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Lucas Testro [Film Festival 08.05.12] horror documentary



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There's this word, 'pareidolia'. It refers to our tendency to find patterns where they don't actually exist. It's a word that often came to mind as I watched Rodney Ascher's documentary Room 237. The film intricately presents various theories about the 'real' meaning of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, but whether these reveal the secret messages of a master symbolist or just the wild imagination of obsessive fans is up to you to decide.

Unusually, the film is constructed almost entirely from clips from other movies - most of them Kubrick's - which form visuals echoing the anecdotes told to us by the interviewees. So, as Room 237 opens with one person recollecting first coming across the poster for The Shining, Ascher presents a scene from Eyes Wide Shut of Tom Cruise staring at that same poster outside a cinema. It's an odd technique that plays with the idea Kubrick is talking to us in his films, but it also deliberately distances us from the interviewees - we never see them nor find out much about their backgrounds, so all we can focus on is their ideas without any personal context. The immersive atmosphere created by the technique also suggests, as admitted by one interviewee, that the film has become a labyrinth in which they have lost themselves.

The theories presented range from plausible film analysis to outlandish conspiracy theories. One interviewee explains how The Shining is really about the genocide of the American Indians. For another, it's about the Holocaust. A third commentator explains it's actually Kubrick's memoir of his experiences faking the Apollo moon landing (yes, you read that correctly).

Evidence is presented purporting to prove all of these as well as revealing other easter eggs allegedly hidden by Kubrick. Some of this is just baffling, such as one claim that Kubrick's face is airbrushed into the clouds in the movie's opening titles - something even Ascher can't seem to find as he crawls with us through the sequence frame by frame.



But even as a skeptic, there's no denying you find yourself occasionally being tantalised by some of the hidden symbols the interviewees present, such as the proponent of the Holocaust theory who demonstrates how, in the film's final dissolve to a close up of Jack Torrance’s face, Jack Nicholson's hairline momentarily transforms into a Hitler moustache. Or the moon landing conspiracist who points to Danny wearing an Apollo 11 sweater in the film, and the room number "237" at the heart of the hotel's mysteries being a reference to the moon's average distance from the earth: 237,000 miles. A convincing coincidence, until you do a quick google search and discover the correct distance is actually 238,857 miles - something which Rodney Ascher disconcertingly doesn't bother to point out in his film.

So where does the filmmaker stand in all of this? It's hard to say but, perhaps tellingly, the only moment in the film where we hear what is presumably his voice comes towards the end, when an unidentified questioner asks one interviewee "But why would he go to so much trouble to make things so complicated?".

Maybe some of these meanings are indeed there to be discovered in The Shining. Maybe they're not. Maybe it doesn't matter, and the viewer's act of investigation and self-reflection is in itself what's important - a quest for greater self-understanding motivated by a good story, irrespective of the creator's intent. Maybe that's part of the allure of cinema that draws us back again and again. In the end, Ascher leaves you to take what you want from the theories he's presented, without casting any authorial judgment.

If nothing else, the wealth of footage from Kubrick's films used throughout Room 237 will at least remind you what a master of composition, blocking and colour he was, giving you a reason to go back and rewatch the work of one of our greatest filmmakers.

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