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My 12 for ’12: Room 237 & The Death of the Author

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #10

Room 237 is a fascinating look at Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It has been described as “the best DVD extra ever made”, and it definitely succeeds as a lighthearted (but incisive) exploration at one of the best horror films ever produced. While it works on that level, Room 237 works even better as a demonstration of what Roland Barthes termed The Death of the Author, the awkward relationship that exists between a piece of art, its creator and the audience watching it.

On a larger scale, Room 237 is the story of how a film can be appropriated by people, and how sometimes the real cinematic magic unfolds in the gap between the screen and the audience watching it.

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The Shining is an absolutely fascinating subject for a documentary like this. After all, it allows people to talk about subjects as diverse as illogical geometry, the colonial history of the United States and even conspiracy theories about whether Stanley Kubrick faked the moonlanding. The diversity of opinions and viewpoints allows director Rodney Ascher to keep things interesting – the rather wonderful visuals accompanying the narration and opinions only enhance the experience. (The use of footage of Stephen King’s appearance in Creepshow while the crew talk about the changes Kubrick made to the source material is particularly inspired.)

However, as insightful and instructive as the coverage of The Shining might be, Room 237 works best as an opportunity to invite a bunch of cinephiles to wax lyrical about a film that they have clearly thought about. One commentator talks at length about borrowing the movie on VHS, and watching it time and time again. At certain points, as commentators giggle and chuckle in the most unwholesome of manners, you begin to wonder whether any of the stuff these people are seeing is actually present, or merely some group hallucination.

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Are these theories merely the result of obsessive sleep-deprived minds desperately trying to make some logical or thoughtful thematic connection to explain a minor continuity gaffe or error? Is it some weird cinephile version of apophenia, an attempt to connect a collection of disparate dots to form some pattern that makes something resembling sense? Some of the theories are rational, and some are indeed persuasive. Some are just completely off the reservation. Ascher politely stands by and presents the information for us to assess on our own terms.

Ascher deliberately avoided consulting anybody actually involved in the production. The documentary is remarkably up-front about this fact, and Ascher provides a fairly reasonable explanation for his decision. He wanted to keep the focus on the subjective interpretation of the work. “In any case,” he argues, “even if you know the intention of the author, it doesn’t necessarily make sense of it all.” As such, Room 237 becomes an exploration more of how an audience reacts to film, than it is about the attributes consciously inserted by the creator.

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Sources close to Kubrick have dismissed the notion that The Shining represents an apology for faking the moon landing. Indeed, his wife and brother-in-law both appeared in a 2002 mockumentary Dark Side of the Moon, which has a great deal of fun with the theory. You could probably make a more convincing argument about some of the other theories contained herein, about the way that Kubrick constructed the hotel or the way he positioned particular props in particular shots. But really, it doesn’t matter whether it was conscious effort on his part or not, was it?

Roland Barthes argued in The Death of the Author that fiction is effectively in the eye of the beholder, that it’s more about our perception of the text than the text itself:

Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.

It’s an accepted school of critical thought, and Room 237 seems to exist as proof of that. It doesn’t matter whether or not Kubrick really meant The Shining as an exploration of the genocide of the Native Americans, but it does matter that the movie raises the issue and sparks discussion.

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This is, after all, my favourite movies of the year – inevitably my thoughts and opinions on film discussion and analysis will play into the movies that I choose. One of the great things about film, and one of the great things about running a blog like this, is the opportunity that it provides for interaction and debate. It allows different people to share their opinions on film. It doesn’t matter that people hold a different opinion – in fact, the world would be a much duller place if everybody looked at a work of art and saw exactly the same thing.

Growing up in Sligo, one of the highlights of heading to the cinema with a bunch of mates was the inevitable discussion and dissection in the local all-night pizza parlour afterwards. We’d while away the hours with idle gossip and musing, but we’d also discuss the films we’d just seen and what we’d made of them. What we had responded to, and what we saw in them. Of all things, I remember a delightful dissection of The Matrix Reloaded with a far wiser friend of mine. I’m still not entirely sure that I agree with what he said, but his opinions on the film offered me a bit more insight.

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Room 237 is essentially those visits to the late-night pizza parlour edited together with the utmost skill and professional care, with a far more colourful ensemble and subject matter than a bunch of teenagers in the West of Ireland might hope for. Still, the general principle is the same. We use romantic notions like “magic” to describe cinema, but such a quality is impossible to measure because it’s not something that can found on a film print. Indeed, it isn’t always found in a cinema. Sometimes it’s found in a pizza parlour in the wee hours of the morning, as one member of the groups shares his own crazy interpretation.

I love cinema. I think about it far more often than I should. I concede as much. I think about it on the bus on the way home, I sometimes dream about it at night. Room 237 confirms that perhaps my obsession isn’t as radical as I might have imagined, that it happens more frequently than I thought, and that my case might be relatively mild. Room 237 is a celebration of obsession love of cinema, of the inability to put a particular film or image out of your thoughts, to every crazy idea that you might have.

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Room 237 is a love letter to cinematic obsession. Which is a topic I think I know quite well.

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

2 Responses

  1. I really need to see this, as it seems like a lot of fun. The theories about “The Shining” are mostly paranoid delusions, though there are interesting “clues” in the film that support them, much like the “Paul is dead” rumors about The Beatles (it’s too bad that horrible “documentary” about the subject didn’t take this film’s tact).

    • To be fair, I think only that moonlanding one is completely out of the realms of possibility. Although I like that Ascher lets the idea speak for itself.

      There’s a bunch of stuff that is… interesting, even if I’m 99.9% certain it was not intentional. There’s a fascinating bit where they play the film backwards over itself and strange juxtapositions occur. The laws of probability mean that these sorts of overlaps are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fascinating.

      Kubrick is such a precise film maker that I actually find the hotel geography issues plausible enough, and the history stuff is… interesting. Kinda like I suspect that Scorsese’s holocaust film came out in Shutter Island (which to be fair, does feature the holocaust itself), I can’t help but think there was some stuff about America’s roots built into The Shining.

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