Wednesday, 22 April 2020
Overlooking The Obvious
USA 2012 Directed by Rodney Ascher
101 Films Blu Ray Zone B
It’s funny, I thought Room 237 was only a couple of years old at the most. I remember there being a lot of fuss about it on Twitter around about that time and so I was somewhat disappointed I didn’t catch a cinema release. I think I finally got this one a couple of months ago in a 101 Films sale or some such thing and, frankly, this wasn’t quite the film I’d hoped it would be. That being said, it’s technically quite well put together if the visual equivalent of ‘needle drop’ is your kind of thing.
The documentary, if you can call it such, explores some of the less usual fan theories about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece, his loose adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. Now I was prepared to keep an open mind going in here because I’d heard good things about it and I wanted to see if I could follow some of the lines of thought which make up the basis of these separate theories, from five very different people who I think I shall keep as nameless here so I don’t actually have to ridicule a specific person. So I went in open minded and... honestly... didn’t stay that way for all that long, it has to be said.
The format of the film is probably the most interesting thing about it. None of the people explaining their theories (voices crosscut with one another over the course of the film in chaptered sections) are ever shown. Instead, the director has used found footage from old newsreels and some fairly famous high profile movies like The Brain From Planet Arous, All The President’s Men or The Thief of Bagdad cut against each other to metaphorically illustrate what’s going on in the minds of the people talking. Quite often the footage is further digitally manipulated, such as the many shots of Tom Cruise from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut where he walks by and contemplates posters of The Shining in the street as he passes. Similarly, in the many times footage from The Shining itself is played, at various speeds ranging from very slow to normal to very fast (and even backwards and forwards simultaneously superimposed)... the director will use things like big digital arrows to point out the specific area of the screen which is being talked about from a particular ‘guest’. It’s all quite skillfully put together and that, along with the synthesised musical version of the Dies Irae invoking the Wendy Carlos opening of The Shining, are pretty much the only saving graces of this movie... for me, at least.
Now, it’s interesting that one of the people talking in this film says something which actually rings quite true in some respects. Frankly, it’s a very pertinent statement, even if it half feels like it’s being used in defence of what the person is saying because they suspect they might sound like they’re being unreasonable in their conclusions. It is this...
“Author intent is only part of the story of any work of art.”
Yeah, absolutely. I can get behind that statement. The identity of the artist and their cultural, religious and political upbringing are obviously going to seep into an artist’s work, whether they are conscious of this or not. Totally get this and believe it completely... a wise statement. However, there are extremes of conclusions that people can make which are, frankly, outside of the remit of even this simple, scattergun statement and, frankly, when all is said and done and the arguments for and against whichever theory is being explored have run their course, I was forced to conclude, as I had suspected within the first ten to fifteen minutes of this movie, that all of the people being interviewed for this film are, in fact, total nutters.
And it’s a shame because I love The Shining and I wanted to learn something new about it. Not 'new and completely, balls to the wall, fruit loop crazy' which, quite a lot of this is. I mean, the placement of cans of baking soda with an Indian head on them and other cumulative imagery from the movie do not, honestly, make for a movie which is actually about man’s betrayal of the Native American Indian and their mistreatment. Similarly, the numerology all pointing to sevens and forty two.... such as the numerals of the famous Overlook Hotel room number multiplied out - 2 X 3 X 7 giving us the ‘magic number’... do not constitute yet another in a line of similarly misconstrued ‘clues’ laid down by Kubrick that the film is about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in 1942 etc. Neither does Barry Nelson’s hips lining up with the side of an in-tray and looking momentarily like a pseudo erection while he’s shaking Jack Nicholson’s hand turn us on to the fact that The Shining is a movie about sex and the sex demons that live in Room 237. Nor does the disappearance of a sticker of Dopey from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs signify that Danny, after his first vision, is no longer ‘a dope’ and understands everything that is going on around him. Seriously people, this is some advanced level of insanity creeping in behind the normal sounding voices of the people narrating this.
For a while there it gets like people are actually making sense in the film... especially when you compare the levels of craziness of each new theory. For example, when you follow with the camera, the path into the room where Jack has his interview, the woman narrating seems absolutely right that the window showing the view outside really could not exist... it’s in the middle of the building. So yeah, points to her here and also to the person who notices that the two shots of Danny and the ball on the carpet don’t match in terms of pattern... so they were obviously filmed in different places is what that means, not that something sinister has occurred.
Similarly, the ‘apparently false’ fact that the Earth is 237 miles from the moon plus the fact that Danny is wearing a moon landing sweater when he walks to Room 237 does sound like it almost could be a metaphor for a trip to the moon but, honestly, it doesn’t mean that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings for the government and I don’t believe, as this guy does, that the whole of the film is Kubrick trying to signify to mankind that he did it. Of course, it doesn’t help that Kubrick himself gave an interview which I heard once that he'd faked the moon landings but, you know, he was a bit of a wind up merchant when it came to people aiming crazy theories at him, I suspect.
Actually, that’s one of the things that bothered me most about the people in these interviews. The ‘author intent’ get out clause I quoted above does not excuse the fact that they are quite often picking up on some, admittedly insane and disturbingly lax continuity errors... such as the disappearing ‘Dopey’ or a chair going completely missing behind Jack Nicholson’s head in one shot between cuts or the changing carpet pattern... and making so much more of them than they need to. Do I think Kubrick... an admittedly meticulous director... was doing this on purpose. No, I do not. I just think he liked some parts of takes better than parts of others and edited them all together from multiple sources to get the best and most consistent performance out of the actors... and there’s nothing much more to it than that.
So, there you go. Room 237 is, ultimately a somewhat intriguing film in the odd ‘clue’ to the overall ‘mystery’ of The Shining (a mystery which I’m sure doesn’t exist outside of the heads of these people) but, I have to say that, even though there were a few shiny coins laying among the pebbles, it’s a pretty dull affair. The excellent execution of the way the ‘evidence’ is unpeeled and portrayed by the filmmakers doesn’t detract from the less than mesmerising stretches of tedium as various enthusiastic but quite possibly unhinged individuals try to convince you that their insane theory, which they obviously totally believe is so obvious once they’ve explained it, is anything like an arrival at some form of truth. Proceed with caution.