Directed by: Rodney Ascher.
Featuring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner, Buffy Visick.
That Stanley Kubrick is one of the greatest directors in cinema history is pretty much a closed debate now. And even though his 1980 horror film The Shining wasn’t loved at the time of its release, it has also pretty much entered the canon as a masterpiece now, 33 years later. While most see it is for what lays on the surface – a tremendously scary horror movie, that slowly builds up tension throughout its two and half hour running time – a movie about the destruction of the American family (or at least, this particular American family), and a showcase for Jack Nicholson at his unhinged, delirious best, there are corners of the internet where you can go and find out what Kubrick’s The Shining was “really” about. Director Rodney Ascher assembles five Shining obsessives, and lets them tell you what The Shining really means – and backs it up showing us the scenes from the movie these people are referencing. The film pushes the boundary of fair use in terms of copyright law – Ascher has no “original” footage – just clips from The Shining, as well as most of Kubrick’s other films, and a smattering by other cinema masters (Hitchcock’s Spellbound for example). And even though most of what these obsessives say is deluded at best and downright insane at worst, Room 237 remains one of the best documentaries of its type ever. To watch it, is to enter the world of these obsessives for a couple of hours – which is an interesting place to be.
No detail is too small for these five people to obsess over. Because Nicholson uses a German typewriter, and the number 42 appears several times in the movie, one argues that the film is Kubrick’s take on the Holocaust – after all, 1942 was the year the Germans decided to exterminate the Jews, and did so in a mechanical, bureaucratic way (hence the typewriter). Another obsesses over the tines of Calamut Baking Powder seen in the pantry – Calamut being a Native word for peace, and there is a giant Indian head on the tin. When the cans reappear later, you cannot read the entire word Calamut, which of course symbolizes all the broken peace treaties with the Natives. Even the tag line used in British marketing materials is a clue – “The Horror That Swept Across America Comes to Britain”, is not a reference to the movie itself, but about the genocide of Native Americans. Another thinks The Shining is Kubrick’s confession to faking the moon landing footage – after all, Danny does wear a sweater with the Apollo 11 rocket on it, and Kubrick change the key Room number from 217 to 237 – and the moon is 237,000 miles from earth (and the key to the room has the words Room No. 237, which of course means Moon Room). Another, the only woman in the group, obsesses about the geography of the hotel itself – especially an “impossible” window in the hotel manager’s office (in her defense, it does seem like that window really shouldn’t be there), and all the minotaur references in the movie (there is a maze, but her other points – a skiing poster that looks like a minotaur, and Jack Nicholson’s face appearing bull like at one point are farfetched). This theory flies completely off the rails when she starts comparing the movie to her son’s drawings. There is even a guy who claims that in the opening credits scene, you can see a picture of Kubrick’s head in the clouds (I got the movie from iTunes, and paused this moment, and try as I might, I cannot see it – then again, I was never able to get those stupid 3-D pictures to emerge out of the jumble either), and even projects the film forwards and backwards at the same time – the overlay of images suggest lots of interesting things, of course.
Do any of these theories have any merit? Probably not. They obsess over the smallest details and continuity errors and read much larger things into them than a sane person would. Some of what they point out is undeniably interesting though – the carpet pattern that in one shot is open to Danny, and in the next is closed, which may have been a continuity error, but considering that Kubrick uses the carpet pattern as a laneway for the ball that rolls to Danny from seemingly nowhere, I doubt it. But just because there are things in the movie that cannot be readily explained, it doesn’t mean what these people say it means.
So if I think that most of these theories are either misguided or batshit crazy, why did I love Room 237 so much? For one thing, I don’t think director Rodney Ascher puts too much stock in them either (he has some marvelous visual jokes – most involving Tom Cruise from Eyes Wide Shut where he seems to be almost mocking these people). But also because, as you watch the movie, you get inside the head of the people exposing their theories. At times, you almost believe what they are saying (ok, the moon landing guy was mostly laughable – especially when he says he’s not a crackpot because he isn’t saying American didn’t land on the moon – just that Kubrick faked the footage we saw of them landing on the moon). Even if you never do, you can at least have fun listening to their takes (my favorite is in the final dissolve of the movie that slowly closes in on that photograph of Nicholson where the Holocaust guy says if you look closely, for a second Nicholson has a Hitler mustache – and you know something? He does). Ascher is not arguing for any of these theories – he is not trying to convince you that one or all of these people are right. Instead, what he has done has made a movie about what it’s like to watch a movie – and become obsessed by them. Since home viewing of movies became standard, it allows us to view the same movies again and again and again, whenever we want, and how often we want. It’s only natural that some people are going to take it to an extreme level – like these guys do (if they hadn’t been able to watch the film repeatedly on home video, much of what they “see” they wouldn’t have). The film becomes an interesting commentary on the dangers of obsessive viewing – you start seeing things that are not there, or at least reading meanings into things that cannot really be supported.
It is also, it must be said, a tribute to Stanley Kubrick and The Shining itself. The film is a masterpiece – one of the greatest horror films ever made. The fact that it can support all of these crazy theories, and still be one of the great scary movies of all time is a tribute to the film and Kubrick himself. How many other films could support this much insanity? Can Ascher make a sequel to this about Lynch’s Mulholland Drive?