BFI London Film Festival – ‘Room 237’, little more than the various youtube or geocities web 1.0

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Room 237

Directed by Rodney Ascher

With Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns

It’s inevitable really. Whenever you get a gaggle of film fanatics together soon the impenetrable argot of a celluloid subculture will come to the fore, with fiery debates on the merits of diagetic sound or Academy ratios, dolly zooms and chiaroscuro lighting dominating the discourse. Away from the technical components film fanatics also enjoy debating a films themes or structure, its submerged meanings expressed through the language of cinema,  through framing and composition, mise-en-scene and acting techniques, a panoply of instruments in the filmmakers arsenal which is interpreted and absorbed by the cinema audience in many different ways. In Room 237, an alleged documentary on film obsession the subject is Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaption of Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining, a film now widely praised as one of the high benchmarks of the genre, with a snarling Jack Nicholson hunting his telepathic son through the remote and isolated environment of the winter choked Overlook hotel.

The title is culled from an ominous room in the hotel where a ghostly presence resides, the documentary makers using the fictional space as a pandora’s box for the numerous theories and readings that the film has generated over the years, with five obsessed acolytes of the movie providing a disembodied narrative of their interpretations interspersed with illustrative clips from The Shining and other Kubrick works, animations and re-enactments, plus shards of Lamberto Bava’s Demons & Demons 2, presumably for cheap copyright reasons. The theories range from the picture being a Holocaust metaphor or treatise on the founding of America and its genocidal past, a one fingered salute to King and his criticisms of the film all the way through to the swirling depths of the insane, tin-foil hat, black helicopter Illuminati one-world-order white knuckle utterly delusional crackpot lunatic brigade who claim that the film is a shaded confession from Kubrick that he faked the moon landings.  Every frame of the film has been  pregnantly paused and scrupulously analysed by these obsessives, and through the lens of their maladjusted eyes we are repeatedly subjected to some of the most delusional interpretations to ever pollute a documentary.

Props and furniture appear and disappear in scenes, prompting speculation on Kubrick’s desire to build an unconscious, unsettling aura. The film is viewed as a labyrinth with references to ‘leaving breadcrumbs to find my way around’ and the final hedge maze confrontation causing the fans to detect minotaur cues through posters on the wall, sigils and symbols infecting the film beneath its genre movie carapace. Some of these observations are undoubtedly arresting and should deepen a cineastes appreciation, but in many cases these conclusions are taken beyond the realms of the reasonable and into the land of the manic, it’s ultimate expression coming with the Apollo 11 theories which are absurd, that Kubrick utilised SFX techniques he developed for 2001 to fake the lunar achievement, these delusions are frequently expressed in those dark corners of the Internet alongside such offensive beliefs that the Jews were behind 9/11, that the UK Royal Family are alien lizard overseers, that the local weather station transmitter is beaming messages from Alpha Centuri into my groaning brain.

There is a kernel of an intriguing and illuminating documentary here, but the decision to abandon the usual talking heads inserts of these obsessive sorts speaks volumes, director Rodney Ascher is on record as explaining he didn’t want the viewers opinions prejudiced by the speakers physical appearance – presumably because if we were subjected to a rogues gallery of Unabomber clones we might not take their ramblings seriously. Some of the observations on Kubrick’s intentions and deft population of the frame are accurate but hardly revelatory as any cursory reading around the film will attest, critics back in 1980 were referencing the native American genocide themes which is clearly imprinted in the film through props and a dialogue exchange not to mention it  was embedded in Stephen King’s source novel, so quite why this is presented as some fascinating revelation is beyond me. When you punt out into the murky waters of numerology analysis we encounter astrology promoting deceivers, as the supposed plethora of incidences of the number 42 in the film is evidently a reference to 1942 and the holocaust, because Jack types his psychotic ramblings on a German typewriter? That the list he makes echoes the lists of Holocaust victims drawn up by the bureaucratic Nazi state? 2 x 3 x 7 = 42? Nonsense, complete and absolute.

That’s not to say that there are no fascinating excavations that are finally coaxed into the excoriating sunlight –  the process of screening the film forward and backward simultaneously  is an interesting exercise, as pure coincidence leads to some remarkable alignments in Kubrick’s perfect compositions. The spatial manipulations employed to subconsciously unnerve the viewer with impossible windows and disappearing door frames are keenly observed, but can we be sure that these were all entirely manufactured? The Elstree set of The Shining burnt down and had to be rebuilt half-way through shooting, could this not explain at least some of the continuity errors and teleporting furniture? This brings us again to another potentially valuable issue, of the notion of authorial intent in post-modern theory (referenced by one of the contributors) where unintentional readings and interpretations are as valuable and lucid as those intended by the author, but once again this is intriguing area of inquiry is raised then dropped in the time it takes to swing an axe. One contributor explains that she watched the film at the cinema and on VHS but it was only with the advent of DVD that she was able to clearly absorb the films deeply embedded frames, but the strand of how film technology could influence and enhance film criticism to such unprecedented depths is also ignored.

