in an exterior shot, or shot-to-shot inconsistencies--all of which would be regarded as continuity errors and coincidences in the works of lesser artists--are, in the case of a Kubrick film, fundamentally sound expressions of hidden meaning. Room 237's theorists haven't killed the author; they worship him outright, singing hosannas to his glory. One of them even imagines Kubrick had his face "airbrushed" into the sky during The Shining's opening credits as an enduring monument, I guess, to his own greatness. Barthes would be annoyed. As am I.
Does that make Room 237 easy to dismiss? Hell no. This movie is creepy--nearly as creepy as The Shining itself. Arguably more so. If you asked me what The Shining was really about, I'd tell you it is, as King billed his novel, a realistic look at writer's block, as well as a distorted and hallucinatory depiction of mental illness. What's Room 237 about? It's about losing yourself in art--and not necessarily in a good way. I wouldn't suggest that anyone involved with the film is mentally ill (least of all Ascher himself, who assumes a detached and slightly bemused authorial stance, inasmuch as one can be gleaned from his editorial choices), but some of them seem a little bit obsessed with The Shining, maybe to the point where they've lost the ability to think rationally about it. And Room 237 has garnered a lot of positive response (why, it's 93% fresh!), because it spotlights enthusiastic and boundlessly imaginative readings of a film that was once dismissed as a Kubrick turkey.
More than that, I think Room 237 resonates because all of us--especially those of who came of age as cinephiles after the arrival of VCRs and endless reruns on cable TV--have at one time or another been inside Room 237, a place where we're so taken by a film that we return again and again and eventually lose track of ourselves as we work to interpret it, synthesizing an entirely new meaning from its components. That doesn't make it good criticism, mind you, it just makes it something avid movie buffs, above all, can relate to on an intimate level. There but for the grace of God, you know?
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Blu-ray is the perfect format for Room 237, the high resolution of the 1.78:1, 1080p image offering plenty of opportunity to still and step your way through the picture with a clarity undreamed of when most of these theories were hatched. I assume the imagery from The Shining itself is swiped from Blu-ray copies, given that Room 237 was made without the cooperation of Warner Bros., and the scenes from The Shining look pretty much identical to the imagery on the official release, just a mite softer and with the brightness kicked up a couple of notches. However, much of the footage was treated with digital time-stretching techniques for an artificial slow-motion effect, and this creates its own distracting brand of temporal artifact--ghosting, ha ha. A few of the clips are from lower-quality sources and the worst of them exhibit YouTube-style macroblocking and colour banding, while some archival behind-the-scenes footage wasn't deinterlaced before being integrated into the documentary. Still, there's no knocking IFC's Blu-ray, which I'm sure represents Ascher's finished digital version. Although the audio is a bit of a mish-mash by necessity, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack admirably brings everything into focus, smoothing out differences among the various vocal tracks and making sure they pop nicely on top of the compelling score, a sort of pastiche of Wendy Carlos music that thrums with its own Kubrickian life.
For real Room 237 fans, the key extra here is the audio commentary by Kevin McLeod, the Internet's enigmatic "mstrmnd," whose epic online analysis of The Shining is made up of webpage after webpage of nearly unreadable blocks of tiny white text in which he waxes on about the groundbreaking neuroscientific foundations of Kubrick's storytelling technique. (Sample: "Once neurophenomenologically decrypted, The Shining can be seen as a beginning to a new form of post-Western visual guidance. Perhaps even a new facet of language.") While I'm quite sure McLeod is barking up the wrong tree in his insistence, for example, that one key to the film is the fact that the letter T on the original poster design by Saul Bass is a direct and deliberate reference to T-shaped windows found in the ancient Mayan city of Palenque*, when he sticks to imaginative and purely visual analysis he can be entertaining, and his comments definitely jibe with Ascher's overall project. Let's just hope that not too many budding young critics think of this guy's writing as a model for their own blogs.
