Everybody’s a Critic

The documentary Room 237, the democratization of film criticism, and a belated eulogy for Roger Ebert

For Room 237, filmmaker Rodney Ascher basically hands the microphone to five different people obsessed with The Shining, combines it with a ton of cleverly-edited footage from Stanley Kubrick’s films and various others, some neat graphics and oppressively creepy background music, and presents each one’s theory of what the film actually “means.” It’s all presented in the most straightforward manner possible; with no commentary from the filmmakers and almost no editorial tricks common to documentaries trying to make a point. Instead, it simply invites you to do what its subjects have done: come up with your own interpretation.

(I say “almost” no editorial tricks because one particularly crackpot theory is followed with Jack Torrance telling Lloyd the bartender “Whatever you say, Lloyd. Whatever you say.”)

It’s a neat example of the form of the documentary furthering its meaning. Or at least, what I interpret to be its meaning, which is about the act of interpretation itself. It’s essentially a case study of How Art Works.

One of the statements from one of the speakers is given prominence towards the end of the film, in which he talks about post modern film criticism and the notion that ideas and symbols exist within a work of art whether or not the artist was conscious of them. When delivered by a man who’s spent the last hour going into detail about his theory of how The Shining is actually a condemnation of the genocide of Native Americans, it’s easy to recognize that for what it typically is: a bullshit attempt by an academic to cover his ass, allowing him to come up with any crackpot interpretation imaginable without fear of being challenged. It’s the Montessori School of film criticism, and you’ll see it a lot in any cinema studies course. Everybody’s right!

But when you hear it in the larger context of the whole documentary, it becomes a somewhat appealing concept again. Since Room 237 doesn’t make any value judgments about the individual interpretations, and instead lets them speak and shows you exactly what they see — often frame by frame, looped, paused, reversed, or superimposed — the documentary becomes less about the conclusions and more about the process of interpretation itself.

The bit I mentioned earlier might not’ve been from the guy who believed The Shining is about the genocide of Native Americans; it could’ve been the guy who claims it’s Stanley Kubrick’s coded confession about faking the Apollo moon landing footage. Or the one who claims it’s about the Holocaust. I know it’s not the one who saw the image of the Minotaur in a poster of a skier, because that was a woman. But none of the speakers are shown, they only exist as voices. And they’re introduced individually at the beginning, but then intermingle through the rest of the documentary. You’re bombarded with theories ranging from obsessive to outright insane, but they all coexist, with a detail having one meaning to one speaker and a different meaning to another.

Turn Me On Dead Man

Kubrick’s hand is so obvious in The Shining that even to a non-obssessive viewer, it seems like an intricate, disorienting puzzle box. You don’t necessarily have to “solve” the puzzle box to have fun with it. And you can appreciate the process of picking out tiny details and stringing them together into some grander storyline, even if you think the storyline is absolutely nuts.

Incidentally (and really, any one interpretation is almost incidental at this point) the only take presented in the documented that I agree with at all is from the woman who saw the Minotaur. Not for the Minotaur part — she’s the most rational of all the subjects, and the idea of the labyrinth theme getting even more representation is a nice one, but most of her examples are a real reach. I agree with the conclusion that the disorienting and inconsistent layout of the hotel, the slow dissolves, the weird framing of scenes, and the “errors” in continuity, are all intended to be unsettling and uncanny. You become trapped in a space that couldn’t possibly exist, and as the movie goes on, you get the growing suspicion that you won’t be able to find your way out.

Watching Room 237 reminded me of the time I spent working the late shift at a computer lab in college. Stuck in an empty room at midnight, the only thing to do was go on USENET and stumble down one rabbit hole or another filled with ghost stories, urban legends, and rumors. One of the creepiest and most entertaining was exploring all the details of the “Paul McCartney is dead” urban legend — details hidden in album covers or backwards-masked song lyrics, interviews, and old photos. Obviously my rational mind knew it was all nonsense, but it was fascinating to see the almost-near-plausibility of the ridiculously elaborate story that people had concocted. And by the time I got to the butcher cover (which I’d never seen before), I was completely and thoroughly creeped out.

The documentary has the same effect: faceless voices (one with an excessively creepy laugh) recounting elaborate but obviously false stories, finding details that simply don’t exist, played on top of creepy images from Faust or Eyes Wide Shut or old newsreels, synched with scenes from The Shining that show (or pointedly don’t show, in several cases) exactly what the speaker is talking about, all played on top of unsettling and increasingly loud synthesizer droning. (My one technical complaint about Room 237 is that the background music often overpowers the voices). I’ve watched The Shining at least a dozen times, but last night after watching Room 237 was the first time I’ve had to sleep with a light on.

