“Author intent is only part story in all forms of art”
What happens to a film—or any work of art for that matter—when its artist has unleashed it to the world? Does it only exist to be what its creator intended or can it hold the potential for infinite possibilities as the disparate minds and interpretations of its viewers dissect and theorize? Art is above all else subjective and has always been at the mercy of a select few self-proclaimed or anointed experts who place a value—monetarily or intellectually—that then becomes synonymous with the piece itself. Anyone can learn form, technique, and what makes the construction of a work successful, but there is more to art than such clinical breakdown. There is also the feeling of emotional awe grabbing certain viewers and never, ever letting them go.
Arguably one of the greatest film directors of all time, Stanley Kubrick has been the subject of many cinephiles’ desires to look beneath the surface. Between the calculating journey through mankind’s love affair with wreaking destruction through progress in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the in-your-face naked look at war in Full Metal Jacket, and the pit of depravity and humanity’s bloodlust for revenge in A Clockwork Orange, his oeuvre is a treasure chest begging for psychological digging. But of all the auteur’s work, it’s the terror-inducing face of a mad man with an axe in The Shining that stands as the ultimate fanboy opus to tear apart and meticulously study. Documentarian Rodney Ascher‘s Room 237 looks to show how far some theorists go towards discovering what really happened at the Overlook Hotel.
Uninterested in proving/disproving the myriad ideas proposed, Ascher’s goal is to portray the resulting hypotheses of a fervent fanbase adopting a film as their own. You don’t need to agree with these ‘experts’ or even like The Shining to be able to appreciate what Room 237 accomplishes. A film for movie fans and Kubrick fans alike, it touches upon the audience obsession inherent in all art and the symbolism all mediums can and do achieve. Like a college course on Dutch Renaissance paintings and Jan van Eyck, Ascher’s collective of devotees search the canvas for continuity errors, out-of-place objects, and grand themes hidden beneath its Stephen King-penned source material. In fact, the film’s willful disregard for details from the novel even becomes evidence to prove the 1980 horror had a much grander purpose.
Overlaying narration onto the scenes each talks about, our panel of lecturers consists of Bill Blakemore (it’s a commentary on European settlers’ genocide of Native Americans), Geoffrey Cocks (commentary on the Holocaust), Juli Kearns (riddled with intentional errors and impossible architecture), John Fell Ryan (literally filmed to be seen forwards and backwards simultaneously), and Jay Weidner (a filmmaker who maintains it is Kubrick’s admission to faking the Apollo 11 lunar landing). Their explanations range from plausible to crackpot, yet each possesses a confidence that what they say is definitive. So it’s a fun ride to try and catch Kubrick’s face in a cloud formation or a Minotaur in a skiing poster because they would stake their lives on it. You’ll laugh at some and scratch your head at others as you let your own interpretations expand.
Some details do appear irrefutable—Blakemore’s Calumet Baking Powder cans, Cocks’ plethora of eagles and color-changing typewriter—while others mere delusions of people desperately trying to mold things to their idea. Room 237 is a document on their unwavering belief, not ours. Maneuvers like projecting it on itself in reverse is grasping at straws to me, but some of the images created are magnificent. And while ideas of Kubrick boiling down patterns in life to give them back in dream are poetic and relevant, do they make The Shining‘s ability to be a great, tense horror flick any less important? I love that they point out so many anachronisms—especially since Stanley was a precisely calculating genius who wouldn’t make those sorts of mistakes—but when is enough enough?
As Ascher shows, the answer is never. We will always break down films to their tiniest details and seek to discover hidden meanings and clever jokes. Works like The Shining are puzzles waiting to be solved even if they never asked for the attention. Taking the concept even further, Ascher reappropriates footage from films that have no contextual bearing at all to illustrate the thought process of his cast and show how art can be utilized for no other purpose than what’s on the surface too. Choosing this method because it was cheaper to send audio recorders instead of a camera crew to the interviewees, it’s a serendipitous addition to the message on display. We take the art around us and reconstitute it for our own needs, giving it personal meaning not reliant on universal acceptance.
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival