Room 237 (Ascher, 2012)

In the picture above do you see: a) a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining?; b) a sly clue that the director of the film helped fake the Apollo moon landings?; c) an abstract phallic symbol denoting the mechanization of even man’s most organic actions?; d) a preoccupation with the genocide of the American Indian?; or e) Hitler–the answer is always Hitler.

If you answered b, c, d, or e, than this film is about you. If you answered “a” than the film has a better chance of being for you. I say “better” but there is a still a chance that those who laugh through and at the collection of out there-ish interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s famous adaptation of Stephen King’s novel for the first hour or so may become bored or restless at Room 237‘s inability to pivot towards a thesis of its own–if not about The Shining then at least about what the proliferation of tenuous interpretations of obscure hidden meanings says about the line between interpretation and imagination.

The brilliant (but often misunderstood) American reader-response critic, Stanley Fish once opined that no text is closed to any possible meaning. To say a text “can’t” mean something is to say only that no one has yet made a plausible and persuasive argument of how it does. Some may say that an interpretation of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” that claims the story is about the author’s belief that he is a reincarnated Eskimo may be unsupportable by the text. Let academia discover a verified source that shows the author did hold such a belief, however, and the same text will be thought to teem with examples so obvious we will wonder why previous generations missed them.

Fish’s argument is neither about Faulkner’s story, nor does he state (as is commonly misconstrued) that any narrative can mean anything. It is an argument about what we accept as evidence and why. The argument for an interpretation still needs to be accepted by a broad enough portion of the reading community as plausible. Towards the end of Room 237, one of the film’s philosopher’s argues that authorial intent is not sacrosanct in “postmodern” criticism. That’s true, but it has never meant that all interpretations are equal.

Room 237 wants to have it both ways. It invites us (for the most part) to laugh at the most outlandish while simultaneously suggesting the the less outlandish is worth our attention because something is there. At the Toronto International Film Festival director Rodney Ascher said he was spooked a bit by visual synchronicities  created when one critic played the film backward and forward at the same time. It was hard during this section not to think of the legion of fans who have played Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon as a soundtrack for The Wizard of Oz.  Doing so creates some admittedly striking juxtapositions, but how many are required to imply intent? I once did the same exercise with The Muppet Movie, and there appeared to be just as many random alignments. The law of large numbers suggests that if you filter through enough data, stuff that is random will take on the appearance of patterns in spots.

That’s not to say that watching Room 237 doesn’t have its pleasures. Who loves art of any kind and doesn’t take pleasure in the contemplation of possible interpretations even if one ultimately rejects them? My only real beef with the documentary is that it robs the contemplation of the pleasure by creating a (in my view, false) space where there is never any move beyond the endless articulation of arguments to consensus or, heaven forbid, application. Playing in the critical-interpretive sandbox is fun. Pitching your tent there and refusing to leave is actually a little sad.

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