Saturday, April 13, 2013

Beware Room 237: Failing Calumet-spiracies

The new film Room 237 claims to have new, exciting, and intriguing theories about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Kubrick mad a film that is narratively confusing, different from Stephen King's source material is strange ways, and visually entrancing. The Shining hints at deeper meaning with ambiguous, haunting images that are never explained, so it's not surprising that we've gotten a movie that tries to do so.

The media campaign is probably the most compelling part of Room 237. It's great: there are posters with the hypnotic Overlook Hotel carpet, keyholes filled with garden maze, and the now-infamous Calumet baking powder cans. The previews are perfectly done as well: they use Kubrick's original footage rearranged for maximum effect.

I was excited enough about Room 237 that I watched The Shining in advance. I even wrote an article on this blog with a new conspiracy theory about The Shining. I hold a soft spot in my heart for conspiracy theory movies, like JFK in this article's title image, even when they can be completely bananas. There's something compelling about the idea that there is hidden meaning beneath the surface of what we know that draws us to movies like this.

But unfortunately Room 237 is a letdown. It's not that there aren't some good theories. Rather, the theories a) aren't explained well by the narrators (who we never see) or b) aren't supported by evidence in the film itself.

First off, the narrators are nuts. Not that you would be able to find multiple, super-coherent experts to talk about their theories on such a specific subject - but it would have been nice to get at least one. The narrator with the most interesting, compelling ideas is also very evidently high, or is so frequently high that it has permanently changed his laugh into a stoner laugh. When the narrators "explain" theories, they do so with such a cursory, broad approach that the ideas seem completely unsubstantiated - or they are so specific that the theory is too broad an extrapolation. And there are such huge logical leaps taken that rather than going from A to B, the trip is from A to W, and there's no way for the audience to connect the lines.

Worse, there are several times when a narrator will swear that we'll see something in the footage - and then it isn't there. Room 237 will show the footage, and the thing that the narrator promises doesn't exist. This happens multiple times. In other cases, the footage will actually show something completely contradictory to what the experts are claiming. This would be amusing if Room 237 claimed to be a film about debunking crazy people's theories about The Shining.

Spoilers from here on in as we delve into real content. Reading below will totally spoil the movie for you.

There are a few neat things that Room 237 does talk about. I'm going to spoil them for you now so that you don't have to see the movie:

  • There's an impossible window, which based on the layout of the hotel, should not face the outside (but it does).
  • There are a variety of continuity errors (a vanishing chair, a morphing typewriter), which could be hinting at deeper meaning if they are intentional. While I don't necessarily think they aren't purposeful, if they are I would guess it's more likely that Kubrick was using them to make the viewer feel uncomfortable.
  • Jack Nicholson is reading Playgirl while he's waiting for his new boss in the lobby of the Overlook.
  • The wreck on Hallorann's drive up to the Overlook is that of a red beetle, which could signal Kubrick's disregard for Stephen King's source material.

On to the wonky stuff. There are several over-arching themes that Room 237 tries to apply to The Shining:

  • The Shining is about the holocaust.
  • The Shining is about the plight of the Native Americans. (This is the Calumet can theory.)
  • The Shining is about how Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing footage.
  • The Shining is meant to be played backwards over itself, and we can learn things about it by doing this.

The first two ideas are only marginally interesting, not well explained, and not well substantiated by the evidence that the narrators use. The last one is a great idea for something creepy to do for your next Halloween party, but not very informative as they never explain what the heck the overlaps between forwards and backwards mean.

The Stanley-faked-the-moon-landing idea is the best fleshed out. Sadly, it's also the worst undercut by the zaniness of the narrator. Just when you think that he's making a valid argument, he talks about his friend who says that there are aliens on the moon. And then when you think that he's going to explain how he knows that the footage was faked using a certain technique, he doesn't. And finally, he says that the "Room No 237" label on the key hanging from a lock clearly labels it as the "moon room." This is because the letters in "Room N" (he disregards the third "o" because it's not big) can only be arranged to spell "moon." Sadly, using the "r" that he discards without explanation, we get the more appropriate "moron."

There are convincing arguments to be made for nearly all the theories that are espoused in Room 237. Room 237 doesn't make any of the theories sound convincing. There's still the opportunity to write the definitive documentary on The Shining conspiracies, and I sincerely hope that someone makes that movie.

I don't advocate the recreational use of drugs as a rule. That would be reckless. But if you're of age, and are going to watch Room 237, watch it drunk. And if you're in a state, country, or province where weed is legal, watch it high. The best viewing of this movie is a stupefied, non-critical one where you can wonder at the cool ideas without thinking about them.

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