NYFF Daily Reviews: Room 237 and The Savoy King


For the next two weeks, the Voice‘s film critics will be offering daily looks at the movies at this year’s New York Film Festival.

This morning, Nick Schager dishes about two worthwhile documentaries off the Main Slate: Room 237, that copyright-braving examination of the complexities of The Shining, and The Savoy King, the story of swing-great Chick Webb and his Harlem stompers.

Room 237
Directed By Rodney Ascher
Screens at 9 p.m. Thursday, October 4 and Monday, October 9

An irresistibly loopy work of film criticism by way of fan art, Room 237 finds documentarian Rodney Ascher investigating Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining via the varied theories of a gaggle of never-seen, only-heard talking heads. The conjecture trotted out by these obsessives ranges from the sound to the silly, with there being considerable textual evidence to bolster the idea that the movie is a metaphor for the genocide of the Native Americans, and considerably less to suggest more far-fetched notions involving Minotaurs, subliminal sexual messages, and one fanatic’s contention that the entire project operates as Kubrick’s coded admission that he covertly staged and filmed the Apollo moon landing footage.

Ascher flip-flops between his orators and their often-overlapping interpretations with a fluidity that’s mirrored by his doc’s formal construction. Utilizing footage from The Shining, other Kubrick efforts, and various unrelated films, the director weaves a hypnotic tapestry of cinematic associations that speaks to the relationship between art and spectator – an idea conveyed through Ascher’s use of clips that reflect the frustration, elation and confusion expressed by his hypothesizing subjects, and culminates with a final speaker’s admission that his life is eerily transforming into that of Nicholson’s psycho-daddy Jack Torrance.

Room 237 grants equal time to its numerous suppositions but not varying degrees of support, exhibiting a welcome tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that it may sometimes be plumbing potentially non-existent depths, as with a claim that Kubrick’s face is visible in puffy clouds that’s hilariously unsupported by the actual shot in question. Alternately beguiling and bonkers, it’s a tribute to both Kubrick’s masterpiece and the crazy thrill of losing one’s self in a critical maze of themes, subtexts and signifiers. (Nick Schager)

The Savoy King: Chick Webb & the Music That Changed America
Directed by Jeff Kaufman
Screens at noon on Saturday, September 29 and 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 2

Paying enthusiastic tribute to “The little giant of the big noise,” The Savoy King: Chick Webb & the Music That Changed America details the rise to stardom of legendary African-American drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, who, despite being a crippled hunchback due to a childhood injury, became “The King of Swing” at Harlem’s legendary Savoy Ballroom.

Webb’s story is one of perseverance through hardship and dogged dedication to artistic instincts, as the pint-sized musician achieved fame through an unwillingness to be bowed by physical handicaps and a refusal – regardless of the initial difficulties such a stance entailed – to compromise his vision of what his band, and sound, should be.

Jeffrey Kaufman’s documentary is a historical record comprised of the usual elements, including archival footage, photos and music, as well as a gaggle of talking heads. Yet aided immeasurably by the employment of famous actors (Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Billy Crystal, Janet Jackson, and Andy Garcia are just a few) reading recollections from Chick’s acquaintances and many of the era’s luminaries, the director weaves an aesthetic tapestry that puts most likeminded non-fiction efforts to shame, so gracefully capturing the atmosphere of the 1930s swing scene that the film truly earns the term “immersive.”

Recounting Webb’s work ethic, battles with Benny Goodman and Count Basie, and crucial professional relationship with Ella Fitzgerald, it’s a comprehensive documentary that never feels like a school lesson, conveying the rollicking spirit of its subject with a liveliness and joy that elucidates how an artist might, as in Chick’s case, give everything – including his life – for his art. (Nick Schager)

You can find all of the Voice‘s daily NYFF reviews here.