Saturday, December 14, 2013

Room 237

“Room 237” is a cleverly constructed film essay about various interpretive approaches to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 picture, “The Shining.” The movie contains a dozen signature sequences from “The Shining” subjected to voice-over exegesis by five “critics.” I have placed quotation marks around the word “critics” because I am not certain as to how these analysts should be characterized. Obviously, all five are profoundly intelligent, although in a misguided sort of way, and, clearly, each of the speakers is obsessed with “The Shining” and has devoted enormous intellectual resources to explicating the film -- albeit with curiously idiosyncratic results: the film, it turns out, is a secret code manifesting themes apparently remote from Stephen King's source novel and Kubrick's elegant horror film. The speakers occupy an uneasy territory between film criticism and rabid paranoia with cabbalistic overtones. The symbolic images that the interpreters discover in the film are mostly peculiarities in the set decoration, things set on shelves, pictures on the walls or peeping around corners in the edge of the frame, odd trademarks and puzzling lapses in continuity. In one sequence, shown frame-by-frame, the speaker identifies various oddities in a tracking shot showing Nicholson’s character meeting his boss (and an enigmatic factotum) in the lobby of the Overlook Hotel. The exegete has determined that Nicholson is reading a copy of “Playgirl” and has manipulated the image to decipher aspects of the image that have probably never been visible before the advent of Blu-Ray. (In other words, the interpreter is seeing things in the picture that could not have been seen in VHS or on ordinary DVD transfers or even when the film was projected in the theater). The “Playgirl” magazine, when examined CSI-style, turns out to feature an article about incest, a subject that the narrator interpreting the image finds implicit in the film. Then, the frame-by-frame scrutiny of this sequence yields a fleeting glimpse of a woman walking away from the camera wearing a football jersey with the number 13 on its back -- obviously a bad omen. In another sequence, a narrator tracks the geometry of the child’s Big Wheel explorations of the Overlook Hotel. This analysis yields a moment that I found spine-tingling in its oddity -- Kubrick clearly conceived the transit made by the child within a concept of the hotel’s corridors and public places that is strangely, and I would submit, meaninglessly detailed and geometrically consistent: for just an instant, we see at the very edge of a frame a balustrade that is visible in shots of the Great Hall, a visual cue that establishes an architectural relationship between different levels of the hotel and different spaces within the building but something that is also completely gratuitous -- an audience member not obsessed with the film to the extent of watching it frame-by-frame would not notice this detail. These spatial relationships can be used to build models of the hotel and show that certain key scenes seem to take place directly above or below one another. I am convinced that this sort of pattern exists in “The Shining”. But I am not persuaded that this pattern means anything -- rather, it seems some sort of obsessive jigsaw / cross-word puzzle solving aspect of the director’s imagination, that is, an arbitrary patterning similar to the structures used by Oulipo writers like Georges Perec. The film’s stance toward its brilliant lunatic exegetes is unclear -- we hear their theories and it isn’t obvious whether we should be amused, alarmed, or persuaded by their interpretations. As a result, the film is labyrinthine itself and rather disquieting. One theorist argues that Kubrick uses pervasive Indian imagery (the Overlook hotel has Navajo-themed decor) to recount the genocide inflicted upon Native Americans -- this is argued on the basis of several shots showing Calumet baking powder prominently displayed in the background of the image. (I suspect Kubrick’s use of the brightly distinctive trademark owes more to Andy Warhol and is motivated by the product’s colorful packaging more than any symbolic reference to the peace-pipe. Michael Herr, commenting on the scene in “Eyes Wide Shut” in which the rich man, while shooting pool on a red billiard table, explains the orgy to Tom Cruise, wrote something to the effect that the scene was about the “red table” and that its color was the raison d’etre for the entire sequence -- in other words suggesting that formal and pictorial considerations motivate much of Kubrick’s imagery, more so, than thematic concerns.) Another theorist believes the film is replete with sexual imagery of demons and monstrous intercourse, all represented subliminally. One critic focuses on an image of a German typewriter and the number “42” repeated continuously in the film, to claim that the movie encodes a series of references to the Holocaust of the European Jews. (This exegete, by the way, doesn't seem to know that Kubrick's wife was the daugher of the notorious German director, Harlan Veit, the man who made"Jud Suess.") Another theorist, noting the pervasive dissolves between scenes (you see one image superimposed on another) decides that the film must be viewed both backward and forward, running two projectors at the same time to create a continuous superimposition that is, then, closely studied for clues. Most remarkably, a man named Jay Weidner believes that the film shows Kubrick’s self-loathing, reaching a homicidal/suicidal frenzy, at his complicity at faking the images of the Apollo moon-landing. This theory, brilliantly argued, reaches a scary climax when the little endangered child in the movie stands up to confront the ghosts of the murdered twin girls and we see that he is wearing a tee-shirt showing a rocket and labeled “Apollo.” Weidner cites so much evidence for his bizarre theory that, for a moment, you think that he must be onto something. The movie’s director (or really the curator for the vast collection of clips), Rodney Asher sets himself the task of creating a visual analog for the wacky associations that the interpretive voices urge upon us -- he cuts the film as a collage of references, often supporting one or the other of the interpretive theories by quick cuts from other Kubrick films. You have the sense that there is an infinite system of correspondences that can be made between the various pictures, connections that even the obsessive exegetes haven’t seen -- although Asher makes the connections visually. Even more startling is Asher’s tendency to associate Kubrick imagery with other films. As an example, at the start of the film, there is some discussion about conspiracies and paranoia and, suddenly, we see a young Robert Redford darting out of the frame and entering a sinister-looking underground parking garage. What Kubrick movie is this? But, it isn’t a Kubrick film at all -- rather a reference to “All the President’s Men”, that is, the locus classicus of seventies paranoia. In this way, Asher connects the Kubrick imagery to films as disparate as Murnau’s “Faust” and Dario Argento’s “Demons.” The movie is fascinating but, of course, goes nowhere because with this sort of obsession there is no destination in sight -- the journey is all that matters

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