Room 237 reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White

Following the IFC Center’s very canny “The Films of Stanley Kubrick” series, comes the documentary Room 237 which sums up the Kubrick cult. Comprised of theories spoken by five different Kubrick nerds over an assemblage of movie clips and diagrams by director Rodney Ascher, Room 237 pretends to dissect Kubrick’s 1980 movie The Shining. Ascher’s film—a true mockumentary if ever there was one—is named after the Overlook Hotel suite where little Danny sees Kubrick’s most disturbing visions due to his gift for “shining.” Every nerd wants to shine.
But Room 237 is an even more disturbing vision of post-cinephilia asininity. The theories proposed by the five unseen fans and elaborated by Ascher (whose fondness for eccentricity suggests Escher) are not just wildly different from each other, they demonstrate a current style of cinematic illiteracy that has replaced critical thinking.
Actually an embarrassment to the intellectually ambitious Kubrick, Room 237 shows that the Kubrick cult consists of that breed who like to think they think. However, the hypotheses presented (and seemingly validated by use of actual—pirated?—Kubrick clips) resist rationality.
I’ve long realized that Kubrick’s stature among film buffs certified a paradigm shift from the Hitchcock era when the legendary master of suspense—and of montage—inspired a different, popular enthusiasm than Kubrick whose esoteric, post-WWII misanthropy fed recent generations of kiddie nihilists who, considering themselves especially smart, responded to his stiff (non-sensual, thus anti-Hitchcockian) compositions. (They’re now the Fincher/Nolan kids.) Recall Kubrick’s tracking shots from Paths of Glory and Lolita to Full Metal Jacket that were more deterministic than Max Ophuls who tracked to observe transitory life while Kubrick’s steadicam tracks bore down and confined life’s possibilities. No Kubrick film exemplified this determinism like The Shining, a horror movie about existential claustrophobia that seems angled to mean much more. But whatever it is exactly (and this fastidious Stephen King adaptation is surprisingly, unexpectedly sloppy) drives the Kubrick cult of Room 237 to weird ecstasies of obsessive overthinking.
Watching Room 237 you can’t avoid the problem of contemporary film criticism shallowness. Unlike Wim Wenders’ Room 666, a celebration of cinephilia where a range of filmmakers discussed their inspirations at the Cannes film festival, Room 237 is strictly concerned with the fantasies produced by uneducated responses to the Kubrick myth and the irrationality of The Shining.
Fans seem unable to recognize the film’s failings and so try to make virtues of its mistakes. “Kubrick often in many of his movies would end them with a puzzle so he’d force you to go out of his movies saying ‘What was that about?’” So claims one zealot who responds to cinema the way a child reacts to a video game, trusting that the manufacturer cares about his response.
Another nerd says “[Kubrick] is like a megabrain for the planet who is boiling down, with all of this extensive research, all of these patterns of our world and giving them back to us in this dream of a movie.”
Sorry to say but this inanity redounds to the global reach of Roger Ebert’s TV reviewing. Room 237 doesn’t raise one’s appreciation of The Shining (cue laff track), but, instead, confuses response. It features reenactments of Kubrick placing a Calumet baking powder canister, paranoid shots from All the President’s Men, shots of Tom Cruise cruising in Eyes Wide Shut and, for seriousness, there are even purloined images from Schindler’s List to justify the suggestion that Kubrick was actually expounding upon timeless examples of genocide. It is Ebert’s pretense of “criticism” that inspires these nerds to insist that The Shining must be important because it is more than just a horror movie. Their theories concentrate on gaffes and continuity errors which is exactly the sort of “criticism” that Ebert made available to couch potato/laptop cineastes.
One cheerleader cheers “Its contradictions pile up in your subconscience.” Another recidivist viewer avers “When you see things over and over again their meanings change for you…He’s playing with your acceptance of visual information and also your ignorance of visual information.” This is hero-worship, not analysis. Another Kubrick-lover insists “We are dealing with a guy who has a 200 IQ.”
Reverence for Stanley Kubrick overwhelms any understanding of The Shining. It is symptomatic of today’s celebrity veneration—the flip-side of the feeling of nothingness that makes nerds bow down to the likes of Nolan, Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Soderbergh and Kubrick. So they fantasize about The Shining’s supposed profundity as when one professes, “We all know from postmodern film criticism that the meanings are there whether or not the filmmaker is aware of them.” This is the mess that criticism has come to. Fake erudition causes another to muse, “Why would Kubrick make the movie so complicated? Yeah, why did Joyce write Finnegans Wake?” This goofy comparison shows they don’t know the difference between literary and cinematic erudition. These Shining geeks don’t even know the hotel story of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, a truly profound expression of memory and desire.
They ignore the human significance of Jack (played by Nicholson) telling his son Danny “I would never hurt you.” In this warped cathexis, the cynical gotcha coincidences carry hidden importance that means more than any clear, apparent behavior and imagery.
The Kubrick cult dispenses with traditional humanist notions of art appreciation. They prize Kubrick for The Shining’s horror movie dread, perverting Diane Arbus’s twins, turning an elevator into a bloody diluvium (although as Pauline Kael observed “No one takes an elevator in this movie anyway”). Without any schooling in visual or literary interpretation, the Kubrick cult is left to bizarre fantasizing. One nervously giggles “I’m trapped in this hotel. There’s no escape, there’s like this endless loop.” Shining co-star Shelley Duvall said it better, describing the production as “like Groundhog Day.”
So we’re subjected to ideas about Kubrick’s face subliminally photoshopped in clouds, an actor’s erection, a Rodeo poster turned minotaur and a Dopey dwarf decal. Ascher subjects his witnesses to humiliation that’s no better than his unidentified steal from Murnau’s magnificent Faust, where a silly narrator adds Kubrick “found the Holocaust of such evil magnitude that he just couldn’t bring himself to treat it directly.”
When Ascher isn’t holding Kubrick obsessives up to ridicule, his presentation yet implies the same credibility the Internet gives fanboy bloggers. Like Internet criticism, Room 237 resembles the kind of conspiracy theory mania that kooks used to put on single-spaced mimeographed sheets and pass out on street corners.
The ultimate nerd testimony says “In your own life, your point of view is being altered by your study.” But this isn’t study which means to examine, this is mere mania. Room 237 is another confirmation of the end of cinephilia.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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