The guy sitting beside me in the theater was beside himself. It seemed as though every outlandish theory proposed by the film Room 237 was a physical assault on his person. He squirmed, sighed deeply and slapped his head at every turn. He just couldn’t believe that people could read so deeply into a film. Believe it.
When it comes to art, people tend to see what they want to see or adamantly point out what they don’t see. For some; art’s job is to act as a mirror for their political views or a Rorschach test of sexual appetites. If you let yourself go, you can see sex everywhere: it can be found anywhere from the pattern in the rug to the design of our buildings to the shape of our produce. Easy associations can be made and our minds are filled with momentary distractions. The cantaloupe’s job isn’t to titillate our sexual appetites but simply be a part of a nutritious breakfast. What we see in the produce aisle is what we project and in a lot of cases the same can be said of art. People are bringing their own personal agendas to the bookstores, cinemas, theaters and museums and interpreting things to suit their world view in ways the artist never intended.
This fact isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. Art should take on a life of its own when it leaves the artist’s hands. Good art is rarely so black and white that it can only suffer one interpretation and many of the things we do see were intended by the artist. The problem arises when people see only what they want to see and in extreme cases twist, reach and distort to fit their personal molds. This is very evident in big media at the moment. Partisan politics has created partisan media where the job is to incite rather to inform. Even the Muppets aren’t immune to these false readings. Apparently according to some; the new Muppet Movie is a liberal stab at big business because Kermit and the gang want to save their theater from a rich tyrannical businessman. Is this really what people come away with after watching that film? It boggles the mind.
I guess for some, art could be considered akin to a maze. Something to be navigated and eventually solved. This is one of the underlying themes of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237. The documentary film explores a handful of people’s interpretations of Stanley Kubrick‘s movie The Shining. Their theories run from the almost plausible to the ‘are you kidding me?’ – Enough to make you squirm in your seat. Scenes are dissected with the skill of a surgeon right down to individual frames or to how many cars are in the parking lot. Everything becomes symbolic. The fun of Room 237 is to witness someone’s thought process as they try to convince you that Stanley Kubrick’s face appears in the clouds during the opening sequence, or that a poster of a skier is in fact a Minotaur or indeed the whole purpose of the film is a confession by the director: that he was responsible for filming the fake moon landing footage. The other real joy of the film is to watch Kubrick’s work on the big screen. Along with The Shining you see clips from Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut and 2001: A Space Odyssey. These clips looked fantastic and really made the case for viewing them in the way they were intended.
Seeing the clips from Lolita reminded me of another work by Vladimir Nabakov called Pale Fire. The book is all about intention and interpretation. Pale Fire is half poem/ half annotation. It is essentially, one man’s interpretation of another man’s art. After reading his dead neighbour’s 999 line poem( which appears in full in the first part of the book) the protagonist twists the imagery into his own personal biography. Nabakov presents a rich tapestry of imagery and symbols just ripe for interpretation. I had a friend in University who explored this work for his final thesis. During his research he plotted every instance that the colours white and black were mentioned throughout the book and devised that Nabakov had intentionally laid the framework for a kind of virtual chessboard within its pages. Once you take into account that Nabakov was a chess master in real life and the premise of the book pits two opponents against each other in a strategic contest, this theory becomes more and more believable or is it just a snake swallowing its tail?
“The sun is a thief: she lures the sea
and robs it. The moon is a thief:
he steals his silvery light from the sun.
The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Sometimes we see in art something that will help our cause or prove our point. Other times, people point out what is absent to make their stand. Should another person’s art be the soapbox for people to spread their views? In some cases it can be advantageous to both parties, a valid point is made and attention is drawn to a work of art. An example of this would be the HBO show Girls. It got a lot of flack and press for what was perceived as a lack of diversity. The show does focus on the lives of four very similar single girls trying to navigate through life in New York City. In the show’s defense: it is told from a specific point of view without trying to be exclusive. This raises the point: should all art appeal to all people all the time? Of course, art and media should definitely reflect diversity, with an equal voice for everyone, but can we not achieve this through a variety of voices rather than all things to all people. Will we lose individual stories if we have to satisfy everyone all the time? Should art have an agenda and if doesn’t, should we slap one on it anyway?
How we interpret art is heavily entangled in what we use it for. Is it meant to entertain us, make us think or just sit there and look pretty? Art can be all things to all people but sometimes it’s just a cantaloupe.
Room 237 3.5/5 Pale Fire 5/5