I’m walking down a very long, almost intestinal, amber-lit, fully carpeted, labyrinthine corridor in Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel, built in 1929, though there’s been some sort of hotel on that site since 1843. (“…you’ve always been here, Mr. Torrance.”) It’s an old place by Canadian standards, creaky, trance-inducing, seemingly out of time while you wander its quietest, windowless passages. And an ideal place to meet with Rodney Ascher and Tim Kirk, director and producer, respectively, of Room 237, the new essay film that explores a multitude of deep readings, some verging on conspiracy theories, of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The film is very fun, nerdy and obsessive, ridiculous and compelling; in some ways feels to me like a parody of film criticism at its most niggling and caffeinated. The film made a big splash at Sundance and Cannes and is now a major highlight at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, which as I finally sit down to write something on it is just a few days from closing.
Room 237 is essentially constructed from a combination of intricate visual montage, music and voice-over, which, at least in terms of form, makes the experience of it not entirely dissimilar to that of some other notable TIFF ’12 titles, such as Miguel Gomes’ selectively soundtracked Tabu, a gorgeous, spellbinding film that’s at once a work of romantic cinema and a critique of romantic cinema, or Jem Cohen’s lovely Museum Hours, with its many moving passages of voice-over monologue from a Viennese museum guard who befriends Montrealer Mary Margaret O’Hara, in town to visit a comatose cousin, or Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, which once again deposits sweaty Slovenian critical theorist Slavoj Žižek into myriad movies and lets him talk and talk and talk, or Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which even more than Tree of Life feels like a fluid palimpsest of collective memories: I know there were some scenes of actual dialogue in the film, but the overall impression it left me with was one of a stream of internal voices asking questions, images of fingers brushing walls, trees, objects and bodies, of landscapes and music and drifting emotional states. It’s a good thing, I think, that Malick is working more steadily these days, making more films with more manageable runtimes (ie: under two hours), so that every new Malick movie is less of a monumental cinema event, so that something like To the Wonder can simply be regarded as another step in this singular director’s path, part of a larger whole, an ongoing exploration. Flawed or not, I’d still rather enter into any of Malick’s cinema spaces than I would watch most normal movies.
Heightening tension between sound and image feels to me like a running theme this year. In Peter Strickland’s wonderfully paranoid and funny, eerie and elegantly crafted Berberian Sound Studio Toby Jones plays a late ’70s sound mixer who travels to Rome to work on a trashy Giallo film and gradually seems to be sucked into some wormhole hybrid of the fictive aural realm he’s cutting and pasting together and his own personal world of quiet English despair. In Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, Snow White is transferred to the milieu of bullfighting in 1920s Spain, rendered as a black and white, silent melodrama brimming with bold music, some of it flamenco-inspired, all of it totally overcooked. Every scene is belaboured; Berger makes a self-congratulatory meal of every variation on the familiar tale; for all its ostensible large-scale emotions Blancenieves feels like an utterly academic formalist exercise, a parade of impeccably shot and edited clichés. The final scenes are almost great, until a single teardrop contaminates everything with faux ambiguity and supposed depth.