Thursday, October 31, 2013

FI: Room 237

Since the wonderful film writers over at The Dissolve have made Stanley Kubrick's The Shining their Movie of the Week for this Halloween week, today seems like a perfect time to look at a related documentary that you can stream on Netflix if you should so desire. Enjoy!

Room 237
US, 2012
Directed by Rodney Ascher

Having attended grad school for film studies—even if the reviews here don't always show it—I've waded through my share of books and articles about critical theory, post-structuralism, and all the rest. So I know all about the "death of the author"—the idea that a creator has no further control over the meaning(s) her/his audience, critics, or scholars may find in a work once it is out in the world. The subjects of Rodney Ascher's documentary Room 237 take that concept to its logical extreme, sifting through Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining for all manner of meanings that they believe make sense out of that notoriously hard-to-pin-down film. Ascher simply gives them room to speak, editing together clips from the film (and other Kubrick works) to illustrate their arguments as they are made via voice-over. Each subject has his or her own personal theory, and though the conclusions are mutually exclusive—and though the "evidence" often verges on madness—each argument is convincing enough in pieces to give you momentary pause.

Obviously, this is a film you should not watch unless you have seen The Shining, as every detail of Kubrick's classic is pored over again and again here. Ascher places the subjects' stories into nine thematically-linked sections that demonstrate their synchronicities, and the similarities between how each subject stumbled onto what Kubrick was "really" saying are striking. Each of our narrators mentions Kubrick's famous perfectionism, then goes on to use that to suggest every continuity error, every bit of set dressing, and every quirk of production was either a deliberate choice, or something Kubrick left in once he saw how it suited his hidden plan. Though the theories themselves vary—for one subject, a can of baking soda leads him to believe The Shining is about the genocide of the American Indians, while another thinks the number 42 tells us it's about the Holocaust, and another assures us Danny's Apollo 11 sweater proves the film is Kubrick's admission of complicity in faking the moon landing—the dedication and obsessive close-reading that leads to each is the same. In a movie like The Shining, designed to create unease in its audience, there should be logical leaps and blind corners. Room 237's subjects simply fill those gaps with their own theories and ignore, incorporate, or rationalize away any disconfirming evidence.

In that way, Room 237 holds a dark mirror up to the scholarly pursuit of film analysis. The subjects aren't all crazy (not completely, anyway). They are reporters, writers, and academics, using the tools of their trade and some of the same methods I myself used in grad school to interrogate a work. If those methods can go this spectacularly wrong (if you can call them "wrong" in a postmodern world), doesn't it call into question some of the "readings" scholars have ascribed to films they've analyzed to fit their pet theories? I suppose the main distinction would be that, hopefully, professional film scholars involve less magical, conspiracy theory–style thinking in their arguments, but it may not always be easy to tell the difference. At least the academy would afford equal weight and opportunity to someone motivated to prove them wrong, though perhaps the odds of anyone conceding their own theory's flaws are about the same. In the end, I guess, a film will mean for you whatever it means for you, and that can't be fully controlled by the director, the studio, the scholars, or even the critics. But if we can't say anyone is wrong, then is anyone right?


  1. I think it goes beyond "death of the author"; each of the would-be analysts insists that they have unlocked Kubrick's "true" authorial intent. This isn't just "shut up and let me tell you what your work means"; this is "shut up and let me tell you what you meant".

    1. You're right, and that's a big difference, though I would add the caveat that their language isn't all that far removed from the tone I encountered when dealing with capital-T Theory in grad school.