Unlike the unsettling horror of The Shining, though, the creepiness of the documentary is short-lived and disappears the next morning. I did go away wishing that the movie had presented at least one more plausible theory. Not something to convince me, necessarily, but at least one that would leave the barest hint of a “well, maybe…” doubt.

Speaking of going down an internet rabbit hole: a while ago, I stumbled on this analysis of The Shining by Rob Ager, which is full of obsessive detail and all kinds of connections stretched tenuously thin. I don’t mean to sound completely dismissive; while I don’t believe any of Ager’s theories, I think they’re fascinating and remarkably well-presented. The most unsettling to me was his theory about hints of a history of sexual abuse in the movie.

Am I convinced? No, if only because the connections would ascribe a god-like level of oversight and prescience to Stanley Kubrick that even a genius isn’t capable of. But there are still details that I can’t dismiss as easily as the cans of Calumet baking powder or occurrences of the number 42 that are presented in Room 237. Why would Jack Torrance be reading a copy of Playgirl, and why would it even be in a hotel lobby in the first place? Why is there so much soft-core porn hanging up everywhere? Why does the TV not have a cord? (The last is a detail that’s mentioned in the documentary, but none of the speakers gives a particularly compelling explanation).

I’d been hoping that Room 237 would have more material like that. But for all its mimicry of The Shining‘s advertising and presentation, and despite its tag-line describing it as “an inquiry into The Shining in 9 parts,” it really seems to be less interested in what the interpretations reveal about the movie as it is interested in the act of interpretation itself. I got the sense from the documentary that Kubrick’s genius — at least where this film is concerned — wasn’t in constructing an elaborate hidden puzzle for viewers to “solve.” It was in making something so meticulously crafted and so filled with memorable images that audiences could study it for over thirty years and still not feel as if they’d discovered everything.

Bullshit and Its Relation to the Unconscious

In a fantastic review of Room 237, Robert Greene calls it “the first great comedy about film criticism.” He points out that Ascher doesn’t mock his subjects; if anything, with the meticulous editing and assemblage of found footage, he obsesses over their interpretations almost as much as they do over Kubrick’s film. By letting their analyses “proceed to their gloriously ridiculous ends,” Greene says that Ascher has made something of a horror-comedy about the mental process of critiquing a film.

These characters are not “proper” film critics. But their obsessive readings can be seen as a metaphor for all film analysis. That burning need to scrutinize—to interpret and explain—is the soul of even the most sophisticated criticism. What Room 237 does is take that internal desire to understand and transforms it into a raging, slobbering, terribly funny movie monster.

I watched it with hands over mouth, openly terrified of this new screen villain, the id critic.

Greene ends up being relatively sanguine about it, but he points to this hilarious blog entry/rant by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who’s having absolutely none of it. Rosenbaum calls Room 237 “reprehensible.” He says that because Ascher doesn’t distinguish the crackpot theories from the sound ones, he presents the idea that they’re all part of this melange of general “film criticism,” where everything has equal weight and value.

Rosenbaum says that Ascher “inevitably winds up undermining criticism itself by making it all seem like a disreputable, absurd activity.” He says that because Ascher doesn’t call out the obvious problems with the theory that The Shining is Kubrick’s coded confession for faking the Apollo moon landing footage, or that it’s a commentary on the Holocaust or the genocide of native peoples by Europeans, he makes even the more reasonable subjects seem like cranks.

And then Rosenbaum goes on a fairly extended tirade drawing parallels between Room 237 and supporters of Mitt Romney in the recent Presidential election. Like I said: hilarious. I wish Rosenbaum hadn’t earlier on been so dismissive of irony (“the perpetual escape hatch,”) since he’s clearly a master of it.

We All Shine On

The larger irony is that the impartiality of Room 237 ends up saying pretty much the opposite of what Rosenbaum accuses. By refusing to declare a “winner,” the documentary invites you to make your own interpretation. Here’s what these people see; what do you see? I didn’t take it as a mockery of film criticism so much as a celebration of it.

Both Greene and Rosenbaum — although Greene’s a lot more magnanimous and self-deprecating about it — are looking at Room 237 as a commentary on them and what they do. There’s a sense of film criticism as a rigorous field of study that should only be undertaken by trained professionals. Even though I very rarely see accessible, non-academic commentary on film that actually uses the language of film in its analysis — most popular film criticism is just an assemblage of facts from the press kit, combined with some comparisons to other movies the writer’s seen, to form an essay that’s just the writer’s interoperation of what the filmmaker was trying to say. A lot of it’s great, but it’s not exactly formal enough to require a cinema studies degree.

