Monday, April 15, 2013

Room 237: A Place to Hang Your Tinfoil Hat

Room 237 is on it's face a typical documentary, a movie about a movie. Now, there are a few good docs about movies, mostly about the making of them and their effect of culture and society. But Room 237 is different: it's a dissection of the deeper meanings of one film, interpretations so deep and obtuse they seem nutty and imaginary. More about that in a bit.

The film in question is Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). He was one of the most singular and identifiable directors of his era, especially after 2001. His precise camera placements, deliberate dramaturgy and atmospheric editing have made his films playgrounds for critics. He was a fearsomely smart man, and he was unafraid to leave his films enigmatic, evocative, and downright puzzling. His movies have gathered not just fans but followers, theorists.

In comes Rodney Asher, who collected together five Kubrick theorists and gave them 102 minutes to spin out their interpretations.*

The result is hilarious, baffling and ultimately depressing.

The hilarious part, intentional or otherwise: these five "experts" on The Shining take the film and stitch it, Doctor Frankenstein style, with their pet obsessions. The result of this is we learn that Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece is: 1) about the Holocaust; 2) about the genocide of Native Americans; 3) about Kubrick's complicity in faking NASA's moon landings; 4) I haven't the slightest idea, and 5) The "Paul is Dead" school of criticism.

Believe it or not, none of the "experts" had anything at
all to say about these gals.
Most of the interpretations is made explicit with frame-by-frame examinations of the film. Jack Torrance uses an Adler typewriter (German=Nazi=Holocaust). A large can of Calumet baking powder is prominent in several shots (Calumet=peace pipe=Indian Genocide). These little examples go on and on, getting more unbelievable as the doc progresses.

One of the funniest bits happens when one of the "experts," citing another Shining expert so exalted he didn't participate on the film, projected the film superimposed running forwards and backwards. He then points out the juxtapositions of images of the forward and backward frames as evidence of... something. I'm not sure. He made it sound terribly meaningful, even though it was the single most meaningless bit of film criticism I've ever seen. I was waiting for the guy to continue his dissertation as he played the film while listening to "Dark Side of The Moon."

One of these "experts" gives away the whole game near the end of the film with this line: "One of the tenets of post-modern film criticism is the idea that the director's intentions is just one aspect of the meaning of a film." This line made me laugh out loud. I remember this approach was very popular when I was in college, and I believed then as I still do now that this idea is the ultimate cop-out. If the critic has an agenda to advance or is simply intellectually weak, the idea that any interpretation of a cinematic work from any source is valid turns films into funhouse mirrors, megaphones for their own biases. These sloppy, pinwheel-eyed biased interpretations happen over and over in Room 237.

We used to see a lot of
UFOs back in the 70s too.
Having said that, I think the idea that a film's meaning is a cultural construct is essentially valid. But I'm talking about things like market forces, the weight of narrative conventions, the needs of studios, producers and stars, the mood and values of the society the film depicts and is released in are all parts of the message of any film. This is actually self-evident. To that end, it is easy to see when someone is dragging wacky conspiracy theories into the mix, because it stands out so garishly. It's like that guy back in the 70s who saw "SEX" in glasses of Bacardi in magazine ads: "My God, they're everywhere!"

What's depressing here is I have over the years read some amazing works of criticism: interpretations of works so nuanced and well-studied that it changes the way you see all works of cinema. As an example: the British Film Institute put out a series of monographs on prominent films-- just one author each, a lot of research, and remarkable insight. My favorite is still Anne Billson's book on John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) She took this horror film apart, logically and passionately, getting to the core of what makes the film work: the psychology of horror, the extinction of the self and the meaning of individual identity. She did all this without bringing in one tinfoil-hat idea.

And that's what's depressing about Room 237. It's existence is a towering condemnation of the feeble critical powers of our age. Seeing and hearing the five fools Rodney Asher assembled jabbering and pointing at The Shining reminded me of the apes screeching around the base of the Monolith in 2001: It wasn't hard to see who the smart guy was in that scene.

*I'm actually not sure of Rodney Asher's movie is a sincere work of criticism or he's just giving his "experts" enough rope to hang themselves and laughing behind their backs. But that's post-modernism for you.

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