Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Room 237"

 4 / 5 

Almost everyone who sees The Shining has the same first reaction: Huh?

For a movie that's supposed to be a horror film, it's not particularly scary.  For a movie directed by a genius, visionary director, it seems a step down from the greatness of 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange.  For a movie based on a Stephen King novel, it sure doesn't feel like Stephen King.

There's a reason for that, says one of the several unseen narrators of the vivid, unique documentary Room 237.  It's because The Shining isn't really The Shining at all; it's really just Stanley Kubrick's cinematic confessional, a visual apology for his role as the director of the faked Apollo 11 moon landing on a soundstage, the footage that fooled the world into thinking we had gone to the moon.

Unless The Shining, as two more of the five narrators offer, is actually about repressed sexual urges, filled with subliminal images.  Or about the psychological need to deal with and exorcise the past.

Then again, it isn't that deeply buried by Kubrick: The Shining is an exploration of lingering guilt over the horror of the Holocaust.  Unless it's about the genocide of Native Americans by white Europeans.

But rather than offering up a bunch of crackpot ideas from suspect sources, Room 237 instead has found tremendously well-spoken, intelligent, interesting people who, for one reason or another, became obsessive devotees of the film, which more or less bombed at the box office when it debuted in 1980.

Over the years, they've all recognized that a Stanley Kubrick film was never just a movie, it was a work of art as carefully designed and executed to be as tantalizingly detailed and symbolic as a Da Vinci painting.  Indeed, there are times when hearing these people (including ABC News veteran Bill Blakemore) talk about The Shining recalls some of Dan Brown's most breathlessly complicated passages about Da Vinci's hidden meanings.

When you hear them laid out, all of the explanations seem both perfectly logical and perfectly ludicrous, usually simultaneously, even the one about the moon landing.  It's enough to make you check your own brain -- watching Room 237 will have you agog at your own willingness to believe that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing.

That's how beautifully laid out these theories are, and while Room 237 wisely never shows any of the narrators on screen (we judge far too readily based on outward appearance), it does incorporate a rather jaw-dropping amount of footage from The Shining itself, often slowing it down, capturing still frames, adding helpful arrows and diagrams, and making us see things we've never seen before.

There's the Playgirl magazine (yes, the one with naked pictures of men) that Jack Torrance reads when he visits the Overlook for the first time.

There are the carefully placed containers of Calumet baking powder and Tang.

There are the glaring continuity errors, some so bizarre and incomprehensible once they're pointed out that they can't be simple mistakes.

There must be a lot more to The Shining that meets the eye ... there must, right?  Room 237 certainly makes a brilliant case for it, and in doing so leaves you both in awe of and slightly worried about these people who have become downright obsessive about the film.  For the better part of two hours, they point out inconsistencies, symbols (real and imagined) and unexplained quirks you never noticed, and maybe never wanted to notice.

The most visually arresting section comes when one Shining devotee relates the moment in which he realized the film was a visual Moebius strip that could be viewed both forwards and backwards -- and then, astonishingly, we watch scenes from the movie played out just this way.

Right before our eyes, it becomes clear that Kubrick was a visual architect of the highest order, a filmmaker with a precisely calculated design for constructing his film. Well, either that, or he liked to put all of the important images in the exact center of the screen.

By the end of Room 237, The Shining makes 2001 look almost simple in its symbolism by comparison. (There are a lot of moments that put the two films side by side, not surprisingly, but none is as mind-blowing as the moment when 2001's Star Child and the screaming face from Saul Bass's The Shining poster appear next to each other.)

Did Kubrick, a notorious perfectionist, use common consumer products like Calumet and Tang intentionally and with great meaning, or did his production designer just think they looked good on screen?  Why so many eagles in the movie?  What's with the number 42?  Why is there no hedge maze in the establishing shot of the hotel?  Why does the pattern on a carpet change at a key moment for Danny, and why is the little boy wearing an Apollo 11 shirt?

How much did Kubrick intend to plant as clues to some unknown puzzle, how much of what is interpreted is accidental, and how much was just toying with his fans?

The more you try to dismiss Room 237 as cinematic conspiracy-theory nuttiness, the more compelled you become by the theories it's putting forth.

Making it even more compelling is the brilliant way director Rodney Ascher tells the entire story by using clips from The Shining and from dozens and dozens of other movies, both classic and obscure.  If there's ever been a documentary about a particular film made up largely of clips from other films, I don't know it -- and what Room 237 does editorially is a bit of a cinematic miracle.

There are some weird touches throughout, such as the insertion of clips or images from The Shining in other movies, and often the film begins taking us down one path only to stop and change course.  That's because there seem to be about as many interpretations of The Shining as there are fans of the film.  The Shining can apparently be almost anything you want it to be, without the nuisance of the filmmaker himself expressing an opinion.

Room 237 will likely be most interesting to those who have studied film criticism and film theory -- as well as anyone with a background in literary interpretation.  But that makes it sound awfully highbrow. Yes, at times it's complicated and makes references to things, ideas and people that may be lost on some people; but mostly, it's a movie that really makes you look hard at a film you may have seen many times, but you've never really examined.

Some of the narrators go too far (I still can't see Kubrick's face in the clouds above the Volkswagen), some not far enough (if it is about the Holocaust, then what is it trying to say?), but mostly they leave you almost slack-jawed by the realization that a film you thought you knew is one you actually don't know at all.

Room 237 is now available on Video on Demand.

Viewed March 29, 2013

1 comment:

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