Re:View – ‘Room 237’

Film

shining

When you work on a film in any post-production capacity, you have to be prepared for the fact that the film will be ruined for you forever. The endless repetition of footage, sound and music cues deconstructs the scenes that touched your heart until they become little more than pixel rainbows. It’s worse when the film is wonderful. At least I didn’t care when I had to listen to Christmas bells through an entire summer on the embarrassing $50 million bomb ‘Santa Claus – The Movie’.

You can read whatever you want into a film, and the leaner, more open-ended and ascetic it is, the more ways you can find of interpreting it. Stanley Kubrick’s films, painstaking created at ever-slower production rates, resulted in lengthy screen meditations in his later career, but only two of them raised questions; ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ and ‘The Shining’.

The former deliberately puzzled audiences, not just with its star child ending but with its strange glacial tone – I love the odd pacing of the scene with Leonard Rossiter – but the latter was based on pulp maestro Stephen King’s lengthy novel, and would not, you’d think, be a prime candidate for in-depth analysis.

A horror film with effects that worked against the traditional idea of building suspense (the flood of blood), it works best as the study of a disintegrating man, with its key scene involving pages of identical type. Narratively, I always had trouble with the King version (as I do with many of his books). Why, for example, does Danny need to have a psychic power that others with the Shining can see? It’s an added distraction from the main story and a pointless addition to an already good idea.

Why did King not just concentrate on the book’s main narrative? He purportedly hates the Kubrick version and managed to commission a vastly inferior remake made by a journeyman director, but Kubrick gives us bravura scenes that, like the Overlook’s corridors, lead nowhere.

And that’s where ‘Room 237’ comes in. Director Rodney Ascher gives us lengthy face-hidden interviews with five people who have obsessively looked for something more in the film. The no-talking-heads rule improves the doc vastly; we don’t judge them by appearances, and concentrate on footage. But what they see in the film wildly varies, often within the same scene, from the genocide of indigenous Americans to (inevitably) the Holocaust and Greek mythology (minotaur/maze), our obsessives watch for clues, clutching at the faintest straws of set design (an Indian head on a tin can – that must mean Kubrick was trying to signal us about the plight of the American Indian! A pile of suitcases in a hotel – Kubrick was saying it’s about the Holocaust!)

The more the five search for hidden symbols to fit their theories, the more we fail to see them at all and realise that you can read anything into anything. One sweet and strange lady had made maps of the hotel, puzzling over the changing layout of the rooms, never once taking into account that on a film set geography is the first thing to go out of the window. To her, if a room isn’t where it’s supposed to be, that must mean the director planned it that way.

Sadly, not true. Director Jack Clayton was once asked about the blurring of edges in key scenes of ‘The Innocents’. The film fan sitting behind me wanted to know if he was signalling changes in the lead character’s mind. No, Clayton explained, he’d only just found out a week before that the film was shooting Panavision and the built sets weren’t wide enough, so he’d Vaselined the lens to cover up the gaps.

Inevitably, one self-styled critic sees evidence that Kubrick faked the lunar landings (largely based on a sweater design, it seems), but as we study the film frames as abstract art from which any interpretation can be extruded, a common problem emerges – none of the five has a fully constructed theory. If Kubrick is making a statement about the extermination of the Jews or the Indians, what’s the statement? Merely placing objects in background scenes does not make for a unified thesis. And if Kubrick did this with his films, why does no-one ever analyse the agonisingly slow ‘Barry Lyndon’?

Because it’s not horror/fantasy, and there’s something about this genre that attracts obsessives. But ‘Room 237’ isn’t really about whether such ideas are real or imagined – it’s about the nature of film readings. You can find evidence in a cloud or a vase of daffodils if you need to. When, in the 1980s, MP Graham Bright sought to blame ‘Child’s Play 2’ for the death of toddler Jamie Bulger he fell into the same trap. Bulger’s killers had not even seen the film, but the furore created from a mythical reading of the movie caused uproar at the time.

Although none of the theories presented here hold the merest drop of water, it’s very entertaining to hear how people interpret the same clues differently. Had they spent some time working around film sets, they might have come to far more prosaic conclusions.

About that director – doesn’t Rodney Ascher sound like an assonant reading of Roderick Usher? And didn’t he live in a large mansion…?

2 comments on “Re:View – ‘Room 237’”

  1. John says:

    I have no desire to see this. When I saw the trailer for it I rolled my eyes. Looking for profound meaning and obscure themes in a work of art when none really exist? What a huge waste of time. It’s like a form of “Da Vinci Code” cheap symbology in cinematic analysis. I still can’t get over how THE SHINING is considered one of the best horror movies ever made by all these obsessive cine-geeks and gorehounds. To me it’s one of the most boring movies ever made. I still remember how enraged I felt seeing the movie. Having read the book and anticipating a fun frightfest in the movie theater we slowly realized that almost nothing from King’s over-the-top horror novel made it to the screen. Certainly none of what we felt were its most scary scenes made it. I was still a teenager in 1980 and felt gypped. I still feel gypped. I’m not a devoted King fan lapping up all his books and raving about them no matter how derivative they are. But I think THE SHINING is one of his most original and imaginative books free from the usual horror comic book and horror movie tropes he so often steals from. It may be one of those books that can never be filmed.

  2. Geoffrey Cocks says:

    If Kubrick layered in references to the Holocaust and the decimation of Native Americans it was, in my view, to make the point that the real horror lies in human history. And so a Kubrick horror film must address these real horrors (his favorite author was Kafka) indirectly to get the audience to consider the human condition through the lens of a familiar movie genre. Kubrick was obsessed with the modern history of political and social violence. For him, the Torrance family is the Human family and not some fictional means, as it is for King, of entertainment and diversion. There is a great deal of evidence in Kubrick’s life and times for such authorial concern and patterns of reference in all of his films (including Barry Lyndon) with regard to what he once told his wife was his (and our) chief worry: power.

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