Though it centers on Stanley Kubrick’s very personal 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” Rodney Ascher’s brooding documentary isn’t actually about that film. It’s about obsession, using as examples viewers who have given themselves over to developing loopy theories of what Kubrick’s movie actually means.
One of the five people whose theories are aired in “Room 237”—the number of the suite in the Overlook Hotel that’s the prime seat of the place’s embedded evil—is Geoffrey Cocks, an academician who sees Kubrick’s film as really being about the Holocaust. To another, journalist Bill Blakemore, its true subject is the genocide of the Native Americans. Author Jay Weidner argues that the film is a self-confessional, revealing Kubrick’s involvement in faking the footage of the NASA moon landing. Playwright Juli Kearns argues that the “impossible” architecture of the hotel is intended to suggest without clearly articulating it that the place is unnatural. And John Fell Ryan, a musician and inveterate blogger, concentrates on numbers , including those involved in running the film backwards and forwards simultaneously (a process he actually follows).
The method in the commentators’ mild-mannered madness is essentially to read “The Shining” as full of subliminal messages (something in which Kubrick had a real interest) and cryptic clues that were apparently meant to be decoded by true believers. There’s more than a hint of Gnosticism in “Room 237,” the notion that the director’s meaning was intended for a select few. (In fact, Ryan’s project to run “The Shining” in “correct” and reverse order at once could have been used not merely to show interesting juxtapositions, as at the beginning and end of the film, but—had he wished—employed to reveal the “essential” message of the filmmaker by locating the exact midpoint of his work, where the two images would have coincided. At least if you subscribe to what is one of the contemporary world’s foremost systems of intellectual Gnosticism, Straussianism.)
Of course, most viewers of Ascher’s documentary will dismiss the five interpretations treated here simply as the amusing ravings of cranks—intelligent, well-intended cranks, perhaps, but still oddballs. Certainly Leon Vitali, who acted for Kubrick in “Barry Lyndon” and then spent decades as his assistant, thought as much when he viewed “Room 237” and, in remarks to the New York Times, said that much of what they presented as “evidence” for their conclusions amounted to “gibberish.”
And yet there’s no denying that Kubrick teased and toyed with his audiences as much as he did his actors, who often complained of his incredibly expansive shooting schedules and hundreds of takes. Might there not be something to the notion that the prominently displayed cans of Calumet baking powder in the hotel pantry, with their image of an Indian, might have some deep meaning? Or that the change of the room number to 237—one of many changes from the book—might have had a personal motive? Well, probably not. As Vitali recalls, Kubrick might have been a perfectionist, but he was also intensely practical, visually inspired and improvisational. And not incapable of simple mistakes. What one or another of these five commentators reads as something of deep significance could be nothing more than a simple continuity error.
Still, “Room 237” will be a diverting excursion for lovers of Kubrick’s films—filled as it is with clips of them, as well as excerpts from scads of other movies, as well as plenty of other archival material—even if, at over a hundred minutes, it does go on a bit long. (So, of course, did Kubrick in his later years.) One might particularly like the notion that, by showing a wreck in which a red Volkswagen (the kind of car the Torrance family owns in the book) is crushed by a truck, the director was letting King know that he was in fact trashing the book to employ its outline for his own very different creation. Of course, one could also read that detail as suggesting that the Torrance family was actually killed in that wreck, and that everything else is mere hallucination. But it’s certainly enjoyable to view the clips from “Maximum Overdrive” in which King is shown seething in anger in supposed ‘reaction’ to what he saw as Kubrick’s manhandling of his book (which is why he had “The Shining” remade as a TV mini-series—-mediocre, but faithful to the original).
In any event, Ascher’s film represents a clever cinematic example of the postmodernist view of the infinite number of interpretations that can be applied to any discourse by its readers, and of the difficulty of ascribing a single meaning to any author’s (or auteur’s ) work. That’s so even if most of us will continue to see “The Shining” straightforwardly as a powerful, imaginative portrait of how a disintegrating family creates its own ghosts and terrors.