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Tuesday 16 April 2013

Film Review: Room 237

Room 237 opens with a man explaining that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is an extended metaphor for the genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America. His chief justification is a can of baking powder in the background of a shot, though he's got lots more evidence. A subsequent critic agrees that the film is about genocide, but argues that the focus is actually the Holocaust. The proof is a German typewriter and the prevalence of the number 42.

I've seen The Shining, but so long ago I can't remember specifics. Mostly I remember being baffled and bored. I was probably too green to pick up on the subtleties, so I always planned on watching it again. Before I did I figured I'd watch Room 237, a documentary about the many possible interpretations of the film, so I'd go in primed. Boy am I primed.

Many of the ideas floated in Room 237 are ridiculous, but it doesn't seem to matter. The movie fascinates because it's a testament to the associative power of the human mind. Being a Kubrick fan probably intensifies the experience, but it's just as easy to study the interviewees as the film in question. There's scant mention of The Shining's plot or characters, or anything that takes place in the foreground - most critics are more interested in the poster on the wall behind the ghostly apparitions, or the aforementioned baking powder. Snatches of dialogue are given close scrutiny, but only if they're considered a cryptic allusion, say, to the theory that Stanley Kubrick staged the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Not all the theories are quite so fringe. Room 237 has a lot to say about the artistry of the film techniques Kubrick employed. The Overlook Hotel where the The Shining is set has an impossible architecture, and though you might not notice the discrepancies when you're caught up in the storytelling, they contribute to the sense of unease. I think I understand film language well on the intuitive level, but it's interesting to be consciously reminded of what a dissolve means, or to notice how the extras in a casual scene are exquisitely timed. This element might only appeal to a geekier segment of watchers, because my wife Rebecca gave up around the halfway point. But that meant she missed the eeriest observation of all - when the film is superimposed forwards and backwards over itself, it has a disturbing symmetry. Seeing how meaningfully the images comment on each other, it's hard not believe the effect was intentional.

Believing in the intention is important, because I doubt people would be willing to devote so much time to watching a less prominent artist's work frame by frame. They spend hours decoding the significance of a minor character who would be dismissed as unnecessary in a lesser movie. There's an element of projection, in that the willlingness to believe fosters connections we would never make otherwise. What marvels would we find if we trusted in the greatness of a dish soap commercial? (Some of the same things, apparently - one critic claims Kubrick studied subliminal messages in advertising.) Nonetheless, I'm certain Kubrick's rigour as a filmmaker encourages and supports the investigation. It's just too bad he couldn't live to see Room 237, I'm sure he would've gotten the biggest kick of all.

As a documentary, Room 237 has its flaws. The critics interviewed in the film are never shown on-screen, and two of them have such similar voices it takes a moment to realize who's talking. The soundtrack is pretty intrusive, and it's clear the project was done on a shoestring. None of that ultimately detracts from the message, though: I came away in awe of the mind's ability to see the entire history of humankind in the pattern of a carpet. And with a yen to watch The Shining.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Film Review - It's Such a Beautiful Day

I'm not familiar with Don Hertzfeldt's body of work. Up until a week ago, I had only ever seen Rejected, a series of crude, surreal animated shorts. It's a nine-minute slice of weirdness, the kind of thing that works well as the opener for a midnight movie. Each sequence is wildly unpredictable and often violent, punctuated by non-sequiturs like "My spoon is too big!" and "My anus is bleeding!" Just your typical talking banana, singing creampuff dialogue.

I love the manic energy and invention that went into Rejected, and I was ready for more of the same when I put on Hertzfeldt's latest, It's Such a Beautiful Day. Instead, I was surprised, and quite impressed, to see him applying the same animation techniques in a vastly different emotional register. It's Such a Beautiful Day is the story of a stick figure named Bill's mental collapse. It's hard to convey the poignancy of that stick figure's dilemma without sounding sarcastic or gullible, but once you've seen the movie you'll be amazed how genuinely affecting the execution really is. The same crudity that was put to humorous or abstract use in Rejected is used to reflect Bill's shrinking world.

I'm a fan of all types of animation, but I don't think I've ever seen so much done with so little. It's a simplicity that comes from mastery of the form. I'd recommend It's Such a Beautiful Day to anyone, but those who've seen Rejected will get the added pleasure of bearing witness to Hertzfeldt's versatility. He certainly knows how to dredge absurdities from his subconscious, but he can also deliver a story straight from the heart. This is one of the best and most surprising works of art I've seen in awhile.