Imagine, if you will, the following scene: You’ve emerged with several of your college pals from a screening of some arty, elusive and intellectually stimulating film. You decamp to a nearby coffee shop and spend the next couple of hours debating what does it all mean, man? Odds are high, if you’re bothering to read a movie review, you’ve experienced a very similar scenario once or twice in your lifetime. Odds are equally high, though, that you and your friends didn’t immediately start rendering 3D maps of the film’s imaginary locations and aren’t still continuing the debate 30 years later.
Room 237—the puckish, reflexive, Escher-like documentary by Rodney Ascher—interviews several assumedly learned people who have spent waaaay too much time watching Stanley Kubrick’s loose adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining. These dedicated (to put it politely) folks have developed various, often conflicting theories about the 1980 film and its hidden “meaning.” Some of the theories are perfectly plausible. (Young Danny Torrance is consciously leading his abusive, alcoholic father to his death the entire movie.) Others are far-fetched. (The whole film is a metaphor for the genocide of the American Indian.) And some are just plain looney. (The Shining is actually Kubrick’s coded apology for having faked the Apollo moon landing in a Hollywood studio.)
These theorists are identified by name but remain offscreen for the entire film. (No talking head documentary here.) In fact, we get next to nothing in the way of background on these people. Are they postmodern film critics or random internet trolls? At first this lack of context might seem frustrating. But it’s really beside the point. The film barely tries to differentiate between the theories, free-floating from one to another and back again, leaving viewers to wonder: What the hell was Kubrick’s movie really about?
Those familiar with Kubrick’s alternately lauded and derided thriller—and quite frankly you’d better be intimately familiar to sit in the audience here—will be amused by the crazy ideas Room 237’s interviewees float into the stratosphere. When we say these ideas are based on careful observation of The Shining, we mean very careful observation. We’re not talking about the film’s overt thematic material (insanity, alcoholism, angry ghosts). We’re barely talking about its subtext. We’re concentrating instead on an obsessive reading of the signs and symbols (semiotics, if you like) scattered throughout the feature. The concept behind the Native American genocide interpretation, for example, is sparked largely by the prominent placement of a Calumet baking powder tin in the pantry of the cinematic hotel set. The fake Apollo moon landing theory is similarly launched by a large container of Tang in the same scene. (Oddly no one attempts to find meaning in the pantry’s highly visible box full of minced clams.)
The documentarians behind Room 237 have some cheeky fun with it all, snatching bits of movies by Kubrick and others to illustrate the history and alleged conspiracy (conspiracies?) behind The Shining. Bug-eyed Stephen King as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow stands in for King and his famously unhappy reaction to Kubrick’s film. Tom Cruise’s angrily befuddled character from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut wanders through, representing the theorists’ dogged search for truth amid the craziness.
Ascher pores over every frame of The Shining in slow-motion—picking out the microscopic, split-second details that loom large in the minds of the theorists. What you make of them is up to you. If you can spot the headshot of Stanley Kubrick “clearly airbrushed” onto the clouds during The Shining’s opening credits, you’ve got much better eyes (or imagination) than most folks. Then again, Danny Torrance does actually wear a T-shirt with the number 42 on it. (That’s the year the Nazis began a little something called the Holocaust. Dun-dun-DUUUN.)
On the surface, Room 237 looks like a good laugh at the expense of some pretentious people who’ve read too much into an artistically made psychological horror film. What Room 237 does quietly and quite elegantly, though, is it reminds viewers that truly great art has no single interpretation. Are these people and their wild theories correct? On the one hand, no. Did Stanley Kubrick intentionally set out to transform King’s novel into a secret metaphor for the Holocaust? Eh, probably not. On the other hand, these theoretical critics advance some intriguing interpretations. Why not watch The Shining backward and forwards at the same time to explore its visual flirtations with symmetry and mirrors? Art is all things to all people. Sometimes not even the artist himself is aware of what muses are guiding him. As long as it touches us, sticks with us and makes us think—about whatever—it’s successful. Ultimately Room 237 isn’t even about The Shining. You could do this with any great film or novel or painting. And you probably should.