Sunday, August 4, 2013

Room 237: Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar. Other Times, It's a Coded Message of Genocide

In starting this entry for the Third Row, I'm gonna take you all back in time for a moment.

Years ago, back when I was first learning the wonders and madness the internet provides, I stumbled across an interesting article.  It was an older piece, published in 1987, discussing Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film, The Shining.  This article posited the idea that the movie, loosely adapted from a Stephen King novel, was actually all a coded message about the extermination of the Native Americans in history.

Except for this one, apparently...

At the time, this was one of the most bizarre theories I had ever read on the internet (I know, there's stuff that blows this out of the water, but this was a more innocent time.)  After more digging, I was surprised to see that in fact, there were many other theories of people trying to find hidden meanings in Kubrick's movie, ranging from theories that Kubrick used the movie to discuss faking the moon landing to one person who had actually put together a theory based on recurring patterns within the film's timecode.

Suffice it to say, knowing the level of downright insane analysis this film has been subject to, I was already half sold when I saw the announcement of the documentary Room 237.  This was a film entirely about exploring the many elaborate readings people have subjected this movie to over the years.  Even though I thought most of the theories were completely insane, how could I pass up a chance to see them actually discussed?

I went in expecting crazy, and while I got the crazy, I was actually surprised at how the film managed to frame the crazy.

It's watching a film about people watching a film...
...sort of like MST3k with less comedy and more wild conspiracy theories.

Among other things, the movie doesn't really have a 'central host/narrator' figure unifying everything.  Rather, we start the film right off the bat with one of the theories, then flow into another, sometimes with some overlap and callback to earlier theories (several people, for example, discuss the borderline Lovecraftian architecture that emerges when you try and actually map out the Overlook Hotel.)  About the closest there is to any overlying statement of the film's content or purpose is in the film's title card explaining the purpose of the documentary.  Otherwise, each of the subjects is completely free to discuss their idea to as much of an extent as possible. Rather than feeling like a mess, it's assembled in such a way that all of the segments mesh well, even finding points in the arguments to segue between them - for one example, the first two examples within the film being starting by discussing the Native American genocide theory, then segueing into a theory about the film being about the Holocaust.

Another standout element about how the film is put together- and this is something I almost didn't realize right away- is the fact that there is almost no newly filmed footage in this movie.  With the exception of a few brief sequences and some representations of the Overlook as a map, almost every scene within this documentary is footage from other films.  Alongside The Shining, director Rodney Asher composes most of his film with footage from films ranging from many of Kubrick's own (such as Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon) to other films ranging from Schindler's List to Michael Crichton's lesser-known film Looker.  The trick is actually a pretty unique way of allowing the film to avoid the classic 'talking heads' style of presentation that can become a risk when you're making a movie where the upshot is several people discussing their theories.  The trick is further added to by the fact that, in many cases where theorists are discussing their past encounters with the movie, Ascher uses the footage of other films to represent the people in their pasts - we see this trick used right at the start when one man recounts seeing the film with his experience overlaid to Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut (the posters he stops to look at being instead doctored to be posters for The Shining.)  It's a small, but rather creative little touch.

Further fitting into the bizarre subject matter is the film's soundtrack.  The music for this movie is a rather curious mix of instrumental tracks, many variations on, or inspired by, The Shining itself.  The result is at times interesting and even a bit haunting.  I'm still looking at trying to track the soundtrack down, actually.

As far as the content of the movie itself, well, that's largely going to vary from viewer to viewer and how they feel about the various interpretations people have put on the film.  Some of them, while I question their validity, are admittedly interesting readings (some of the details people search for in the movie dancing the line between 'how did I not notice that?' and 'now you're just trying too hard.')  I will admit, there is one theory I think could have some validity in the film, albeit I'm not sure I necessarily agree with the extent the theorist takes it to (he posits the idea that the movie is a giant experiment by a rather bored Kubrick to see how much subliminal imagery he can get away with it.  I could certainly see Kubrick doing this manner of experiment out of boredom, though I'm not sure it'd be quite as spanning as is suggested here.)  In some ways, the documentary as a whole almost seems to say less about the movie itself, and more about the legacy the late Kubrick left behind him.  The big driving force behind many of these theories, after all, is the knowledge that Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist and a very particular man in his filmmaking.  This fact informs many of the theories - what would be seen as a continuity error by any other director, in Kubrick, is read as a deliberate action.  That, even 14 years after his death, people are still going this intensely into the man's work because of this reputation speaks volumes of the man and the impact he had on film.  Further, it also speaks to the devotion of the people who put these theories together.  These are people who have studied this film with all the intensity and attention to detail of Swiss watchmakers, finding even the most miniscule details in the background to support their theories.  It's an interest that dances the line between fascination and obsession, and if you're receptive to hearing them out, can make for an at times engrossing watch.

In this sequence, there is discussion of a rumored lost scene from early work prints in which Jack uses the impossible window in Mr. Ullman's office to shoot Kennedy.

The resulting film is a rather unique breed of documentary.  This is thanks to the director's idea, as he has previously described the project as being the cinematic equivalent to late night theory exchanges people sometimes have where everyone just goes back and forth exchanging bizarre points and arguing them.  In that light, he's accomplished exactly that with this movie.  It doesn't take a single prevailing side, nor suggest anyone is more right or wrong.  Rather, each person simply says their piece, presents their evidence, and leaves the viewers to decide for themselves whether or not the theories have any validity.  Personally, while I don't think this has necessarily reshaped my view of the film, it has made me a bit more aware of some of the odder elements of it, and in that regard, it does seem to inspire the idea of keeping a sharper eye out.  It's the kind of film that reminds just how fascinating the love of film can be, and how creative people can be.

Really, it's tough to tell if you're gonna like this one, as it varies from person to person.  Hopefully, this review may at least give you a bit more of a sense of what you're in for.  But if you're really not sure, might just have to take the proverbial plunge and see what you think.  It's a pretty unusual film that way.

With that, we're back to work on a weekend rate at the very least.

Summer Reading will continue next weekend along with the next general write-up, and may try to get a new release in before then, time permitting.

Till next time!

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