Movie Review: Room 237
Director: Rodney Ascher
Reviewed: 23 October 2013
To be a critic of anything means to analyze it carefully through whatever lenses you bring to the work of art. It's impossible for me not to see a movie like Moonrise Kingdom or Kings of Summer through my own experiences of camping and scouting as a young boy. Similarly, as a teacher of AP English Literature, I navigate canonical texts with students, helping point out the significance of the Valley of the Ashes between the Eggs and New York City in The Great Gatsby, the symbols of blood, hands, night, and sleep in Macbeth, or most recently, masks in Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Many positions are more conventional and obvious based on past interpretations or overwhelming amounts of evidence. Others are more fringe, saying more about the writer and less about the work of art. Part of my coming into my own as a writer in high school and as a student of film was in the audacity of taking a position and following it to the end. For example, if I wanted to look at the Ernest Hemingway story "The Killers" as a possible inspiration for the type of chatty killers that would populate Quentin Tarantino's films, I could draw that straight line from text to text. I loved poring over the Bible to find out what Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winfield's Ezekiel 25:17 speech in Pulp Fiction could mean. What's in the briefcase? There are a million interpretations, and crafting a plausible argument is most of the fun. The pursuit of truth was the pursuit of my truth, my interpretation of a film, and that could sway with where I was in my life at that time, what a critic said, what biographical details seemed relevant. In short, it was entirely subjective.
As I tell my students, there are a million interpretations that could be right when approaching a film or a piece of literature, but there are also clearly wrong interpretations, indefensible ones, and nonsensical ones. Rodney Ascher's audacious new assembled film Room 237, an assemblage of five different interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, seems deeply committed to the analysis of analysis and offers a unique take on the act of interpreting. The film is entirely crafted from footage from The Shining and other Kubrick films, as well as some graphics and maps. We never see the faces of the critics or their credentials, so Ascher levels the playing field, offering each person's analysis as equal to another's and no obvious ways of discrediting one over the other (though one theorist is featured speaking over a crying child in the background).
The offering only of analysis can be extraordinarily liberating or dangerous. One interpretation of a minor symbol of Calumet City Baking Powder can in the background of a shot inside the freezer with Danny, Dick Halloran, and Danny's mom explodes into a larger lens of seeing the film as a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans. And that could be plausible. Could be. Theories unfold at a rapid rate, isolated from each other, so the same freezer scene returns in another theorist's reading of the film, but this time the focus is on the faking of the Apollo moon landing. One theorist plays the film both forwards and backwards, projecting it upon itself, looking for concordances. Another maps out the interior hallways of The Overlook Hotel, offering close reading of the movements of Danny on his big wheel. Many provide biographical and anecdotal information about Kubrick himself, the genius filmmaker who cultivated a persona of complete control over his films. As a result, nothing is ever an accident, and everything is intentional.
And there's the rub. Is everything intentional? How much control does an artist, any artist, have over his or her work? And, if you look hard enough and with enough motivation, will you always find something to support your belief?
I flat-out loved this film. It feels distinctly modern in its assembled approach and deep thinking about an impressively disturbing film. To engage critically with a work of art requires a point of view, and the pursuit of evidence that supports one's belief can be blinding or enlightening. There are political implications to seeing an incomplete picture of anything (what one is certain is stockpiled in a nation like Iraq, for instance), and in any enterprise, searching with myopic certainty may mean disregarding evidence to the contrary, no matter what the implications of that action may be. And Room 237 has made me fall even more in love with The Shining, offering so many ideas and takes that it will be a pleasure to revisit this masterpiece. Ascher's film ends with the contemplative idea that perhaps Kubrick's intention was to immerse the audience in the labyrinth of a film of infinite interpretations, a sort of intellectual madness much like that experienced by its main characters.
A work of art lives forever in the minds of its audience, and Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, and Rodney Ascher have all layered ideas over each other that can spin on into infinity every time an audience engages with it. Allowing for interpretations means including ones that are wrong, indefensible, and nonsensical, some of which are featured in Room 237. We are the judges of what interpretations make sense to us. And I suppose the only relevant question to ask is "Am I convinced?"
This film convinced me of its brilliance.