Skip to main content

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237
(2012)

Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.


Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tracks of his (unseen) contributors (Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan and Jay Weidner) are of patchy quality, requiring the viewer to strain to hear dialogue and occasional requiring judicial use of the rewind button to attempt clarification. If that’s an irritation, more damaging is Ascher’s decision to split Room 237 into nine parts, focusing on different elements of the film. In doing so he splinters the testimony of his witnesses. It’s easy to see why he makes the choice he does; the contrast between flatly contradictory viewpoints in relation to a character or scene can be most effective in highlighting the subjective eye of the beholder. But we should be able to reach this conclusion for ourselves, without cajoling; we don’t need it daubed in fluorescent marker pen. It does his “whacko” interviewees a disservice as they are continually ushered off stage. While several of them clearly weren’t going to provide a joined-up argument anyway, they should at least have been given a fair crack. Ascher doesn’t need to wave a banner saying, “Look how nutty these guys are”; they are more than capable of digging their own holes uninterrupted (if it’s holes they are digging; Ryan, who appears to shut his door to cut out the sound of his crying child, certainly comes across as having slightly skewed priorities).


Another issue is that Ascher may not have picked the best five different theories or voices. Maybe he was limited by who wanted to go on record, but theorising that the subtext of The Shining concerns the Holocaust (Geoffrey Cocks) isn’t sufficiently distinct from suggesting it is all about the genocide of Native Americans (Bill Blakemore). As a result Ascher only fitfully commands our attention with a truly arresting idea, one that is not only outlandish but has the energy of discovery behind it. Too often the material verges on the rambling, while the musical and visual accompaniment is curiously partial; Ascher overdoes the creepy soundtrack yet enjoys mocking a viewpoint with a visual sight gag or contradictory image (and trying to integrate Tom Cruise footage from Eyes Wide Shut is just plain cheesy).


Room 237 is, of course, the number of the room in the Overlook Hotel where unspeakable horrors occurred in the distant past. It’s a strong title, effectively evoking the fascination of a film that refuses to fully reveal its secrets. Several Kubrick pictures have this quality; top of the list is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Eyes Wide Shut trails a distant third (theories about which somewhat make up for the fact that, in Kubrick terms, it is slightly underwhelming).  


The disposition that triggers intricate analyses of Kubrick has much in common with the classic conspiracy theorist; a need to analyse the minutiae of an event in obsessive detail, but often doing so in order to impress one’s own agenda on the “facts” of the case. One of the more arresting Kubrick conspiracy theories is that his films form an on-going exposé of the mind control and ritualistic programmes of secret societies, as embodied by that damned mysterious Illuminati organisation; going forward from Lolita and culminating in the director’s premature death after he finally revealed all with Eyes Wide Shut. No one in Room 237 alludes that The Shining is all about ritual abuse, but it has been suggested.


The Shining probably provokes the fascination it does in part because, in the absence of such readings, it can easily be dismissed as an impressively mounted but nonetheless empty-headed haunted house movie. And why on Earth would a director with a 200+ IQ makes such a thing? It’s telling that several of the voices in this doc preface their outpourings by admitting they didn’t really think that much of the picture the first time they saw it (Spielberg is another fan who only came to appreciate it slowly).


The biggest problem each proponent encounters is the attempt to stretch vague or oblique evidence to encompass the entire film. There is reason enough to think some of the visual references to Native American history were intentional, and there’s the little detail that the Overlook is built on an Indian burial ground. But, as with the Holocaust theory, anything wider ranging feels like a big leap. And not really all that intriguing. Some half-visible cans of Calumet baking power (with an Indian chief on the logo). Really? The pleasure of a new theory is that it adds a whole layer to one’s appreciation of a film, but most among this selection don’t have a grip. Citing the poster tagline (“The wave of terror that swept across America”) isn’t the most convincing place for Blakemore to kick off, and he’s unable to add much substance as he goes on.


Cocks has good reason to think Kubrick had the Holocaust on his mind when he made The Shining (the director had been mulling over The Aryan Papers) but the threads he draws together are even more tenuous than Blakemore’s. The repeated number 42 (1942 was the year the Final Solution took hold), the make of typewriter used by Jack Torrance (which changes colour), the suitcases that dissolve into tourists, the dissolve that gives Jack’s photo a Hitler moustache momentarily. There’s a fair sprinkling of number obsessions here too, unsurprising since a lot of arcane theorising falls back on numerological significance. 2x3x7=42, Cocks informs us (perhaps Kubrick was just a big Douglas Adams fan?)


