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

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.


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