The very premise of the new documentary, Room 237, represents everything I personally find wrong with film criticism. And I want to get something very clear from the go here: my distaste for this film (and it is a very strong distaste) is a perfect reflection of how I personally choose to view movies. As a great admirer of film (and art in general) I have never achieved satisfaction in breaking art down. Asking, “But what does it all mean?” or pontificating about the purpose of this shot or that specific word of dialogue. Now, this is not to say that I don’t believe artists often live in allegory. I can dig metaphors, parallels, parables and so on, but trying to find the “hidden” meaning of art has never appealed to me.
Inversely, I know plenty of people who value art for the sole purpose of breaking it down. For inspecting and theorizing and asking, asserting, and asking again. They’re not “wrong,” and neither am I. There are simply two ways to go about it.
In Room 237, five off-screen theorists individually assert what Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining is all about. They state their claims tirelessly, and often with little conviction. Sometimes they assert what I considered to be far-fetched theories with confidence, but most of the time, they hesitate their way through weak ideas.
If you’ve seen The Shining (and if you haven’t, you should probably wait to watch Room 237 anyway), then you know like many of Kubrick’s films, much goes unsaid. There are shots that confound, subplots that confuse, and entire passages that complicate. But, somehow, the film works, and works rather brilliantly. That was Kubrick’s genius.
Where to begin with the host of speculations thrown around in Room 237? One theorist says The Shining represents America’s staged moon landing, which Kubrick filmed for the United States government on a giant soundstage. Apparently Kubrick didn’t appreciate the harsh scrutiny of that supposed filming project, so he adapted a Stephen King novel to subtly poke fun at US officials. Or… something. Another theory claims The Shining represents the slaughter of the American Indians. Or that the film is an allegory for the Holocaust (look, if you pay attention to Jack Nicholson’s hairline in the final shot, it dissolves into a Hitler moustache). Or… something.
Or no, actually, the film is about repressed homosexuality. If you look closely (which Room 237 tediously does with an eye-rolling, frame-by-frame examination) a paper tray clearly doubles as actor Barry Nelson’s erection when he’s meeting Nicholson for the first time. Or… something.
So basically, Room 237 is a series of never ending, philosophical arguments with too many obnoxious tangents to count, and pretension littered throughout. At one point, a theorist muses that, “If you doubt what I’ve said, then just go see the movie! I learned all of this from seeing the movie. It’s there, it’s obvious.” It is? Really? (Interesting too that just last week, Stanley Kubrick’s longtime assistant, Leon Vitali, told The New York Times that the theories in Room 237 are all complete bullshit.)
Moving on to the technical aspects of the film, there’s no debating this movie’s atrocious sound design. And I don’t use the term “atrocious” lightly. Room 237 contains some of the poorest-quality audio recording I have ever heard in a film, documentary or otherwise. The interviewees are never seen, so we only have their voices to drive the narrative. Much of the film’s audio is muddled and drowned out by any number of things, including cheap microphones and whatever piece of music director Rodney Ascher happens to be playing simultaneously over the soundtrack. Hell, in a handful of sound bites, you can hear one theorist’s young son crying in the background. At one point, he stops discussing The Shining and actually says into the microphone, “Can you hear my son? Hold on a minute.” We hear him get up, open the door, stop his sons cries, then return a few seconds later.
|Room 237 director Rodney Ascher|
I’m sorry, but how can I take a movie seriously when it allows for such amateurish filmmaking? Some might say I’m being nitpicky. I’d disagree. Room 237 isn’t a student film that a couple of fans recorded and cut in their dorm room. It played at Cannes, it played at Sundance, and it was picked up by IFC. It’s a real movie made by a man who has been making movies for more than 15 years. It wants to be taken seriously, so that’s how I’m determined to view it.
Look, it’s not my intention to pound away at Ascher or his film. I suspect many will love Room 237 for the precise reasons I did not. It’s all a matter of the way you choose to critique art. The five interviewed theorists all sound like intelligent people who are competent in their overall film knowledge, but they also sound like they’re reaching. I didn’t buy into any of the theories they discussed. Maybe you won’t either. Or maybe you’ll buy into one. But you certainly can’t buy into them all. Can you? D-