Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: "Room 237" is a Brilliant Love Letter to Why Film Theory Matters

As I am sure many people reading this are, I am a big fan of director Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. When it was announced last year that a documentary titled Room 237 was coming out explaining conspiracy theories, it only restored interest in the film and raises the question on if we are watching movies correctly. What makes The Shining such an important film to earn numerous theories to subtle subtext, and is it possible that this film can manage to win over the Academy and get them to nominate it for Best Documentary?

Room 237 actually has plenty riding against it. For starters, it is an unauthorized film. While there is little to no slander in the film, it already feels like a copyright infringement waiting to happen. Also, you will learn nothing new about The Shining from Room 237. This isn't a making of documentary or something that reveals great subtext. This is just a documentary that relays "ideas" on how the story could be about many things from Indians to World War II to mirrors to the moon landing. These are vignettes tied together promoting theory. 

Provided that the concept hasn't turned you off, it is a fascinating look at them. While some ideas are more far fetched than others, each have a respectable amount of time to elaborate and explain their beliefs. In the case of World War II iconography, it is fascinating to note how many ways the number 42 (which possibly references 1942, a significant year for German culture) appears in the film, whether it is from blatant visuals to the more subtle equation of 237 standing for 2 x 3 x 7 = 42. There is even an argument to be made for the choice of type writer in the film.

Of course, this couldn't have been made possible without the belief that Stanley Kubrick was a virtuoso filmmaker with attention to detail. There is evidence to back this up, including the books he read, the maps he created, and the layout of of the hotel. Even then, one theorist takes the chance to use continuity errors to explain them as psychological changes. A mirror in an illogical location is dissected to death. While the whole psychological changes may hold water, theories like this just feel like evidence that maybe Kubrick's hotel design wasn't exactly the best. At very least, some theories actually make The Shining appear in a more flawed light that may distract some when revisiting the film instead of finding new elements to enjoy.

While this film is essentially just a bunch of ridiculous theories, a lot of them are fascinating ways to look back at a classic film. The elements of the movie that work basically explain how the concept of film theory works. Room 237 is not made to sell you on The Shining being a crackpot story, but more to display the best and worst ways to approach film viewing, whether it is through literal interpretation or visual interpretation. 

In many ways, this reminds me of Best Worst Movie, which explored the cult film Troll 2. It displayed how fans gather to screenings quoting lines and forcing their friends to watch it. The title doesn't hide its passion for the terrible film. Similarly, Room 237 looks at the film from the viewpoint of fans who maybe spent more time in that hotel than Jack Nicholson did. Both films may be different in structure and narrative, but both are ways of looking at the film outside of the film itself. Room 237 explores The Shining as a classic film and trying to answer why the subtext puts it into a higher pantheon. 

Jack Nicholson in The Shining
At very least, Room 237 succeeds at giving us more of a reason to watch The Shining again. It may sound ridiculous, but even if the film leaves you cold, director Rodney Ascher has left you with multiple theories for you to test. Even if you ignore them, it will challenge you to look at even the most insignificant detail in a new light and try to see if there is more than meets the eye. This movie shouldn't be seen as more than a love letter to the Kubrick classic and while not exactly breaking new ground, is one of the most compelling looks into how to approach film theory that has been seen.

With this established, can the film stand a chance at Best Documentary? It is impossible to say, though most likely no. Films about films may work well in the Best Picture race (see: The Artist, Argo), but when it comes to the lower categories, it seems like they are taken with a more serious grain of salt. Of course, the one advantage is that last year's Best Documentary winner Searching for Sugar Man was not a depressing feature. Of course, looking at the other nominees: The Invisible War, 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, they all have the similar theme of covering hefty subjects in brutally honest ways.

Room 237 doesn't answer anything in a brutally honest way by comparison. Even the basic fact that these are just theories that will polarize The Shining fans is a sign that this film won't stand a chance. It may be a brilliant look at how to approach film theory, but the documentary category rewards itself in more pressing social issues. There is still an off chance that it could work, but seeing as The Shining itself didn't get a single Oscar nomination and has only since gotten the reverence it deserves, there is little to spin the bias. It didn't work for Heaven's Gate documentary Final Cut or Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darkness, and it probably will not work here. 

Stanley Kubrick
Don't let that keep you from enjoying the movie. If you are into conspiracy theories, there is plenty to chew on here. While we never see the faces, the voices say everything in a structured way that almost serves as a thesis. It may just be one idea after the other, but it is a relief to see a film being dissected in a way that doesn't feel like a forced EPK package. True, all of the ideas present in the 100 minutes running time don't always work, but it is more of a testament to how films can make us look at the world differently and see things that may or may not be there. Rodney Ascher also does a great job with pacing, which helps Room 237 to succeed. 

Is Room 237 capable of getting a Best Documentary nomination? Is the subject matter too light? Will the love of Stanley Kubrick elevate it to the front of the race?

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