Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Cinema File #217: "Room 237" Review

Stanley Kubrick is one of the most over-rated directors of all time. Now, before you get your panties in a wad and start thinking I have to turn in my critic's license...which I totally have because that's a thing, know that I don't mean that he's a bad director, or that many of his films aren't every bit the classics they are said to be. Dr. Strangelove is easily one of the ten best movies of all time, and while it eventually goes off the rails and up its own ass in the end, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a technical masterpiece and a riveting piece of science fiction that still holds up today, which is something that can rarely be said for sci fi films of the era. Hell, I even think A.I. is better than most people say it is, even if I think it should have ended twenty minutes earlier with a sad robot kid drowning forever in the ocean. When I say Kubrick is overrated, what I mean to say is that no other director is quite so synonymous with and ultimately diminished by his own mystique, the over sized myth of the man, his method, and his madness overtaking any objective analysis of his work.

For too many die hard Kubrick fans, any given Kubrick film is not merely a movie, or even merely a work of great art, but an intricate puzzle waiting to be solved, with the solution bringing about a brief glimpse into the mind of disturbed genius. Some go even further, reaching beyond any one individual film and seeing each installment of his canon as a piece of a larger puzzle, as if his entire filmography, save perhaps the really boring ones like Barry Lyndon nobody cares about, all add up to some great master plan, or the secret to solving the clues on some map to buried treasure. I am not entirely unsympathetic to this approach to a beloved piece of fiction, being both a Twin Peaks fan and a Lost fan, and remembering full well the lengthy discussions on message boards trying to decipher what the Little Man From Another Place was trying to say, and just how the Hurly Bird fits into everything. As David Lynch and the Lost writers would attest, Its a hard thing to live up to for anyone, but it also grants one the ability to shroud their mistakes in the same mystery as they shroud their deliberate actions.

Case in point, The Shining, a very technically well-made horror thriller with many genuinely creepy and effective moments, but that is on the whole kind of a mess of a movie. Stephen King, the writer of the book upon which the film is based, famously hated the movie so much for its many deviations from the source material that he went out of his way to produce a TV miniseries years later to better capture his vision, and as a fairly committed King devotee, I mostly agree with his position. Kubrick's version takes a simple yet powerful story of the family toll of alcoholism and a supernatural twist on the sins of the father and turns it into, well, something else entirely. Is it about the plight of the Native Americans? The plight of the Jews during the Holocaust? Maybe even a movie length apology for faking the moon landing. Hell, I don't know, I'm no expert after all. If you want to ask anyone, ask the weird assortment of cranks and obsessives contributing their nerdy theories to the documentary Room 237.

Room 237, named for the mysterious room of the Overlook Hotel where a ghostly woman tempts you only to turn into an ugo just when you're getting to the good part, is not a documentary about the making of The Shining, or really a documentary at all in the strictest sense. It is not about its apparent subject, the movie, but rather nine distinct theories surrounding the movie, including the aforementioned Native American, Holocaust, and (sigh) Moon Landing centric theories which are the dominant threads. Except, its not really about them either. At its core, Room 237 is about the lengths, or if you prefer, the depths of fan obsession. It is not about what these nine Kubrick nerds are saying, so much as what you must imagine brought them to the point where they are so committed to what they are saying. The film begins with a very sensual and visceral first hand account of one fan's experience seeing the film in the theater for the first time, and even as the movie eventually goes down the rabbit hole of minutiae and nonsense, we get the impression that its less about the details and more about this elusive personal dimension.

Before I begin to mock them incessantly, I must admit that on some level, I understand this mindset completely. Put me in a room with eight other comparably obsessed Star Trek geeks and tell us to discuss our theories on the missing pieces of a few thousand years of continuity confused alternate history, and we'd push the nerd scale up to eleven. The thing is, I have enough self-awareness to understand how silly that exercise would be, no matter how much fun I might have in the process, while many of these theorists discuss their subject with the seriousness of a real world historical event, as one might discuss the history of war or the sociological effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They do not seem to recognize the fact that all of this in-depth analysis is focused on a work of fiction whose primary goal is nothing more than entertainment, or at least they never let on that they do  You have to assume that, like my love of Star Trek, their appreciation for Kubrick is merely one small facet of an otherwise complicated and fulfilling life. Or at least for their sake, you have to hope so.

