I watched the documentary Room 237 by Rodney Ascher this week, which presents several uber-fans’ analyses of Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining.
At first I was put off by some of the far-fetched hypotheses. Is this an ironic look at a bunch of conspiracy theories? But I was soon mesmerized by their passionate defenses – the excitement in their voices – and the footage Ascher (who also edited the film) used to illustrate their arguments. I say the “excitement in their voices” because you don’t see the fans. In fact, they’re sometimes interviewed over the phone (or according to this interview, maybe it was Skype), which adds another interesting layer of anonymity to their commentary. (There’s a great moment where a guy is deep into his analysis, which is being presented over footage of the Kubrick film, and you slowly become aware of an eerie sound of a child crying in the background. He suddenly interrupts his own commentary and says something like, “Do you hear that?” – for a chilling second I thought – what the hell is going on?? It was like a ghost had infiltrated his analysis the way ghosts haunt the characters in the movie. But then the guy says, “Hang on…” and breaks away to quiet his crying son, and I realized: Oh, that’s HIS kid. It was a weirdly thrilling breaking of the documentary’s fourth wall.) The effect of Ascher’s technique (never seeing his subjects) ultimately means you can’t judge the person, you can only judge the theory.
It made me think a lot about how we judge and what we judge and why.
I found myself thinking about the human need for meaning. We look for it everywhere. We are always crafting stories. Whether it’s an interpretation of a perceived slight from a friend or lover, an anxiety dream, or a can of Tang in the background of the kitchen scene in The Shining. What does it mean? Is he mad at me? Am I stressed out at work? Did Kubrick fake the Apollo landing? We are always wondering, looking for explanations, and when we hit on one, it’s hard for us to let it go, and we will defend it to the end. It seems to me almost every human preoccupation can be explained by this drive: religion, politics, psychiatry, film theory, tabloid journalism…
The film also made me nostalgic for a certain kind of criticism. In college and grad school I studied literary and film criticism and found it exciting. It was about trying to understand works of art. Looking for clues in an author’s or auteur’s work. Connecting stories to a personal or cultural history to better understand intention. Or just looking for clues in the work itself. But when I started working as a writer, actor and producer, “criticism” became judgment. It meant notes, revisions, reviews, or the look on someone’s face after a show or screening: Do they like the work? Do they like me? It became about success or failure. Good or bad. It became a verdict.
I miss the joy and pleasure of searching for meaning. The motivation to try and understand someone’s work, rather than to decide what’s right or wrong about it. Obviously it’s easier to obsessively analyze something you love, admire or relate to. But I wonder if there isn’t a way to get back to some of that critical analysis in our culture. Or at least in my own life and work. When I look more curiously at other people’s work, it helps me in my own. It allows more compassion for my own process of discovery in my writing, rather than the fear provoked by the rush to judgment.
Certainly Kubrick’s The Shining has had its share of critics, including the book’s author, Stephen King. But it also had its fans. The theories in Room 237 made me wonder: Can we reignite the joy and pleasure of finding meaning, and move away from the schadenfreude of discerning failure?