Room 237 is little more than the various youtube or geocities web 1.0 ‘hey this looks like an electronic version of John Doe’s notebooks from Se7en‘ analysis of the film, heaping spurious, disjointed, mental hamstrings and nonsense onto clips of the film which hover in a delusional head-space, although in the film even a stopped clock is right sometimes with a few intriguing observations. It is a paranoid failure as a film culture curio, which should have been drowned in the tub of that eerie, symmetrically strange hotel suite.

– John McEntee

The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs Oct. 10th  – 21st.  Learn more about Room 237.

1 Comment
  1. hyperstillharry says

    While your criticisms of this unhinged documentary are legitimate, it also even more important to address why such documentaries are becoming increasing popular, as well as critically examining what such a film is actually about, rather than simply assuming that its themes are self-evident or ‘obvious’.

    The more relevant and interesting question to address is why extremist paranoics like many of those interviewed and deferred to in the doc, like Weidner (and their populist appeal) have a libidinal need to construct such conspiracy fantasies, that is, what is it a Symptom of, what is it about the present state of the world and perceptions of it that lead to, that produce, such a psychosis?

    What is symptomatic of many of the more unhinged conspiracies is their fever-dream insistence that the ONLY alternative to “official truths” (unspecified) is paranoid delirium. That incredulity about the “ordinary reality script” (the banal ideology of “commonsense”) is to be replaced with credulity about the most psychotic doggerel and nonsensical delusions imaginable. This is what we call the darkside of postmodernity (ie a chronic, paranoid “pathological narcissism” replacing any serious engagement with the outside world. Deranged pseudo-conspiracy fever dreams suit such pomo subjects because they reassure them, they provide them with illusions [by anxiously seeing ‘signs’ that instantly ‘signify’ everywhere) of impotent omnipotence (which is where a psychotic like Weidner resides), with an alibi for retreating further into fantasyland while ignoring the REAL conspiracies, the ones you’re already a part of in your daily lives, the very structures of society to which everyone already consents to and colludes with without even knowing it …

    The questions to always ask when dealing with paranoiac fantasies of the kind on display by Weidner above (or any where else), of imagining some secret, hidden cabal, some evil persecutor residing somewhere in actual reality and who’s deceptively pulling all the strings, are: Why has such a delirious subject a need for such a fantasy, why is he paranoiac? Why is such a fantasy paranoiac? What is wrong with the ordinary picture of reality that such extreme, fever-dream ‘solutions’ are presented and demanded? And why are such fantasies ‘reassuring’ for most paranoiacs, acting as a crucial support of their everyday lives in ordinary reality?

    [Needless to add here, but Kubrick structured the narrative design of The Shining (and later Eyes Wide Shut) in such a way that numerous editing discontinuities are inherent to its formal structure. It is these narrative inconsistencies, symbolic deadlocks, both temporal and spacial, that always invite mystery and inquisitiveness, an attempt to answer the question, “What happened to cause the inconsistency?”, with the conspiracist resolving these impasses, these formal deadlocks by an escape into paranoid fantasy. It happens in all films that are so structured. This issue, though discussed before here and elsewhere, is deserving of much more analysis, an examination of how a particular formal film narrative structure and construction generates such anxiety, such paranoid affects].

    The paranoiac, as with everyone else, is trying to answer the fundamental question: “What does society want of me?” What is the Other demanding of me? What does it desire? Fantasies are always intersubjective, and paranoiac ones are no different in this respect. Fantasies – the framework that constitutes desires, determines what it is we desire, tell us what to desire – are always about establishing (intersubjective) identity, an identity of total fulfillment in which we fully please the Other, fully enjoy satisfying the other’s desire, serve as the object of the other’s desire. They’re fantasies because, of course, they can never be fulfilled, but nevertheless, they serve as the support for all desire – for the real of desire – and of providing a minimum of consistency and meaning in the subject’s daily reality. Without fantasies, the subject’s reality would collapse, their life would become chaotic and meaningless ie it’s important to have a “fantasy space”, an empty place outside or in excess of ordinary symbolic reality. The problem, however, is that the paranoiac wants to literally impose, implement, his fantasies directly onto reality itself. For the paranoiac, the everyday symbolic reality is already chaotic, meaningless, and then demands that it be replaced (and ‘explained’) by his fantasy, that there’s some secret agency somewhere behind it all, such an obsession leading the paranoiac to then see “signs” of this agency everywhere, especially in anything that seems unusual, or different, or odd, or ‘other’, anything that doesn’t have an immediate explanation. The paranoiac’s mistake, then, does not actually consist in his radical disbelief in “the way things are”, in the commonsensical reality picture, in the existing social-symbolic reality (the big Other, the virtual semiotic network in which everyone is symbolically inscribed), in his conviction that something is seriously wrong, that there is a universal deception of some kind or form (‘conspiracy’) — here he is quite right, this is his virtue, as the symbolic order (the virtual rules, regulations, laws governing social reality) is ultimately the order of a fundamental deception — but rather, the paranoiac’s own error, own deception is in his belief in a hidden agent who manipulates this deception, who tries to dupe him into accepting that, for instance, total fulfillment is not possible, wholeness, unity, ultimate identity, and full enjoyment or wish fulfillment are never possible. The paranoiac, mistakenly, turns these impossibilities into an (external) obstacle, positing some mysterious persecutory agency preventing him from achieving total enjoyment (jouissance), who has stolen it from him [eg ‘alien abduction’ fantasies, NASA plots, Illuminati, Jews, Muslims, Foreigners, etc], and so must get it back.

