Andy Stuckey, Ryan Maddux
Greensburg Daily News
We spurn Hollywood’s latest big releases and instead watched the documentary Room 237 (NR), which is currently available from several on-demand cable/ satellite providers. T
he film explores five wildly different theories behind the meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining. Rodney Ascher directs.
Andy: The premise of Room 237 — the idea that Stanley Kubrick was not actually adapting Stephen King’s novel, but only using it as a vehicle to communicate a multi-layered allegory — is great fun for literary criticism nerds and fans of The Shining. At the same time, if you do not fall into one of or both of those categories, Room 237 will come across as some combination of boring and depressingly paranoid. As somebody who falls into both of those categories, I found the movie to be great fun, even if it is flawed.
Ryan: I think it should also be said of what Room 237 isn’t: This is not a documentary on the making of The Shining, nor is it a documentary on the meaning of The Shining as viewed through the scope of it being horror film. Room 237 is an exercise in extreme critical thought that at times tows the line between deep critical thinking and conspiratorial gibberish. If one is a fan of film criticism, then Room 237 offers some fascinating ideas in what Kubrick really meant to express with his adaptation of The Shining (as theorized by these five Shining-enthusiasts). But it’s also true that one has to take much of what the film says with a grain of salt. One of the arguments in the film is that The Shining is Kubrick’s apology for faking the Apollo 11 moon landing footage back in 1969. Most reasonable people would find fault in that conspiracy (and I did as well) but it is fascinating to witness the passion and certainty of the narrator when he’s making his case. You might not buy what these people are selling but you are still fascinated by their thought processes.
Andy: The theories expressed in the documentary range from very believable (it’s really about the Holocaust, or genocide of Native Americans), to downright nutty (it’s a confession about Kubrick faking the moon landing). What’s noteworthy is that all of these critics seem to fully believe that they have cracked the secret code of the movie. The takeaway as an impartial viewer becomes a certainty that there is a purposeful, rich subtext to the film that lends itself to all sorts of meanings depending on the viewer. In other words, this documentary convinces me of nothing beyond the fact that The Shining is a much richer piece of art than I had originally thought, and I already was fond of the movie.
Ryan: From a technical aspect, Room 237’s composition is also a mixed bag. The film crosscuts scenes not just from The Shining but from other Kubrick films as well (and also from some other random films too). Sometimes this is effective — as it shows Kubrick’s film genius — but it’s also distracting when other random films by other directors are just arbitrarily spliced into the documentary’s narrative. You also never see these theorists on camera, thus adding a layer of mystery to the whole production, which I guess in the long run, might actually help the film out. But consequently one never sees these people challenged with regard to their theories. I would have liked to have seen the narrator or filmmaker offer some resistance to these out-of-the-norm hypotheses.
Andy: For all of the insight, wackiness, and deeply interesting subject matter in Room 237, it must be noted that the construction of the documentary is quite odd. As Ryan mentions, the film never shows the critics who are voicing over the explanations of their theories, instead illustrating points with clips from The Shining (which is very effective), other Kubrick films (which does not always work well) and other random films (which is sometimes just silly). It also gets pretty confusing pretty quickly if you are not familiar with The Shining, or you are not in tune with the odd documentary style. The subject is interesting enough that the film works, but there are clear shortcomings.
Not many directors could have inspired such an uncanny documentary. Let’s face it. Stanley Kubrick is a cinematic genius and one of the greatest directors of all-time, but he was also a very private and reclusive individual. When one couples all of that together in this media age, some people are going to come up with some pretty wild ideas. Room 237 labors along at times, but it’s a hard film to forget. Final grade: B-.