Room 237 is a movie that bristles with obsessive hysteria. It's a brand of hysteria that we pop culture-obsessed boys and girls often have to temper from time to time — you know, for fear we might scare off lay people or those we might want to have relationships with.
The object of obsession in this instance is The Shining — not the Stephen King novel, but the eternally divisive movie version Stanley Kubrick directed back in 1980. Subtitled Being an Inquiry Into The Shining in 9 Parts, director Rodney Ascher's documentary has a quintet of people provide their own voice-over analyses of the movie, illustrated with clips (including snips of Kubrick's other great works). Whether The Shining is scary, and if it faithfully follows the book, are the usual points debated by regular Joes who check into Kubrick's desolate Overlook Hotel. For the rabid fans Ascher finds, however, those topics are beside the point. No, what is mostly discussed here is the secret agenda that Kubrick indisputably wove into his film — not that any of them agree what it is.
If you ask ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, as Ascher does, the movie is a coded treatise on the genocide of Native Americans. (He says the occasional sight of Calumet baking-powder cans in the set decoration is a dead giveaway.) But to Nazi Germany historian Geoffrey Cocks, it's clear Kubrick has one thing and one thing only on his mind: the Holocaust. (Jack Nicholson typing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" on a German typewriter is one of the many tip-offs.)
Another theorist Ascher interviews describes the movie as a subliminal story about sexuality, while yet another says, with unshakable certainty, the movie is Kubrick's confession that he was part of the staged filming of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Both believe their theories are fully validated when the story reaches the movie's hotel-room locus of evil — the infamous Room 237. One even suggests that if you play the movie backward and forward at the same time on the same screen (as rumor has it The Belcourt may this weekend at midnight) you'll find amazing, overlapping parallels.
Kubrick, of course, is no longer around to give his two cents about what he did or didn't intend — not that he would have been more forthcoming while alive. Indeed, that's one reason his movies in general, and The Shining in particular, lend themselves to this kind of mania: They encourage a search for deeper meanings. (Plus his long takes give you plenty of time to scrutinize the Overlook's decor for clues.) Hailed in Room 237 as "a bored genius" and "a mega-brain for the planet," Kubrick made movies that were open to interpretation yet also spoke volumes. After all, this is the man who blew people's minds more than a decade earlier with the still-WTF-after-all-these-years 2001: A Space Odyssey.
He also had a reputation as a perfectionist, which the movie's Shining obsessives take to mean that there are no accidents in his films — not even the debated-to-death helicopter shadow during the opening sequence. Ascher adheres to these theorists and their kooky whims, constantly bouncing back to scenes and even slowing them down frame-by-frame as they make their most specific points. However far-fetched, ridiculous, rabidly insane or hallucinogenic-inspired these theories get, Ascher dutifully finds the cinematic "evidence" that supports (or at least illustrates) them. (Although the director may tip his hand at one point: When one person finishes his spiel, Ascher immediately cuts to Nicholson saying, "Whatever you say.") He basically gives these folks a forum to show how movies are a subjective experience, inspiring people, whether they come with a clear head or a brain full of baggage, to spin their own, original takes from the text.
And that's really all Ascher does with Room 237: He reminds audiences how movies can still bring about debate and discussion — especially those films that have been out there for decades, picking up cult fans and new interpretations along the way. (Of course, this is my theory about the movie. Somebody can come up with something totally different. I guess that's the point, huh?)
Sure, a horror movie can be just a horror movie, and that was probably what Kubrick was trying to make. Considering that it is a film from a revered, brilliant auteur celebrated for his cerebral work, though, you know people are going to come up with their own ideas on what the film is really about.
Besides, isn't it just fun to talk about what you and others got from a movie? Although I do admit I would be a bit scared to holla at the people Ascher talks to in this flick. They remind me of those wild-eyed fanboys who hang around comic-book stores and used-record shops just looking for someone to corner with their nutty theories. Or scarier still, film critics.
Director Rodney Ascher will conduct a post-film Q&A via Skype after the 9:15 p.m. show Friday. The Shining will play at midnight Friday and Saturday. See belcourt.org for more information.