Everyone who loves movies needs to see Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, if only to roll their eyes at certain points. The documentary is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining — not the making of the film, but, really, the deconstruction of it. Ascher interviews five theorists who have very different perspectives on The Shining and what Kubrick was trying to say in it. Bill Blakemore thinks the movie is really about the genocide of the American Indians. Geoffrey Cocks opines that it’s really about the Holocaust. Juli Kearns makes much of the supposed minotaur imagery and points out the “impossible” architecture of the haunted Overlook Hotel. Jay Weidner thinks the film was really Kubrick’s acknowledgment that he helped NASA fake the moon landing. John Fell Ryan talks about projecting The Shining running forwards and backwards, an experiment that yields some memorably weird and oddly beautiful images.
The first order of business might be to ask, Why this film? Why not another ghost movie from the same year, like The Changeling? Why not another Stephen King adaptation, like The Dead Zone? Why not another Kubrick film — ah, but there we answer part of the question, because a cursory surf around the web will unearth countless deep-dish analyses or close readings of practically every Kubrick film. His swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, for instance, is really Kubrick telling dark truths about the Illuminati, who promptly assassinated him days after he finished it. Well, at least a guy on the internet says so. I think the same guy also says Lady Gaga is an Illuminati tool. He’d probably find Illuminati stuff in The Shining, too.
The thing is, you can find anything you want to see in any movie. Rodney Ascher could as well have found five people who discovered profound meanings in Dude, Where’s My Car? But The Shining is the perfect launching pad for a movie about obsessive film theorists, because Kubrick in general attracts theories like lint, and this film in particular is perhaps his most stubbornly mystifying work. Pauline Kael’s review noted the film’s many “deliberate time dislocations.” Stephen King himself didn’t like or understand the movie, and still doesn’t. Years later, King would show how little he understood what made not only Kubrick’s film but his own book work, and wrote a terribly boring TV adaptation of The Shining, a clip of which we see in Room 237. The majority of the footage here, of course, comes from the Kubrick version, as well as from all his other films.
Some of it I enjoyed; some of it I’d heard (or read) before; some of it made my eyes glaze over and made me want to revisit The Shining. In form, Room 237 is more of a video essay than a documentary; the video essay is, to these eyes, an unfortunate bastard child of the close-reading film review, apparently made by people who don’t like to write, for people who don’t like to read. Copious use of other people’s work is an easy bonus for the video essayist. Room 237 also doesn’t show the five theorists onscreen — we just hear their voices — which tends to emphasize the “text” of what they’re saying instead of offering an Errol Morris-type study of five obsessives fondling Kubrick’s film like the blind men touching the elephant in the ancient fable. It’s a pillar! No, it’s a snake!
Kubrick himself preferred to let his movies speak for themselves, which for some viewers creates a void they rush to fill. Amusingly, Kubrick’s former assistant Leon Vitali, who was there at the time, scoffed at many of the theorists’ claims in a recent New York Times interview. Sometimes a typewriter is just a typewriter, even if it changes color; sometimes a chair that’s there in one shot and gone in a later shot is just a continuity goof. Directors — especially those who started before the advent of home video — are far less concerned with editing gaffes than many would suspect. “That’s the only usable shot, and that’s the shot we’re using” is what most disappearing-chair mysteries boil down to. Directors hope the narrative will move you past the small errors, but of course when a movie is available to watch again and again in your living room, the disappearing chair becomes noticeable.
I’ve seen The Shining more than a few times myself. What do I think it’s about? My take, briefly: it’s another chapter in Kubrick’s epic, decades-long doctoral thesis about the ongoing folly of man. Jack Torrance (man) has always been the caretaker (murderer). King, an active alcoholic when he wrote the book, meant the story to illustrate generational, genetic frailty (Jack’s father was an abusive drunk). Kubrick took that and magnified it into a statement about the timeless rivers of blood (redrum) running through human history. The theories about the Indian genocide and the Holocaust would seem to fit neatly inside mine, but I’m going to do us both a favor and let the moon-landing thing pass in silence.