DW Mault on new film Room 237, and the continuing enigma of, and fascination with, Stanley Kubrick…
Cinema from its birth has welcomed mystery; what Freud called the sense of the other, the uncanny. He claimed the uncanny derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown, but on the contrary, from something strangely familiar, which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it. Which kinda sums up Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
A true human urge is the need to understand, to explain what doesn’t need/want to be explained; to create order in a disorganised world. Hence the reason that certain objects obsess the easily transfixed. Stanley Kubrick is one of the morbidly captivated, an artist whose true worth is slowly eroded by constant deconstruction (Terence Malick is another similarly afflicted). Kubrick and his cinema is never quite allowed to ‘be’, to be unanswered, and to allow what in Film Studies is called the preferred reading.
Stanley Kubrick (alongside Alfred Hitchcock) is one of those directors that has ‘always’ been there, like a strange Uncle you only see at weddings. I love them both but have never actually joined in either the obsession or the canonisation. For want of a better explanation: they are overrated. Before people start throwing things at me, let’s look at the dictionary definition of overrated: To overestimate the merits of; rate too highly. Now I think we can agree that both Kubrick and Hitchcock are ‘rated too highly’, through no fault of their own. So the fault of this must surely lie with the fans (which is, of course, short for fanatic) and numerous Western film critics…
Which brings us to Rodney Ascher’s Room 237. A film that has been universally acclaimed for exploring numerous theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and its hidden meanings. That the film exists is acclaimed like the discovery of the wheel, which allows us to ponder how myopic the world of Anglo-Saxon cinema can be. Deconstruction has existed for nearly 50 years, the genesis text being Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology and from that we have literary deconstruction, so the idea that Rodney Ascher has suddenly discovered the Holy Grail is arrogant nonsense.
Having said that, Room 237 is meta manna from heaven, a cineaste’s delight. We have to hope that there could be other cinematic essays out there waiting to be devoured: imagine how fantastic it would have been to watch Chris Marker’s deconstruction of Vertigo, or Geoff Dyer to have made a film about Stalker rather than his fantastic book Zona.
Room 237 is a collection of voices, articulations, which take us through the maze-like enigma that is The Shining. The theories range from obvious to laughable, to awe inspiring. The voices belong to five individuals ranging from a Holocaust academic, to a playwright, to Foreign correspondent, to an artist, to a certifiable conspiracy theorist.
We never see those voices, we see clips from numerous films (not just Kubrick films) that reinforce the ideas we’re hearing, alongside a virtual map someone has created of the Overlook Hotel, which shows us how it makes no architectural sense. The theories range from the genocide of the Native Americans, the Holocaust (natch) and for comic value, the conspiracy theorist rebounds on his theory of The Shining. I had nailed this character from the moment he claimed Barry Lyndon is the most boring film ever made, when it is Kubrick’s masterpiece, his cinematic rosetta stone.
The enigmatic thing about Room 237 is that no matter how outlandish the ideas or themes pontificated over, there is a kernel of truth in them all. You will feel your spine shudder when connections are announced. This is simply because Kubrick had complete control over everything that comprises the mise-en-scène of his cinema.
So there are NO continuity errors in his films; when what seem to be mistakes are pointed out, they aren’t mistakes, they are meant. Kubrick doesn’t make errors in that amateur way: everything is there for a reason. Hence the attraction of The Shining being what Churchill said of Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
D W Mault
Room 237 is screened at FACT from November 2nd and was reviewed at The London Film Festival