Room 237 (2013)
102 min., not rated.
If you think a film is always just a film, conspiracy theorists will tell you you're wrong. Semiotics, pet theories, and subtext readings abound in "Room 237," a documentary that lays on several different interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror film "The Shining." Is it more than a hypnotic, scary-as-hell, placidly paced, masterfully composed horror film about Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his descent into madness after he and his family become caretakers for an isolated hotel in the winter season? Beyond the surface story, is "The Shining" a puzzle of layers of meaning and symbolism? Several crackpot subjects—ABC journalist Bill Blakemore, college professor Geoffrey Cocks, playwright Juli Kearns, filmmaker and author Jay Weidner, and musician John Fell Ryan—break the film down to every minutiae and, by turns, the doc is fascinating, loopy, outlandish, thoughtful, amusing, and entertaining to watch.
Titled after the pivotal hotel room by director Rodney Ascher, "Room 237" is smoothly assembled with clips from the film at hand, archival footage, and other films from Kubrick's own "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Eyes Wide Shut" to "My Fair Lady" and "Doctor Dolittle." We only hear the interviewees through voice-overs, so judgment can only be placed on their theories and not them as people. They are like unreliable narrators who can't see the forest for the trees, but are they just obsessive fanatics of "The Shining" with too much time on their hands or are they nearly as crazy as the all-work-and-no-play Jack? Was Kubrick just a meticulous genius of a filmmaker or was he consciously dropping all these symbols, synchronicity, and clues like bread crumbs so we could discuss and contemplate years later?
One of the theorists calls Kubrick "a bored genius" that fills his film with subliminal messages. If anyone in their right mind were to slow down the speed frame by frame, you can spot a phallic symbol, but was that really Kubrick's intent? Maybe, maybe not. Another dissects the impossible floor plan of the Overlook Hotel, including a window that shouldn't exist, and has her own take on a skiing poster and the hotel's hedge maze referencing the Minotaur myth. A man points out son Danny Torrance's "Apollo 11" sweater, the hotel hallway's hexagonal-patterned carpet, and Kubrick's choices to deviate from Stephen King's book (i.e. changing Room 217 to 237), claiming that Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing with the front-screen projection process. The recurring number "42" and a German typewriter must point to a Holocaust subtext, right? Do the Calumet baking powder cans ("Calumet" meaning "peace pipe") signify that the film is about the genocide of the American Indians? Why, oh, why does a sticker of Dopey, one of the Seven Dwarfs, appear and then disappear? Continuity error or a sign of a character's enlightenment? Will watching "The Shining" forwards and backwards simultaneously reveal the film's deeper meaning or just bring on a splitting headache? Are they overthinking it or are we underthinking it?
Apparently, none of us are looking at "The Shining" close enough. Some of the connections and theories are mind-blowing and convincing, while others are just wacky and ridiculously overthought, that the whole of "Room 237" grows pretty tiresome after a while. In the end, though, Ascher takes the viewer through a labyrinth of "hidden truths" and analyses, leaving all of us to laugh, shake our heads, and draw our own conclusions. Film theorist, conspiracy theorist, or just a plain ol' cinephile, you get to discover your own reading.