Next up is "Secrets of The Shining: Live from the First Annual Stanley Film Festival" (50 mins.), a videotaped panel discussion from May 2013, moderated by Devin Faraci of BADASS DIGEST, that featured Stanley Kubrick's longtime personal assistant Leon Vitali along with Room 237 director Rodney Ascher, faked-moon-landing theorist Jay Weidner, and The Shining TV miniseries director Mick Garris, functioning more or less as a Stephen King surrogate. It goes on a bit long for the wee tidbits of Shining information it contains, most of it rehashed from other sources and much of it irrelevant to Room 237 itself, but it's kind of fun to watch Vitali--who called Room 237 "pure gibberish" in THE NEW YORK TIMES--get progressively more annoyed over the questions about Kubrick's intentions. "Composition was everything," he says of Kubrick's artistic mindset. "Continuity had to take second place. That's how he worked."
"Room 237: The Making of the Original Motion Picture Score" (3 mins.) collects grungy B-roll footage (letterboxed to 1.95:1 for some reason) from studio recording sessions that show some of the instruments and equipment that were used to perform and record the score, which mixes traditional wind and percussion instruments with vintage synthesizer sounds. Another, untitled, three-minute short has artist Aled Lewis speaking in tinny voiceover about his work embedding sexual imagery and other nutty subtext into an illustration for a limited-edition Mondo poster. Meh.
A total of 11 "deleted scenes" totalling 24 minutes are really just edited audio snippets set against a moving screenshot (slightly out of sync, oddly enough) of Ascher's Final Cut Pro software in playback mode. The highlight comes when Weidner reveals that a small cabal of top-tier filmmakers, all of whom "are working for larger powers," are aware that Kubrick was involved in the fake moon-landing footage, citing as evidence the filmmaker character "Stanley Motss" in Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog. (Never mind that Wag the Dog's screenplay was written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet; are they in on it, too?) Who else is in the secret club? Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Ridley Scott. "Every film nowadays has an agenda," says Weidner, who sees hidden meanings not only in Kubrick's movie, but in every movie.
Topping off the HiDef extras are a theatrical trailer with critics' quotes plus three different "alternate trailers" that replace the usual laudatory scrolling text with other types of criticism: a dense, tongue-twisting essay by writer Gerry Fialka, some YouTube comments about the theatrical trailer, and quotes from critics Jim Emerson, Girish Shambu, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, all of whom find Ascher's project somewhat dubious. Unfortunately, none of those guys were invited to contribute to this particular package--that might have livened things up a bit.
*Mstrmnd has asked that a correction be appended to this review, offering a letter from anthropologist and Mesoamerican scholar Allan L. Maca, PhD that he says confirms his assertion that the large letter T in the poster design for The Shining was clearly and deliberately modelled by Stanley Kubrick on the 'IK symbol of Mayan antiquity--specifically the 'IK-shaped windows in the city of Palenque. Permission to reprint his emailed message was denied, but in a tweet reproduced below, he complained that his "data" related to the matter was being questioned here inappropriately. In response, I can say that we disagree on what constitutes "data." It's certainly a colourful interpretation, and Mstrmnd is welcome to it. For my part, while I was writing I went so far as to Google up some of the preliminary Saul Bass sketches for the poster art and saw no indication that the T shape was an integral part of the design process for either Bass or Kubrick. Rather, it seemed like a convenient way for Bass to keep his dots in the picture in the face of Kubrick's objections that his pointillistic title treatments were rendering the words too difficult to read. At any rate, absent some kind of affirmation from associates of either the late Kubrick or the late Bass (and it was Bass, not Kubrick himself, who designed this poster), to declare that they intended to reference Mayan hieroglyphs here strikes me as a fundamentally unprovable assertion. I can understand that it might look that way to an anthropologist specializing in Mayan studies, in the same way that a history professor specializing in German studies might read deliberate references to the Holocaust into the film itself. But, especially in light of Bass's long history of creating similarly unusual type treatments for movie titles, I find the argument unconvincing. return
@deep_focus Making fun of the site is cool, but questioning the data means you know what you're talking about. And you don't.— mstrmnd.com (@mstrmndcom) December 19, 2013