‘Room 237:’ A Room with a Whole Bunch of Views

Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is an explorative documentary and piece of literary criticism about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Told in nine chapters and woven together with differing theories from five obsessive critics, some more obsessive than others, Room 237 provides fans of The Shining, fans of Stanley Kubrick, fans of great filmmaking, fans of conspiracy theories, anyone who has a slight interest in film, and anyone who is the least bit curious about anything in the world, with a rich and fascinating collection of critical theses about one of the greatest movies ever made (that’s just a fact).

We are introduced to each of the critics in the beginning chapter of the film, though we never see their faces, because the documentary isn’t about them. It’s about The Shining and about Stanley Kubrick. The result of this tactic is that the theories become forefront, as does the filmic evidence. We are wholly sucked into the world of the Overlook Hotel and the thought processes and goals of a genius filmmaker.

What Ascher does brilliantly is let his critics talk, really just go off, about how The Shining is actually about the genocide of the Native Americans and the Holocaust and the number 42 and perhaps most zanily, the faking of the moon landing, and then he reins it all in and shapes and molds all the pieces into a cohesive, believable, and enlightening thesis that extrapolates what’s truly important about what these critics bring to light.

Sure, there’s a whole section about Native American imagery, which is fairly valid, but also not encompassing of everything the film offers. There is a Holocaust historian who provides evidence of Holocaust symbolism in the film, again, there but not everything. Then there’s the moon landing guy. Ohhhh, the moon landing guy. This critic provides textual evidence from The Shining and purports that Kubrick uses the film to express his internal struggle with having been part of the filming of the fake moon landing footage. Let me clarify: this man is convinced that the footage we saw of the moon landing was absolutely fake. He doesn’t necessarily think the landing itself was fake. He thinks we could have really gotten to the moon, but that the footage we saw was one hundred percent not real. He is further convinced that Stanley Kubrick filmed the fake footage. And he is convinced that Kubrick uses The Shining to tell us that he was the one who filmed the fake moon landing and that it was a tough job. Now, it seems, at first ridiculous. It seems, at second, ridiculous. It might even seem at third, ridiculous. But the beauty of the documentary is that this critic, like the others, is allowed to plead his case and is given as much consideration as the others. Some of what he points out is fun to think about and even slightly intriguing.

In addition to the overarching theories of these five critics, there are “extras” in the documentary, not quite these big theories, but rather things that people noticed while watching the film or comparing it to others. There is an exploration of the similarities between the beginning of The Shining and the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and vice versa. Someone thought to play The Shining forwards and backwards, superimposed over itself, and highlighted some fascinating symbols and structurally interesting occurrences. A critic noticed that there are subliminal messages to Stephen King in the movie, ones (in addition to the plot points Kubrick changes) that let him know that this story is Kubrick’s, not his, any longer. These tangents, these bits and pieces, are extremely interesting, super fun to realize, and also contribute to the documentary’s thesis.

Ascher is masterful in that he lets the film breathe, he lets these critics go on and he lets the half-ideas and silly considerations and sort of symbols flood your brain. He acknowledges that some of what is explored in The Shining may not have been done consciously by Kubrick, but also recognizes that he was a genius and that there is more to this movie than meets the eye. And then at a certain point, Ascher trims the fat. And what remains is an intellectual, fully formed and explored conclusion (which is recognized as debatable). What all these critics babbling leads to is the idea that The Shining is Kubrick’s attempt to “make something of a connection,” to allow us to connect emotionally with the past, to all of the things that these critics discuss that have, with the passing of time, become distant stories and statistics for most. The genocide of the Native Americans, the slaughtering of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, they are explored in the film to a certain extent, and overall, The Shining, and “the shining,” are ways to see and feel the past. The “extras” fit this concept too. For example, the way The Shining plays in opposition with 2001 supports this concept, with The Shining representing the past and 2001, the future.

What I especially like about this thesis is that it is optimistic in a way. The ultimate joke of The Shining is that it is a movie about hope. It tells us to connect with the past, but to recognize that the past does not exist anymore, that it is, as Dick Halloran tells Danny, “just like pictures in a book.” The Shining tells us to move on, and that the way to move on is to connect and feel, then learn from it and look to the future.

Okay, cool. I’m going to go watch The Shining now.

Grade: A

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