The Cinephilia Locked Inside “Room 237”

Posted by Peter Labuza on 3.29.2013

This post originally ran during the 50th New York Film Festival. Room 237 opens theatrically Friday, March 29 in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

What exactly is inside Room 237? Well, we know there is a deformed woman that scares the bejesus out of Jack Nicholson, but I’m not referring to the physical location in The Shining, but rather the new film called Room 237 from Rodney Ascher. Is it a video essay? Is it a parody? Is it film criticism? It’s certainly a documentary in the sense that real people are telling us information-things. But what should we believe? And what’s the point?

Room 237 presents five different "theories" about the symbolic meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining. It’s an enthrallingly bizarre work that, whether intentionally or not, shrewdly examines an extreme form of cinephilia. But for some notable critics, the film is an assault on film criticism. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes: “It refuses to make any distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic… implying that they’re all just 'film criticism' and because everyone is a film critic nowadays, they all deserve to be treated with equal amounts of respect and/or mockery."

A more thoughtful reaction comes from blogger and academic Girish Shambu. He writes: "When Room 237 represents film analysis in a manner that treats it as little more than a clever puzzle-solving exercise, it gives no hint as to the social value and political/aesthetic worth of this public activity." Both Rosenbaum and Shambu make an essential point about the troubling aspects of film analysis Room 237 displays, but I’d argue that Room 237 is just as troubled and skeptical of them, which is why they aren’t presented in a simple, informative matter. The film's presentation is a complex tapestry worth exploring.

For those who haven’t read up on the film, Room 237 doesn’t just posit about The Shining the kind of things you might expect to learn in a book about Kubrick’s films; the five theories presented are certainly off the beaten path. The Shining could be about: a.) the Holocaust, b.) the slaughter of Native Americans throughout the United States, c.) the myth of the Labyrinth with Jack as the Minotaur, d.) a meditation on Kubrick’s own genius, or e.) a confession of faking the moon landing (which, as Jaime Christley mentioned during our discussion of the film, is the theory that the film needed to justify its own existence).

Most people have read Room 237 as simply a translation of these theories from the annals of the Internet to the screen, but Ascher has much more up his sleeve. The main criticism stems from Ascher’s refusal to manifest his subjects on screen, their off screen voices sounding with unchecked authority. But for some reason, people forget something else Ascher has at his disposal: the visual space. So while the voices often speak commandingly about their theories on The Shining, Ascher can choose whether to give them credibility. The film uses footage from The Shining and other Kubrick films, but also various others films that connect the pieces together (especially a strangely hypnotic movie theater scene from Demon). Sometimes he uses this footage to elucidate what the voices are saying. But only so far. While Ascher slows down the footage from The Shining so we can see the pornography magazine Jack casually reads, he does not illustrate a theory that argues one can see Kubrick’s face in the clouds during the opening credits.

Ascher is as purposeful about his selection of images and how they are edited together as any documentarian, and not everything is given equal value. The theories are not presented linearly, but jumbled together, sometimes finding odd similarities that actually explain each other’s work, or inherently contradict it. The theorists might not appear on screen, but seeing Ascher assault them with questions is far from necessary—they often reveal damning background info that exposes why they hold one theory in particular regard without any prodding at all. Ascher occasionally goes so far as to use his visuals to mock his subjects; after one ridiculous statement, Ascher cuts to Jack laughing maniacally in the ballroom. Perhaps paying homage to its central text, Room 237 has its own labyrinth-like structure that provides numerous clues but no particular answers.

Room 237 is thus not about film criticism so much as it’s about an extreme form of cinephilia. There are two key things that Ascher references multiple times in his use of voiceovers. The first answers the question: Why The Shining? These theories aren't about Vertigo or Sátántangó, but an iconic Kubrick film. The line we hear again and again is: "This detail can’t be an accident; Kubrick was meticulous about every detail in his films." Just do a quick Google search and look how many people have theorized about the meaning of Kubrick’s films (sadly, never enough on Barry Lyndon). As I explained in an earlier piece, the emergence of the Internet led to a rise in film culture’s stratification into secluded communities, and one of the larger ones is dedicated to Kubrick. This is not an exploration of film criticism; it’s an exploration of Kubrick obsessives. The other essential reason Room 237 exists becomes clear with the repetition of the phrase: "When I got the DVD." Ascher goes as far to flash the Blu-ray logo across the screen. You don’t get a Room 237 without the advent of personal viewing, where someone can go frame by frame through a movie.

Also complicating some of the issues presented in Room 237 is the fact that not everything in the film is entirely off-base. One theorist, Julie Kearns, documents the many unique spatial dislocations used in The Shining, and Ascher underscores this theory by mapping out the hotel’s confusing architecture on screen. Kearns' theory about Native American genocide might be silly on its surface, but it delves into the film's connection to the past and its buried horrors, which is something The Shining is certainly exploring. These moments of film analysis are the building blocks of "good" criticism, but Room 237 shows how new sects of it are breaking with more academic traditions. This is part of what troubles Shambu, who claims that the film argues in favor of theory instead of Theory. He writes about the latter as "a kind of speculative thinking that is broad-ranging (meaning: its effects have been felt across multiple disciplines) and, crucially, it is a political and critical activity." I agree with Shambu that there is a fundamental difference between Room 237 and the type of article one might read in Film Quarterly or Shambu’s own excellent journal LOLA. However, I think this also explains why Room 237 remains an enigmatic film for me instead of a misguided one: while it never formally attacks its theorists, it never credits them as right. It instead presents an insular worldview that leaves the judgdment to the spectator.

There is a strange dialectic between image and sound in Room 237 that few films ever reach. Ascher uses his visual space as an enhancer, a questioner, a skeptic, and a believer. He’s certainly not being impartial, as Rosenbaum asserts. One might call that general incompetence, asking: "Why doesn’t he assert a single worldview?" But cinephilia isn’t about consensus; it’s about multiple voices, contradictory, misguiding, incoherent, and yet occasionally revelatory. Like searching through the Internet itself, we are left to our own devices to find the truth within the reality, and to decide for ourselves what is actually inside Room 237.

Peter Labuza is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy program. You can follow him on Twitter at @labuzamovies.

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