Sell Out the Hallway—Room 237 and the Stakes of Found Footage

Sell Out the Hallway—Room 237 and the Stakes of Found Footage

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On a routine visit to the indispensible film blog Observations on Film Art, I was surprised and flattered to see that film scholar David Bordwell linked to the video essay work of myself and fellow Press Player Matt Zoller Seitz in a characteristically insightful probe of Room 237, the new feature-length film about Kubrick’s The Shining. Bordwell’s analysis uses Room 237 as a springboard to consider the practice and principles of film criticism—a topic made all the more poignant by the recent passing of Roger Ebert. We also recently published a piece by Robert Greene that regards Room 237 as a reflection of the unruly nature of the critical practice, and yesterday we published an article by Press Play regular Nelson Carvajal about his recent copyright problems with Vimeo and Disney concerning his viral Oscar video. These last two articles would seemingly have little to do with each other, but they touch on much of what I’ve been thinking about lately, with the release of Room 237 and its bearing on both online video essay works and the legacy of found footage art, as well as the contemporary practice of film criticism. I was recently interviewed by S.T. Van Airsdale on these matters for the Tribeca Film Festival website. Much of that interview went unused, so I am adapting that content here to address these issues.

It’s been intriguing to see critical and popular acclaim gather around Room 237, as smart critics praise it more that I’d expect them to. One even called it “the greatest film ever made about another film,” which is simply a gross overstatement. Even if we disqualify masterful essay films about multiple works, like Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema or Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, even conventional behind-the-scenes docs like Lost in La Mancha or Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse are more illuminating about their single-film subject than Room 237. I’d even put Redlettermedia’s multi-part, feature-length viral YouTube takedown of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace above Room 237 in doing a better job of skewering the obsessive nature of cinephilia, while still making smart, concrete observations on how films are actually made in reality, not just how crazily they are interpreted in people’s minds.

But if we want to talk about truly stunning reworkings of existing films, there’s Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart and Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space, to name just a few of the many examples to be drawn from avant garde cinema. Experimental film programmers could have a field day counter-programming Room 237 with more interesting found footage films, one of the richest veins of avant garde filmmaking: we’re talking about Bruce Conner, Matthias Muller, Martin Arnold, Les Leveque, Gustav Deutsch, Dara Birnbaum, Marlon Riggs, Black Audio Film Collective, and Leslie Thornton. Compared to these works, Room 237 amounts to a longer, slicker version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a pseudo-intellectual minstrel show in which critical inquiry is reduced to freakish obsession. The film bears a strong anti-intellectual impulse, more geared towards ramping up the spectacular weirdness of its interviewees than towards taking their ideas seriously.

But I may have less of an issue with the film than with the culture
that informs it. The fact that there’s more critical and popular
interest in discussing and promoting a film like this rather than any of
the more deserving works listed above says a considerable amount about how our
collective addiction to pop culture sets the terms for what we consider
worthwhile. The fact that it’s about The Shining and Kubrick reflects an
inbred strain of cinephilia built around brand-name auteurs. As
expressed through the terminal obsessions of Room 237’s subjects, this
kind of cinephilia amounts to an oxygen-deprived hermetic practice that
takes people further into the folds of their navels, so that they don’t
have to actually engage with the world. All of the film’s seemingly
socially relevant talk of Holocaust and Native American genocide is inconsequential in terms of what one can actually do with this
insight, reducing the world-changing power of movies to a cinematic
Sunday Times crossword puzzle.

One disturbing aspect of Greene’s piece is that it conflates the
onanistic interpretations of Room 237‘s interviewees with the work of
film critics. I’d like to think that my colleagues are not trapped in
their own existential version of the Overlook Hotel. But when I try to
take the long view on contemporary film criticism and culture, I
sometimes wonder if all we’re doing each week is describing new pictures
painted on prison walls. It’s a prison not of our own making, but born out of a system that encourages us to lose ourselves inside movies as
perpetual consumers, rather than enabling us to look through, around, and
beyond them. This is especially important in grappling with the way found footage is utilized in a film like Room 237, and
to what end, given the special legacy of found footage filmmaking.
 
