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

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by Kevin B. Lee
April 11, 2013 8:35 AM
13 Comments
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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.”

The Clock
For 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.







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13 Comments

  • Kevin McLeod | April 15, 2013 11:03 AMReply

    Per the quote below, yes systems are ultimately human, yet the examples (KONY below, Marclay et al above) are pure hierarchies. Old school media dressed in new media styling.

    None of you can see the evolution Ascher's film offers. The challenge of Room 237 is: do you want to hear how visual sequential information can be interpreted and even referenced (by the director, grafting other sequences and visual data) to show that in its simplification, multiple viewpoints are possible. The Shining (and most of Kubrick's work) combines simplicity and complexity, in varying masks. Like DaVinci's Mona Lisa, a mass audience can grasp the basics while students, thinkers, painters can spot the complexities in her face, her eyes, the landscape. A world in a single image. Now we have media at the stage where literally 'worlds' are possible in motion, and this craft level has been achieved by very few, and mostly through 'literary devices' merged with image (people like Orson Welles). Kubrick is not merely a filmmaker and Room 237 is the opening of a door to the next stage, however one describes it. The neural stage of media, the nano-stage of narrative, etc.

    This essay is far from wise, it's merely a Marxist diatribe, running in fear from the future.

  • Steven Boone | April 14, 2013 12:17 PMReply

    "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."

    Well, I like to engage in a process I call "flattening." (Nothing to do with Thomas Friedman.) I make zero distinction between something produced by Sony, PBS, the National Film Board of Canada, Canal+, the BBC, or that dude in his drawers uploading to YouTube. Nor between essay films, docs, fictions, pornos, TV commercials, streaming advertorials or MOMA installations. It's all commentary. It's all some human or group of humans saying something about this existence. It all carries weight in the world, even that which reaches no more than one set of sensory apparatus. Some commentators happen to have a bullhorn, others only a Dixie cup. But those of us who flatten can sort of surf our way through the hype, to that which resonates.

    Long forgotten now is a little 2012 piece of video agitprop called "KONY 2012", much ridiculed back then. It and its creator were probably buried of their own nutty inconsistencies and speculation about their true agenda, but there's also this statement in the narration, one of the most dangerous ideas one can pass along through the intertubes: "It's always been that the decisions made by the few with the money and the power dictated the priorities of their government and the stories in the media. They determined the lives and the opportunities of their citizens. But now there is something bigger than that. The people of the world see each other and can protect each other. It's turning the system upside down, and it changes everything."

  • Steven Boone | April 14, 2013 12:19 PM

    Oh, and this essay is quite brilliant and provocative. <--You may use that for a blurb. Let's SELL this motherfucker!

  • Jason Bellamy | April 13, 2013 6:32 PMReply

    Thoughtful provoking piece, Kevin. I need help with this passage, though:

    "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."

    Would you be willing to expand on that? I'm not quite sure what you're implying there -- as it relates to Room 237 specifically, criticism in general or even moviegoing -- and I'm curious!

    (For what it's worth, I think what Room 237 reveals about the critical process -- whether the interpretations in this movie are astute or whacky -- is the way a single work can inspire multiple, widely varying experiences. In an era in which conversation about cinema -- typified by RottenTomatoes message boards and the like -- too often gets boiled down to "for it or against it," it's nice to see discussion of a movie that isn't about IF it's great, or not, but HOW it's great, or not. Furthermore, I'd be going too far to say I saw myself in some of the movie's analysts, but as someone who writes criticism I did take it as a welcome reminder to be careful not to lose myself in some element of the subtext so much that I lose sight of the text itself.)

  • Jason Bellamy | April 13, 2013 6:34 PM

    Or how about "thought-provoking piece." Good grief.

  • Ben Slater | April 13, 2013 4:53 AMReply

    I'm guessing that you haven't seen The Clock. Seems unfair to judge it as a "youtube mashup" if you haven't, and half-heartedly attack its commercialism also, as if it being popular makes it bad.

    As for Room 237, you are literally seeing things in the film that aren't there!

  • Kevin McLeod | April 12, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    I think what film reviewers do not understand about Room 237, is that it explores the tip of the iceberg for syntactic/semantic potential in film language. It's also nothing like the films you're referencing above. It's not found footage per se, but highly organized visual cues from oral interpretation. Call it the first illustration of human "moths to flame" effect if you need it described in simple terms, but at its core, this is a neuroscientific experience by default.

    Far from a 'minstrel show', the film exposes either rational or irrational interpretations (depending on one's perspective) of sequential information.

    I've sent you an email regarding how groundbreaking the film is and how it's probably much deeper than any reviewer can perceive. Basically film has been moved into cog-sci and neuroscience in one fell swoop. We'll be feeling the effects of Room 237 for many years to come.

    I recommend taking a harder look.

  • Ken Cancelosi | April 12, 2013 1:26 AMReply

    Another great piece, Kevin. Thanks for writing it.

  • Rodney Ascher | April 11, 2013 7:55 PMReply

    Please add Craig Baldwin's name to the list of people who use found-footage better than me. Thanks!

  • Kevin B. Lee | April 11, 2013 8:50 PM

    Yes, to my shame I realized that after the fact. I wouldn't be surprised if his masterpiece TRIBULATION 99 informs some of the paranoid aesthetics of ROOM 237. And also Mark Rappaport, among many others. (I read that you had at one point contemplated using green screens with your subjects, a technique Rappaport used prominently in his films.)

  • Brian Newman | April 11, 2013 4:32 PMReply

    Best article I've read in IndieWire in a long time. Great think-piece, thanks for sharing and for including the historical/AG references

  • Arch | April 11, 2013 10:55 AMReply

    Yep, Press Play always delivers.
    Also, not to sound like an old fart or anything, but it's kinda nice to remind people about what found-footage "originally" is.

  • Aaron | April 11, 2013 9:29 AMReply

    Excellent piece!

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