Joshua Reviews Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 [NYFF Review]

In today’s critical landscape, be it on topics ranging from professional football refereeing to cinema, we live in a post modern and highly democratized world. Where everyone and their mother take to Twitter, Facebook, Tout or whatever new social networking outlet allows their voices to be heard, all it takes is initiative and an opinion to have your ideas dumped out into the world for conversation, debate or in some cases ignore. Toss in a topic like a film from the ever hands on auteur, the late Stanley Kubrick, and the theories run rampant.

That is where the latest ‘documentary’ entitled Room 237 comes in. Directed by Rodney Ascher, the massively hyped proto-thesis film follows a collection of men and women who take to the iconic horror masterpiece, Kubrick’s The Shining, and give the viewer a cavalcade of deep readings on the picture. Ranging from the film possibly being an apology by Kubrick for assisting in the faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing to the film’s use of dissolves, Room 237 is a deeply thought provoking look at today’s post-modern critical society, while also being quite a fun and engaging critical essay in and of itself. Not all the ideas here may make a whole Hell of a lot of sense, but Ascher’s film uses these absorbing concepts to posit that cinematic obsession may not only be held by those who are directly behind the camera.

Room 237 weaves together five different theories, ranging from seemingly kooky (the aforementioned moon landing narrative) to the seemingly plausible (a man offers up the idea, briefly, that Jack may be or have sexually abused his son) to the just downright entertaining (a portion near the end discusses the film’s relation to itself just backwards) all led by director Rodney Ascher. Not looking to make fun of or make light of the ideas and concepts posited here, Ascher’s film nearly goes out of its way to aid in the support of each claim. While a epilogue at the end of the film offers up the idea that this may all just be wrong, the film ultimately claims that within the world of post modern criticism (of which this is very much a staunch supporter of) anything is possible.

The film itself is rough aesthetically. Playing like a film-based conspiracy theory documentary, the picture plays better as an extended supplement to the film instead of a true blue documentary feature film. Ascher doesn’t put a single interviewee on screen, not allowing for the film to give a face to these ideas instead simply offering up these concepts as nothing more than discussion topics.

And the discussion here is truly this film’s greatest attribute. Inherently a pro-post modern criticism feature, Room 237 not only gives us these theories in an interesting and engaging manner, but it ultimately posits that while they may in fact be grade A bologna, Kubrick was such a distinct and detail-oriented filmmaker that they aren’t beyond the realm of possibility. Take for example the idea of the happenings within the film being driven entirely by Danny. Or the idea that the film is a meditation on human pillaging and particularly the North American settler’s murdering of Indian populations through the early years of this nation. These are not only entrancing theories, but with Ascher’s assured hand in the supporting of these ideas they seem more than palpable.

However, Ascher’s film also uses its tone and blanket support to undo itself. Overall carrying a dull and ultimately dreary tone, Room 237 is incredibly self-serious and without an ounce of self-reflection until the final handful of minutes. The film’s tone and structure is a bit off-putting, but with the theories involved here being so intrinsically intriguing, Room 237 will not only have you anxiously wanting to re-watch Kubric’s masterpiece, but wanting to discuss it with whomever will listen to your ramblings.

That all said, the film truly comes into its own as it nears its conclusion. Positing that, like any classical art form, cinema allows for a person’s past experiences (even having a man state that the film may be inherently about the past, both the tactile past and the concept that is past) to play into their experiences with films,  Room 237  is truly one of the most intriguing post-modern film critiques in some time. Take for example the interviewees. One a German scholar, he takes a reading on the film that is inherently steered towards WWII and the Holocaust. Another, with a penchant for experimental film, takes a look at the film on a more cinematic level not only in how dissolves are worked, but that it can be played backwards and forwards at  the same time to some great rewards. This idea of not only democratization of thought but of the “meaning” of films is easily the film’s most palpable concept beyond just talking about Kubrick, his film and his overall filmography.

Overall, Room 237 is an engaging thesis on not only the state of post-modern film criticism, but itself is a criticism of that very concept. Positing that while it may all be the silly ramblings of men and women a little too deep into their own minds about this film, it also posits that while Kubrick may not have meant for any of these ideas to be inherently in his pictures, when a film is tossed into the hands of the public, their concepts are just as valid as anything the director may have intended. In a world where theories and thoughts themselves are as democratized as ever, is it too shocking that meanings of films have become as plastic and moldable as anything today?

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.