A Look In Room 237

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Named after the mysterious room in The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel, Room 237 is constructed out of fragments of film, Kubrick’s and others, as interviewees seemingly haunted by the film share analyses of The Shining. Because the film doesn’t take a stance on the interviewees’ theories, I ended up watching Room 237 as an ethnographic film more than anything else. (You can take the woman out of university, but you can’t take the years and years of anthropology out of the woman).

What struck me most watching this documentary is how well it represents the reinvention of film criticism on the internet, a sort of popular folk criticism as people on the internet look for more in the discussion of movies than: whether or not they should see it, ratings on a scale, the avoidance of discussing any elements of a movie, and the film’s awesomeness.

The other thing that I thought about for the first half of the movie was how in internet culture, where any kind of analysis of a film is often dismissed as “reading too deeply” into a work, film criticism itself starts to resemble that other great internet past time: conspiracy theories.

room237 calumet

In many ways, conspiracy theories are about looking at life as if it were a film or a book—analyzing material in the context of an overarching theory; making a narrative; finding order, structure and meaning in it, and then writing oneself in as an actor, if not a protagonist.  Conspiracy theories aren’t just a way of telling a coherent narrative about life and the world, they are also intensely analytical. They are a kind of hermeneutics, where people carefully look for signs and significance.

And it is easy enough to back track from that kind of understanding of analysis and theory and watch Room 237 as if the interviewees were conspiracy theorists or, on the other side, watch  The Shining like the Zapruder film, footage of Big Foot or even the Dog Man. What is the significance of the numbers 237 and 42—of the Calumet baking powder tins or the jars of Tang? Are the changing patterns on a man’s trousers or a disappearing chair continuity errors? And, again, I see some of the spirit of internet fan culture in the concern with continuity errors and the search for the creator and the creator’s intention. (For my part, I think there aren’t continuity errors in The Shining. Kubrick wasn’t necessarily great with people, but he would notice a missing chair).

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Room 237 shows how murky the space between film criticism and conspiracy theory–and possibly even fiction and hoax–can be.  And it’s intriguing that the documentary parallels The Shining as it traces Danny’s journey through the impossible space of the Overlook Hotel and then, at the film’s halfway point, reveals the most unusual reading of The Shining.  It’s a reading that breaks through this theoretical border between more classical criticism and conspiracy theory.

And, goddamn, if I don’t want those maps of the The Shining‘s spaces shown in Room 237.

(This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Vanguard Program Blog on Sep. 13, 2012).


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