Room 237 (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Room 237 (2013)

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Doing the best they canAndrew LIKE BannerThis is one of the most wonderfully absurd films I'm going to watch this year.  Five people sit down with an audio recorder and offer their personal theories about just what is going on in The Shining.  They don't even all seem to agree that a man goes crazy and tries to murder his family with an axe.  While their analysis is going on they show specific clips of the film to back up their ideas and their experience watching the film for the first time is recreated by the presenters.

It's an unusual premise for a movie, but one that brought me a lot of joy.  This is the sort of film I wish I could see more often - a bunch of intelligent and highly articulate people going through a film, sometimes frame by frame, and offering their thoughts on it.  Even if I found some of the ideas absurd, like one presenter who is positively brilliant until he reveals Kubrick helped fake the moon landing, are explained with such enthusiasm and precision it's hard for me to find fault with the film on an entertainment level.  Plus, I get to watch The Shining, second only to Eyes Wide Shut as my favorite Kubrick film, get deconstructed slowly from different angles.

First, there's a lot to praise for the way director Rodney Ascher assembles the film.  He gives each of the presenters their own space and time to fill the audio with ideas and theories.  This filled the movie with an enthusiasm about film that I don't see too often.  Instead of them needing to defend themselves each of the presenters spends the entire time gripped in their holy passion of deconstructing The Shining.  It's a brilliantly simple move for a film that could have been a dry recitation of observations and slowed shots.

I wish I could get more shots from the film itself, but even the trailer opens with this monster of a disclaimer. Given some of the ideas floated around, I don't blame them.

I wish I could get more shots from the film itself, but even the trailer opens with this monster of a disclaimer. Given some of the ideas floated around, I don't blame them.

Ascher also plays with the film itself very little, but when he does it's to great effect.  He understands that a shot by shot or frame by frame analysis lives or dies by what  you can see onscreen at that time.  So when one presenter strongly proclaims that you can see the stern face of Stanley Kubrick in the clouds over the car in the long tracking shot at the beginning of the film, he quickly follows that up with "Well, I'd need to use Photoshop to highlight it further."  This doesn't help his credibility much and Ascher doesn't take the step to actually show this Photoshopped floating Kurbrick head.  Either you see it and can explain it or you can't because directly altering the film is not allowed for this kind of analysis.

There are moments where there's no direct manipulation of the film but instead a guiding line or direct presentation of what the presenter is illustrating.  Two of the best moments come from the young man who is clearly a new dad and, in a shocking twist, thinks The Shining is a film about a boy murdering his father.  That bit of insight aside, there's one moment where Ascher shows the three big wheel adventures of Danny throughout the hotel and puts a simple white line around the perimeter of the screen to illustrate the new dad's point about how complicated each new journey is.

It's a great fusion of commentary, original footage, and a bit of illustration, not manipulation, that makes for great analysis.  The other just shows how film can be read in different ways which, stemming from the comment that Kubrick should be watched forward and backward, leads some experimental filmmakers to overlay two runs of the film forward and backward.  The results are weirdly convincing, but possibly edited so just parallel moments are so perfectly presented.

Anything about this carpet read "shifting gender roles" to you? If not, just give the film a couple of minutes.

Anything about this carpet read "shifting gender roles" to you? If not, just give the film a couple of minutes.

A few thoughts on our analysts: I loved the new father.  There's one wonderful unscripted moment where he has to pause his analysis and tend to his son.  I've seen this decried as being unprofessional of Ascher to leave in but I thought it showed just how democratic the process of film analysis has become so that anyone with passion can do it while giving a strong hint about why the dad feels as he does about The Shining.  There's another point subtly made about the way technology has also made it possible for more people to study film as two of the other presenters were only able to start articulating the unease they felt watching The Shining when it was released on VHS and later Blu-ray.

The remaining presenters I like but have wildly divergent credibility.  A representative of the most famous Shining theory about it being the story of Native American genocide does very well.  Another presenter believes it's about the Holocaust and starts on shaky ground (Kubrick used a German typewriter, ergo, Holocaust) but is also plausible by the end.  Of the less credible, the man who believes that the film is a representation of Kubrick's grief at helping fake the moon landing is enthusiastic if hilariously unconvincing.  As for the woman who thinks the entire movie is about the labyrinth of the minotaur - well, good effort, and I certainly understand the frustration at making sense of the impossible hotel.

Despite how I feel about each of these theories, it's wonderful that there is a film this smartly assembled that encourages close reading.  In addition to being entertaining it does what most critics can't do - help an audience see the film from a fresh angle.  I doubt I'll freak out when I see Danny's Apollo 11 sweater, but I like that there may be someone who will.

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Tail - Room 237Room 237 (2013)

Directed by Rodney Ascher.
Featuring Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. i have been meaning to see this. you make it sound fascinating!

    • Thank you for the comment! I had a blast watching the movie. The various analysts have different levels of persuasion but overall are compelling and fun speakers. If you check it out come back and leave a comment or link to your thoughts, I’d love to read them.

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