“Nothing,” Scatman Crothers tells Danny Lloyd in The Shining. “There ain’t nothing in room 237.” It’s as much a prophetic cautionary for Stanley Kubrick’s film as it is ironized thesis for Rodney Ascher’s Room 237. In The Shining, the room is the locus of the Overlook Hotel’s manifold mysteries, the font from which all the hotel’s spooky improbability flows. It’s a space that lures little boys with errant tennis balls, and recovering-alcoholic-wannabe-novelists with visions of beautiful women soaking in the tub. Everything’s in room 237. Ascher’s film positions The Shining as a comparably coiled, thematically overflowing microcosm—standing in for cinema, for history, for obsession, for postmodern theory buckling under the film’s heft. The Shining is its own room 237.
The perfect title is only one of Ascher’s compound accomplishments. Short of George Hickenlooper’s Apocalypse Now tell-all Hearts of Darkness, which configured a half-manic Francis Ford Coppola as a fevered, Kurtzian tyrant, it’s difficult to recall a film about a film that strikes such an even ratio between the map and the territory. Room 237 isn’t really “about” The Shining so much as it is a mirror to it—as subtle, seductive, and often wholly frustrating as Kubrick’s film.
Assembled largely as a film collage, in the style of Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, the documentary weaves together footage from films (the bulk of Kubrick’s filmography and also Schindler’s List, All the President’s Men, even Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2) as a visual essay. In its construction as a long-form video mash-up, uncoupling The Shining from the shackles of context and mining it for its multiplicity of potential meanings, Room 237 plays like a feature-length YouTube Poop, an increasingly popular type of web video that, per the YouTube Poop News FAQ, “has been made with appropriated footage and collage editing techniques to [sic] for the purpose of either annoying or entertaining viewers in the increasingly indifferent world of Youtube [sic].” Instead of Ascher offering context or observation via voiceover, Room 237’s analysis is provided by off-camera interviewees, Shining obsessives all, laying out their pet theories on the film.
These ideas swing, at times within the same sentence, from the clever to semi-coherent to wildly far-flung, embodying that dialectic between entertainment and annoyance. Longtime ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore believes the film is really about the genocide of Native Americans, and the human capacity for violence more generally—a satisfactory proposal that could easily net a B in a Cultural Studies survey class. Conspiracy theorist and “hermetic scholar” Jay Weidner holds that the film functions as Kubrick’s veiled admission that he staged the Apollo 11 moon landing. Musician John Fell Ryan goes furthest: More than regarding rocket-ship sweaters, the Overlook’s wonky floor planning, and the disappearance of stickers from Danny’s bedroom door as breadcrumbs lining the labyrinth of the film’s meaning, he superimposes the film over itself, running both forward and backward, clutching desperately at aesthetic synchronicities that result as The Shining doubles back on itself. As Ascher doesn’t present the speakers on camera, the oscillation between voices works to commingle the variedly credible viewpoints, in the aid of stoking the larger idea that The Shining is about everything.
Anyway, credibility isn’t really an issue here. By holding his subjects at a certain remove from the viewer, and subtracting himself from the equation almost entirely (save for one bit near the end, we never hear the director prodding his subjects), Ascher reserves neither contempt nor any sense of obsequious fascination. Instead, what could have easily devolved into a sideshow of tin-foil-hat close reading mutates into a meaningful study of obsession.
Many of the film’s speakers mention how, on first viewing, they dismissed The Shining as being a fairly rote spook show, well beneath Kubrick’s talents. But, just as Jack Torrence is drawn mysteriously to the Overlook Hotel, they returned to the film, ending up watching it repeatedly. (That none of the interviewees are professional critics, film writers, or academics underscores the purity of their fixation with the film, precisely because they have nothing particularly to gain by their arch fandom and reams of critical discourse.)
This idea of repetition is also essential. By and large dismissed upon its theatrical run, The Shining has since acquired a standing as a modern classic of at least horror cinema, if not cinema writ large, grew after it entered the home-video market. VHS, and later DVD and Blu-ray, gave anyone haunted by the film the chance to examine it not just repeatedly, but in exhaustive detail—spotting architectural peculiarities that appear in the corner of the frame for a half second, indexing the appearance and position of cans of baking powder, running the film in slow motion, or backward, or both at once.
It’s tempting to describe Room 237 as a film about cinephilia, and digital cinephilia more precisely. Certainly, Ascher apprehends not only the neurotic practices of home-video consumption, but the ways in which video sharing networks like YouTube (or the Internet more generally) have developed platforms for turning that sort of consumption into active production by, say, re-cutting a Frasier episode into a glitchy music video about dining at a French restaurant. But rather than a rosy ode to film fandom, Room 237’s more a toxic love letter scrawled under a lonely swinging light bulb. Listening as one of the speakers leave the room during a monologue to silence his screaming son, it’s impossible not to hear echoes of Jack Nicholson’s abusive, alcoholic father in The Shining. And when John Fell Ryan confesses, “I’ve been trapped in this hotel forever. I dream about this place,” there’s no sense that he’s trying to be cute.
Room 237 isn’t some quirky study of a group of people hung up on a certain movie, but a movie about the power that certain movies possess: a real, troubling, dominating power not just to inspire, entertain, or annoy, but to corrupt the minds and muddle the thoughts of its viewers. It’s this uncanny, irreconcilable power that animates the doc. Cinema’s the corpse in the bathtub, the skeletons in the ballroom, the elevator full of blood, the guy in a dog costume blowing a ghost in a tuxedo.