Sunday, April 14, 2013

'Room 237': The Ultimate in Fan Nit-Pickery and Projection...

Nothing else needs to be said about fans' abilities, tendencies, or needs to see what they want to see in art. Room 237 is the definitive on that subject.

Room 237 is a documentary that hypothesizes about half a dozen theories about what Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is "really" about. The documentary utilizes slowed-down footage from the film with freeze frames in order to punctuate voice-over from those who consider themselves experts in the current theory being discussed-- even if it only happens to be a theory of one. In all honesty, the commentary on the greatly detailed background set decoration and extras' placement, when coupled with the visual images that should enhance the person's point, actually works to disprove their theory and simply lend themselves to the fact that Kubrick took great care in his work and wanted every inch of the screen to be interesting.

It is good that there are only disembodied voices we hear in Room 237 because I suspect even those who made this movie couldn't keep from rolling their eyes at their own explanations. These people reach readily for repetitive statements rather than backing their ideas up with facts. For this, they can only be called fans, not scholars. At times, they even resort to claiming Kubrick's quotes about reasoning for certain things, like choosing "237" as the room number at all, were lies. Not misquotes or misprints but actual lies. Because no one else could be possibly correct but for these deeply (disturbed) constructed theories. They claw desperately at an idea that they seemed to cling to in order to make sense of a confusing and psychologically upsetting thriller. They take something they already deeply believe and look for any little detail to prove their theory-- in the film, or in one over the top case, in real life with the belief that the moon landing was not only faked (which, honestly, I've cynically considered, too), but that Kubrick had faked it and was now admitting it here.  

When awkward staging in a wide shot in a narrow room causes it to look like one actor has a desk object protruding from his pants, they yell "subliminal sexual message!" rather than consider they're the only ones whose minds went to such far off places. When a scene featuring a group walking across the street has a car almost driving into them in one angle and the car abruptly disappears in the cut to another angle, there is no consideration that it's a continuity mistake. When someone points out the Overlook Hotel set seemed to condense the actual filming location's hotel by overlapping two sides to make it smaller and an odder shape, there is no mention of the inside sets whose layout lent themselves better to a made up floor plan. When one shot dissolves into another and a group of extras are absorbed into luggage, there is great talk of Holocaust overtones, rather than the central theme that the hotel is claiming victims.

In fact, the basics of filmmaking as a whole are often outright ignored by the theories presented in Room 237. These people readily use the word "obsessed" to describe themselves and were allowed to just ramble on, talking in circles, laughing at themselves, speaking without interruption and often times in unprofessional recordings from which the filmmakers didn't bother to strip background noise. It's raw, which lends to its realism, but not trustworthiness. So much is harped on about the way extras walk through scenes carrying furniture or how much luggage Jack's family checked into the hotel with in the first place or the brands of cans behind actors' heads in key shots with no regard or comment on the business behind all of that-- whose job it was to corral the extras, what product placement means, etc. Further mixing footage from Kubrick's The Shining with other films of its era (All The President's Men is a notable one) as well as more modern pieces like the 1997 TV miniseries version of The Shining implies that those behind Room 237 are having fun with the credibility of the theories they are presenting, as well. As the movie goes on, the ideas get more and more outlandish-- suddenly not only what the movie is really about it in question but so is how the movie should be watched, with one theory inexplicitly detailing the deeper meaning when the film is played forwards and backwards, two images superimposed on one screen. Uh, if Kubrick wanted you to watch it that way, that's how he would have released it, but he didn't, did he!? Still, it is all presented without comment, so once again, the audience can project ideas and beliefs onto the material. There is something cheeky and quite admirable in that approach.

I think the real problem with Room 237 is that it amplifies the faults within Kubrick's version of The Shining. Many potential continuity mistakes are pointed out (things like the aforementioned car disppearing or the typewriter changing color), for example, but so are potential location errors. I am personally inclined to say they are a part of utilizing tools of filmmaking as art to disorient the audience as much as the characters-- that anything that seems "impossible" due to realism can be written off as a mind slowly going insane, unsure of what you are even really seeing. But that, too, could be seen as projecting what I would prefer to be true to make The Shining seem that much more special and "together." I have no proof of what Kubrick's intentions were. I don't know if he noticed these things, put them there on purpose, or simply said "leave the mistake, no one will notice because they'll be intense on Jack Nicholson's face). I was not there, nor are there recordings on his message left in any surrounding release interviews.  

The fact that so many competing theories rely on the same images and scenes within the movie to prove their points should be further proof of one projecting onto the project and then hunting for things in the background to make their case. The background is meant to enhance the story at large. The best auteurs fill their scenes with ample things of interest, especially these days, to cause new revelations and discoveries with each new watch, rewind, or freeze frame. That is why I'm personally inclined to believe Kubrick's disappearing acts with key props and set dec were not continuity mistakes but a distinct trail down the rabbit hole. But still, the truth is, though, if you're focused so heavily on what's going on in the background of a film, then the actual story and characters just simply aren't holding your attention. You're still clearly trying to get something out of the viewing experience, but that doesn't mean what you're taking away was actually presented to you. Rather, it usually means you ignore what's in front of you in favor of something personally preferable to give you some kind of satisfaction.

There is one guy in Room 237 who says something actually profound. He talks about how he didn't like The Shining when he first saw it in theaters, but still he felt compelled to keep watching it. Kubrick was being celebrated as such a genius for so many of his previous works, it was probably easier for these people within Room 237 to hunt and peck for a deeper meaning-- any deeper meaning-- just so Kubrick's record would be unblemished. To many, it's better to say "I didn't get it at first, and the masses probably won't get it either, but look, there is something so brilliant buried here!" than to admit maybe this just wasn't the success so many hoped it to be. Film is not usually a subtle medium, and neither was Kubrick shy about driving his message home. Subtext is meant to enhance the text, not drive the focus to a completely separate and new narrative. Somehow I think if he wanted the take-away from The Shining to be more than just a man going insane, he wouldn't have hidden meanings in posters so tiny on walls in wide shots he had no way of knowing his audience could even make out what they said. Let's all remember, The Shining was created long before the days of digital and therefore easy enhancements, with no indication the technology would ever really get there for consumers. It was not Kubrick's boredom that put Nazis or minotaurs or hidden innuendos or commentary on the Native American plight into The Shining; it was the audience's.


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