“I’m gonna make a little bit of a leap here.” Yeah, no kidding. By the time you hear an unseen speaker say those words, you’re well down the rabbit hole that is Room 237 (MPI DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming), a new documentary from Rodney Ascher, and conventional notions of narrative and sense are receding far behind you. Ascher’s conceit is suitably meta: a film about the theories about the true meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining. He delivers a fascinating and maddening treatise on visual intelligence and the human capacity to construct significance out of almost anything.
Using only footage taken from The Shining itself, plus a few archival, non-narrative images and some well-done motion graphics, Ascher whisks you away to the hermetic individual worlds of ostensibly ordinary filmgoers who invariably describe some epiphanic moment when Kubrick’s true intentions with his eerie, enigmatic adaptation of Steven King’s horror novel revealed themselves. One theorist says he suspected that Kubrick might have made the film to secretly confess his role in helping fake the footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but he wasn’t sure until the character of Danny appears onscreen wearing a sweater emblazoned with an Apollo 11 design. Other theorists present their curry-combed evidence for Kubrick’s secret theme as the Holocaust, or the genocide of the American Indian.
It is utterly fascinating to watch, with Ascher’s help, as obsessive after obsessive points out some random detail, some incongruity, some coincidence (or not)—maybe just a continuity error—that you never noticed before and conflates it into a clue to a secret hiding in plain sight. Of course, that means you watch as one theorist elaborates on how a ski poster on the wall in the background of one minor scene is in fact, an image of a minotaur, while the camera zooms in on it as she speaks … and you see a ski poster. But even as some of the theorists (who are only heard, never seen onscreen) stretch the thinnest tissue of credulity, Room 237 nonetheless serves as a rich exploration of movie as palimpsest, and of the ways in which the dream-like reality of the screen (especially in the hands of a master like Kubrick) can serve as a jungle gym for the human facility—the need—to find sense and order.
It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that another documentary about belief released earlier this year made its way to the top of the “to watch” pile around the same time as Room 237’s release. The Source Family (Drag City DVD and streaming) also has a lot to say about the power of belief, and the border it shares with delusion.
Working in a more conventional documentary style, directors Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille tell the story of Jim Baker, a World War II veteran whose postwar years found him both making a success as a Los Angeles restaurateur and killing two men with his bare hands. As the counter-cultural revolution of the mid-’60s dawned, Baker opened the first health-food restaurant in the United States and ditched the straight life for bales of weed and a cocktail of Eastern religions and mystical practices. He gained a new name (Father Yod—it rhymes with “toad”) and a flock of young hippie followers who worked in his restaurant, played in his far-out rock band, and considered him a sort of demigod.
The Source Family follows a somewhat predictable arc (Father Yod meets his fate in perhaps the most ’70s way imaginable) but Demopoulos and Wille aren’t out to scold. Baker’s clay feet are made plain, but ultimately his influence on most of his followers appears to have been benign at worst, life-shaping at best. After all, a guru doesn’t get far without someone needing to believe.
The late Levon Helm was a very different kind of believer. As captured in Jacob Hatley’s documentary Levon Helm: Ain’t in It for My Health (Kino Lorber DVD and streaming), the former drummer of Americana progenitor the Band led a life rich in adventure and music and friends, but rarely so remunerative in cold cash or the credit he felt he deserved (and probably did) for the music the Band made. Yet, as Hatley’s camera reveals, the sixtysomething Helm kept going—playing shows at his house to pay his mortgage, hosting post-gig parties and keeping up with the rowdy guests, and working on new music, even as the lingering effects of a long battle against cancer rob him of his vitality and his voice.
What else was he going to do? While Ain’t in It for My Health avoids much of the standard bio-doc backstory base-hitting, Hatley’s footage makes clear that Helm embraced music in large part as his ticket out of the hard life of an Arkansas dirt farmer. That he never stopped, even as doctors stick tubes up his nose like the waning old man that he was, is both a testament to his spirit and his love of music as well as a caution about the life he ultimately chose and how it worked out.