Is that the faintest flicker of panic crossing the faces of Rodney Ascher and Tim Kirk? Have I done it again?
Ascher and Kirk are the director and producer respectively of Room 237, a movie about obsessive interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that has sparked something primal in their interviewer. I’ve opened our session by offering my own thoughts on the movies – both theirs and Kubrick’s – and my enthusiasm has made me forget something fundamental about the interviewing process: When you’re asking a question, have one.
Ergo, those barely perceptible glimmers of wariness. Theirs is a movie that is not only about the depths to which certain films invite people to plunge; it invites people – at least people of a certain kind – to plunge in themselves. And I’ve gone right off the deep end from the git-go.
When I finally come up for air, a deep breath reassures me that all is cool. They respond with their own accounts of how the movie transfixed them inordinately, and the conversation – which will be fully unveiled when the movie opens – gets smoothly under way. The water’s warm, and we’re all in it.
No movie I saw during the 2012 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival enthralled and haunted me quite as much as Room 237, and that’s not just because Ascher and Kirk have done an impeccable job of delineating and deconstructing the various theories of what is hidden in the meticulously designed maze that is The Shining. It’s also because the real subject of the film – at least to me, for whom the two men apparently but unwittingly made the darned thing – is how certain movies can get under your skin, and occupy your very soul.
I may be a professional movie watcher, but I’m not a detached one and never have been. Movies have been a sub-epidermal experience for me ever since I saw Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and went home to dream about myself aboard the Nautilus. My ongoing fascination with the medium has always been a matter of understanding why certain movies insinuate themselves in my core and mess with my subconscious. That’s why I write about them: I need to, as a way of discovering and understanding what makes me so vulnerable to seduction, or as a way of imposing an intellectual grid over a visceral response.
So make no mistake about this: I may be a dyed-in-the-wool snob, a film-theory trained art-house punishment seeker, and as unlikely to be purely and uncomplicatedly “entertained” as anybody who can actually claim their favourite Stanley Kubrick movie is the notoriously glacial Barry Lyndon, but all that is mere tweed camouflage for the quaking geek beneath: I’m also nuts about old Popeye cartoons, Deep Purple concert DVDs, the Farrelly brothers’ masterful recent defibrillation of The Three Stooges, totally obscure spaghetti westerns, Charles Bronson movies and anything involving right-wing revenge fantasies. This is the stuff that completely end-runs around better taste and judgment and smacks solely into the solar plexus, which is to say knocks the critic right out of me. As my eighties hair-band alter ego might say, I really just wanna be rocked.
This is what gets me back to the movies, and it is also what has created my system of critical values: I want movies that are powerful and alluring, that initially confound my ability to understand why they are exerting such powerful effect. It’s a process that early on led me not only to movies that were challenging, distinctive and strange, but to the study of how they were made, who made them and where they came from. To understand the power of something doesn’t diminish that power, but it does transform it from something abstract and mystical to something concrete and material. It’s like knowing the chemical breakdown of the substance you’re addicted to – it doesn’t break the addiction, but it does help you track down the good stuff.
The worst movies for me are those that have no effect: You watch them and might be amused by them, but they leave no imprint on your subliminal sheets. So you live and dream and scan and watch for those that do, and that will always draw you to the edge of the ordinary and the frontier of the familiar, eternally on the hunt for the movie just waiting to make you surrender your weapons.