Room 237 (2012) ***1/2
TIFF 2012 - Vanguard Series
dir. Rodney Ascher
Starring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Cineastes and those who follow conspiracy theorists have a lot of things in common. They're obsessive, slavishly devotional and frankly, almost fanatical in studying, appreciating and relentlessly imbibing in their respective fields of interest. Can their paths cross? You bet. I know. I am one of the afflicted (or blessed, depending on how you choose to look at it).
The engaging new documentary feature entitled Room 237 blends both cine-mania with conspiracy theory. Chances are, if you're a movie geek, you'll already understand the significance of this title and if you aren't, nor have you seen Stanley Kubrick's crazily scary, creepy and hypnotic film adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining, then let's just say it refers to a room in an isolated old hotel where something very, very horrific happened (and likely will again).
Using a treasure trove of clips and stills from Kubrick's canon, director Rodney Ascher interviews five people who have spent an unhealthy number of their waking hours (over an ever MORE unhealthy number of years) studying and dissecting the hidden meanings they purport are found buried within The Shining. Ascher's picture is not a traditional making-of documentary or even a critical appreciation in the usual sense. Instead, we examine each one of the subjects' theories.
All of them believe Kubrick used subliminal messages in the film and generated a high-profile horror movie to act as a mere foreground mask for its real meaning.
The most outrageous conspiracy theory presented in Room 237 is that Kubrick stuffed The Shining with numerous secret messages he hoped would work as both an apology and cinematic form of redemption to make up for the overwhelming guilt he carried for his part in faking all the Apollo Moon landings.
Yes, Kubrick's filmmaking genius was contracted by the American government to fake the historic trips to the Moon. If, according to the conspiracy theorist, you look really hard, everything anyone would need to prove this is on-screen in The Shining.
Good to know.
In all fairness, those interviewed for Ascher's film spend a fair bit of time discussing Kubrick's obsessive attention to the most minute details of every inch, of every frame, of every shot. This is indisputable. Kubrick was indeed a meticulous control freak and he no doubt included numerous subliminal (or not so subliminal) images to bolster the drama, themes and/or style of his films.
I have some doubts, however, that The Shining is an apology to the world for faking the entire Apollo moon programme. So too should you, lest, of course you're planning to check yourself in for some electro-shock therapy. (Something my late barber, Bill Sciak did for many years. Not because he was insane, but because he enjoyed getting regularly zapped.)
Some of the other theories are definitely fruit-loopy, but those which suggest Holocaust allegory or the effects of colonization upon America's indigenous peoples are certainly not without interest. For me, though, the most intriguing presentation involves Kubrick playing with the space and time of his own sets by intentionally making sure the designs - and one room in particular - could not logically exist within the architectural setting of the Overlook Hotel.
This theory is kind of cool as it feels like the kind of perverse filmmaking trick Kubrick might use to help generate an overall sense of unease. The interviewee in question comes across as completely bonkers, but in spite of this, it provides considerable food for thought.
What I really appreciated about Rodney Ascher's approach to this material is that he himself never makes fun of these people. His entire mise-en-scène is quite clever. The interviewees never appear on camera - only in voice-over. The images are virtually all Kubrick all the time. They're used to tell the interviewees' stories and to provide as much visual evidence as possible to bolster the theories. Yes, Ascher uses the footage to occasionally buoy the film with a sense of humour, but it's never mean-spirited and it's often clever and in and of itself, a definite homage to Kubrick.
The movie will also make you think twice about Calumet Baking Soda.
(I'll let you discover that nugget on your own.)
As I mentioned earlier, movies and conspiracy theory can be ideal bedfellows.
For me, my appreciation of conspiracy theory almost parallels my obsession with movies. It began in the 1960s, not long after experiencing a series of near-epiphanies upon first seeing films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Mario Bava's Black Sunday, Hammer Horror films, Sergio Leone westerns and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Movies not only became my whole life, they were, in fact, my life force.
At this time I read Erich von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods", the first of a series of best selling "non-fiction" books that popularized the notion that extraterrestrials had been to Earth in our deep, dark past and were responsible for mankind's development. This wasn't classic conspiracy theory per se, but it was one of the first times I became enamoured with postulations that refuted traditional ways of thinking about the world. Not that von Daniken's theories were especially original - many of them had already been identified by other scientists (including Carl Sagan who had little use for the Swiss author's interpretations). His theories, to my child's minds eye, we forcefully and punchily conveyed.
Tellingly, my childhood fascination with von Daniken clearly sprouted from the magic of movies - most notably, Kubrick. The monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey did a damn fine job transforming me into a true believer in extraterrestrial visitations in earlier eras of Earth's existence.
|Erich von Daniken (Top Left), Kurt Saxon (Top Right),|
Art Bell (Bottom Left), George Noory (Bottom Right)
Years later, I became obsessed with the world of shortwave radio. Shortwave had always been an acquired taste - a niche market, if you will. I had been introduced to shortwave as a child by my influential cousin Paul Klymkiw the subject of the bestselling non-fiction book "Paul in Perspective and brother of Slawko Klymkiw, former head of CBC English Programming and current Executive Director of Norman Jewison's Canadian Film Centre. Paul was an avid listener of "Radio Free Cuba" and we'd listen to it late into the night. He even showed me all the excellent literature he sent away for and received at his parents' home (and this, during the Cold War). I, of course, followed suit and also received this fine communist literature.
God only knows how many watch lists we're on, but to this day I'm still obsessed with all things shortwave. In the pre-internet days of the 1990s, shortwave had especially become the haven for a wide variety of nut cases and it was here where my loyal listenership to it blossomed.
I was drawn to it like a fly to the proverbial dung heap.
Every manner of conspiracy theorist, right wing religious psycho and, allow me to add, heavy metal Christian Rockers managed to find a home on these oddball airwaves. It was here where I discovered one of the great conspiracy theorists of them all, the extremely entertaining Kurt Saxon, a survivalist based in Alpena, Arkansas. "Just let them Federal Boys try and find us here in these backwoods," was a common Saxon refrain.
Though Kurt's ruminations on impending social/economic collapse proved both sound and prescient, his theories regarding Eugenics were, shall we say, a tad too extreme for a reasonably tempered right-wing Communist and dyed-in-the-wool pseudo-Liberterian like myself.
The late 90s and beyond delivered the highest-rated talk radio in the world: "Coast-to-Coast-A.M." with the master of all things conspiratorial Art Bell and his eventual and current replacement George Noory.
Through these decades of avowed interest in conspiracy theory, I maintained my obsession with the movies - becoming, as I was once described by some anonymous blogger as, "a quite possibly clinically insane cinephile."
I suspect that with this history, it makes sense to have been positively disposed to a picture like Room 237. That said, it's a genuinely clever, compelling and funny look at one of the best movies of all time.
And that, my friends, is nothing to sneeze globs of blood-flecked snot at.
"Room 237" first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2012) and is currently being released theatrically via Mongrel Media. The film is playing theatrically at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre.