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Documentaries explore filmmaking, comic book industry

Oct. 10, 2013 |

By G. Michael Dobbs news@thereminder.com Two new documentaries are featured in this week’s movie review column.
Room 237
I pride myself as a serious film guy, but I also understand that there are many movies I’ve not seen, movie websites I’ve not visited and trends I’ve not discovered. I’m always open to learn more and boy, did I learn a lot watching this film. The documentary “Room 237” details several people, apparently out of many, who have analyzed the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film, “The Shining,” and have come up with some unexpected interpretations. I’ve seen “The Shining” several times and it’s not among my favorite films, but then Kubrick is not one of my favorite directors. His films have a chill to them, a distance between the stories they tell and the audiences. This distance doesn’t work in a horror film, which must connect to an audience in a primal, visceral way. According to the people that director Rodney Ascher interviewed, “The Shining” is far more than an adaptation of Stephen King’s book. It is a puzzle that potentially reveals many things. Ascher interviews one person who believes the film reveals the fact that the Unites States government hired Kubrick to stage the images we saw when men first landed on the moon. Another person sees the film as Kubrick’s commentary on the Holocaust. Another has taken the film and run it backwards, superimposing it over a print of the film running forwards and then has interpreted the images. Ascher treats these people seriously and he has reason to do that, as they are not simply Internet cranks. One is veteran ABC news reporter Bill Blakemore who believes “The Shining” is actually a coded commentary on the plight of Native Americans. Another is a history professor at Albion College. Ascher doesn’t show his interview subjects on camera but illustrates their points with clips from the films and other Kubrick movies. I found the result an overwhelming experience that comes across at times as a hallucination. This is a wild film, especially when some of the theories start making a little bit of sense. Could it be that Kubrick was just screwing with us? Any film buff or Kubrick fan should make the time for this fascinating film.
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle
I missed this three-part PBS documentary when it was first broadcast and I was interested in seeing it, as I’ve been a comic book fan for most of my life. It’s a notable effort to try to combine the history of the art form while placing it in the proper social context. The trouble I had with it was sometimes the historical timeline they presented was a little fuzzy and other times I didn’t know if this was supposed to merely focus on the concept of superheroes in popular culture or a history of comic books. For instance, while Superman was deemed the first “superhero,” the fact is in the newspaper comic strips of the 1930s there were already characters such as Popeye and The Phantom performing the same kind of acts that Superman and Batman would later do. The producers use footage from the Fleischer Superman cartoons, as well as the live-action serials featuring Captain Marvel and Batman without placing those adaptations within their proper context. The greatest strength of the production are the interviews with comic book creators such as Stan Lee, Joe Simon and Jerry Robinson, among others, as well as archival footage of Jack Kirby. While the production does mention the issue of Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster getting some recognition and money from Time-Warner when the first Superman film with Christopher Reeve was released, it did not go into the larger issue of creator rights. Nor did the documentary go into underground comics and their influence or the independent comic books of the 1980s and ‘90s, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that were huge successes and did not come from either of the two major publishers. While interesting, it is far from a definitive look at the medium.

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