Monday, May 12, 2014

Blogorium Review: Room 237


 A friend of mine is a Philip K. Dick scholar, and he has been using The Exegesis for research on his dissertation. Or, as his wife calls it, "that book that crazy person wrote."

Part One

When I was in tenth grade, my English teacher proposed a challenge wherein we needed to read Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and make the case that it was a poem about Santa Claus. Being young and full of myself, I thought this was a patently ridiculous idea (a Google search might surprise you on how it maybe isn't), and wrote in a composition notebook "sometimes a cake is just a cake" (yes, I not only was full of myself, but I also misquoted Freud). Accordingly, a young Cap'n missed the point of the entire exercise: with enough supporting evidence in the text, it is possible to find enough in an ambiguous work of art to make a claim that it "means" what you think it does.

 You might also remember that I once applied this concept (in jest) to a "critical analysis" of the film Splatter University, re-framing an otherwise rote slasher film as a commentary on Reagan-era indifference to gender politics and class structure in America. If you try really hard, you could make that argument, although I highly doubt the filmmakers intended any such thing. On the other hand, when a filmmaker, nay, an auteur of the caliber of Stanley Kubrick is involved, it's much easier to make the case that the secret meaning of his film is exactly what he intended. After all, the mercurial and often meticulous Kubrick hid many details in almost all of his films, and for years audiences have been poring over them, looking for secrets, which brings us to Room 237.

 Director Rodney Ascher decided to take a more novel approach to Room 237, and rather than gather a list of well known names to sit down and discuss the various themes and hidden meanings in The Shining, he instead turned to the internet. Ascher draws from five sources (Bill Blakemore, Geoffery Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner) in Room 237, each of whom have their own particular "take" on what Stanley Kubrick was really up to. As they speak, appropriate clips provide a visual aid to their analysis. As with many theories you'll find on the internet, they range from surprisingly plausible to barely credible.

 (While The Shining is the primary source of footage in Room 237, it also relies heavily on clips from Eyes Wide Shut, as well other Kubrick films and less immediately obvious sources. Footage from Lamberto Bava's Demons pops up continually, mostly because of the many shots of an audience watching a film, but I also noticed clips from Spellbound, Wolf, Faust, All the President's Men, An American Werewolf in London, and Schindler's List, to name a few)

Part Two

 Room 237 often uncomfortably straddles the line between a strict adherence to the infallibility of "Auteur Theory" and a relativist (or, at least, post-structural) position that any argument has merit if the film is ambiguous enough to support your claim.

 For example, one of the theories is predicated on the suggestion that Kubrick was "bored" as a filmmaker headed into The Shining. He had "mastered" the art of making movies and Barry Lyndon was a "very boring movie," so The Shining was his attempt to reinvigorate himself. There's a half-truth in the second half of this argument, but it ignores a few important truths that are apparent in any "making of" The Shining available:

 1) Kubrick was coming off of the critical drubbing of A Clockwork Orange (a film he pulled from theatres in the United Kingdom) and the commercial failure of Barry Lyndon, which led him to abandon Napoleon, the movie he passionately wanted to make.

 2) He had also expressed his admiration for Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and Eraserhead as elevating horror films and felt he needed to answer the challenge to make his own. One of his collaborators posits that Kubrick felt they had "passed" him and he wanted to make the ultimate horror film. This does not necessarily reflect a director who had reached the apex of his creative abilities and felt "bored" heading into The Shining.

 More baffling is the declaration(s) at the end that most (not all, mind you) of the commentators admit that the Auteur's intentions may not match their theory, but the point of postmodern film criticism is that the creator no longer has any say in the interpretation of their art. Which is fine, except that every single one of them predicates their theory on the basis that Kubrick. Did. This. On. Purpose. And. I. Found. It. The irony is mind boggling, and yet none of them seem to appreciate it.

 All too often the theories start out making interesting points and then simply fall apart: early in the film, a visual discussion of juxtaposition during the long dissolves goes on too long, leaving the commentator grasping at straws. Long after he's stopped making any sense, he's reduced to pointing out things like "this man is carrying a chair in - where is he going?" and "at the very end of the shot, right before Kubrick cuts, you can see a man carrying a carpet upstairs." Much ado is made about the fact that the Torrance family has "too much" luggage, but the point is left hanging there without any specific reasoning.

 (It later turns out that the "carpet" insight comes from someone involved in Room 237 because he shows The Shining playing forwards and backwards simultaneously. This leads to a segment involving carefully selected moments where the overlapping images create an interesting dichotomy, although he often only adds the insight that it's "pretty cool.")

 I was quite taken with the "impossible window" argument in The Overlook from the woman who took the time to study the layout of the hotel, because you take it in stride while watching the movie, but there's actually no logical place that window could be in Ullman's office. It's a great visual centerpiece in that room, but like many areas of the Overlook, it can't possibly exist spatially. Unfortunately, her observations on the film quickly collapse into "that poster of a man skiing looks like a minotaur," which, while having a through-line in other Kubrick films, is a stretch at best. The reason she leaps to the conclusion that it's a minotaur (juxtaposed with a cowboy on another poster) is based on an actually valid point that Ullman already told Jack there's no skiing at The Overlook, but she side-steps this to fixate on a tenuous, at best, visual connection. In fact, it hurts her analysis of The Overlook being similar to the hedge maze by insisting that Jack is the Minotaur the poster is referring to. By the end of the movie, she's reduced to comparing the ghost with an axe wound in his head to a story her son made up, and marvels at the "synchronicity."

 Other theories strain to make any sense at all: the commentator who fixates on The Shining's perverse sexuality takes us on a frame by frame analysis of Ullman shaking hands with Jack, implying that where Ullman is standing makes him look like the paper tray he's next to is giving him a "full erection." He then goes on to explain that during the opening credits, right after Kubrick's name leaves the screen, the director inserts an image of himself into the clouds. Despite the frame by frame analysis of this, I couldn't see it, and at one point he even says "I'll have to Photoshop this to show you what I mean." A suggestion that Wendy hitting Jack with the bat at the top of the stairs is somehow comparable to a Mayan ritual sacrifice goes nowhere (and is never addressed again).

 This is not to say that Room 237 is completely without plausible, if not outright fascinating insights. There is no logical reason that Jack Torrance would be reading Playgirl while eating lunch before he tours the Overlook with Ullman and Watson. But he is, and while there's no clear explanation provided, it does mirror the phallic imagery on the floor of room 237. The dissection of Danny's rides through the floors in the hotel have some very insightful suggestions about not only the geography of the Overlook, but also the symbolism of where he finds room 237 (above the Colorado Room) and the Grady twin ghosts (in the servants area, near his own room).

 Part Three

 Perhaps the most interesting theories come from the alternating views of two men who view The Shining as Kubrick's attempt to address the atrocities of the past. One chooses to focus on the massacre of Native Americans, a small detail in the film that provides plenty of good evidence. His argument that the elevator (which, logically, would go below into the foundation, where the Native burial ground was rumored to be) spilling blood is a metaphor for violence escaping, whether we want to see it or not, has a certain resonance, even if other points miss their mark a bit. I'm not sure that I buy his argument that the phrase "Wave of Terror Sweeping Across America" from the British marketing is a coded reference to Native American slaughter and subjugation, but for the most part he makes salient points in his analysis.

 The second interpretation is that The Shining is, in some way, Kubrick's opportunity to use horror as a genre to address the atrocities of the Holocaust without directly mentioning them. He begins his analysis with the German typewriter and the continued imagery of the eagle and the number 42 (the year the "Final Solution" was implemented) or its variations. He admits it's "a stretch," but 2x3x7=42. Wendy and Danny are also watching "The Summer of 42" on TV, Danny has a number 42 on his shirt, there's a 42 on Dick Hallorann's license plate, and the number seven repeatedly appears in the film. He also (correctly) connects the number 42 to Lolita is an indicator of trouble for Humbert Humbert. On less numerical terms, he addresses the use of a funeral march to open the film, or the potential significance of the POV in the opening helicopter footage.

 His main argument, that it allows audiences to deal with the horrors of the Holocaust without directly realizing it, ties into the advice that Tony tells Danny "it's like pictures in a book - it isn't real," in that the past is no longer real, but it is something we have to deal with. The aforementioned luggage dissolves into a group of people in the next shot, which is a curious juxtaposition further enhanced by post-war photos of piles of luggage at concentration camps. If anything, he stumbles a bit in trying to tie in Nicholson's ad-libbed quotation of "The Three Little Pigs" into a memory Kubrick might have had of the 1933 Walt Disney film, which featured the Wolf in a stereotypically Anti-Semitic "Jew" disguise during one scene. For the large part, treating The Shining's horror as a metaphor for the atrocities of the past does seem to have the most supporting evidence in Room 237.

