Directed by: Rodney Ascher
Premise: A documentary about creative interpretations of the 1980 film adaptation of The Shining.
What Works: If there was ever a filmmaker to inspire a cult of film criticism it would be Stanley Kubrick, whose filmography is an eclectic mix of pictures like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, and Lolita and whose filmmaking style can be described as eccentric, mysterious, and cerebral. His films, especially 2001, were deliberately vague, using imagery in ways that were intriguing but also frequently opaque, suggesting riddles and invoking complex ideas without any clear or coherent explanation. Among his films, one of the strangest was 1980’s The Shining, an adaptation of the book by Stephen King. In Kubrick’s film, a couple and their young son spend a winter as caretakers for a hotel and over the weeks of isolation the father gradually has a violent nervous breakdown. Kubrick’s film version of The Shining plays coy as to whether the father’s transformation is caused by supernatural phenomena in the hotel or if the strange imagery is a subjective portrayal of mental illness. The Shining is among Kubrick’s most impenetrable and disorienting films and that is saying something. But because of the mythic reputation of Stanley Kubrick and the cinematic artistry of his work, the perplexing nature of The Shining has made it more appealing for audiences, especially those who like to obsess over films and look for hidden meanings. The documentary Room 237 explores the cult of fascination around Kubrick’s The Shining and it is an engrossing examination. The theories surrounding this film are both agreeably and pejoratively fantastic and the filmmakers allow these fans and film theorists to elaborate on their ideas. Significantly, none of the commentators appear on camera. Everyone presents his or her theories about The Shining in voice over and the film crosscuts the arguments and analysis. This ought to make Room 237 unintelligible but it works to the documentary’s benefit, as the picture continually confronts viewers with different ideas and the jumble of disembodied voices arguing peculiar theories about a strange film befits the subject matter. Room 237 is also skilfully edited, using footage from The Shining as well as footage from other movies to illustrate the narrators’ points. One of the filmmakers’ most interesting editorial decisions was to superimpose content of The Shining into other movies, such as The Shining movie poster appearing in a theater marque in a clip from Eyes Wide Shut. This is done seamlessly and adds to the strange and self-reflexive style of the documentary.
What Doesn’t: Some of the theories presented in Room 237 are quite interesting and even compelling but others are sheer nonsense, such as the claim that Stanley Kubrick assisted NASA in faking the moon landing and that The Shining is his confession to taking part in a conspiracy. Other theories overreach, such as the claim that The Shining reflects Kubrick’s fascination with the Holocaust and that the film is somehow a commentary on that event. But despite the absurdity of some of these claims, Room 237 remains fascinating not just because of what these commentators say but the conviction with which they say it. These people don’t appear to be putting this on and the love and obsession they have with The Shining is infectious and keeps Room 237 watchable and entertaining. The documentary is in many respects a train wreck of film criticism and like any good train wreck it is impossible to stop watching.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, deleted scenes, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: The theories of Room 237 are suspect but the documentary is beyond reproach. Like The Shining itself, Room 237 is a very well made piece of work that is both entertaining and mysteriously provocative.
Episode: #462 (October 27, 2013)