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Film Review: Room 237

Room 237 (2012; Directed by Rodney Ascher)

Room 237, a documentary presenting a selection of interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, is not only about various perceived meanings of one specific movie but more broadly about how films create meaning. Even more than that, it’s about how viewers create meaning, how they read a film, and how a density of symbolically-charged images can direct those readings in many divergent (and sometimes dubious) directions.

Rodney Ascher’s documentary is unconventional but striking, and never as boring as a 90-minute film of unseen people speaking over a series of film clips ought to be. Intercut audio of Ascher’s interviews with his five obsessive Kubrick analysts forms the soundtrack to edited-together scenes from The Shining, other Kubrick films like Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut, and seemingly unrelated films and archival photos to form a sound-picture diagram of interpretations provocative and wild, erudite and considered, tenuous and laughable. Visually, it’s made up entirely of borrowed and repurposed images, which seems meant to reflect Kubrick’s own dense web of charged symbols and ambiguous referents in The Shining.

The most prominent analysts, and the ones whose theories about the film’s meanings are most likely to be recognized by cinephiles and even more casual moviegoers, are Bill Blakemore and Geoffrey Cocks. Blakemore, an ABC reporter, wrote an essay for The Washington Post in 1987 discussing The Shining as a metaphor for the genocide of Native American peoples by European settlers. Film historian Cocks, for his part, understood The Shining as Kubrick’s heavily-veiled attempt to symbolically represent the deep psychic horrors of the Holocaust without tackling the subject matter directly onscreen, as he contemplated doing throughout his career but never did get around to.

Their readings are the most academically grounded, the most consistent and complete, and the most intellectually plausible of those presented. