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Non-Review Review: Room 237

Room 237 is an ode to cinema. Not just Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, mind you, despite the fact that fact that Kubrick’s horror film is the focus of the film’s talking heads (or disembodied voices) discussion. No, Room 237 is a celebratory tribute to every discussion and dissection of popular film, no matter how plausible or implausible, no matter whether conducted in print, on-line or in the pub with friends. Director Rodney Ascher’s documentary is as interested in the personal lives of its subjects – where they came from, with regards to the film – as it is with their views on the film itself.

In case you can’t tell, I was very taken with it.

Cut it there, Jack!

At one point, one commentator argues that The Shining is the perfect metaphor for genocide. Perhaps the genocide of the Native Americans by the European settlers, but also the Holocaust itself. He argues that Kubrick manages to make such mass-murders relatable and understandable by focusing on one small nuclear family undergoing the same sort of brutality. “It’s just too big,” the interviewee argues, citing Stalin’s oft-cited comment about the power of statistics.

If he believes that The Shining is a way to have that discussion, and explore those ideas, on a microscopic scale, then I think it’s possible to argue that the same is true of Room 237. – though that might be my way-out-there “Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing footage” reading of it. It’s a way to discuss the love of cinema, an impossibly vast topic, on a manageable scale. The film goes into The Shining in incredible depth. It covers the geography of the hotel, the continuity mismatches, the freeze-frame bonuses. It explores how viewers can engage and excavate a popular movie, using it to shape their own opinions and seeing bits of themselves reflected in it.

The film might have some ardent Kubrick fans seeing red…

While The Shining presents an ideal target for many reasons (it’s the most populist of Kubrick’s work, it’s a widely-seen horror classic, it’s bizarre enough to make these sorts of discussions lively rather than mundane), I’d argue that you could easily have made the documentary about any number of films. We can already imagine the talking heads breaking down Kubrick’s other works from their comments here. Barry Lyndon is “a film made by somebody who is bored.” What fun they’d have with the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It goes further. You could construct a similar documentary about Blade Runner or Alien. What about Inception? Any movie that has grasped the popular imagination and inspired late-night or after-dinner conversation, any film that has sparked the most bizarre or insane ideas in your head. Sometimes you dismiss the interpretation and go “Nah, that’s nuts!” Other times, the idea sticks in your head, despite its eccentricity, seeming randomness, or just plain weirdness. Room 237 is about ideas that have done that to this particular set of viewers.

The Shining originally got a cold reception…

At its most basic level, Room 237 is about the relationship between the audience and the film. The preamble makes it clear that this is not “official” in any sense. Rodney Ascher made a point not to speak to anybody officially involved in the production. Towards the end, a pundit discusses “death of the author”, suggesting that Kubrick’s own opinion of his work need not be the end of things. The film is as much about how the film affected the interviewees as it is about their perspective of the film.

Towards the end, one commentator sites “quantum physics”, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. “The act of observing affects the observed object,” he states, suggesting that The Shining, like the Overlook Hotel has an elasticity that makes it so appealing. However, watching the documentary, it seems that it also affects the observer, like some strange Rorschach test. At the start, the commentators outline where they came from, and it’s immediately clear that they bring their own perspectives that inform their viewing.

Full of hot air?

“Why did I see this when so few people did?” Bill Blakemore asks, discussing his theory about the Native American metaphors. He goes on to detail a history growing up aware of the history of the Native Americans. Geoffrey Cocks is a professor of history. Naturally, he sees familiar patterns reflected in the film. Ascher keeps the tape recorder playing at points where one interviewee has to leave to calm his young son down. Another discusses a weird coincidence from her personal life involving her son and his made-up story. Room 237 is as much about the people who come up with these theories (even though we never see their faces) as it is about the theories themselves.

Ascher is careful not to insert himself into the documentary. He doesn’t speak, communicating the most vital of information through title cards to inform us of particularly necessary details. It’s actually edited surprising well. It provides a nice visual walk-through of some of the more obscure “clues” hidden in the film, and makes some nice subtle comparisons within Kubrick’s other work, and making good use of stock footage from other films. More than that, though, it’s just fun to watch, as a love letter or affectionate piece needs to be.

The writing’s on the wall…

Ascher seems quite skeptical of a few of outlying theories. One of the best inserts of the documentary comes from the film itself. “What’s in Room 237?” Danny asks the friendly Mr. Halloran. The old man replies, sternly, “Nothin’! There ain’t nothin’ in Room 237.” It’s a nice moment that seems to acknowledge this might all be a bit futile – that we’re looking for meaning where there’s none to be found, some sort of collective pop culture apophenia. Is it a mass hallucination, or a personal one?

Then again, that’s really something quite wonderful about cinema. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. There’s no denying Kubrick’s artistic genius, and it’s that unique creative mind that makes it so incredibly tempting to believe that simple continuity errors couldn’t possibly just be simple continuity errors. Instead, they become vital hints and suggestions. Danny’s sweater choice couldn’t possibly be meaningless, could it? So we invest it with meaning.

We really don’t know Jack…

Ascher doesn’t critique any of the claims, he doesn’t even rebut some rather glaring weak points. It’s a smart decision. Room 237 is not about facts or objectively verifiable data. It’s about how we watch and analyse and celebrate film. All of these people have watched and re-watched the film. Many of them in a way that seems obsessive. One lauds the arrival of blu ray so he could study the frames in detail. Another speaks of renting the VHS and watching it as many times as possible in three days. One critic observes that they initially hated the film, but that they feel compelled to return to it, time and time again. One even invented a new way to watch the film, watching it forwards and backwards simultaneously.

It’s an interesting window into the relationship between the film and its audience. Each of the interviewees has undoubtedly been influenced and affected by The Shining as something that “means something” to them – that rare suggestion of some sort of spiritual connection that only the most finely tuned art can ever accomplish. All of the participants contribute to a discussion that, in one way or another, has kept the film alivein popular imagination for three decades. Isn’t that what truly great cinema does? It engages, it challenges, it provokes.

Just one of the cool things about the film…

The Shining is a fun subject for this documentary because it provokes outlandish and fascinating ideas like those on display here. However, the fascination on display here can easily be seen in the reaction to any great film. Room 237 feels like a celebration of that facet of film, and it’s a movie that I whole-heartedly recommend to any film-lover out there. At least, that’s what it means to me. And, if Room 237‘s treatment of The Shining is any indication, my interpretation will be just one of many.

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