The theories held by the crackpots who are given time to talk about their obsession with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining during Room 237‘s investigation of the film’s many supposed secret meanings are all crazy, but, in a way, they aren’t. More than any Kubrick film beyond 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining has inspired so much writing, diagramming, alternate screening methodologies, and impassioned conspiracy theories that to print them all out and assemble them into a cohesive narrative of cinematic obsession would be impossible. That director Rodney Ascher has made anything from this geyser of misinformation is a respectable achievement in itself, a remarkable feat of picking, choosing, and whittling down, working an unwieldy tangle of trees into a serviceable canoe. That Room 237 is so compulsively watchable is a tribute to Kubrick’s filmmaking, which is captivating even when taken out of context, toyed with, projected back on itself, and advanced frame-by-frame through moments that, without the benefit of ghost hunting, simply wouldn’t be compelling on their own.
Room 237 does not purport to hold any of the answers to the questions its five interviewees ask, and is a much better documentary for not playing referee. Its more academic theories—that The Shining is either a deconstructionist take on 2001: A Space Odyssey that plays that film’s narrative backwards, or that the film is subliminally about sexually deviant behaviors—hold more water than the conspiratorial ones that range from the genocide of Native Americans to the Holocaust to Kubrick’s supposed involvement in a staged moon landing, but that those ideas wouldn’t be out of place in a panel at a respectable academic conference makes them less interesting, even as they lend credence to Ascher’s purpose in making this film. What bonds the two schools of thought together is the absurd amount of attention the theorists pay even the most esoteric details of the film, not just the Tang in the pantry or the Native American art hanging in the Colorado Lounge, but that Jack Torrence’s typewriter is of German make, or that the color of the Volkswagen the Torrences drive to the Overlook Hotel is not red, as Stephen King described, but orange. It’s also fun to note how interviewees see different things in the same scene and use those bits of ephemera as irrefutable evidence of their truth without acknowledging any other argument: the Tang in the pantry represents the falsified moon landing to one, the Calumet baking powder, with its Native American emblem on the tin, a sure sign of genocide to another.
Were these five unique visions of The Shining‘s purpose presented separately, the best the presenters could hope for would be to exhaust their audience. Instead, though nobody addresses a theory that isn’t their own, Ascher’s sequencing of opinions places Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Keans, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner in conversation with one another, not necessarily about what The Shining means, but about what it means to truly, deeply fall in love with a film and its director, to be bugged by it, prodded by it, and ultimately changed by your experience of it. Each one of the subjects Ascher interviews tells a somewhat similar story of how they came to understand The Shining. Most, mirroring the critical consensus of the time, found themselves underwhelmed by the film upon first viewing. Kubrick, afterall, was a master, and master filmmakers don’t waste their time on horror pictures (never mind the fact that they often do). Something about the movie stuck with them, though, prompted a repeat viewing during which The Shining unlocked itself to them the way room 237 unlocked itself to Danny and Jack Torrence. Sure, their love is much more obsessed than, say, the frat boy who is really in touch with The Boondock Saints—mapping out the impossible windows of the Overlook seems a particularly depressing enterprise, Rob Neary sculpting Devil’s Tower from his plate of mashed potatoes without the benefit of a Spielbergian payoff—but people don’t talk about movies in loving detail anymore. Rather than mock these people—a tough impulse to resist when one implicates that NASA has been harrassing him for uncovering the truth—we should value them.
That being said, the fatal flaw of each argument presented in Room 237 is that the kind of deep-belief necessary to formulate these theories and present them to a skeptical audience requires the interviewees to blind themselves to the fact that Kubrick, dictatorial as he was on set, was as error-prone as any other director, or that coincidence is often more intoxicating if taken as proof in ones belief than as pure happenstance. When a red Volkswagen does appear in The Shining, crushed under an overturn semi-truck on the impassable road between Dick Hallorann and the Overlook Hotel, is not just a red Volkswagen; instead, it’s a subtle kiss-off to King, an announcement that his novel was to take a back seat to Kubrick’s global mea culpa for the fake moonshot. Some of the claims made in Room 237—that Barry Lyndon was “the work of a bored filmmaker,” for one—feel like non-starters, even when they’re presented as magic bullets. But that’s the thing with belief: what looks like a tiny wrinkle to an outsider is a pillar of faith to somebody else. And that, ultimately, is what Ascher sets out to prove with his “inquiry into The Shining;” not that anybody interviewed here is correct, but that everybody is, that the act of watching a film is an act of ownership. Stanley Kubrick may have made The Shining, but you may mold it into anything you like.
Room 237: Being An Inquiry Into The Shining In Nine Parts. A documentary directed by Rodney Ascher and produced by Tim Kirk.