Posted by Ian Mantgani on 13th October, 2012
The pattern that unites the participants of Room 237 is of seeing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining when it opened in 1980, being disappointed by it, then catching it later and finding it hypnotic. Then they were hooked: deconstructing the film’s mysteries or seizing upon their interpretations of its coded messages took over their lives.
Room 237 is a documentary by Rodney Ascher and Tim Kirk that is not so much about The Shining as it is about people who are all about The Shining. These folks seem to have taken advice from another Kubrick film – “Viddy well, o brother,” – and have viddied so closely their gaze goes into the realm of incisive genius and past that into madness. Kirk paraphrases Neitzsche: “When you look at a film hard enough, it’ll look back into you.”
There are voice-overs from, as the production notes call them, “a journalist, a professor, a musician, an artist and an ‘erudite conspiracy hunter.’” They have theories on what The Shining is really about. Such as the genocide of Native Americans – the Overlook hotel has plenty of Indian artefacts in its background. Or the Holocaust – we not only see eagle insignias, and hear about how the film is a metaphor for collective anguish, but are told that there’s significance in the number 7 appearing in the film so much, because it divides into 42, and 1942 is when the Final Solution began. How about the idea that even if we did land on the moon, the footage we saw was faked by Stanley Kubrick, and The Shining is his coded confession?
The visuals of the film involve brilliantly edited clips from not just The Shining but Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Killing, as well as newsreel footage and grabs from Thief of Baghdad, The Music Man, The Howling, Creepshow and Murnau’s Faust. These are sometimes used to visually illustrate textual and thematic points made by the voice-overs, sometimes to create a reverie that gets the kooky world of Shining theorising under our skin. When the participants talk about seeing The Shining in the cinema, we see 1980s shots of cinema audiences – these are clips from Lamberto Bava’s Demons, skilfully, creatively manipulated in After Effects to include little details that make the excerpts more pertinent to this story.
It’s all so dense and beautifully put together that for a while I found myself really digging the wild interpretations. People talk about the use of dream logic in the film. And the theme of mirrored imagery, and how The Shining is a visual reverse image of the construction of 2001. Also a thematic one: If Space Odyssey was about journeying towards progress, The Shining is about escaping from primordial evil. Compare the dark spells of the Overlook’s Room 237 to the welcome of 2001’s interstellar hotel suite.
Then it gets silly. When you see little Danny wearing an Apollo 11 T-shirt, even the moon theory seems convincing. But then the theorist notes that in a shot of the words ‘ROOM NO.237,’ you can (sort of) reform the words into ‘MOON ROOM.’ He claims that’s the only anagram you can make. (How about, as many have noted, ‘MORON’ or ‘NO MOOR?’) There’s another guy who claims that in one shot of clouds, you can see an outline of the sky that looks like Kubrick’s face. (You can’t – at all.) Someone else talks of going deep into the mirror imagery by experimenting with a screening of The Shining where the film is played forwards and backwards on top of itself to see how the shots converge. As the critic Adam Batty pointed out to me after the show, “The European cut is 20 minutes shorter. What happens when you play that back on itself?” I was already thinking that the very exercise is a bit too much like those who would play records backwards for Satanic messages, or sync Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. If you really want to you can make anything match up. (“Dude, if you watch The Shining then blink three times, you can totally see the face of Hitler!!”)
Ultimately, with all the rich visuals and sprawling talk, Room 237 is not agreeing with anybody but simply acting as a love letter to Kubrick and to those who would ruminate on art in general. Some of it gets wearying as opposed to hypnotic: The talk about the impossible spatial construction of the Overlook set is convincingly laid out onscreen, but I’m not sure what the point of it is, and after a while the rhythm of the documentary just goes on and on. Mostly, however, this is a beautifully pieced-together film. In some ways it reminded me of The Imposter – it’s about the disorienting line between truth and bullshit, especially when you sound lucid talking it, and have the work of a cinematic genius as your supporting evidence.