I get ensorcelled by the terrible History Channel show Ancient Aliens. The program is a sort of a patchwork history lesson, though inhered with conspiracy theories that would have all human advancement nudged forward by extra-terrestrials. For me, the seller--apart from the zany ideas themselves--is the gobsmacked rhetoric of the interviewees. They go on as though aliens are the only sober explanation for any of our past's minutiae. The alien inveiglement is painfully obvious to them; the rest of us are kind of idiots for not seeing these little green truths. But, for all that certainty, the opinion of the show is not necessarily the opinion of its participants. To every supercilious claim is pinned the distancing qualifier "As some Ancient Astronaut Theorists believe."
Room 237: Being An Inquiry Into The Shining In Nine Parts has no such qualifier--it would be something like, "As some The Shining Conspiracy Wackos (TSCWs) believe," I suppose--so its endorsement of the parade of theories can be as grey as our possible progenitors. Does the movie believe that Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of the Stephen King novel is a veiled confession of the genius director's involvement in staging the moon landing, or a rumination on the holocaust of the European Jews or America Indians? Or is the movie a documentary about the people who hold those "truths" to be self-evident? Critical response to the movie (Essay, really.... Or anthology?) seems to teeter-totter on this ambiguity. I would hazard to say that Room 237 does not exactly believe in any of the theories it presents, but it is excited by them. One of the theorists, in describing a hidden pattern he had sussed out, describes Kubrick's insertion of that pattern being "possibly consciously." Much of 237 lives in, explores, and thrives in that by turns clunky and titillating realm of possibility. This apparently annoys the hell out of some people, but not me. This thing really blows my dress over my head. It's been a while since I've been this excited about a movie, for reasons of both content and presentation.
A great deal of the critical misconception I've read of 237 has to do, I think, with how the notions are presented. In Ancient Aliens, for instance, we have the talking heads, gesticulating insistently. (One particular talking head has on it a head of hair so vertiginous that it's earned its own Internet following.) Sometimes the very presence of the theorists discredits them, or at least tethers their claim. Director Rodney Ascher makes the subtle but stylistically interesting decision to not show his subjects. Instead, their voices are disembodied, expounding over relevant Shining footage or other found images, giving them an academic omniscience, a boost of authority; the movie is serving them, not the other way around. This technique also twists the tone of Ascher's film, giving it a surreal feeling at times, casting it more as a collage of ideas than a straightforward documentary. Ideally, one wouldn't have to be a fan of The Shining or conspiracy theories to dig the movie. Visually and structurally it stands on its own, and, in it's own way, punches the arm of what's become a fairly staid documentary structure.
The gaping lacunae of history provide incredibly spacey berths for those Ancient Astronaut Theorists to sashay their wide-hips through. The Shining Conspiracy Wackos, however, thrive on detail, specifically the wealth of meticulous touches Kubrick is notorious for. But it is that trove of detail in collusion with the ambiguity of its meaning that gives TSCWs some cogent-ish footholds. How could an eye as burnished as Kubrick's allow for continuity slips like a missing chair, a colour-changing typewriter, pattern-changing slacks?
In this clip, where Danny is beckoned to "Room No. 237" (notice that the only words you can make out of "room no" are "moon room?"), see how the gaudy geometrical pattern changes between when the ball is rolled to Danny and when he stands up. (Notice, too, that Danny's wearing an Apollo 11 sweater... outside the "moon room.")
Schematically, too, the Overlook Hotel is amorphous, having, for instance, windows where windows don't make sense, and hallways that rotate 180 degrees. These gaffs range from obvious to subtle, but it's difficult to accept that Kubrick let any of them slip. And if we accept that these mistakes are intentional, then what are the meanings and implications of those goofs? It's out of these fissures that the wacky, redolent flowers of Ascher's film grow.
But do any of these dogs hunt? One theorist is certain that, for one frame of the opening titles, just as Kubrick's name scrolls off screen, the director's face can be seen in the clouds. He makes a promise to--for his own documentary he's working on--Photoshop the hidden image, just to make it crystal clear. I've watched Room 237 more times than I'd like to admit and have found myself squinting like hell into that cloudful Colorado sky, finding bupkis. But this insistence makes for a convenient metaphor for the film itself. Can you really be wrong if you see what you see? The huntingest dog in the documentary/essay/anthology makes the case for The Shining as an open text--an "open text" being semiotic argument that validates a reader's response to a work over its creator's intentions. Whether or not Kubrick intended any of the readings arrived at in 237 is an exciting question, but we'll never know. It is fun, however, to imagine. But beware: there are plenty of unsubtle allusions to labyrinths within The Shining, and more than a few TSCWs describe how they've become somehow trapped inside Kubrick's film--one theorist even claims that his own life is beginning to resemble the plot. In this respect, Room 237 can get thrillingly Borgesian in its exploration of the metaphysical ways in which a place is actually created through one's conceiving of it.
P.S. If you see the movie and are at all interested in the unmitigated wackiness, I really suggest you check out a TSCW mentioned, but not featured, in the film, Mstrmnd. I maybe should have made clear just how intelligent the film's interviewees are: they apply an incredibly articulate logic to things they see as illogical. Mstrmnd, whether you believe them or not, is a hell of lot of fun to read. Here's a sample:
How do we decrypt The Shining? By reverse engineering it. By peering into its structure. Pulling apart aspects of its tools and forms that refer to one another, one can see roughly what Kubrick was aiming for. It's actually a pretty simple formula. The structure is largely false and it fools the audience, manufacturing a type of subliminal phenomena. And why would he do this? Again, it's simple. By making you think something is real while showing you it's fake, he gets to play with the idea of meaning in your unconscious. Where language begins, or is stored. Once neurophenomenologically decrypted, The Shining can be seen as a beginning to a new form of post-Western visual guidance. Perhaps even a new facet of language.