Adam Curtis, The Matrix and the joy of ambiguity
I love the film, Room 237, the 2012 documentary about the wilder interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. It was one of my favourite films of that year, and definitely my favourite documentary.
But a lot of people I know did not like that film at all.
What was interesting to me about much of the criticism I heard about Room 237 was that it concentrated on how ‘ridiculous’ or ‘far fetched’ some of the theories put forward in the film were.
Here’s critic Eric D Snider on the film:
“Some theories about the film’s layers make sense and can be reasonably supported by what’s on the screen. (The hotel’s floor plan is shown to be impossible, for example.) Other theories are just silly. (The placement of a tray on the hotel manager’s desk is said to represent his erection, for example.) “Room 237” is inelegant in the way it assembles all this stuff — it seems to dump it on the floor and say, “Here, you sort this out” — but anyone who’s ever obsessed over the subtext of a beloved movie will find it amusing.”
(N.B. over on Rotten Tomatoes the film has a critics score of 94%, but an audience score of 55%, which is telling I think.)
Another way of saying that Room 237 ‘dumps’ its ‘stuff’ on the floor and says “Here you sort this out,” is to say that it "presents a spectrum of thoughts and opinions and asks you, the viewer, to fill in the blanks".
And that’s why I love Room 237: because it leaves some incredible blanks for me to fill in. This documentary about people who obsessively try to discover ‘hidden’ messages between the lines of an 80s horror film is itself inviting me to read between the lines and ask myself questions like “what is it that is driving these people to seek out these subtexts?’.
For me, Ascher isn’t a lazy filmmaker who is just fly tipping his material for you to sort out. He is deliberately arranging it in such a way that you have to engage with the ambiguities he’s created.
Here’s a quote from a The Ringer review of Ascher’s latest film, A Glitch in the Matrix:
“Proving or disproving grand ideas has never been Ascher’s style anyway. If anyone is comfortable living with ambiguity, it’s Ascher. The filmmaker has made a career out of unanswerable questions. 2012’s Room 237 tackled the question of what happens when you treat a work of art as a code to be broken, one that will then yield its secrets to those who know where to look for them.”
That reviewer gets it, I think. It’s about finding joy in the ‘unanswerable questions’.
A Glitch in the Matrix
I watched A Glitch in the Matrix a few weeks ago, and while it’s not as accomplished as Room 237 , it is similarly open-ended in it’s structure and generous in the faith it puts in its audience.
Here’s another recent quote from a Glitch in the Matrix review, this time from the Guardian:
“It’s a messy, mind-blowing collision of philosophy, technology, religion and fruit-loop paranoia which, while it doesn’t exactly make a watertight case, does provide a fascinating, and in one case deeply disturbing, insight into the thought processes of those who believe it.”
What I like about that quote is that it could, with a couple of small tweaks, be from a review of the new Adam Curtis documentary, Can’t Get You Out of My Head.
Can’t Get You Out of My Head
Curtis, of course, is a different kind of ambiguist. Instead of leaving things out he compiles an almost kaleidoscopic, deliberately overwhelming collage designed to leave you dazzled and somewhat confused, but also energised and eager to know more.
Whether you admire Curtis or not depends one whether you think this ambiguity is a deliberate choice or whether it’s a side effect of his inability to construct a coherent argument.
But whether you like Curtis (or Ascher) or not, I think it’s really important not to dismiss their work because it doesn't offer up clear “watertight cases” or “a rational argument about why things are as they are”.
I know that in these days of misinformation, dangerous conspiracy theories, ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ (not to mention the persistent and destabilising anxiety brought on by a global pandemic) that we are all craving a bit of certainty and authority. And, yes, there’s a definite need for that in our press and in our politics.
But I would also argue that what we really need now is art and culture that trusts us enough to present us with as many uncertainties and ambiguities as it does ‘facts’. Even if that piece of art is a documentary.
A filmmaker like Ascher has no time for linear narrative, instead he creates a genius type of inference that’s achieved by taking a group of people who fervently believe in something, and then laying out those beliefs without any critical framework around it. Where Louis Theroux might have a genial-seeming conversation with a White Aryan Resistance member, we know from other cues that he doesn't agree with the views he's hearing. But Ascher goes further than that, he decines to make any value judgement at all and leaves it all up to us, the viewers, which in turn makes it feel all th emore personal (as long as you don't interpret that lack of judgement as a passive advocacy).
That skill of interrogating something you’re being presented with. Of questioning the opinions of others and trying to understand where they come from and how they’ve got where they are is, I think, one we’re given less and less opportunity to hone .
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