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Room 237 and Film Criticism

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There are two comments that film critics/academics will often hear from non-film critics/academics when discussing a theory they have relating to a specific film. These are, "I think you're probably just reading too much into it" and "I don't think that's what they were actually thinking about when they made it".

It seems quite likely that the first is an issue with the way in which the majority of people experience the world, with an uncritical mind, and the latter with the common belief that only ideas and attitudes that filmmakers 'deliberately' put into their films matter. Both responses are ones that are actually somewhat encouraged by a film that attempts to pull together a number of rather far-fetched readings of The Shining.

Room 237 presents the viewer with these readings through a reasonably fine selection of clips from Kubrick's films and beyond, and through the voiceovers of those expounding the theories. One effect of this is that we are never really presented with the people whose theories we are listening to, resulting in further distance from people that we really need to understand and appreciate where they are coming from.

The disembodied voices throw out a number of wild ideas as the film progresses, including theories pulling in references to Native Americans, World War Two and the idea that Kubrick was involved in faking the moon landings. The last theory is in the segment, the film is divided into nine, in which director Rodney Ascher really appears to nail his colours to the mast with what the film is really about. Rather than a serious and considered look at competing analyses regarding The Shining, Room 237 is either a rather snarky look at crazy conspiracy theories or a stupendously idiotic attempt at serious analysis.

When a voice informs us that the only anagram that you can make from the letters in 'Room No. 237' is 'Moon' it's not hard for anyone with a basic grasp of anagrams to realise how ridiculous that statement is and what other, rather unfortunate, word those letters can also be made to spell. The moment is rather funny within the film but it is only funny because it is such a mocking moment, a laugh at how deluded the concept is. Leaving that moment in tells the audience not to take any of this too seriously, it's just a bunch of wild theories. Why not a documentary about genuine, serious film analysis though, without all the mocking? Would that be so bad. It might help tackle the two comments I raised at the head of this review.

There are moments that approach serious criticism and even illuminate details in The Shining but they are somewhat buried, or at least obscured, by a great deal of silliness. The film delves into the set design, for instance, plotting out the layout of the hotel in a rather interesting way. Spatial fidelity is an area of film analysis that is all too often relegated to the margins of film criticism, with a lot of film critics often not too happy digging into technical areas of film analysis. The film lays out the inconsistencies in the relationship between spaces due to the way in which they are seen and for a moment the film becomes rather interesting, but it quickly moves off into a rather more zany direction. The modus operandi seems to be, the crazier the theory the more worthwhile it is to the film. Entertaining/funny theories seem to win out over sensible, carefully thought out ones.

I once saw the rather fantastic author/mathematician/scientist Simon Singh deliver a lecture on the Bible Code, the concept that The Bible can be used to predict events in the future. Excepting the challenge to find examples of the 'Bible Code' in Moby Dick Singh went on to show how the code could be used to find references to Princess Diana's death. Many, many references. To a hilarious degree. It was a funny exercise that swiftly undermined The Bible Code, making it clear how easy it was to find something once you are looking for it. Much of Room 237 is unfortunately just like watching someone explain The Bible Code and point out the ways in which it predicts the future.

Damage to the perception and understanding of film criticism is something that this film will undoubtedly result in, both from those who take the ideas far too seriously and perpetuate them further and also from those that lump in all critics/academics with the voices we hear here. The film will no doubt be entertaining to some, it was to me at times, but an interesting look at The Shining and the theories surrounding it, it most definitely is not.

This post originally appeared at Craig Skinner on Film