Sunday, March 24, 2013

Film Review: Room 237 (2012)

Pictured: An artist's impression of some of the people featured in Room 237.
Stanley Kubrick was and remains one of the titans of cinema. His films have endured not only the test of time, with early works like Paths of Glory remaining as potent now as when they were released, but also the rigourous analysis of successive generations of film critics and academics. Most of that attention tends to be directed at 2001: A Space Odyssey, easily his most beguiling and evocative film, since it lends itself readily to being interpreted in dozens, if not hundreds, of different ways. Yet Room 237, the documentary-cum-essay by Rodney Ascher shows that even The Shining, Kubrick's seemingly more straightforward adaptation of Stephen King's novel, offers plenty of opportunity for interpretation, even if some of those interpretations tend to be pretty outlandish.

The important thing to note about Room 237 is that it's not a documentary about The Shining as a film, but about the infinite versions of The Shining that exist in the eyes and minds of individual viewers. In a sense, it cuts to the very heart of how we relate to art: a single, objective work which creates a subjective response in each individual who experiences it. As such, the people interviewed for the documentary, who never appear on camera and act as narrators, offer their own, highly personal interpretations of The Shining, using images and scenes from the film to support their claims.

These theories range from plausible to the critical equivalent of thin gruel. The latter theories get a greater focus over the course of the film, both because it's more compelling to see someone present a case for how The Shining is a coded confession from Kubrick admitting that he faked the moon landing, but also because such theories require more time in order to effectively bring together all the pieces of the puzzle. It doesn't take much time to demonstrate that the layout of The Overlook Hotel doesn't actually make logical sense and subconsciously disorientates the viewer (a theory which draws heavily from the film and is more concerned with craft and effect than meaning) but it takes a long time to explain why the appearance of the number 42 throughout the film indicates that it is actually an allegory for the Holocaust (a theory which is provocative and insightful, but also requires a lot of legwork).

A handful of theories - such as the notion that the film is a reinterpretation of the story of Theseus because there's a maze and at one point there is a poster of a skier that sort of looks like a Minotaur - have so little to support them that they get banged out in pretty short order. These tend to be the most entertaining of the theories, though, if only because they tend to look stranger than they actually are thanks to the relative lack of context or evidence.

Ascher presents each theory without comment on his part, instead using voiceover from the participants over images from The Shining (often supplemented by scenes from other Kubrick films) to allow each theory to be explained in detail. It's an approach that can be frustrating, particularly when no one suggests that Kubrick might have had Danny wear an Apollo 11 jumper as a way of messing with the people who propagate the Moon Landings conspiracy or asks why he would choose to make his confession so easily understandable since it could have endangered his life and those of his family members, but it also lends a hypnotic quality to proceedings. Just when you think that any given theory has run out of steam and has begun clutching at straws, the narrator will offer up another tidbit from that casts the theory in a completely new light. It's very easy to get sucked into the conspiracy of it all, which is both a testament to Ascher's hands off approach and the unparalleled allure of being shown a secret way of viewing the world.

The most interesting thing about Room 237 is how it illuminates both the abstract and malleable nature of art, as well as the thinking behind any conspiracy theory. There isn't a lot of contradictory evidence offered by the film, but when the narrators address anything that could challenge or disprove their arguments it's fascinating seeing how every piece of evidence against a theory can be incorporated into it, and in the end winds up being further proof in favour of said theory. If you have ever wondered how people could come to give Loose Change any credence or start using the word "sheeple," a germ of that sort of thought process is contained in Room 237.

It also ends up both revealing and augmenting the almost mythic air that surrounded Stanley Kubrick in life and has only grown stronger in death. A reclusive figure who spent years developing his projects and brought an obsessive approach to everything he did, it's difficult to believe that anything in his films could be accidental or a mistake. Possible continuity errors that might have resulted from the chaos of a film shoot (or which might have been part of the cinematic tradition of leaving mistakes in to test whether people are so engrossed that they don't notice the error) become clear signifiers of secret intent. A lot of the theories hinge on precisely these sort of minor details, and this would make them completely absurd if The Shining had been made by any other film-maker. Yet Kubrick's genius instantly imbues them with importance, which makes such mistakes matter to both the theorists and the audience, whether they want them to or not.

If you are looking for insights into the making of, or even the meaning of, The Shining, Room 237 would be a terrible choice. However, if you want to see a film which deals with the relationship between viewer, art and artist in a way which is fascinating and entertaining then you can't go wrong. It works because even though it's probably all nonsense, there's always that voice in the back of you head saying, "But what if it isn't?"

Grade: B