Directed by: Rodney Ascher.
Featuring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner.
The five people who speak during Rodney Ascher's brilliant, hilarious documentary Room 237 are people who cannot see the forest for the trees. During the course of the film, they will give their various interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining – arguing that the film isn’t really about what it seems to be about. To one, it is about the Holocaust. To another, it’s about the Genocide of the Native Americans. To another, its Kubrick’s confession for faking the moon landing footage (he wants everyone to know that he does believe that Apollo 11 actually did land on the moon – it was just the footage that was faked – he isn’t crazy or anything). The other two aren’t nearly as clear about their interpretations – but they simply look very deeply, and make a lot out of what they think they have discovered in the film.
In a way, Room 237 is a film about film criticism – film critic’s job is to analyze films, of course, and to find the meaning of the film, and the subtext in them. But what the five people in Room 237 do is far beyond what film critics do. They barely even deal with the surface of the film – things like plot, or characters, or performances or music, or shot selection, or anything else that actually make up the whole of the film. To them, everything is The Shining is just a stand in for some larger meaning that Kubrick was trying to get viewers to notice. A missing chair is not a simple continuity error – but Kubrick playing with genre conventions to get the audience to look deeper. Similarly, a missing sticker of Dopey is not a continuity error – but a sign from Kubrick that Danny is no longer a dope. A German typewriter is a symbol of the Holocaust, because the Germans went about the elimination of the Jews in a bureaucratic way. A can of Calamut baking powder is a symbol of Native Americans – and when later in the film, more than one is behind Nicholson’s head, in a disorganized way, that’s a symbol of broken treaties with the Native Americans. Kubrick changed the room number from Stephen Kings novel not because the hotel it was based on requested it (like Kubrick said) but because the moon is 237,000 miles from earth. And perhaps my favorite, one dissolve near the end of the film momentarily gives Nicholson a Hitler mustache.
The argument that all of them make at one point or another is that since we all know Stanley Kubrick was a perfectionist, than everything in the film had to be put there on purpose – and all of it must mean something. But continuity errors happen on nearly every film – even on those made by perfectionists. And when someone points out that during the infamous Steadicam shots of Danny on his big wheel, that you can see, in the corners, parts of rooms that shouldn’t be there, that is most likely just the reality of shooting on a set, and not a real location.
There is also a lot of seeing only what the viewers want to see to further their point in the film. Is it a coincidence that the man who specializes in German history, particularly Nazi history, sees the film as about the Holocaust? Or that the man who admits he was thinking a lot about genocide and the Native Americans see The Shining as about that. Or the man, who was already convinced Kubrick faked the moon landing, sees this as his confession. All of them take only what they want in the movie, and discard the rest.
None of this is to say that there are not deeper meanings in The Shining – or in any film for that matter. Often, directors have used genre films to comment on something larger than the surface level of the plot. But the amount of detail that these people look at in The Shining crosses the line between deep analysis into the pathological and insane. The connections they make are only in their mind – and not in the film itself.
None of this means that Room 237 isn’t a great film – it is a great film. But it’s not great in the way the five subjects of the film would probably want it to be. They didn’t succeed in convincing me of anything during the course of the movie other than the fact that they are somewhat insane. Room 237 is, in many ways, about the danger of looking too closely – so closely that you no longer even see the object you are looking at, and instead see things that are not there. And it’s also about the culture we live in today – where ambiguity is something to be questioned, where art is a puzzle simply to be solved. Not every movie is like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense – where there is a moment where everything snaps into place. Sometimes, there are no answers. But there are people who do not want to see things that way – they want David Chase to tell them explicitly if Tony Soprano is alive or dead at the end of the show. They want David Lynch to explain all the mysteries of Twin Peaks or Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive.
The film is also incredibly entertaining – and at times downright hilarious. Ascher never interjects in the film, but instead just allows his subjects to talk and talk, while showing us in detail the scenes from the movie they are talking about. Sometimes, you definitely notice that what they are saying is correct – not their interpretation per se, but what is actually on screen. And sometimes, what they are saying are simply not there – no matter how closely Ascher looks for it.
The film is wonderful – and Ascher definitely picked the right film to make this documentary about. He could have done it with any number of films, but The Shining is one of those films that simply defies expectations – and contains questions that simply have no answers – at least not in the film itself. Kubrick did this intentionally – he wanted there to be different interpretations of his film. But I cannot help but think that he may well view these five as crazy as I did. Sometimes a missing chair is just a missing chair.