Its not even that their larger theories are nonsensical (save one that we'll get to shortly), its that the "evidence" they give to support their conclusions is so comically slight that if I didn't know any better, I'd say they were being ironically obtuse. Something as simple as a can of Calumet Baking Soda is apparently all the proof you need of Kubrick's Trail of Tears allegory, because you see, calumet means peace pipe, and when the groundskeeper and the little boy meet with the can in the background, its faced out to show their meeting is genuine, but when the dad talks to a ghost and the can is in the background turned away from the camera, that means the meeting is disingenuous. Or maybe its just a fucking can! It gets to the point where continuity errors are taken as evidence of a larger point, as chairs in the background disappear between shots, the layout reveals impossibly situated rooms, and the typewriter changes color. What does it all mean? Because it must mean something other than that Kubrick isn't perfect and maybe, heaven forbid, neglected to notice something. Oh, and the typewriter's German, so clearly the whole movie's about Nazis, right?

As I alluded to previously, the most ridiculous of these is one man's theory that The Shining is Kubrick's subliminal cinematic apology for his role in directing the government operation tasked with faking the moon landing. Okay, here goes. The problem I have with the conspiratorial mindset is that it often goes past the point of legitimate skepticism into an arrogant refusal to accept basic common sense. We went to the Moon. That shit happened. We have telescopes that can see the Moon and see all the stuff we left up there. It is a thing that occurred, and anyone who wants to question the heroism of the men and women who made that amazing feat of human ingenuity possible, purely for the sake of contrarianism or a knee jerk distrust of government, should go fuck themselves straight to Hell. This isn't some cute sort of kooky thing, its an insult to the history of legitimate scientific inquiry and human will. And that this ass clown's most damning piece of evidence is a shirt the little kid wears with a rocket on it only makes this case even more despicable. The only consolation is that apparently this foolish BS is this man's life's work, meaning he has wasted his entire life on something a child could understand, and is obviously just intelligent enough that I imagine on some level he must be cognizant of this, even as he's too stubborn to change.

Okay, sorry, getting off the soap box now. Some of the more minor theories are actually more fun then the few big tent pole ones. One woman presents the idea that the movie is all a reference to the Greek myth of the Minotaur, with the father taking on the role of the famous monster culminating in the climactic chase through the hedge maze labyrinth. Not entirely implausible, except when she goes out of her way to point to a poster on the wall, which she claims is said to be a skier but is actually a minotaur, closer inspection shows that it is clearly the former. Another Shining fan finds a whole new way to watch the movie, playing it forwards and backwards at the same time with both directions transposed onto one another as if Kubrick somehow designed the film to be a cinematic palindrome. He didn't, but some enterprising filmmaker really should do that at some point if they haven't already. All of these eventually lead one to the conclusion that all of this analysis, for all its complexity and detail, could really be done with anything to the same effect. Personally, I look forward to the nine-segment theoretical exegesis of Pluto Nash myself.

For a movie so committed to the search for meaningful metaphors, allow me to proffer my own. One theory posits that the entire film is one big Freudian Psycho-Sexual Commentary, which admittedly might explain my favorite scene with the guy in the bear suit. The main piece of support for this, in fact the theorist's supposed favorite piece of "evidence" to prove what he notes is an obvious and undeniable conclusion, is one scene where a man stands next to a binder on a table in such a way that it looks like he has an erection. If that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the over analysis on display here, nothing will. Room 237 succeeds in its steadfast objectivity, never taking sides or poking fun at its true subjects, the interviewees, but rather merely observing them like Jane Goodall studying her chimps trying to make sense of a big black rectangular obelisk. It is as fascinating as it is infuriating, exploring a collective of minds better left alone, and while I highly recommend it as a travelogue into madness, I must warn you to keep all hands and feet inside of the car at all times.

Specifically the yellow car, not the red one the family drives past that's destroyed on the side of the road, because in the book the car was red, and Kubrick wanted to tell Stephen King what an asshole he was in the most subtle way possible. That couldn't have been a coincidence, right?
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