Published on May 9th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Room 237 
Summary: An in-depth look at one of film's most puzzling pictures. 'Room 237' spends its time picking apart the mysteries of Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining'.
NR | 102 min.
Director & Editor: Rodney Ascher
Distribution: IFC Films | Box Office: $296,359
It should go without saying that some movies just aren’t made for everyone, but I’ll preface this review by stating Room 237 is a film that was made for a very specific purpose, for a very specific audience.
This 2012 documentary, directed by first-timer Rodney Ascher, comes with one major prerequisite: You need to have seen Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining at least once. Taking the requirements further, it helps if you’ve seen Kubrick’s other work (post-Lolita) and have an itching curiosity for the deeper meanings behind those movies. Fitting these guidelines, I enjoyed Room 237 immensely and feel that as a work of pure film study, it’s among the most satisfying I’ve ever seen.
Ascher’s picture is unique in the intense focus it takes on a specific subject. Where Michael Moore’s pictures attempt to shake policy, going after some of the biggest targets on the map, Room 237 spends its 102 minutes dissecting Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic with a scalpel and magnifying glass. Along the way, Ascher’s cast of obsessive viewers also pick out scenes from Kubrick flicks like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket and especially Eyes Wide Shut, linking their themes to The Shining.
The young director told Cineaste Magazine in a recent interview that he decided to narrow the focus of Room 237 after learning his lesson on an earlier project. “I had a documentary that sort of fell apart years ago because the focus was too broad and I felt paralyzed by all of the choices I could have made. So we decided to restrict this project to being about what happens when a film leaves the hands of the filmmaker and the audience is left to put the pieces together with whatever tool they have available,” Ascher explained.
Room 237 runs completely via voiceover. We never see Ascher’s interview subjects, only scenes from the movies they are talking about as they discuss their theories on subtext. This method certainly disconnects us from the people telling the story but keeps Room 237 moving at a brisk pace and allows us to focus intently on The Shining as Ascher runs some key scenes multiple times and in slow-motion in some cases.
Five different narrators discuss their theories on The Shining‘s possible deeper meanings, with varying degrees of success. The most effective are veteran ABC News reporter Bill Blakemore and history professor Geoffrey Cocks, whose arguments are bolstered by strong visual cues and frankly, seem the least absurd of the lot.
Blakemore’s belief that the film is a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans dates back to an essay he published in 1987, after having an awakening while watching The Shining. Perhaps it’s his journalism background but Blakemore does a great job explaining his theory behind the film’s subtext and points to a lot of visual evidence in Kubrick’s frames as well as historical anecdotes surrounding production of The Shining and its filming locations. Meanwhile, Cocks argues that The Shining is really about the Holocaust and–as it’s been reported that Kubrick, a jew, was uncomfortable addressing the Nazi atrocities directly–made this picture as his response to it.
Two other narrators tend to be a bit more wild with their theses, yet still point out moments in The Shining that support their claims. Playwright Juli Kearns argues that the film is full of references to mythology and the zodiac, most specifically to Jack Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance being a minotaur stuck inside the labyrinth of the Overlook Hotel. This is the most wild theory but Kearns does obsessive work detailing the layout of the hotel and how it plays into her idea. I thought this idea was interesting given the prevalence of that theme in The Shining author Stephen King’s later novel Rose Madder, which I coincidentally finished recently.
Scholar Jay Weidner believes the film to be about Kubrick’s involvement in what he calls NASA’s staged moon landing for television. He references costume choices, carpeting in the Overlook and this documentary’s namesake, hotel room 237, as clear nods to the space program. Finally John Fell Ryan, a musician that writes about Kubrick’s work, discusses an experimental way he screens the picture by projecting The Shining forwards and backwards simultaneously, with interesting results.
As you can imagine, Room 237 is as much about theories on The Shining as it is about art interpretation and obsessive viewing. No people directly connected with Kubrick are interviewed in the picture–a conscious decision by Ascher–stating that no “official validity” can be given to these speculations. With this film, Ascher is inviting the audience to come up with their own interpretations of Kubrick’s film, not trying to crown any as the true meaning behind The Shining. My high school english teacher Miss Hensley used to tell me that there are no right or wrong answers in art and that’s what Room 237 is all about, showing even some of the most ludicrous interpretations can be justified with close viewing.
If Kubrick were still alive, he would likely say that the folks in Room 237 are simply seeing things that are not there but for a filmmaker that was so dedicated to mise-en-scéne, it makes you wonder if he would simply say, “No comment.”
I admire the dedication and repeated viewings of The Shining that it took to hammer out these theories behind its subtexts. Just like a sports fan who can tell you every notable player that’s worn a certain jersey number for his team, it’s impressive to view a movie most of us have seen numerous times from a completely different perspective. Ascher’s film certainly has limited appeal to a specific type of audience but if you enjoy film history, criticism and literary interpretation, Room 237 is a great add to the Netflix queue; it had the wife and I talking about it for hours after it finished.