Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Into "Room 237"

You can't be a hardcore movie fan for long without running into someone who has come up with their own personal elaborate theory about a certain favorite film. All serious movie fans do this to some degree - I certainly do, looking for different interpretations and readings of films the same way that academics analyze certain works of literature. There are whole fields of film theory and film studies that examine what films say about the societies and cultures that produced them. However, there are always those fans who take things a little too far, who fixate on certain ideas or theories and then will go to extraordinary lengths to prove that they're right.

The documentary, "Room 237" features six of these people. We never see them, but we hear them speak at length, about the secrets that they believe that they have uncovered in Stanley Kubrick's beloved 1980 horror film, "The Shining." One believes that Kubrick inserted clues that point to his involvement in supposedly faking the moon landing. Another sees coded references to the massacre of Native Americans. Another finds Holocaust parallels. Another works out that the Overlook Hotel has impossible architecture, and thinks the story is a new take on Jason and the Minotaur. "Room 237" presents their arguments, with lots of visual aids taken from "The Shining," Kubrick's other films, and archival footage. Some of the theories are very entertaining, but few are very convincing. Almost all the big "Ah-HA!" moments can be chalked up to coincidence or artistic license taken for completely unrelated reasons.

Does this mean that "Room 237" is a failure? I don't think so. While I don't believe it offers many new insights on "The Shining," what it does do successfully is give you an interesting picture of these obsessive “Shining” fans. Several of them are clearly quite intelligent and well-educated, having done massive amounts of outside research to support their fantastic claims. They all appear to have expended considerable amounts of time and energy watching “The Shining” over and over again, looking for more clues. One segment of “Room 237” is devoted to someone who decided to watch the film run backwards and forwards simultaneously, with the images superimposed on top of each other, to look for any interesting results. He finds some neat moments where the pictures line up in curious ways, and of course he would – people who go looking for hidden conspiracies and secret messages always manage to find them.

It’s fascinating to see how these people have developed their own odd relationships and histories with the movie, treating it quite differently from the way that academics and film critics analyze films when they take them apart. The fans believe that Kubrick, the great stickler for detail that he was, intentionally included these secret signs and messages, and wanted them to be found. Academics often consider the intent of the directors and writers of a film to be irrelevant, looking instead for themes and conventions that reflect unspoken social mores and assumptions. Critics, including yours truly, tend to see unusual elements as stylistic or storytelling choices. Is architecture of the Overlook Hotel impossible? If it was done deliberately, it was probably to increase the viewer’s disorientation. Or maybe it was just a case of continuity errors. Even Stanley Kubrick wasn’t perfect.

The question becomes, not whether any of the theories presented in "Room 237" hold any water, but why "The Shining" has managed to inspire such wild mysteries and mythologies around it. My guess is that it has to do with the notoriety of "The Shining" itself, not just for being an especially effective and multilayered horror film, but for the stories about the intense behind-the-scenes drama during the film's prolonged production, and especially for the involvement of Stanley Kubrick. This was a director who was a perfectionist, who did demand 127 takes of the baseball bat scene, and who not only had the "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" pages typed out by his secretary, but also additional ones in different languages for international versions of the movie. If there was any director likely to put obscure secret messages in his work, surely it was Kubrick.

"Room 237" adds to his myth. Those gullible souls predisposed to believe in conspiracy theories will eat the stuff up, and I expect that "Shining" fans will appreciate seeing the little things they never noticed pointed out - the recurring Native American motifs, the television missing a cable, and who was that other man in the office during the interview? But it's plain to see when a skiing poster is just a skiing poster, and a movie is just a movie. "Room 237" is a lot of fun, but it may also make you wince at some of the convoluted reasoning that the six “experts” employ. Contrary to what the marketing may tell you, this is not a documentary about “The Shining.” It’s a documentary about the most extreme fans of “The Shining,” and that in its own way, is a far more frightening thing.

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