Everybody’s a Critic, by Kyle Anderson
Nobody appreciates the desire to habitually re-watch a particular film and formulate certain theories and hypothesis about them like the critical community. Whole masters theses and doctoral dissertations have been written along these lines and can be read anywhere. Most of the time, the theories are fairly easy to digest and taken as, if not a correct interpretation of the film, a valid one worth debating, pondering, and reevaluating. Evidently, the work of Stanley Kubrick is among the most hotly contested in the cinematic community with wildly divergent ideas about what the enigmatic, perfectionist director could have meant by one thing or another. While I would have thought his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey would be the one with all the crazy ideas (and certainly there are some) it appears that his 1980 film The Shining is the one to mull over. Luckily, filmmaker Rodney Ascher has compiled some of the more outlandish takes on The Shining into his own fascinating, haunting picture, Room 237.
This is not a normal documentary by any means. Ascher interviews his subject only via audio with the visuals being handled by scenes from The Shining itself, but also every other of Kubrick’s films and a few others, notably scenes of people in a movie theater from Lamberto Bava’s 1985 horror flick, Demons. It is through these images, of cinema itself explaining cinema, that we get lulled into a state that anything presented to us could conceivably be true. The steady, uneasy synth music on top of everything just adds to the unsettling feeling I felt through most of the viewing. I’ve seen The Shining enough times where simply seeing still frames doesn’t, or shouldn’t make me feel so creeped out, but there I was, enthralled yet ill at ease.
This format is used to allow the six people interviewed to illustrate their various points. Each of them is as vehement and assured as the last that their belief in what Kubrick was trying to say with the movie is the honest-to-goodness truth, that it was clear to them and should be clear to anyone who watches it, and that why nobody ever picked up on it before is a total mystery. What’s most puzzling is that a couple of these theories, which I won’t spoil for you here, are incredibly outlandish and if someone just said them to you, you’d probably laugh them off as the ravings of a lunatic. However, Ascher provides visual evidence to support each argument right there in the “text” itself. So maybe these aren’t so nutty after all or maybe they are and it’s all just a coincidence. Toward the end of Room 237, Ascher begins to present the arguments concurrently, to the extent that one person will add to their wacky idea and a moment later, another speaker will do the same for their own. If Kubrick was as much of a perfectionist as everything ever written about him suggests, it’s certainly very plausible that one of these theories is correct, or that they all are.
The things in the film which I find most intriguing are the things that were clearly done on purpose by Kubrick, specifically the layout of the Overlook Hotel set itself. The floor plan does not make logical sense based on what we see. Hallways go nowhere, windows that depict the outdoors exist on interior walls, and elevators don’t have a destination. It’s staggering when these are presented to you. All of these had to have been done intentionally to give the viewer a sense that the hotel was not correct. You might not have noticed this, but your brain did. The presumed reason Kubrick did things can be debating for decades, but the important thing, to me, is that he did them at all. The hotel is a force that can cause someone to go insane and showing this in the build of the set, though it’s never mentioned, was a fascinating, deliberate choice on the part of a very thoughtful filmmaker.
The film’s title, Room 237, presents the most troubling of the disparate ideas surrounding The Shining: what is actually in the film’s purportedly evil room 237? Turns out, it can represent anything if someone’s in the mind to believe it, much like The Shining as a whole, Kubrick’s output, or, indeed, cinema in general. With the best films, we get out what we bring in giving each individual viewer their own individual experience. Rodney Ascher knows this. I doubt any two people will have the exact same Shining experience and nor will two people have the same Room 237 experience. It’s a mystery, but one that will keep you thinking for weeks longer than you ever thought you would.
I really enjoyed this review. I think the film is worthy of the praise, and I am glad I finally caught up with it. At its core, Room 237 is a movie about film criticism and rewatching, and I have never seen anything like it!