It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Room 237 is a documentary about five people applying meaning to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In reality, it’s an examination of the fine line between adoration and obsession, and how easily it can be crossed. Subjects Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, Jay Weidner, Geoffrey Cocks, and John Fell Ryan deconstruct The Shining to such a fervent extent, it denotes not a love of the film but a passion so all-consuming that I fear it has overshadowed every other aspect of their lives. When you begin noticing metaphors in blatant continuity errors – like, say, when the carpet with the hexagonal pattern faces one direction in one shot and is then facing the opposite direction when the camera cuts to a new shot – you’re officially reading into the material too deeply.
In defense of the interviewed subjects, director Rodney Ascher never once asserts that their interpretations are to be taken as absolute fact. How could he when they have such varying ideas on what they believe The Shining is about? It’s purely subjective. Indeed, the film wisely opens with a statement saying that the expressed opinions belong solely to the interviewees, that they don’t necessarily reflect the views of Kubrick or any of the filmmakers associated with The Shining. Of course, it’s also stated that no person or company has endorsed or approved the context in which Ascher uses film footage and images. If you ask me, that’s a rather dicey way to make a documentary. I’m no lawyer, but I should think copyright laws are in place for a reason, and that certain parties don’t want to see their work misrepresented.
Only a handful of the perceived meanings could actually inspire critical debate. Consider, for instance, Blakemore’s belief that the film is an extended metaphor for the genocide of Native American tribes during the European settlement of the New World. He cites the persistent use of Native American references as evidence, such as the photo of the chief in Indian headdress, the Indian patterns in the lounge of the Overlook Hotel, the fact that the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, and even the strategic placement of cans of Calumet baking soda, on which a drawing of an Indian chief serves as a logo. Then there’s Cocks, who believes that the film is actually about the horrors of the Holocaust. He cites Jack Torrence’s German-made Adler typewriter as an example, along with the appearance of the number forty-two (in reference to the year 1942) and the iconic image of the elevator that unleashes thousands of gallons of blood.
All other perceived meanings, however, are essentially the ramblings of overzealous fans who have trained themselves to see only what they want to see, and usually in reference to the most minute details no general audiences are likely to care about or even notice. Kearns, for example, who has made computer drawings of each floor of the Overlook, fixates on the office of Stuart Ullman – or, more accurately, on the window at the back of his office, which is structurally impossible given the office’s location in the hotel. Furthermore, Ryan has made it a point to seek out all of the film’s supposed continuity errors, which he believes were intentionally placed by Kubrick as a statement against the phoniness of old Hollywood war documentaries.
And so on. Some of their less informative views are admittedly amusing, but many are downright tedious and belaboring, in large part because they require Ascher to repeatedly play clips of The Shining in reverse, slow motion, or both. Some are actually rather condescending. Consider Weidner’s assertion that the 1960s were a cinematic wasteland until the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which, at long last, inspired a love of film that equaled his love of art and stirred within him a desire to be a filmmaker himself. One viewpoint, and I honestly don’t remember which interviewee it belongs to, stems from nothing more than a paranoid conspiracy theory; although he never says that we haven’t been to the moon, he claims to have proof that the images of the Apollo 11 moon landing were all staged, that Kubrick was involved with the staging, and that the The Shining was his way of coping with taking part in such a monumental lie.
One of the mistakes Ascher makes is never once showing the faces of the interviewed subjects. We only hear their voices against a wall-to-wall series of film clips, not only of The Shining but also of dozens of other films, all of which are willfully taken out of context in order to visually exemplify the points being made. Shots from Dreamscape, Brainwaves, The Thief of Bagdad, Wolf, Creepshow, Capricorn One, The Terror, Apocalypto, Schindler’s List, All the President’s Men, and even an episode of Scooby-Doo are all featured, as are shots from the entirety of Kubrick’s filmography. Since Room 237 is all about interpretation, it’s only fitting I should interpret it not as a documentary about a famous movie, but rather as a warning against the psychological side effects of fanaticism.
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