    It is this collapse of fantasy (the contents of the fantasy, the hallucination, of something enntirely inside one’s head) into reality that is the key characteristic of the psychotic universe, where the subject rejects and excludes himself from everyday reality, from the social-symbolic order. As in the well-known joke about the guy who visits his doctor because he’s convinced that he’s a piece of grain. After much persuasion by the doctor that he’s not a piece of grain, but an ordinary human being, the patient agrees, and appears to recover. Some months later, however, he returns to the doctor again complaining about being a piece of grain, the doctor again trying to convince him otherwise, to which the patient responds, “Oh, I know perfectly well that I’m not a piece of grain, but what about the chickens?”

    Zizek presents some other examples:

    The structure of this fiction is the same as that of another well-known joke about a psychiatrist to whom a patient complains that there is a crocodile under his bed. The psychiatrist tries to convince the patient that this is just a hallucination, that in reality there is no crocodile under his bed. At the next session, the man persists in his complaint and the psychiatrist continues his efforts of persuasion. When the man does not come for the third session, the psychiatrist is convinced that the patient has been cured. Some time later, upon meeting one of the man’s friends, the psychiatrist asks him how his former patient is doing; the friend replies: “Do you mean the one who was eaten by a crocodile?”

    At first sight, the point of this kind of story seems to be that the subject was right to oppose the doxa of the Other: the truth is on the side of his idée fixe, even though his insistence on it threatened to exclude him from the symbolic community. Such a reading nevertheless obscures an essential feature, which can be approached via another, slightly different variation on the theme of the “realized hallucination,” Robert Heinlein’s science fiction short story “They.” Its hero, confined to a lunatic asylum, is convinced that the whole of external, objective reality is a gigantic mise- enscène staged by “them” in order to dupe him. All the people around him are part of this trickery, including his wife. (Things became “clear” to him a few months previously while setting out on a Sunday drive with his family. He was already in the car, it was raining outside, when he suddenly remembered that he had forgotten some small detail and returned to the house. Casually looking through the rear window on the second floor, he noticed that the sun was shining brightly, and realized that “they” had made a small mistake by forgetting to stage the rain behind the house!) His benevolent psychiatrist, his lovely wife, all his friends try desperately to bring him back to “reality”; when he finds himself alone with his wife and she professes her love for him, he is almost duped for an instant into believing her, but his old conviction stubbornly prevails. The end of the story: after leaving him, the women posing as his wife reports to some unidentified agency: “We failed with subject X, he still has doubts, mainly because of our mistake over the rain-effect: we forgot to arrange it behind his house.”

    Here, as well as with the joke about the crocodile, the denouement is not interpretive, it does not transpose us into another frame of reference. In the end, we are thrown back to the beginning: the patient is convinced that there is a crocodile under his bed, and there really is a crocodile under his bed: Heinlein’s hero thinks that objective reality is a mise-en-scène organized by “them,” and objective reality actually turns out to be a mise-en-scène organized by “them.” What we have here is a kind of successful encounter: the final surprise is produced by the fact that a certain gap (that separating ”hallucination” from “reality”) is abolished. This collapse of “fiction” (the contents of the hallucination) and “reality” defines the psychotic universe. It is, however, only the second story (“They”) that enables us to isolate the crucial feature of the mechanism at work; there the deception of the big Other is located in an agent, another subject (“they”) who is not deceived. This subject, who holds and manipulates the threads of the deception proper to the symbolic order, is what Lacan calls “the Other of the Other.” This other emerges as such, acquires visible existence, in paranoia, in the form of the persecutor supposed to master the game of deception.

    Herein lies then the crucial feature: the psychotic subject’s distrust of the big Other, his idée fixe that the big Other (embodied in the intersubjective community) is trying to deceive him, is always and necessarily supported by an unshakable belief in a consistent Other, an Other without gaps, an “Other of the Other” (“they” in Heinlein’s story). When the paranoid subject clings to his distrust of the Other of the symbolic community, of “common opinion,” he implies thereby the existence of an “Other of this Other,” of a nondeceived agent who holds the reins.

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