Sunday, June 30, 2013

Room 237 and Kubrick Conspiracies

Being both a film critic and a researcher, I've always had a particular fondness for the theorists that pair the two disciplines.  They have many similarities, truth be told.  Both are concerned with bringing the obscured to light -- the film maker's meaning or the conspirators' plot -- and each attracts a certain type of type of individual blessed (or cursed) with the ability to perceive meaning where others do not.  That said, society typically takes an equally dismissive view of both.  The conspiracist is brushed off as a crackpot or paranoid, and the critic is accused of reading too much into what is ostensibly entertainment; the "it's just a movie" argument.  There are, of course, many in these fields about which these and other criticisms are true, yet all academic disciplines are plagued by a surfeit of professionals who cling to their theories and ignore any evidence to the contrary. 

This idea of "pet theories" plays heavily into the new documentary Room 237 by Rodney Ascher.  Ascher has assembled five theorists who have unique views on Stanley Kubrick's 1980 The Shining, and illustrates these theories via the film itself.  The Shining can be seen as a document of a man's descent into madness, and Room 237 positions itself as a look into the same.  Though Ascher never adds commentary on the theorists' views, he employs the "give 'em enough rope" method of documentary filmmaking, preferring to let the participants malign themselves.  Instead of editing their thoughts to be more concise, Ascher allows each speaker to trail off, pepper their speech with "like" and "ummm" to a distracting degree, and, in one instance, temporarily leave the discussion to check on a crying child.  Contextualized correctly, the latter incident would have had a humanizing effect on the speaker, but here it is used to highlight the individual as unprofessional, i.e. someone to whom you shouldn't bother listening. 

Professional film critics certainly picked up on Ascher's plan and ran with it, calling the ideas presented in the film "laughable," and seemingly taking great umbrage that anyone not formally granted admission into the ivory halls of Film Criticism, Inc. would dare to attempt to analyze a film on their own.  The "give 'em enough rope" and "look at these wackos" style of documentaries have been the status quo for over a decade now, yet the typical reaction is one of pity, not scorn, for those involved.  Even positive reviews of the film itself went out of their way to take potshots at the participants, which I would be suspicious about if I were only slightly more paranoid than I already am.

In Ascher and the critics' defense, only three of the five speakers present their ideas in a coherent enough manner as to be worthy of summarizing here.  (The other two bring up some interesting ideas, but never tie them together or attempt to go anywhere with them).  The three Shining theories elucidated in the film are:
  • That the film was Kubrick's analysis of white Europeans' colonization of America.  Cited are the many Native American references and visual motifs in the film and the idea of the past colliding with the present.
  • That The Shining is Kubrick's round-about method of making a Holocaust film because he felt it could not be represented directly.  Evidence here is more tenuous, citing old Looney Tunes shorts and typewriter models as proof.
  • Lastly is the theory popularized by Jay Weidner: that Kubrick encoded his "confession" about faking the moon landing for NASA into The Shining
It is on the latter that I'll delve in deeper.  Weidner is likely known to many of you as the filmmaker behind Kubrick's Odyssey I & II, themselves masterful examples of both conspiricism and film criticism.  Weidner makes the best showing in Room 237, likely because he's honed his Kubrick theorizing the most, and his insights take us down a strange road of conspiricism that has been travelled by many others.

Weidner did not come up with the theory that Stanley Kubrick filmed a faked moon landing.  I've never been able to pin down exactly who first promoted this theory, but it has its origins in the documented relationship that Kubrick had with NASA during the filming of 2001: a Space Odyssey.  The 1968 film is cited by many theorists (Weidner included) as being a "test shoot" for Kubrick's eventual faking of the landing in 1969. Other than the obvious thematic similarities, there is little to link Kubrick's cinematic marvel with the grainy, black-and-white footage of Aldrin and Armstrong, but Weidner solves this problem by observing that both utilized the technique of forward projection in their filming.  Forward projection is a complicated technique to place actors in a different setting, and is less obvious to viewers than chroma keying ("green screen" or "blue screen") or backward projection (think the way driving was filmed in old movies).  Weidner maintains that the faked moon landing utilized forward projection, so naturally the party responsible would had to have been the artist who mastered the technique, Stanley Kubrick. 

Weidner still maintains that America did in fact land on the moon in 1969 and that it was just the footage that was faked.  To date, he's been mum on why such an effort would have been necessary, but his belief in a real moon landing puts him at odds with the majority of moon landing conspiracy theorists.  Moon landing conspiracies are among some of the most inventive in all of conspiracism, and it's a rabbit hole I neither have time nor space to delve into sufficiently here. 

Weidner's theories regarding Kubrick's films are intriguing and well presented, but I'd advise the curious to steer clear of Room 237 and get them straight from the source in his Kubrick's Odyssey films.  His Room 237 compatriots aren't up to his level of analysis or possess as engaging a personality. 

There are a number of conspiracy theories in which Stanley Kubrick factors heavily, and I'll present a more formal analysis of that evidence in later posts.

For a more in depth look at Space Conspiracies, please refer to my book, Conspiracy Cinema.

Some of my favorite destinations of "conspiracy criticism"
The Secret Sun currently doing an excellent exploration of Star Trek & its connection to the shadowy intersection of the CIA and New Age UFO chasers.
Subliminal Synchrosphere (currently on hiatus)
Data Asylum - real headscratcher....I'm not 100% sure on how to take all the information presented here, but I'm engrossed by it.

There are several other films dedicated to filmic analysis that will be discussed in-depth in later posts.