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

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.