Room 237 (2013)
Directed by Rodney Ascher
Starring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns
Run Time: 102 minutes
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Stanley Kubrick’s bold style and themes on human irrationality and control were consistently recognizable throughout most of his career, but the content in his films were wide ranging. His goal seemed to be to realize the very best a genre could offer as he tackled each one, and he made some of the peak films in each genre: “The Killing” for heist films, “Dr. Strangelove” for black comedies, “2001: A Space Odyssey” in science fiction, “A Clockwork Orange” for dystopian fantasies, “Barry Lyndon” for period epics, “Full Metal Jacket” for war movies, and The Shining” in horror. However, the rep of “The Shining” wasn’t nearly as high upon initial release as it is now. Horror is among the most disreputable genres and some saw Kubrick as slumming in indulging in it. It rewards re-watching tremendously though, and in the new documentary “Room 237,” we see that in action.
Director Rodney Ascher interviews five people who have obsessively watched “The Shining” an uncountable number of times and who have very idiosyncratic interpretations of the movie. Bill Blakemore, a war correspondent, sees it as being about the genocide of Native Americans. Geoffrey Cocks, a history professor, thinks it’s about the Holocaust. Juli Kearns, a playwright, has mapped out the impossible geography of the Overlook Hotel where the film takes place. John Fell Ryan, a performance artist, delves into the movie’s numerology. Jay Weidner, a writer/director/producer/scholar, thinks the movie is Kubrick acknowledging his help to fake Apollo 11 moon-landing footage.
The interviewees are all heard but never seen while “The Shining” footage they discuss plays underneath their voice-overs. If Ascher didn’t splice in lots of found footage from other sources (with varying degrees of success), the documentary would come off like an elaborate DVD commentary track. The interviewees sometimes point out interesting minutiae like Jack Nicholson reading a Playgirl magazine in one scene or that a hotel office window is in an impossible location in another. On the whole though, their interpretations speak to fanatical overreach as they make meaning out of movie short cuts, continuity errors, or coincidences. They see sexual intercourse in carpet designs and a Minotaur in a ski poster while deciding that the number of cars in the parking lot has meaning.
All of that is all right though because the documentary is as much about people making meaning for themselves as it is about “The Shining.” Contemporary reader response theory doesn’t elevate the author’s intentions as primary but rather that once a work is released, the author has no control over what others make of it. “Room 237,” named after one particularly haunted suite in the movie’s hotel, takes this idea and runs with it. Humans make connections and see patterns whether they are really there or not. Perhaps the more rational among us aren’t going to subscribe to the obsessive interpretations offered here, but we will find our own in “The Shining” in other ways that make it meaningful, and that’s the nature of art.