April 24, 2013

The Ultimate Documentary for Movie Buffs: Room 237

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Room 237 had me riveted from its opening moments, which are loving recreations of several films in the Stanley Kubrick oeuvre. The Warner Brothers logo first glimpsed at the beginning of Barry Lyndon is remolded, and the documentary begins with a shot of Tom Cruise wandering the streets of New York on a December night close to Christmas. Or, more properly, he is wandering the streets of a soundstage in London built to look like New York, and so the shot is appropriately captioned “Europe.” Fans of Kubrick’s work will already know from this description that the scene is a lifted moment from the grandmaster director’s last work, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

The documentary instantly jumps on the plethora of theories arising from hundreds of different interpretations of Kubrick’s 1980 seminal horror film The Shining. In doing so, it leaps straight into film history, the craft of arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time and an infinitely rich debate over some of the most provocative movies ever made. Footage from Kubrick’s other films are spliced with staged material of Kubrick himself, while intricate details are called up about the moviemaker and his work. This is the ultimate movie for film aficionados, cinephiles, Shining fans, film history buffs and Kubrick disciples, and at the risk of being immodest, I claim to be all of the above.

Documentarian Rodney Ascher chooses not to let us glimpse the people behind the wild theories about The Shining in his nonfiction film — we only hear them in voiceover. Instead, he opts for clips of the subject film itself, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Paths of Glory and others, to evoke what the theorists were feeling when they viewed these movies. Jay Weidner, one of the interviewees in the film, admits owing his entire interest in movies and his career as a filmmaker to experiences such as these, and privately, so do I. (I’m still working on the career part, though.) Ascher is just as interested in paying tribute to the legendary artist and his work as he is in deciphering it, if not more so. One of his many strokes of genius is in telling the points of view of the interviewees through clips of other movies. When one of the theorists claims to have been bothered upon first seeing The Shining, Ascher cuts to a shot from Eyes Wide Shut, of Tom Cruise slapping his gloves together, similarly bothered and frustrated.

Hypotheses about what the horror classic means are quite varied. Predictions range from containing hidden themes regarding the genocide of Native Americans, to the Holocaust, to Kubrick having faked the moon landing for NASA. Needless to say, some are more believable than others. All theoreticians are aware, however, that Kubrick was a master of semiotics. He specialized in the art of visually encoding layers upon layers of subliminal messages that could contain any number of concealed meanings. Their arguments, though sometimes far-fetched, are surprisingly well-grounded in the multitude of clues, symbols and suggestions The Shining leaves us with.

It’s a kick to watch an obsessed movie fanatic swear that Kubrick never intended to make the Stephen King novel into a movie, and that  the film was simply an excuse to admit he had faked the moon landings. Another one makes a strongly convincing argument that Kubrick’s film is exactly like a dream. It boils down all the guilt, angst and dark secrets of the United States, then conveys them with subtle visuals for Americans to unwittingly imbibe. A third interviewee claims the film is about bridging the gap between the collective hallucination of history that no longer exists, and the emotional reality of history which did happen. The “pictures in a book” line from the film is given a complete psychological breakdown, as are other trivialities, such as the minor character of Bill Watson and the appearance of the number 42. The makers of the doc go so far as to superimpose the film played backwards over the film being played forwards, to decode and reveal certain hidden ideas.

Taken as a whole, Room 237 is an endlessly watchable, altogether fascinating diversion into the mind of one of cinema’s titans, and into one of the most psychologically puzzling films of all time. Along the way, it explores some of the craziest and most obsessive film analyses I’ve ever been privy to. In short, it is no less than a perfect salute to the most devout of cinephiles and the movies that inspire them. For film enthusiasts the world over, it’s a must-see

Original Author: Mark DiStefano