For decades, found footage and remix moving image artists have largely
toiled on the margins due to copyright issues, a marginalized status
that persists even today with YouTube and Vimeo takedown notices, as
illustrated by Nelson Carvajal’s incident. This situation leads to a
politically charged dynamic around the act of creation. It raises the
question of who really owns our culture, and who has the right to use it
to create something new and valuable, regardless of how valuable those
derivative works are deemed by the copyright owner. So much of it comes
down to challenging the hierarchy of big media culture, with its
presumed power over the average human being (what they refer to as “the
consumer”), and establishing a new paradigm of cultural fairness. The
irony with Carvajal’s work, a four-minute highlight reel of every Oscar
Best Picture winner, was that it couldn’t have been a more positive
endorsement of Hollywood product, and yet it was still taken down. This
unilateral relationship between self-appointed corporate overseers and
the rest of us brings to mind Charles Foster Kane’s espousal of “love on
my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows.”

nullFor me, Room 237 is more interesting as a commercial case study, along the same lines as Christian Marclay’s phenomenally successful art installation The Clock, a found footage work incorporating thousands of film clips into a functional, 24 hour video timepiece. The Clock has created a sensation nearly everywhere it has exhibited, including its current installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the museum’s twitter feed posts hourly wait times for viewing. Such commercially successful applications of found footage in both The Clock and Room 237 mark a distinct shift in fortunes from how found footage art has been received in the past.

In that light, we can see the release of Room 237—a film deemed unreleaseable when it debuted in the festival circuit, due to copyright concerns—a more positive instance of cooperation between the rights owner and the artist. When the film amounts to a feature length commercial promoting The Shining, they would be idiots not to welcome it. Meanwhile, Christian Marclay makes half a million dollars per installation for what amounts to a 24-hour long YouTube mashup, repackaged as a blockbuster museum gallery carnival amusement. Taking this all in, I think these works have more to say about what commercial interests drive the production, programming and packaging of found footage works to fit the needs of today’s art pop market than they have to say about the art of cinema.

Still, I take heart that there are as many people out there making this work and who are simply excited to be exploring the potential of this format. I’m especially proud that it is the mission of Press Play to feature this work. At the same time, I think everyone should be aware that the cultural ramifications of this kind of creative effort inevitably become political.  Unlike the lost souls in Room 237, we do not live, work or think in a vacuum. There is a system in place that influences the fates of different works, and much of it has to do with how each work serves the needs of that system. Once artists become aware of this, they see that they have a choice as far as which path they want to take and what they want their work to stand for.

Kevin B. Lee is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play. Follow him on Twitter.

ROOM 237 and the Attack of the Id Critic

ROOM 237 and the Attack of the Id Critic

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Room 237 is the first great comedy about film criticism. Or maybe it’s the first great horror-comedy. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Rodney Ascher’s obsessive exploration of a collection of obsessive interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is full of wit and knowledge, sharply executed and deliriously insightful into the ways we process images and construct meaning in movies. Ascher never makes fun of his entertaining collection of crackpots, but his commitment to them and their analyses is complete. Frame-by-frame, backwards and forwards, the film is deconstructed; a German typewriter equals a Holocaust subtext, a missing chair from one shot to the next is not the result of a standard continuity screw up but a sign of Kubrick’s brilliant parody of low-budget horror filmmaking. Ascher lets these analyses proceed to their gloriously ridiculous ends.

These (mostly) silly conspiracies are not being articulated by professional film critics, clearly. But to a filmmaker (like me), a person attuned to the means of producing a film, where chaos reigns and meaning is often stumbled upon, even by the most control-freakish of directors, this type of over-interpretation is painfully hilarious. Because Ascher knows exactly what he’s doing, Room 237 is a cringe-worthy comedy of the highest order.

Never has a filmmaker attempted a movie so completely about the mental process of film critique. These characters are not “proper” film critics. But their obsessive readings can be seen as a metaphor for all film analysis. That burning need to scrutinize—to interpret and explain—is the soul of even the most sophisticated criticism. What Room 237 does is take that internal desire to understand and transforms it into a raging, slobbering, terribly funny movie monster.

I watched it with hands over mouth, openly terrified of this new screen villain, the id critic. Sometime around the Apollo 11 sweater reveal, I let down my guard and enjoyed the sidesplitting humor for what it was. But that initial feeling of terror was real, coming straight from my filmmaker-brain, where subtlety is life force and dumb symbolism is the destroyer of truth, or something like that. This type of deep-in-the-mud meaning excavation was something like a nightmare, tapping into my worst fears about the movie creation/interpretation process.

The film seems to have touched a nerve with critics, too. In a ranting blog entry after seeing the film at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival, Jonathan Rosenbaum blasted Room 237 as “reprehensible” because Ascher “refuses to make any distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic, conceivable or ridiculous, implying that they’re all just ‘film criticism’ and because everyone is a film critic nowadays, they all deserve to be treated with equal amounts of respect and/or mockery.” I understand the sensitivity, JRo. Meanwhile, from apparently the same screening, critic Girish Shambu called the film “a disturbing representation of the practice of film criticism.

Clearly, a least a few critics were as disturbed by the id critic movie monster as me. Are they being forced to recognize the monster inside?

