The leap of faith one has to make before entering Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s documentary of the hidden agendas allegedly contained within Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 thriller, The Shining. That leap is that Stanley Kubrick never did anything by accident. And for me, personally, it’s not much of a jump. Stanley Kubrick was the Leonardo da Vinci of American cinema – a director who engineered his art as much as he imagined it. And the five film theorists who weigh in on Kubrick’s very liberal adaptation of Stephen King’s book make a very good case that everything in the film is meticulously calculated to send some kind of subliminal message. As is the case with much of Kubrick’s work, there is more to The Shining than the surface narrative.
What I loved about Room 237 is that the theories as to “what Stanley is REALLY telling us” subliminally run the spectrum of plausibility. One theory has it that The Shining is an allegory about the genocide of American Indians; another says it’s about the Holocaust. A third claims that Kubrick changed the infamous Overlook Hotel room from the novel’s Room 217 to Room 237 because it’s 237,000 miles to the moon and that Kubrick was admitting that he staged the 1969 moon landing, having used the sets for 2001: A Space Odyssey for practice. Under this theory, The Shining is Kubrick’s elaborate apology for having lied to his wife about staging an international media hoax.
Another wonderful thing about Room 237 is that while the off-screen theorist sometimes find absolutely captivating trails of evidence for their theories running through Kubrick’s 1980 film, they also see things that are clearly not there.
We never see the theorists, which make some of them come off like crazy voices in the collective audience brain. I love how Ascher frequently offers clips from The Shining that directly contradict what the voices are telling us, but does so without overt comment or malice. One such example is that it seemed impossible to see Kubrick’s bearded face in the clouds during the opening credit sequence of the 1980 film, even while the shot is on screen and we’re being told the face is there. In another, a theorist describes Barry Dennen, who played Bill Watson in the film, as being “dark,” and thus representative of an oppressed minority. While this “darkness” theory is being explained, Dennen’s image is onscreen looks almost anemically white. These moments may or may not be Ascher subtly poking holes in the theories, but regardless how the documentarian’s intent with these scenes, I laughed aloud at the theorist’s assured certainty.
I suppose what I loved most about Room 237 is that made me feel like I was back in my university film classes. The voiced over theorists felt like some of my old classmates who would confidently let their freak flags fly with downright crazy theories about a film’s particular meaning or some kind of hidden message behind the celluloid. And, much like those film courses years ago, agreeing or disagreeing with your “classmates” in Room 237 is part of its fun. At the very least, by the end of Room 237, we all will agree on one thing: there’s enough real evidence supporting the theory that Stanley Kubrick was nothing less than genius, and that’s pretty entertaining all by itself.