Readers, Ideal and Otherwise

Girish Shambu and Jonathan Rosenbaum each have thoughtful reflections on Room 237, a documentary that reflexively examines film criticism by following five social actors with amateur interpretations on Kubrick's The Shining. I've not yet seen the film, but for now would like to toss out a couple of thoughts, more reactions to their claims (which I'm pretty much sympathetic to) than reactions to a film I've not seen.

First, it sounds like their critique of the film latches on to tricky problems of documentary ethics. Room 237's director could have intervened in the "outré, freakish or crackpot" discourse of the social actors, either through over narration or through countervailing testimony/expertise. And maybe they should have. However, documentarians seem increasingly keen to avoid this kind of intervention on ethical grounds: to give one example, Resurrect Dead's Jon Foy has been quite explicit in this goal. Perhaps Room 237 is showing the limits of such a strategy.

Second, Girish points to Theory capital T as what the Room 237 worldview misses... any "kind of speculative thinking that is broad-ranging." The kind of Theory he's talking about can in fact expand the range of exciting, productive, and intriguing readings. But beyond that level, the very nature of "reading"a film is what's at stake.

Here's 1950s New Critic Cleanth Brooks in his essay "The Formalist Critic" (pdf here): "the formalist critic assumes an ideal reader: that is, instead of focusing on the varying spectrum of possible readings, he attempts to find a central point of reference from which he can focus upon the structure of the poem or novel." The wave of semiotic and poststructuralist Theory that swept through literary studies in the latter part of the 20th century challenged New Criticism and at times argued for more expansive types of interpretation. But often the newer approaches had a comparable conception of interpretation as a range of practices mobilizing evidence to back up meaning claims. I remember the maxim presented (and debated) in my undergraduate literature classes: "There are no right or wrong interpretations, but some readings are better than others." Some interpretations can and do fall outside of a reasonable expectation of evidence.

Or at least that seems precisely the grounds (and I'd probably agree!) for considering some readings of The Shining to be outré, freakish or crackpot.


girish said…
Chris, thank you for the Brooks essay. I didn't know of it!
Chris Cagle said…
Girish, glad the essay is of use. The New Critics don't seem to be read nearly as much these days, including in English lit programs.

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