 Part Four

 But then there's the most famous contributor to Room 237. If you've seen the film, you know exactly who I'm talking about and have no doubt been wondering how we got this far into the review without mentioning him. Well, in keeping with his placement in the movie, I felt like he deserved his own segment, separate from the rest. If you've heard nothing else about Room 237, you've probably heard about the guy who is certain that Stanley Kubrick hid a message in The Shining about his own involvement in a particularly famous moment in American Conspiracy Theory History. But first, in the interest of fairness, let me set up his argument, as ridiculous as it often sounds:

 The first time he saw The Shining, much like Stephen King, Jay Weidner was frustrated at all of the changes made in the adaptation. In fact, he didn't watch it again until the Blu-Ray came out, but when he did, he became fixated on the deviations from the book to the movie. Fair enough, but here's where things go off the rails (I'm sorry, I can't be objective about this): he already believed the rumor that Stanley Kubrick was involved in, if not directly responsible for, filming the "fake" moon landing in 1969, and that 2001 was Kubrick's "test footage" for faking a moon landing. He goes on and on about the techniques used in 2001 also being used in the moon landing "hoax," including strategic camera placement and the use of rear screen projection. But here's where it gets really fun.

 He is convinced that the reason Kubrick deviates from King's novel is as a clandestine way of admitting his involvement in the "fake moon landing" scheme, and while he could probably just leave it with his best (and really, only) case in Danny's Apollo 11 sweater, he just can't stop there. Jack's frustration that Wendy wants to leave is Kubrick's own anger with his wife about the contractual obligations he's under to fake NASA's big moon landing.  The pattern on the carpet outside of room 237 is a similar shape to the launch pads in Florida. But here's the crown jewel, my favorite piece of "really?" and the one that's no doubt had my friends turning the movie off without finishing it: the meaning of changing the room number from 217 (in the book) to 237.

 There is a longstanding story in the making of The Shining that the owners of the hotel asked Kubrick to change the room number so it wouldn't hurt business. Weidner took this to believe they meant the hotel in Oregon (where the exterior shots of The Overlook were filmed) and not the hotel that King based The Shining on, so when he called to check and see if they really had a room 217, they didn't, and he determined Kubrick lied about the story. Why? Because Room 237 was the studio he shot the "fake" moon landing on, and he wanted everybody to know. But he's not content to stop there, so we need to look at the sign on the key to Room 237, which has the words "Room No. 237." He takes this to mean that somehow the capitalized letters are significant, and manages to warp this logic around to argue that what Kubrick really meant is that 237 is the "Moon Room" because "the only words you can make with those letters are 'moon' and 'room.'"

 And he firmly believes that while NASA might have sent someone to the moon (they're very angry at him) they "faked" the landing everybody knows and that Stanley Kubrick was involved in it. The Shining is his admission of it - coded, of course - but it couldn't be clearer. He ends his comments by assuring us that he's being watched and fully expects more scrutiny after Room 237 is released. So if you couldn't finish the movie because of this guy, I totally get it. There's a certain kind of crazy that's really hard to wrap your brain around, and he gets his own undiluted segment of the film to just go for it. It's a shame, because you will miss some of the very best points about the atrocities, but I can understand why at least two people I know gave up on the film.

Closing Thoughts

 Room 237 sounds like a great idea, in theory, but the reality is far more frustrating. Every now and then, the disparate theories come together to focus on one concept (the maze), but just as often they grasp at straws (there's a truly superfluous section devoted to the character of Bill Watson, the second man interviewing Jack, that fails to posit one interesting explanation for his presence). It's like taking a night class for film students where the teacher just sits back and lets them go: you're stuck in a room for an hour and a half listening to competing interpretations of a movie delivered passionately by people who a sure they've cracked the code. The logic is rarely sound - some of it barely sounds like logic at all - but sometimes they make good points. You don't get to join in, and while I appreciate the concept of Ascher's to avoid the normal "talking head" documentary, the execution of Room 237 doesn't have me convinced that overlapping their theories really helps, particularly in the early going when you don't know whose position. It can make four of the five commentators difficult to distinguish, particularly the three older men. Yes, they're introduced with a title card explaining their history with the movie, but then Ascher dives right in with the analysis.

 More problematic is the construction of the arguments. In the age of the internet, the concept of post-modern or post-structuralist criticism is more prevalent than ever, but it exists awkwardly alongside a stringent adherence to Auteur Theory in Room 237 in a way that proves such a thing can't possibly work. I understand why my professors in school insisted that I remove the director's "intent" from analysis of films, because it allows you to more openly explore the art without the artist "interfering." And it is true that when art becomes available to the masses, it changes, both to the audience, the author, and the work. So the foundation of Room 237 is a solid one, but the choice of Stanley Kubrick, a director revered for being both meticulous in his direction and intentionally vague about his themes, may not have been the best choice. In the end it sounds like five people saying "Kubrick fits my vision of the film because he didn't do this by accident and his own intention doesn't matter," and that sentence doesn't make sense. It was an admirable experiment, and an interesting one to watch, but not a successful one.

 More often than not, it feels like "that movie those crazy people made," which sounds more interesting than it is. However, if Ascher had some interest in applying this approach to the films of David Lynch, nobody (including Lynch) know what they're really about...

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