Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pattern Recognition

There's a word for the psychological effect that causes people to see Jesus in a piece of toast. It's called "pareidolia", and it's the reason that you can look at the grille of a car and see a human face staring back at you. The human brain likes to see patterns, particularly patterns that it recognizes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Seeing a purposive universe is a key to the development of science, even if that purposive nature to the universe is an illusion created by the way our brains are wired. Unfortunately, that same pattern recognition feature can become a bug when you can't turn it off. I was thinking about this while I was watching Room 237 (2012, directed by Rodney Ascher), in which five people descant on the "meaning" of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining while trawling through the minutia of the film. Now, I shouldn't throw rocks. I occasionally see things in films that other people don't. Hell, that's what the movie-o-sphere on the internet is for. But I generally don't take the kinds of cognitive leaps that leads the commenters in Room 237 to their conclusions.

Room 237 refers to the room in The Shining where Jack Torrence has an encounter with a ghost in a bathtub. It's the sexual heart of a film that is pretty Freudian in the first place. It features in some of the more minor extrapolations from our theorists. Each of them has a specific lens through which they view the film. One of the film's theories, propounded by one Bill Blakemore, is that The Shining is about the genocide of Native Americans by the expansion of a United States hellbent on its own manifest destiny. For Geoffrey Cocks, The Shining is about the Holocaust. Juli Kearns is obsessed with the spacial anomalies in the film and how they relate to the myth of the labyrinth. John Fell Ryan is intent on finding new ways to view the film, and finds startling juxtapositions if you project the film onto itself, with one copy running from back to front. Jay Weidner thinks the film is a coded confession on Kubrick's part for directing faked footage of the moon landing on the set of 2001. The movie gives each of these takes on the film it's place in the spotlight, and uses The Shining itself, in addition to Kubrick's other films, as its sounding board.

Of the various interpretations of The Shining presented in this film, I'm most sympathetic to those put forth by Juli Kearns and John Fell Ryan. Ryan, for his part, isn't really imposing a specific interpretation on the film so much as he's proposing a fun way to look at the movie. Kearns for her part, picks apart the film's spatial geography, noting a wrongness with all of it. The Overlook Hotel, for her, is a kind of labyrinth, with Jack Torrence as the minotaur at the center of it. Given that one of The Shining's central metaphors is a gigantic hedge maze--a labyrinth in the text of the movie, rather than in the subtext--I'm willing to take this as holding some kind of water. There's certainly precedent in Stephen King's book: it opens with a quote from Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and Hill House is a famous piece of un-real estate beset by "wrong" geometries. Even taking this into account, I think Kearn is seeing things in the movie that she wants to see rather than things that are necessarily really there. It's entirely possible that the inconstant geography of the Overlook Hotel is merely the result of the imperatives of set design. Seeing an intentionality in this is a form of pareidolia.

I'm less sanguine about the other theories presented in this movie. All of them are contingent on minutiae of set design. Blakemore's dive into Native American genocide is predicated on the placement of a can of Calumet baking powder and on the notion that a hotel in the mountains of Colorado might have an ulterior motive for adopting a decor derived from the state's Western heritage. Cocks's tip-off is a typewriter. The fact that the typewriter is a German brand--not an uncommon one, either--leads him to conclude that the movie is deeply tied to the catastrophe of World War II. Both interpretations assume a level of control over every minute detail of the film by Kubrick that seems absurd on its face. Kubrick was known to be a perfectionist, but I've never heard that he was an obsessive. Still, I've accused The Shining of being deliberately obscure in the past, so who knows? Maybe Kubrick intended to send viewers down blind alleys.

Jay Weidner's take on the film is the most troubling. Weidner asserts as fact that the footage of the moon landing was not shot on the moon itself, but was shot on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick. Weidner stops short of saying that NASA never went to the moon, but the idea that the moon landing footage was faked is part and parcel of the broader conspiracy theory. Weidner further asserts that The Shining is some kind of crypto-confession of this "fact." This take on the film taints the others, because at their core, they all have the same characteristics as conspiracy theories. In this light, Cocks's assertion that the presence of the number 42 in the film is a reference to the Wanasee Conference, for one example, becomes risible. This may not be fair to the other theorists, but there it is. Worse, there's no critique of the assertions made in the film.

This film is predicated on the myth of Kubrick the genius, for whom every detail on the screen is intentional. While there is the occasional question of whether something the commenters are interpreting is a continuity error, that myth of the overarching genius acts as a kind of logical fallacy unto itself. Here's the thing with moviemaking. It's an arduous, messy process, in which even the most meticulous of filmmakers will bump up against budgets, time, the talents of his or her collaborators, and sheer accidents that aren't caught in the editing room. It's telling that at least some of the pieces of evidence presented by Room 237 are listed as "goofs" on the IMDB's listing for The Shining. It can be hard to penetrate the infallibility of Kubrick in the minds of his devotees sometimes. This operates over the whole film as a kind of logical fallacy unto itself.

What's interesting to me about Room 237 itself is the fact that it's a film in which practically no footage needed to be created by the filmmakers. There are a couple of animated diagrams and graphics, but nothing that's beyond the reach of most home computers these days. It's cunningly edited, and it has pristine footage from Kubrick's films and multiple other films and archival sources that makes for an attractive film at the very least. But the reliance on pre-existing footage creates a kind of hermetically sealed universe where there's only the text of the film and the theories about what's in that text. It's kind of neurotic. The film plays in interesting prank at the outset, too. We begin with a shot of Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut looking into a window. In Eyes Wide Shut, it's a cafe in New York. In Room 237, it's a theater in "Europe" (which, of course, is where Eyes Wide Shut was filmed), that happens to be showing The Shining. This is funny, I guess, but it calls into question the trustworthiness of the text of the rest of the footage in the film. I don't think it cheats on The Shining, but the film's opening shots suggest that it might.

1 comment:

Barry P. said...

Nice review, Vulnavia. I must admit I've been intrigued by Room 237 and its intriguing (albeit misguided) theories for a while. I guess it's akin to concluding that someone's incoherent babbling must be true, if they prattle long enough and sound convincing.