The film – now in some theaters and also available on-demand- is an in-depth documentary examination of Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 horror film “The Shining,” directed by Rodney Ascher. “Room 237,” which makes liberal use of actual footage from “The Shining” as well as Kubrick’s other films, incorporates a wide variety of theories from “Shining” superfans about what’s really going on in the Overlook Hotel.
Its premise should be familiar to everyone who’s either taken a college film studies class, or engaged in a late-night dorm room bull session about what was “really” going on in such-and-such film. I spent my college years doing lots of both, often in relation to Kubrick’s work specifically.
I love this kind of stuff, and I’ve often found the best part of a deep, dense film is talking about afterwards, especially with people who saw completely different things in it than you did. And that might be why I enjoyed “Room 237″ so much- I sort of saw myself in the discussion, arguing with these peoples’ interpretations and sharing my own.
And indeed the theorists in the film- none of whom are well-known, and all of whom share their opinions in voice-over only- have takes on “The Shining” that range from plausible to not-so-plausible to complete and utter nonsense.
There’s some great stuff from a “Shining” superfan who mapped the Overlook Hotel, and pointed out that there’s no way a window could possibly be in the room where it is, and the film also breaks down the subtle differences among Danny’s three tricycle rides. There are all sorts of salient observations about individual scenes and moments, including a very in-depth discussion of one particularly obscure character. And references to the film being an allegory about the slaughter of the American Indian are actually quite persuasive.
On the other hand, a lot of these people see things in “The Shining” that simply aren’t there. I’m speaking specifically of the gentleman who argues that the film was really Stanley Kubrick’s veiled confession that he participated in the faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing footage. This one in particular is argued for quite a long time, and it never rises out of looney tunes land the entire time.
There’s a scene in which we’re shown a poster, in the background of a scene, of someone skiing, and we’re told it’s actually a minotaur. It looks nothing like a minotaur and everything like someone skiing. At another point we’re told Stanley Kubrick’s face is visible in the clouds, and that’s a bit of a reach too. There are also numerology arguments which, like most numerology arguments, are wholly unconvincing.
A lot of these theories say a lot more about the people sharing them than they do about the film. There’s the guy who introduces himself as a Holocaust scholar, and believes “The Shining” was really all about the Holocaust. No offense to Holocaust scholars- who do crucial and important work- but chances are this guy sees the Holocaust in a lot of things, not just “The Shining.”
Other theories here are similarly a stretch, with many of them seemingly having their roots in academic postmodernism in which, let’s be honest, everything is a stretch. When the movie tries to reach into Kubrick’s subconscious is where it lost me for a bit.
I have two other small quibbles. “Room 237″ goes so far into radical interpretations of the film that it never gets into much of a standard interpretation. What’s an explanation of the picture from 1921 at the end? Was Jack a spirit who was there all along?
And then there’s the biggest mystery in the movie- what’s the story with that guy having sex with someone in a bear costume? This odd scene somehow goes completely unmentioned.
Despite all that, the film is well-made and well-structured and makes fine use of “The Shining” and other Kubrick footage. I watched it in the dark, in the basement, late at night and I recommend doing the same, unless you’re very prone to nightmares. And yes, it will make you want to immediately watch “The Shining” again.
I would very much love it if some TV network that could afford the clearance fees would do a weekly TV series along the lines of “Room 237,” each time going in-depth and sharing wild fan theories about a different famous movie. Imagine what it could do with the rest of Kubrick’s work, or the David Lynch canon, or “The Evil Dead” or “Star Wars” or who knows what else. You know you would watch that- even if most of the people shared bogus theories that made little sense.