With Rodney Ascher's fantastic hoot of a movie, this year's omnipresent Sundance tagline ("Look Again") has finally lived up to its promise. Room 237 is a sustained act of tireless scrutiny, representing a near-kabbalistic approach to cinema, in which a sacred celluloid text is all that matters, and one can only aspire to offer a tentative interpretation of it—if only to then reread it yet again.
The text in question is Stanley Kubrick's supremely conceptual mind-fuck The Shining, and Room 237 serves largely as a hospitable soapbox for a few devoted fans and scholars who are free to unravel their theories on the film's "hidden meanings." The scale of devotion at play is indicated early on, when one of the speakers describes a childhood screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey as the "first religious experience" of his life. The entire movie—the full title of which actually reads Room 237: Being an Inquiry into "The Shining" in 9 Parts—plays a bit like an awe-stricken medieval exegesis of the Bible, taking the chilly story of Jack Torrance's legendary psychological meltdown as a mere starting point to comment on the nature of, well, everything.
Few tropes remain untouched; no frame is deemed inconsequential. It's all there in the Kubrick movie: colonialism, Holocaust, Freud, death, sex, and "the pastness of things."
Far-out conclusions are often reached by means of jumping upon a single detail, of which the assorted cans of Calumet baking powder (signifying the genocide of native Americans, no less) are by no means the most peripheral one. The common thread running through most of the interpretations is that of repression—either of humanity's past atrocities, or of Kubrick's own feelings after having (allegedly) faked the moon-landing footage of Apollo 11 (prominently showcased on the little boy's sweater as he approaches the eponymous room, with 237 being—duh!—the number of miles between Earth and its natural satellite).
As parts of The Shining are played over and over again, accompanied by a nonstop commentary by its devotees, Room 237 manages to build up a vertiginous, slightly queasy momentum all its own. Much as in the case of Errol Morris's documentaries, where reality is often blurred into the "reality" of whoever happens to be describing it for us, so does Room 237 often suggest a peek into the minds of its speakers rather than into the realities of Kubrick's film.
In contrast to Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart (the original act of reflective celluloid recycling), Room 237 presents itself both as an homage and as scholarship. Despite a few ironic jabs at the most outlandish theories (one of which locates a trompe-l'œil erection in a single frame of the movie, and another deciphers Kubrick's Zeus-like profile "airbrushed into the sky"), Ascher remains gently obliging to his interviewees, duly visualizing (if not always substantiating, by no fault of his own) their interpretations. He does it by means of slow motion, frame-by-frame analysis, 3D moving graphs, and—in one spectacular sequence—superimposing images from different sections of the film in an attempt to follow a suggestion made by a blogger named MSTRMIND that The Shining was meant to be watched "both forwards and backwards."
Depending on one's preferred mode of watching The Shining itself, Room 237 may play either as an exciting video essay on one of the most richly enigmatic movies of all time, or as a chronicle of obsessive fan projection, capable of reading any theory into any beloved text of choice. What's surprising are two major omissions: No one refers to the 146-minute premiere version of the film (even as an unattainable Holy Grail, discarded by its own maker), or of the fact that some of the The Shining's opening shots famously seeped into another cult item, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
Since Room 237 is comprised almost entirely of clips from The Shining itself, it will probably face some daunting copyright issues, which I'm not sure are resolvable at all. It will either end up as an illicitly downloadable item for Kubrick geeks, or it will help rework legal definition of "fair use," so that it finally includes "making love to another person's work". Meanwhile, it's difficult not to notice that, given the seeming totality of analysis that Room 237 offers, it counts as an act of cosmic irony that the Colorado locale in which The Shining is set goes by the name of Overlook Hotel. After all, it may be that what Kubrick intended is best experienced with one's eyes wide shut.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.