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.
The documentary Room 237 doesn’t sound like it’s about any of the things I like about Stanley Kubrick’s films, especially The Shining. But Stephen King reminds us that he doesn’t like The Shining either, and for better reasons than novelists usually give when talking about movies based on their books:
Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film, she’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.
Wendy’s best moments in the film are when she’s not that thing, but yeah, she’s mostly that thing.
But at the same time King is bothered by one of the things that is actually super-distinctive and weirdly compelling about Kubrick, fucked up as that dude clearly was:
I’m not a cold guy. I think one of the things people relate to in my books is this warmth, there’s a reaching out and saying to the reader, “I want you to be a part of this.” With Kubrick’s The Shining I felt that it was very cold, very “We’re looking at these people, but they’re like ants in an anthill, aren’t they doing interesting things, these little insects.”
So wait, why is Stephen King talking about The Shining? Because he has a sequel to the book, just out today, called Doctor Sleep. It’s about Daniel Torrance, the little boy from the novel. It follows him through his childhood, and now he’s all grown up.
Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.”
“Aided by a prescient cat”! Oh, whoever at Studio Ghibli becomes the anointed heir of Hayao Miyazaki, please give us a warm, weird, spooky film version of this. This book trailer isn’t doing it for me.
King’s BBC interview is better. Besides Kubrick’s movie, he talks about how The Shining was in retrospect a way for him to autobiographically work through his own drinking problems and resentment for literary fiction.
John Gruber’s tweet last night reminded me I’d never written up a review for Room 237, the documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Gruber writes:
Broke down and watched “Room 237”. It was bad. Really bad. Boring bad. Crazy people.
Just watch “The Shining” again instead.
I agree. I watched it earlier this year and disliked the film so much, I didn’t even finish it, which is rare for me. As I hinted at on Twitter, I’m exposed to enough anti-vaccine, anti-evolution, anti-anthropogenic climate change, anti-science, and religious fundamentalist “theories” in my day-to-day reading that are genuinely harmful to humanity that an examination of how the minds of conspiracy theory crackpots take the smallest little details and weave them into fantastical stories that make no sense is not how I want to spend my time.
As if to underscore my dislike of the film, the following arrived in my inbox shortly after I watched it.
To: Jason Kottke <email@example.com>
Prospective Story: Re: Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”
i’m not good at salesmanship so i’ll get right to the point. i’ve solved the mystery of room 237 in stanley kubrick’s ‘the shining’ i’m shopping this information to various media sources. here’s the deal:
*** the price is $13,000.00
*** i’m aware of the documentaries, the scholarly analyses and the terrabytes of web space dedicated to the topic
*** nobody has gottten it right
*** i guarantee satisfaction
*** there’s no risk. either you think the solution to the greatest cinematic mystery of all time is worth 13k or you don’t. all i require beforehand is a conditional agreement protecting me from ip theft
*** i remain anonymous. once the transaction is complete the information is yours. i don’t care who receives credit or what you do with it
it’s been over 30 years. this information should be public. YOU can be the first.
i look forward to your response
Putting on my tin foil hat for a minute, DONT YOU SHEEPLE UNDERSTAND WHAT THIS MEANS? That someone is watching what I’m watching! How did this person know I had just watched Room 237?! I bet it’s the NSA! Or something! They are watching for people with large audiences to plant lies about Kubrick to deflect attention away from the faked Moon landing! For some reason! THIS IS THE PROOF WEVE BEEN WAITING FOR!??
Yep: “Really bad. Boring bad. Crazy people.”
The trailer doesn’t reveal much:
But from everything that I have heard, this movie is a must-see for Kubrick fans. In US theaters (and available online, I think) on March 29th.