Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, an inquiry into the hidden meanings and subliminal messages in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, has been screening for the past week in Auckland at the 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival. The documentary is one of the most entertaining movies about movies for some time, and comes highly recommended for fans of Kubrick. Read below for my review, and keep checking back for further updates and reviews from the festival.
To many viewers, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is just a horror film about a man (played by Jack Nicholson) who grows progressively mad in a bizarre hotel – albeit a visually spectacular and seriously unnerving one. But to others, the film is a source of endless obsession, full of mysteries to unravel and hidden meanings to explore – which is exactly what Rodney Ascher’s subjective documentary Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts sets out to do. Five very different points of view from some rather fastidious and wacky Kubrickians are illuminated through use of voice over, animation, dramatic reenactments, and extensive clips from Kubrick’s films which seem to stretch the definition of “fair use” (it remains to be seen whether Warner Bros. will allow this or not).
It’s noted early on in Room 237 that Kubrick was an exacting perfectionist with an IQ of 200 and an interest in subliminal advertising, which lays the groundwork for the notion that nothing we see on-screen throughout The Shining is unintentional, including apparent continuity errors. Ascher allows his interviewees – who we only ever hear (so as to not judge them by appearance?) – to expound in fair and equal measure, even when they are clearly mad and occasionally incomprehensible. Based on the prominent displays of Calumet baking soda cans as well as the fact that the Timberline Lodge was built on Indian burial grounds, one of the more credible and intriguing theories (from journalist Bill Blakemore) posits that The Shining is really about the genocide of Native Americans; a similar theory (by author Geoffrey Cocks) suggests the Holocaust, based on the fact that Jack uses a German typewriter, the appearance of the number “42” (the year The Final Solution was implemented), plus Kubrick’s long-time ambition to make a film about the Holocaust (The Aryan Papers). Both of these views are compelling and within the realm of believability for Kubrick, who is described here as “a bored filmmaker” following Barry Lyndon, which may explain why he would occupy himself with such obsessive matters.
Another fascinating sequence has an architecture expert analyse the layout of the fantastic hotel set, and maps Danny’s travels on his tricycle. The less credible and slightly frustrating portions of the film are devoted to playwright Juli Kearns’ fixation on the “impossible window” in Ullman’s office, a rather pointless exercise during the which the film is played forwards and backwards at the same time, and another interviewees’ conspiracy theory about Kubrick’s alleged involvement in the “staged” Apollo moon landing. The intense website of The Shining fanatic Mstrmnd is only briefly mentioned, since its creator unfortunately declined to be involved in the documentary, which seems like a missed opportunity.
While there is ultimately no profound answer revealed here, Room 237 proves to be a satisfying celebration of Kubrick’s work, as well as a fascinating study of the obsession and nuttiness that great films can inspire. Ascher’s heavy reliance on clips and voiceover means the film’s style is closer to the realm of internet documentary than feature film, but Room 237 successfully suggests that there is much more going on in The Shining than meets the eye, and I’m looking forward to revisiting Kubrick’s bravura vision on the big screen this weekend.
For more info and ticketing details on the 2012 NZIFF, head to their website.