2012, Movies

Room 237 (2012, Rodney Ascher)

This is a fascinating and alternatively infuriating and hilarious film – depending on your mood, I would think. It’s a film that exposes the problems with the “Close Reading” of texts (books, film, other forms of art) without directly telling you that it’s problematic. (This is, in my mind, one of the film’s virtues). The film presents five wildly different interpretations of The Shining – which I fortunately just re-watched a couple weeks ago – none of which interpret the film as what it appears to be (though one interpretation almost does).

The takes are mostly wildly off base, they use coincidence, wild imaginations, bizarre viewing strategies and reference to various academic theories they may not understand to claim that Kubrick either wholly or partially intended this film as, among other things,

  • an apology for faking the moon landing,
  • an examination of the “white man’s” guilt over the native American genocide,
  • and a way of relating to the horrors of the Holocaust.

And they make use of things Kubrick no doubt deliberately did in conjunction with things that were likely mistakes to back up their theories. Most of them seem readily willing to admit that their lens are drastically altered by their pasts, and their desires, and so forth, but don’t appear to see how those altered lens thereby undermine their “arguments”.

And so the film acts, at least through my lens, as a criticism of post-modernist film criticism and “close reading” – how, because of the subjectivity of the reader, the reader can travel far up her own ass in an attempt to justify the briefest thought or idea that just popped into her head. To wit: ‘Oh, that skier briefly looked to me like a Minotaur. Now I better construct an elaborate explanation as to how this movie really is about Theseus!’ (In the defense of the Theseus theory, this woman seems to be the most grounded in reality about the film, compared to the rest of them.)

That five such wild theories can be purportedly supported by The Shining does not confirm that all interpretations are valid. Rather it confirms the opposite: that there is a fundamental flaw in the ideas underlying Close Reading, and that those ideas lead us down a rabbit hole of subjectivity from which some people might never recover.

One of the theorists mentions that he is unemployed. That’s worth thinking about. Some people may indeed be able to lead normal lives while entertaining hilariously wrong ideas about “secret meanings” in works of art, but many others will obsess about them to their detriment. And worse, such an understanding of art no doubt informs such a ridiculous understanding about life – i.e. there are secret meanings behind people’s actions, therefore conspiracies are everywhere, etc..

If you are at all interested in how human beings process information, how they think about things, and how they almost always see what they want to see rather than what is in front of them, see this movie.


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