Ryan, recounting how The Shining is about demons sexually preying on humans, might sound like his ideas actually have something to do with, you know, an actual horror movie. Except that, when it comes down to providing specific examples, they are perhaps the most risible of all the observations. So the hotel manager clearly has an erection when he welcomes Jack to his office… if you watch the scene in slow motion and substitute his paper tray for a penis. And Kubrick had his face airbrushed into the clouds during the opening sequence. For a split second. Good luck finding that one.


Kearns proposes her Minotaur theory, in which the maze is the labyrinth. Okay, I can go with that. But then she goes and spoils it by telling us how Jack looks very bull-like. Worse still, a poster of a skier on the wall in one room is actually an image of the Minotaur.


Appropriately, the most extraordinary theory is the most compelling since it grapples with one of the most popular Kubrick conspiracy theories. Weidner relates how The Shining is Kubrick’s confessional of his involvement in faking the Apollo 11 Moon landing, for which 2001 was something of a practice run. Why else would he have changed Room 217 in the novel to Room 237 (the Moon was often stated as being 237,000 miles from the Earth, you see)? And, if you look hard, you can see that the patterns on the Overlook carpet resemble launch pad 39a. This is also why Danny wears an Apollo 11 sweater. Not because a friend of the costume designer happened to show up with it on set one day, and it seemed perfect.


What I like about this one, more than just the “hidden history” extrapolation, is that Weidner and Ascher allow a glimpse of how one can actually re-read the entire movie. A guilt-racked Kubrick is cast as Jack Torrance, driven mad by the deceit he has practised against his wife and the pressures exerted on him by his (powers-that-be) bosses. Weidner rather lets the side down by claiming “ROOM No.237” on the keychain means “MOON ROOM”, but this is the only theory where you’d like to hear more.


I mentioned the costume designer, and Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s former assistant, has turned out to be something of a killjoy in the wake of Room 237’s release. He has unsportingly debunked the farfetched theories as “total balderdash”, claiming many of the seemingly specific references were spur of the moment or off the cuff decisions (the sweater, the cans, the typewriter).  I don’t doubt that a fair few examples are just as he says, and that some of the “purposeful” continuity errors are nothing of the sort, since as he tells it Kubrick would favour the shot over continuity concerns every time (I’m especially unconvinced by the meal made over the disappearing Dopey door sticker). The idea of playing The Shining backwards and forwards simultaneously and drawing conclusions from the overlapping images is something one could do likely do with almost anything and find wild and far out meanings within it. If one has a large bag of weed in one’s possession.


But at other times there’s the feeling that there is something to it all; the missing cord on the television is so noticeable that, even if it was unintended, it takes on a clear and heightened meaning. All the talk of the disturbed geography (the impossible window) within the Overlook has a similar feeling of intentional disorientation. I’m not buying the subjective notion that Kubrick was so bored making Barry Lyndon, “a boring movie” that he turned to the book Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Brian Key for inspiration. But it does seem like the sort of area that would fascinate the director, and that he would take care to incorporate techniques from it (the book tells how advertisers manipulate their audience).


My own feeling is that The Shining is so compelling, in spite of its excesses, because of its very intangibility. As with certain of David Lynch’s films, Kubrick adopts the logic and language of the dreamscape; not everything makes sense, and it’s not supposed to make sense. It’s this inability to pin it down, even though on paper it isn’t such a complex beast, that encourages every subjective analysis under the sun. Several of the theorists suggest similar ideas but it all gets rather lost in the sprawl.


Ascher has made an interesting documentary but he has failed to present it with necessary dexterity. Just the act of taking five wildly different viewpoints makes it a discussion on obsessive interpretation, but there are so many aspects Room 237 fails to broach; for example, when does unhealthy obsession end and academic study begin (one of the contributors is a college professor, another is out of work and identifies a little too strongly with Jack Torrance)? The cutting up and filtering of the subjects’ views has the effect of insufficiently delineating them; the quintet end up as something of a jumble. The biggest problem however, is that the majority of these readings just aren’t strong enough to engage. Ascher’s doc is a missed opportunity.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

The whole thing should just be your fucking nose!

A Star is Born (2018)
(SPOILERS) A shoe-in for Best Picture Oscar? Perhaps not, since it will have to beat at very least Roma and First Man to claim the prize, but this latest version of A Star is Born still comes laden with more acclaim than the previous three versions put together (and that's with a Best Picture nod for the 1937 original). While the film doesn't quite reach the consistent heights suggested by the majority of critics, who have evacuated their adjectival bowels lavishing it with superlatives, it's undoubtedly a remarkably well-made, stunningly acted piece, and perhaps even more notably, only rarely feels like its succumbing to just how familiar this tale of rise to, and parallel fall from, stardom has become.