A group of film buffs, academics and historians search for hidden meanings amidst the dense narrative and nightmarish images of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in one of the most lovingly obsessive movies ever made about another movie.
The documentary is called Room 237 and over the course of nearly two hours, filmmaker Rodney Ascher examines the various conspiracy theories that have come to light in the thirty-two years since The Shining’s debut, from subliminal references to Native American genocide and the Holocaust, to hints about Kubrick’s (alleged) involvement in the (alleged) faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
It should be said up front that those unfamiliar with The Shining will find Room 237 totally confusing, and probably very dull. Ascher and his five interview subjects – including Kubrick scholar Geoffrey Cock (author of “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust”) and Apollo sceptic Jay Weidner – are the film nerds to end all film nerds, and to them, every shot, every sound, every seemingly innocuous piece of furniture is evidence to support their elaborately constructed hypotheses’. Particularly of interest to one interviewee is the arrangement of tins of baking powder in the Overlook Hotel pantry; for another, it’s the route Danny Torrance follows while roaming the corridors on his Big Wheel.
But while the uninitiated may be baffled, it’s this unrelenting fastidiousness that makes the film, for film fans, so fascinating. Exhaustive three-dimensional maps reveal countless spatial inconsistencies in the Overlook’s layout, while frame by frame analysis shows objects in the background disappearing and reappearing from shot to shot to shot. Is Kubrick hinting about the supernatural occurrences that are to come? Or are they just errors in continuity? By the time Room 237 ends, you’ll be convinced that The Shining is either riddled with mistakes, a cinematic masterpiece, or both.
Thankfully, everyone involved has a sense of humour about what they’re saying – indeed, several of the interviewees descend into giggles when revealing their more crackpot ideas. Rather than opting for the traditional talking head approach, Ascher playfully runs his subjects’ narration over clips from movies – not just The Shining, but the rest of Kubrick’s films, and whatever else he could get his hands on. The result (like when Weidner’s offhand comment about being tailed by government agents is juxtaposed with a paranoid Tom Cruise from Eye Wide Shut) is delightfully amusing, and fits right in with the film’s DIY, for-fans-by-fans approach.
Of course, nothing is actually resolved. Despite the vast number of theories the film explores, there’s never any concrete evidence to support any of them; no on-set footage, no notes from Kubrick, no interviews with anyone actually involved in the production. Which is at times a little exasperating, until you really that Ascher is just capturing the spirit of the movie he adores. Just like in The Shining, there are no certainties: just mazes and mazes of questions.
Room 237 was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival. For more MIFF reviews, click here.