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…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).