Directed by Rodney Ascher, Room 237 isn’t so much a documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as it is a collection of raving lunatics, unshackled from their blogs. In that regard, it can be a pretty amusing film, illustrating how the same movie can mean completely different things to people. Crazy people, mostly, but the exercise isn’t without merit.
The purpose of the film? Well, as we all know, Stanley Kubrick put a lot of effort and detail into his movies and deliberately left things open to interpretation. He wanted people to ruminate on and discuss his films after they left the theater. The Shining, Kubrick’s haunted hotel movie based on the novel by Stephen King, is considered one of his most ponderous and thought-provoking masterpieces and everyone seems to get something different out of it.
Room 237 (2012)
Ascher collects 5 or 6 people and asks them to just let it all out and describe their ludicrous theories about The Shining in excruciating detail. One guy insists that the movie is a metaphor for the European slaughter of Native Americans. Another guy says that the film is obviously Kubrick’s commentary about the Holocaust. Yet another person delves into bland Freudian psychology, freeze-framing the film at every phallic opportunity, insisting it was Kubrick’s expression of his sexuality.
And then there’s the guy who goes on a tirade about how NASA faked the moon landing, Stanley Kubrick filmed the Apollo 11 footage, and The Shining was his secret way of confessing this to the public. Yeah, wow.
If you close your eyes and just listen to the audio, it starts to feel like you’re tuning in to open line night on Coast to Coast AM. And just like Coast to Coast AM, the stuff these people are gushing is funny for about twenty or thirty minutes, but then you either grow numb to it or get sick of it and the novelty begins to wear off.
I’m dumping on these theorists pretty hard (none of whom have a distinct voice, so it’s hard to tell who is talking at a given time), but credit should be given where credit is due. The first guy goes on a lengthy tirade about Calumet baking powder cans visible in the pantry and how those stupid cans are a deliberate commentary on the plight of the American Indian. But just as you start to think “this guy is full of shit”, they show a set photo of Stanley Kubrick deliberately setting up the Calumet baking powder cans so that they’re visible in the blocking of the shot. And all of a sudden this commentator’s madness has a smidgen of credibility to it.
Another person, she took the time to try and map out the interior of the Overlook Hotel set, floor by floor. It seems like a pointless effort at first, but then she brings up these neat little details that I’d never noticed before. For instance, when Jack goes to see Mr. Ullman for the job interview, he’s led into the bowels of the hotel. Yet when they enter his office, Mr. Ullman has a big window behind his desk, looking outside. There is no way that window could possibly be there, given what we know about the layout of the hotel and the long tracking shot showing Jack delving into the belly of the Overlook, so seeing the spatial impossibility creates this subtle off-kilter feeling.
But then there are observers who take the details a little too far. Yes, we saw Kubrick deliberately arranging baking powder cans, but how MUCH detail did he put in there on purpose and how much of what people are seeing is just their own projections? A chair disappears from the background between cuts. Continuity error or was Kubrick trying to make some sort of deep commentary about Nazi Germany? Cans of Tang are also visible in the pantry. Clearly, this was part of Kubrick’s master plan to confess to his part in faking the moon landing. One person goes on a numerology binge, pointing out every appearance of the number 42, even if he has to fudge the math.
Clearly this sweater means Stanley Kubrick filmed the Apollo 11 footage.
As soon as some of the theories begin to possibly win you over, the commentators take it too far and you’re right back to calling bullshit on them. I mean, yes, there are lots of little details in the movie and many of them are proven to have been intentional tidbits set up by Kubrick, while others seem convincingly purposeful. But then we get to the guy who insists that The Shining was meant to be watched forward and backward at the same time by playing the movie in reverse and overlaying the picture on the screen as the film plays normally. That way you wind up with “revealing” imagery such as the ballroom photo of Jack Nicholson at the end lining up with the car and his name credit at the beginning of the film. Obviously, this was all intentional and couldn’t possibly be the work of coincidence.
You know, though, I’m kind of hating myself as I write this increasingly negative review. I remember taking literature classes in college. We’d read something like Billy Budd and then the professor would call on us to describe what we felt Melville was trying to say with the subtext of the story. We’d plead our case, explain in detail what the story meant to us or how we interpreted it, and then the professor would say “WRONG”, crack open the text book and read the paragraph explaining what Melville meant (it was about being gay, I think). And man, I remember how much that PISSED me off; being asked to describe at length our personal interpretation of a creator’s work and then being told we were wrong because it wasn’t in the text book.
So here I am, listening to these weirdos in Room 237 explain at length what The Shining meant to them and poking fun at them for it because I think they’re crazy. That’s exactly what my college professors did to me and I hated it, so where the fuck do I get off treating other people the same way? Except that guy and all his moon landing shit. What the fuck, dude; you’re insane.
So Room 237 isn’t an especially eye-opening look at The Shining as much as it is proof that no two people see a movie exactly the same way. We all interpret things differently, whether it lines up with the director’s intentions or not, and many of us come to vastly different conclusions. If anything, it might help you to appreciate someone else’s point of view next time you’re talking about movies you love and they hate or vice versa. Or it might just reinforce your belief that people expend way too much effort on dissecting film and we’d all be better off enjoying movies at face value. OR it might convince you that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing and typewriters are metaphors for concentration camps, but only depending on what color they are from scene to scene. There’s always a possibility.