Conspiracy theories brought to a new level
What is a good conspiracy theory? Does it need to be believable, trustworthy and reasonable? Do you expect it to be founded on at least some kind of evidence?
No, not at all if you ask me. The good conspiracy theories are the ones with sticky ideas. They’re odd enough to tickle your imagination and spark a conversation. They’re crazy enough to provoke a laugh of surprise. Conspiracy theories have nothing to do with journalism or science. They’re all about entertainment and that’s why they work so well in movies.
We’ve seen quite a few of the more popular theories brought to the screen. The “truth” about the assassination of JFK, the moon landing that “never took place”, secret societies in control of the world and a crashed spaceship covered up by US authorities. We know that territory well by now; we’ve walked the grounds so many times that I’m afraid that the entertainment value is diminishing. We’re ready for some new, fresh and juicy conspiracies to be amazed by, something we haven’t heard before.
This is one of the things that makes documentary Room 237 such an enjoyable watch. While it admittedly touches on the moon landing, it also brings new ideas to the table. Unlike in most conspiracies, it isn’t the government that is accused of manipulation. The one who is claimed to have a hidden agenda is a film director, which of course makes it even more fun to watch for a film fan like me.
I had the opportunity to watch Room 237 at a special Halloween event arranged by the local film club where I’m a member. We made it a double where we first showed the classic horror movie The Shining and then went on showing this documentary which examines the said movie inch by inch, second by second, backward and forward and from all sorts of angels.
Since I knew what the following film was about, I paid more attention than usual to the details in The Shining. I was constantly checking out the background, looking for patterns, something that could have a second meaning, but alas, unless someone else pointed it out to me, I couldn’t see anything hidden at all. All I saw was a good horror movie, with a great atmosphere, some beautiful, haunting shots and a Jack Nicholson at his best.
I would clearly make a terrible conspiracy watcher. I could never join the ranks of the people we meet in Room 237: fans who have dedicated their lives to analyze The Shining down on atom level. They don’t only make their own interpretations of the movie; they’re also convinced that they are revealing the “true” intentions of the director Stanley Kubrick. Since Kubrick died in 1999, he hasn’t much saying in this. But to be honest, even if he was alive, I don’t think that those “truth” seekers would pay all that much attention to his view on this. It’s a conspiracy after all, so he’d probably be lying anyway.
Oddly enough we never get to see the tinfoil hat thinkers in person; we only hear their voices. Their testimonies are instead illustrated by numerous clips from The Shining as well as from other movies.
One of those voices tells us that The Shining in fact is about the oppression of the original inhabitants of North America. Another one is equally sure that it’s about The Holocaust. One of the “proofs” of this is that Jack Nicholson’s character uses a German typewriter. And then there’s the everpresent idea about the assumed falsified moon landing. Kubrick is supposed to have recorded film shots that were presented as taken on the Moon, while they were in fact recorded in Hollywood. His confession of this conspiracy is to be found in The Shining, in the form of hidden messages. According to the tinfoil hat wearer.
A new level of geekdom
I don’t find it that strange that someone falls in love with a movie so deeply that he or she decides to see it a lot of times. We hear about it all the time. I have a friend who probably has seen The Third Man about 150 times. This is remarkable, but I’ve never heard a word of conspiracy thinking or other weirdness coming from him. He just thinks it’s a good movie.
It’s also understandable that someone can become intrigued by a certain aspect of a film, like the people who make timeline spreadsheets of Primer or the woman who is so intrigued by the architecture of the hotel that she draws a map to understand exactly what turns the boy makes on his bicycle tour. However, the fans we meet in Room 237 take geekdom to a new level.
They can spend hours and hours staring at one shot of a cloud that appears in the beginning of the movie. The cloud looks absolutely ordinary to me, but they’re able to find a face in it, the same way as some people claim that they see the face of Jesus on toast slices, in drying paint and whatnot. It’s just that in this case Jesus is replaced by the face of Stanley Kubrick.
The dedicated fans also keep track of the storage room that appears in the movie. In the background you can see a few cans, and if suddenly a can is missing or there’s an extra can, they read something Very Important into it.
Back in the days of vinyl records, there were rumors about certain artists that had secret satanic messages on their records that you’d only hear if you played them backwards. Well, there’s kind of an equivalence of this in Room 237, when one in the tinfoil panel plays The Shining in the normal way as well as backwards, at the same time, with transparent layers. The truth is supposed to appear somewhere in the blurred mess of faces on top of each other.
A mirror of film criticism
Some of the findings presented in the film are more believable than others. I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere that Kubrick was interested in the technique of subliminal messages, so it seems possible that he might have played with it in one way or another. But most of the theories aren’t particularly convincing to be honest. However I don’t think that’s the point of Room 237. I’ve seen a few negative reviews from people who are dismissing the ideas as silly. But the purpose was never to turn everyone into supporters of the conspiracy theories. The idea is to entertain us as well as to hold up a mirror.
Of course you can’t help smiling at some of the ideas we’re presented here, but the laughs aren’t only aimed at “those crazy people”. It’s also aimed towards people like you and me. The fans of The Shining aren’t the only ones who read meanings into movies, to second-guess the intentions of the director. Most of us who write about movies, either we’re professional film critics, academics or just amateur bloggers, are also guilty of this, although perhaps in a milder form. And that’s ok!
An author or a film maker may have the economical rights to a certain piece of work, but the interpretation rights belong to the audience. Correct or not, who are we to tell? As long as they’re fun, interesting and thought provoking, I’m good.
Room 237 (Rodney Asher, US 2012) My rating: 4/5
This post is a part of a blogathon iniciated by the movie blog network Filmspanarna. The theme was “conspiracy theories”. Here are links to my fellow bloggers: