TIFF 2012 – Seeing What You Want to See: Rodney Ascher’s ROOM 237

Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING is, simply put, one of the finest horror films ever made. Its wonderfully surrealistic aesthetic and narrative lends a certain dream-like quality to the whole affair that leaves large portions of the film completely up to interpretation. That’s the way Kubrick wanted it: THE SHINING is like a puzzle with no borders and, well, no real picture to speak of.

But I don’t think Kubrick would have ever expected the way audiences have begun to force those puzzle pieces together. And if you’ll excuse my unnecessary dedication to this analogy for another sentence or two: just because you can jam two pieces together, doesn’t mean they actually fit. If anything, you’re just bending them to the point where they might not actually fit in the places they were originally supposed to.

There. I got it out of my system.

Rodney Ascher’s ROOM 237 is a baffling documentary, firstly because of the fact that I’m not even certain that I want to call it a documentary (neither does the filmmaker himself, according to his Q&A after the world premiere last night); it’s really more of a 104-minute lecture on conspiracy theories with very few cinematic qualities to speak of. This isn’t necessarily a knock against the film, as it was an artistic choice; one made by necessity, perhaps, but one that was made nonetheless. Interviewees exist entirely within the confines of the audio, floating like ghostly specters over scene after scene of found footage.

Because, curiously, ROOM 237 is made up mostly (possibly entirely) of existing footage, large portions of which come from both the Kubrick film in question as well as several of his other works. In this way, Ascher has essentially created a remediated work, something not wholly dissimilar from what you’d find on YouTube: fans narrating over existing footage, informing you of their theories and ideas. Which is basically all ROOM 237 is: all tell, no show.

The film, divided into nine segments, essentially follows around a half dozen conspiracy theorists as they wax philosophical on their increasingly bizarre interpretations of Kubrick’s masterpiece. Some are vaguely compelling – like the relationship between the film and the Native American genocide – while most are just absolutely, utterly insane, the wild meanderings of fans who have over-analyzed Kubrick’s film into oblivion; one reference to the Holocaust leads into another until suddenly we’re talking about Stanley Kubrick being the man who filmed the faked Moon landing, and that THE SHINING is a government-covered-up allegory for his experience with the deception.

What’s unfortunate is how much material there is to be mined out of the concept, and how little actually winds up on screen. In spite of the fact that Ascher makes clever juxtapositions between the found-footage on screen and what is being said by the interviewees – sometimes with a hint of judgment, most times not – he never actually delves into this obsessive-compulsive behavior and absurdly detailed analysis. That’s where the story is, but Ascher seems completely disinterested in telling it; he’s more concerned with dictating these theories to his audience, which is strange, unless he really just wants to get the word out about what happens when you play the film backwards and forwards at the same time.

The film is funny (often at the expense of the interviewees), but more in a “what am I watching?” kind of way, rather than in a genuine “this is awesome!” kind of way. And that’s really the extent of what can be said about this film: it’s a film for people who want to be preached to for the better part of two hours about theories that they will likely find absurd and dismiss completely. Any notions about the extremes of people’s willingness to create meaning out of an intentionally presented vacuum are ignored, and that’s really the only thing that could be spoken about. ROOM 237 is the equivalent of reading conspiracy theories on the internet for a couple of hours, and nothing more.

5/10

d.a. garabedian

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