Several of the subjects of Room 237 try to bolster their own credentials as well. The Holocaust guy reiterates that he viewed The Shining as a historian. Faked moon landing guy insists that he consulted several experts on the process of front-screen projection who all agree with him. Superimpose the movie backwards-and-forwards guy explains (I think) that the movie made him want to be a filmmaker, and he’s studying it from the perspective of a filmmaker.

All of them have a sense of “we can see something you can’t.” It’s made explicit late in the documentary, as one of the subjects makes a comparison between watching the film and finding its hidden meanings, and the shining that Danny and Halloran have as described in the book and the film. Analysis like this is a special gift, and not everybody can do it.

But again, I got the sense that Room 237 is a rejection of that idea. Its impartiality says that everybody can do this, but only some people can do it well. (And “well” is for you to decide yourself). It’s not as interested in formal training or qualifications so much as the entirety of what you bring to the interpretation. Each of the subjects gets the chance to put a personal spin on their take: a short animated sequence where one of the speakers describes her young son talking about a “splitting headache,” and its synchronicity with one of the images in The Shining. A speaker talks about a vacation to Costa Rica where he meets a few other people obsessed with the film. One speaker describes his first viewing of the movie in detail. One speaker comments about the increasingly unnerving similarities between his own life and Jack Torrance’s, and gives another nervous laugh.

Amidst the freeze frames, zoomed-in set decorations, superimposed images, and detailed maps of the Overlook, those personal moments stand out. Room 237 doesn’t seem as interested in what Kubrick hid inside The Shining as what we all bring to it and how we’re affected by it.

Two Thumbs Up

Which dovetails into my thoughts about Roger Ebert’s career. (He doesn’t seem to have reviewed Room 237, which is unfortunate since I would’ve been very interested in what he had to say about it).

I was surprised by how saddened I was when I heard that Ebert had died. I was immediately taken over by whatever it is that compels people to try and eulogize celebrities they’d never met in social media, but I had trouble figuring out exactly what I wanted to say.

My first attempt was “I hardly ever agreed with Ebert’s reviews, but I always respected him.” But that was as bald-faced a lie as I’ve ever told on the internet. I never liked that he wrote so many reviews completely trashing a movie — instead of trying to meet the filmmakers halfway — that he could fill two whole books with them. It’s not just that I didn’t agree with his reviews; I thought many of them were vapid or missed the point entirely. Of course I didn’t respect where he eventually landed on the “are video games art?” conundrum. And back when I was a pretentious wannabe film student, I was even worse: I hated that they’d reduced all the subtlety and nuance of a film to a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down. “I can’t believe they gave this guy a Pulitzer just for writing about someone else’s work!” is an actual thing that dumb, younger me said. Out loud.

It took me a while to realize that the fact 16-year-old me and 40-year-old me were both bitching about this guy was a sign of how long he’s been relevant, and how much of an impact he’s had on what I do and what I like. And the fact that I spent a couple of decades disagreeing with him meant that he’d done something remarkable: opened the discussion up to everyone. Even pretentious 16-year-olds.

Ebert brought film criticism to the mainstream. I don’t really know the details, since I was completely unaware of him before At the Movies played on the local PBS channel, so I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that pop film critics like Leonard Maltin had been doing their thing for longer. But Ebert was the mainstream film reviewer who gave the impression that he really knew what he was talking about. He was reviewing movies — even the cheesy summer blockbusters — as works of art.

And you might be justified in looking at all the movie review blogs, star reviews, viewers’ comments, and imdb ratings, and thinking that a world full of film critics is not an achievement to be celebrated. But that’s not the great achievement: a world full of art critics really is something significant.

When I was growing up, film criticism was pretty much exactly what Rosenbaum describes: a rarefied environment of academics and film journals. On the more low-brow side, you’d have movie magazines like Fangoria and Starlog that essentially catered to obsessives. And on the shallow side, each metro area would have its own local reviewers who’d give the new releases a number of stars or a clapping man. What At the Movies did was take it nation-wide and make it accessible to everyone. You didn’t necessarily have to be a movie obsessive to be interested in a critical analysis of movies. Audiences were every bit as capable as film reviewers of watching movies as more than just diversions. And giving their analyses of movies with more depth than just “I liked it” or “I hated it.” You don’t have to use terms like mise en scene (in fact, I’d strongly suggest you didn’t) to think about how a movie works and why it makes you feel the way it does.

And of course that goes beyond just inspiring film critics, and it even goes beyond film. When you open up cinema and invite everyone in the audience to look at the movie critically and analytically, you’ve encouraged them to do the same for everything. That two-way communication, where the artist and audience are both exchanging ideas, is how entertainment becomes art.