The cinema of Stanley Kubrick is one of mystery, intrigue, narrative and thematic ellipses, and the overwhelming sense that meaning is encoded into every frame. In that regard, Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic The Shining may be his most cryptic, enigmatic work, the sort of film that inspires many readings and rewards repeat viewings with subtle hints toward a possibly more sinister subtext. Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s new oddball documentary on many of the theories and speculations built up around The Shining over the years, is likely to perpetuate such readings and perhaps convince those who continue to think the film is one of Kubrick’s most self-conscious larks, that there is, indeed, something beyond the empty ballrooms, winding corridors, and ominous landscapes of the Overlook Hotel.
The room of the film’s title is the dark heart of the Overlook Hotel, a magnetic bedchamber where desires seemingly collapse into the recesses of the characters’ deepest fears and together materialize as physical manifestations of these anxieties. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), are continually drawn to the room throughout the film, and the illogical occurrences which gather in force as they spend the winter with their wife and mother, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), tending to the hotel seem to curiously revolve around these specific quarters. The conspiracies that the interviewees proffer don’t always relate directly to room 237, however, and instead attempt to uncover meaning behind even the most seemingly mundane details and aesthetic decisions. If nothing else, the film encourages close, personal readings and confronts art on an obsessive, cosmopolitan level.
Ascher makes the shrewd decision to present the interviews as voiceovers rather than talking heads, and from an aesthetic point of view this is a wise move, particularly when dealing with a film so visually arresting. He thus introduces each of the interviewees with on-screen text; unfortunately, he forgoes disclosing their title or relationship with film, let alone the movie in question. A few make reference to their occupation: one is a filmmaker of some sort, apparently putting together a documentary about the allusions to the Holocaust in The Shining; another an author; while another still is musician, of all things, and I only know that because I’m a fan of John Fell Ryan’s band, Excepter. Ascher seems to be implying that anyone can come up with their own interpretations of the film, thus encouraging film criticism at a personal level, which in and of itself a noble conceit. But contextualizing these interviews in at least some fashion would probably have lent the film a little more legitimacy.
Hints at a more hands on, critical analyses of The Shining don’t fully translate either. Room 237 opens with a few moments of levity and humor as Ascher juxtaposes images and clips, both old and new, from Kubrick’s filmography and other films from Hollywood’s golden age, in a style reminiscent at times of the work of Mark Rappaport and Thom Andersen, filmmakers who have taken essayistic, critical cinema to its further reaches. Ascher doesn’t have the ambition to carry that thread through the entire film, instead focusing on the theories and readings themselves. And there are some fascinating interpretations: The Shining’s genocidal subtext; the aforementioned hints toward the Holocaust; and, most intriguingly, an expansion on the long-established theory that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing, here lent more credence by the deconstruction of certain images—patterned carpet, hotel keys, Danny’s baby-blue Apollo 11 sweater—that make the conspiracy sound a little less far-fetched than one might assume.
There are also some less heavy takes (coincidental images; “impossible windows” and other geographical anomalies; continuity errors that are just odd enough to pique interest), and a few are just dumb (one lady’s minotaur thesis is more embarrassing than funny), but by and large these leftfield theories further develop an undercurrent of curiosity. There’s one brilliant sequence late in the film where two celluloid strips are run backward and forward over top of one another, producing images so intense (one particularly creepy instance seems to superimpose Nicholson’s face atop the slaughtered twin girls, revealing a cackling kind of clown face) that coincidence seems almost impossible. And that’s what makes Room 237 worthwhile for fans of The Shining. It’s almost impossible to believe that Kubrick would have gone to such lengths to encode his film with such miscellaneous secrets and subtexts (and even less so that he actually produced the film to coordinate reversals and overlays to such a degree), but together it adds further intrigue to a work that already held the ability to awe and unsettle. Room 237, then, is more companion piece than standalone work, but it’s rare that such an complementary creation could be so much fun.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.