How many times have you heard someone say something to the effect “Yo, I’m totally obsessed with that show/movie, dog!” Probably a bunch of times. In fact, you’ve probably said it yourself once or twice. The thing is that when we say these things we don’t mean them. Not “literally.” No, it’s just a way of saying “I really like that.” It’s just a bit of harmless exaggeration. We wouldn’t really call ourselves “obsessed.” I mean, I guess you could if you think of something like “obsession” to be a tiered type of disposition. Sure(I’ll allow it.). The different levels of “obsession” range from the casual viewer that likes something more than on just a passive level, a person that takes things to the next level( Message boards, film blogs, nerdy shit…), and then you have your true “obsessives.” People that dedicate their entire existences to the study of something they like. Now, this could be anything really. A broad concept, or field of study. A particular genre of film or literature. Usually, it would be something like that. A “true obsessive,” in my opinion, is someone that focuses on things in the singular. Just one thing. Like, I don’t know, The Shining, perhaps? In a a nutshell, that’s what the documentary Room 237 is about. People that are obsessed with The Shining, and all of the things that they see inside the movie. The “real” story the movie is telling.
I’ve been interested in the idea of the double narrative in film for awhile now. Basically, a double narrative refers to the surface level narrative and the sub-textual narrative. One being the one that is obvious, and the other being less obvious(Obviously, this is obviously obvious…). An example would be how that on the surface A History of Violence is about a man who’s past catches up with him, but that’s not really the “real story,” if you will. The sub-textual tale being told is that of the power of the family unit, and not succumbing to fatalistic thinking. You are who you choose to be, would be another way to put it. That’s only one way to think about it though. There’s an entirely different side to this coin, and that’s the visual component. Visual narrative is another important way stories are told. The way you frame a shot, move the camera, or what one chooses to put into the frame, all work to tell us a story. Sometimes that story is different than the one being told to us superficially. We see this mosy commonly in advertising. Those things are full of subconscious messages, hidden imagery, specific color usage, very particular and suggestive framing. A lot of movies employ these kind of techniques, but only a truly great film maker can use them to their full potential.
I’ve always felt that Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, just to name a few, used these methods to the greatest effect. That’s why their movies are so powerful and relevant. Their films have a density that is, quite frankly, mind boggling, and I honestly believe that there is most certainly a lot more going on in these films than meets the eye. This density of craft brings with it opportunities for us, the audience. We can bring our own insights and dispositions to these films, and sometimes these things line up to expose the hidden narrative of the films, but sometimes it can go the other way, and you can read too much into a movie. It can go either way. If you watch something enough times do you start seeing what you want to see?
There’s a contingent of people of the internet that believe The Shining is full of hidden meanings, and is littered with visual codes to suss out said meanings. What leads credence to these points of view is the fact that Stanley Kubrick was an infamously meticulous film maker, and that nothing in his films, visual or otherwise, was there without him intending it to be there. Room 237 exposes us to a small cross section of theories surrounding the hidden narrative of the film. Even though it only has a handful of participants, it is totally representative of the more popular theories, like, this is a confessional about Kubrick faking the Apollo 11 moon landing, or this is really a story about Native American genocide, or that Danny is actually totally complicit in the events of the film, or that this is a story about systematic sexual abuse(I actually think this is there.). I could keep going, but I think you see what I’m getting at. These things sound crazy. What’s even crazier though, is the passion in which the people that subscribe to these theories speak, and how when you hear their cases you start to believe them. Now, whoa there, young rapscallion, I’m not saying that all of these things are there, but for the briefest of moments you may catch yourself going “Well, I’ll be damned. Will you look at that…”
These people have been studying this film for years, some for decades, and they have a wealth of data that they believe supports their theories(Actually, the guy who believes in the moon landing fakery believes the government has been watching him. Yeah, they probably are, but I’m not sure if it has to do with his research It’s probably more likely they are because that’s just what they do. You know?). They haven’t just been watching this movie. They’ve been dissecting it. Frame by frame. Forwards and backwards, and sometimes even both at the same time(It’s actually pretty startling to see how much of the imagery lines up in meaningful ways.) Give them enough time, and you’ll see what they see too, because they will give you the context necessary to see it their way. If you’ve ever watched any of those ghost hunting reality shows, they always have things called EVP(Electronic Voice Phenomena…Idiot…), and they claim that what can be heard is voices from the other side. Now, at first listen they sound like garbled, static filled feedback noises. They give you a chance to listen to it a few times before making a suggestion of what it’s saying. Suddenly, after you’ve been told, you start to hear what they say is being said. These theories from the documentary work in kind of the same way. Once one of the subjects ascribes a particular meaning, forcing an association, to a image or line of dialogue, it becomes clearer. They’ve given us the proper context for their beliefs. Actually, most, if not all, organized religion works the same way, really. It’s crazy how convincing some of this stuff seems.
Like I said before, the film represents “small” cross section of the theories out there, and it inter-cuts all the theories at the same time. It can make it a little confusing as to who is talking at what time. What makes this problematic is that there is no “talking heads.” The film makers use clips from a bunch Stanley Kubrick’s films with the interviewees presented as voice over to the images. They are introduced, through text, the first time they speak but never again in the film. It’s not a huge problem, because who’s saying what isn’t really the point, but a few of the male contributors do sound very similar I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine that the voice over style was done for budgetary reasons. They make it work though, and even in an artistic way, letting the film speak for it’s self. It’s a minor complaint, and doesn’t really distract unless you want to pay more attention to one theory over the other. If that’s the case, hop on-line. You’ll get lost for awhile looking into this stuff, through blogs and YouTube videos. Seriously, if you find this sort of stuff fascinating, on any level, get prepared to lose a few days.
Having said all that, about the “surface level narrative” of Room 237, what about the “sub-textual narrative” present. Well, this movie isn’t really about The Shining, the “crazy” theories surrounding it, or the people that believe it. It’s about the power of art, and how we consume it. How we subscribe our personal beliefs to things to force meaning into them. How fandom can be really crazy sometimes. Take for instance, the guy that believes that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 moon landing. I have a sneaking suspicion that that guy probably believed that prior to viewing this film, and then found things in the movie that supported his theories. Probably. You never though… If anything, the film is a good example of how something meticulously well made effects people on a deeper level, than say Transformers.
I found this to be a really fascinating documentary, and a good introduction to this other side of movie fanaticism. The passionate art that comes from exposure to other passionate art. It’s a perfect primer, in my opinion, but like I said, if you find this stuff interesting get ready to waste a lot of time on the internet. Actually, one of the better guys working in this type of stuff is Rob Ager. He’s one of the first that I stumbled upon. His stuff is a bit more grounded, and actually seems pretty credible. It’s a little on the “dry” side, but it’s worth your time. People that enjoy a good conspiracy theory, in-depth film analysis, and lovers of the documentary format should take the plunge. Everyone else? What good are you, really? Room 237 is currently in limited release, but can also be viwed from the comfort of your own home via VOD.
One last thing. Just for fun, if you’d like to check out a full documentary about one of these theories here’s a real doozy. The Shining Code 2.0. It’s an entertaining watch if you’re really bored. It makes some serious leaps to connect things. Pretty fun stuff. If you want something slightly more insightful and clinical, check out this Rob Ager piece, Moving Furniture in The Shining.