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Entries in Room 237 [2012] (1)

Sunday
Mar312013

Room 237 (2012)

Easter Eggs and Basket Cases

What better day than Easter to write about America's religion? I'm not talking about Christianity or the worship of money, though they certainly have their place in the canon. No, we Yanks love conspiracy theories. Roll your eyes if you will. But chances are, even the most dyed-in-the-wool anti-Truthers accept as a matter of historical record one or two stories whose facts are muddy at best--purposefully so at worst.

Of course, the last twelve years have seen a decidedly anti-conspiracy shift in the cultural narrative. Bring up the JFK assassination in mixed company and you'll either get sideways glances or some enthusiastic new takes on the case. Stray from the official narratives of 9/11 or the bin Laden raid in that same group, and it's fat-lip city. The abruptness with which such conversations are shut down is so keen as to be almost...orchestrated.

I kid, of course.* But the point is, conspiracy theorists have been given a bad name--which is why Rodney Ascher's bold and endlessly entertaining documentary Room 237 is so important. Devoted entirely to five obsessed fans' ideas about Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film, The Shining, Ascher forces his audience to not just revisit a classic horror movie, but to reconsider everything they know about history, the media, and possibly the nature of consciousness.

The movie is comprised of nine sections, each covering a different aspect of The Shining that has confounded devotees for decades. From the recurrence of the number 42; to seemingly coded messages about the Holocaust and the slaughter of Native Americans at the hands of the settlers; to my personal favorite: the idea that Kubrick used the film as a public apology for helping to fake the Apollo moon landing. Some of the theorists' ideas are outright silly, such as an alleged minotaur construct based entirely on the fact that The Shining features a maze and a blurry skiing poster with a distorted figure on it, who drunks might mistake for a mythological Greek villain--as well as Kubrick's fascination with shooting closeups of his male leads in downward-brow, upward-gaze compositions (you know, the way bulls look right before they charge!).

That sounds weird, but the genius of Ascher's technique is that he uses visuals from Kubrick's filmography exclusively to illustrate his commenters' points (it's also a major detriment to the narrative; more on that in a minute). So even though we must endure a droning narrative about the significance of bullshit bull imagery, beautifully restored footage of A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket give us a mental "out"; for those inclined to side with this theory, it's also as close to hard evidence as one can get, I suppose. Some of that footage is used to comedic effect, as when Tom Cruise's numerous pensive-walking scenes from Eyes Wide Shut stand in for the narrators' deep struggles with cryptic clues (and, I imagine, depression and social awkwardness).

The downside of this unique presentation is that because we never see the theorists, their voices all run together after awhile. One is clearly a woman; one sounds like a stoned Kinkos night manager; the rest are a mish-mash of pseudo-scholarly types who became a composite of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy in my head. By Room 237's halfway mark, I'd given up trying to piece together a narrative through-line for any of these folks, and focused on the minutiae and crazy coincidences they'd dredged up.

Conspiracy theories aside, Room 237's big selling point is the way it highlights film as an art form. Just as painters and composers don't allow for errant strokes and notes in their masterpieces, Ascher and company posit that the best filmmakers make moving works of loving, precise beauty whose every detail means something--if not to the story then to the director. Consider one commenter's wacky idea to double-project the film onto a single screen, studying forward and reverse versions of The Shining and keying in on details that may just be too weird to be coincidence.

I'll never watch The Shining in the same way again, but neither will I be able to breeze past seemingly meaningless tracking shots in big, dumb blockbusters. Not that I expect Stephen Sommers or Michael Bay to slip subconscious keys to social upheaval into their next CGI vomit-fest, but no one thought Kubrick would do anything special in adapting Stephen King's haunted hotel novel, either.

And what if there is something to these theories? As I said before, I love the Apollo 11 stuff. I have no reason to believe the wild notions presented here, outside of the ideas expressed in the film. But I've also never left the Earth's atmosphere, either. Nor have ninety-nine percent of the people, I'd wager, who think it "impossible" and "ridiculous" that anyone could perpetrate a hoax of that scale on the world.

Besides, which is the crazier story to believe: Kubrick's veiled confession that he helped fake the moon landing, or ancient reports of a magician walking around town three days after dying on the cross? Both theories have die-hard defenders whose sketchy "supporting evidence" requires a huge amount of faith in order to stomach. At least the moon landing guys have photographic proof that their master manipulator existed.

Or do they?

A Note for Chicagoans: If you'd like to see Room 237 on the big-screen (which I highly recommend), it opens on Friday, April 5th at The Music Box Theatre on Southport.

*Not really.