“I think any critic who doesn’t see themselves reflected in Room 237‘s obsessives is either lying or in denial (although I just wrote a piece on circular motifs in The Hudsucker Proxy, so I may be projecting),” said critic Sam Adams. “Of course I recognize the monster within,” added former AV Club editor, Scott Tobias, “I don’t think we’re conspiracy theorists by nature, but you don’t do this for a living (or a habit) without sharing some of [the] mad obsession of Room 237‘s subjects. There are always going to be times when a sensible critic might not seem far removed from the film’s subjects, when the “monster within” is revealed.”

All interpretation has the potential to become over-interpretation and Room 237, at its core, is a portrait of the mind of the interpreter. Ascher isn’t interested in film criticism, per se, but by brilliantly refusing to question the outlandish theories on display (such as The Shining being Kubrick’s coded confession to his wife for staging the moon landing), he’s implicitly created what can be seen as a high parody of film critique.

A filmmaker creates a film, often by any means necessary and often at the expense of his/her sanity. Said film has “meaning” inasmuch as it presents a set of ideas as a work of art. This film then makes its way into the world, where it is confronted first by a hoard of well-versed gatekeepers, who (often as a means of employment, but not always) dissect it, sometimes in blurbs, sometimes in long essays, creating personal “takes” on the work. This process (even when amazingly rewarding to the writer) can be excruciating to a person who makes movies.

“I’m sympathetic to your frustrations as a filmmaker, Robert, but your perspective is irrelevant to this kind of inquiry,” said friend and critic Eric Hynes when I asked him to comment. “There’s a reason that this obsessive mentality gravitates towards reclusive, mysterious, or dead artists—there’s room, there’s an invitation even, for audience participation and conjecture. But even for less opaque films and filmmakers, once you’re done with it, it belongs to the world. Intent matters, of course, but you can’t control whether anyone gets it or gets you.”

This did not make me feel better.

Room 237 is like an act of revenge from a filmmaker upon the critics. If Ascher had made other features and gone through the normal ups and downs with critics, I could almost stage my own Room 237 about his Room 237 to prove correct this revenge hypothesis. As it stands, the film is blisteringly funny and provocative in the way it opens up the hidden wounds and secret tensions between filmmaking and film reviewing. Do critics understand that Room 237, as horror-comedy, might be destroying the delicate balance of filmmaker-film critic relations?

“One definition of ‘film criticism’ would be the translation of an extremely personal reaction into terms that seem objectively reasonable,” says critic Vadim Rizov.

“So sure, I ‘see myself,’ (in the characters in Room 237) but good/great criticism doesn’t have to be reasonable; it just has to have an argument that illuminates something about the film, even if I disagree totally.”

Sensible enough. Maybe Ascher hasn’t destroyed the universe. “I took the Sontag phrase “Against Interpretation” very much to heart,” says critic Glenn Kenny, reassuringly. “I don’t think that a work of art is defined via decoding its supposed symbolism. What the filmmaker cannot correctly gauge, in the final analysis, is what the movie looks like to someone who DIDN’T make it. This can be valuable to the filmmaker, or not. I don’t want to get too dogmatic about it.”

“As a critic,” adds Tobias, “I’m cautious about proposing grand unifying themes like the ones expressed in Room 237, because it encourages a kind of myopia that limits your understanding of a work. Kubrick certainly programmed meaning into his work, but once a film is released, I believe firmly that it belongs to the viewer and that not all meanings are intentional.”

This is the important point. To the filmmaker brain, Room 237 illustrates violently and hilariously the degree to which the filmmaker really doesn’t matter once the film is done. So maybe the id critic isn’t the movie monster here. Maybe it’s my own fears manifested at which I’m nervously cackling.

But when it comes down to it, Room 237 is, in fact, a celebration of movie creating and watching. “Room 237 offers examples of (I guess) ‘bad’ film criticism, but the cranky fanaticism on display can illuminate potentially unexplored corners,” says Rizov.

“Though there’s clearly something monstrous about the perversions of interpretation on display, I also feel a kind of exhilaration as the theories unfold,” says Hynes, “the ‘let’s see what I can see when I see things obsessively’ impulse is less monstrous than essential to all endeavoring to reach greater understanding.”

“The implicit argument the movie makes,” adds Kenny, “is that the interpretations have value as fantastic stories of their own, that they construct a Borgesian library of imaginative “knowledge” which is of value.”

Okay fine. Room 237 is not a comedy about film criticism. But it is damn funny that we all keep doing this.

Robert Greene’s documentaries include Fake It So Real, Kati With An I and Owning The Weather. He also produces and edits films with 4th Row Films. He blogs here. Follow him on Twitter here.