Because I like and respect Jason Kottke, I’m taking this opportunity to express a contrary viewpoint on a documentary he reviewed not two days ago, Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237”.
Before I forget, happy birthday, Jason.
Now, what I suspect has happened here is that both he and our friend John Gruber, whose tweet spurred Jason’s post, sort of missed the point. Which is that the film’s ambition was not to cast light on the conspiracy theories around their beloved Kubrick film (“The Shining”, in case you’re coming to this late), it was not to document further context around the film or to disclose any of its master filmmaker’s process or intentions, but rather to paint an artful picture—a media collage if you will-of obsession, and mania.
But “Room 237” isn’t about “The Shining” or about Kubrick, it’s about a small assortment of unrelated film scholars(?) who have selected “The Shining” as their thing. It’s about the degree of their obsessions, the intricacies of their fixations.
Or rather, it’s not about the people, it’s about the infatuation. Watching the film, you’ll notice fairly quickly that the filmmakers have made the unique and brilliant choice to never show the theorists’ faces on-camera. All we know of them is their voices and their theories. This was at once a respectful and calculated choice. Respectful in that it protects the interviewees from some of the involuntary judgments we the audience will tend to make when given the benefit of someone’s physical appearance. And calculated in that presenting the subjects in audio only frees the viewer from the distraction of a fully fleshed-out human connection. Sure, we can extrapolate character and make judgments based on vocal tone and demographic (not to mention the content of the speech). But the main focus is on the visualizations themselves, which are nightmarishly brilliant.
What we have in the supporting media is a mashup of Kubrickian archive, bizarro warpy analog synth music, some digital wizardy, and old dollar-bin stock footage, all coming together to form a spooky dream fort — a haunted factory built of unfamiliar nostalgia.
You know that psychological effect that has no name, when you used to find an old VHS tape in the back of the cabinet, one that your family would use to record TV shows a decade before, and you’d play it, only to find that the commercials were still intact? Remember that creepy, kind of gross but comfortable remembrance? That’s what “Room 237” has in spades.
I have a unique (or at least memorable) story of my first viewing of “The Shining”. Short version: impacted largely by the medium through which I viewed it, the movie scared the living piss out of me. But I’m willing to put a stake in the ground and say that as scary as “The Shining” is to me, “Room 237” is even scarier. Not because I believe any of the conspiracy theories to be true, but because our minds are capable of manufacturing them.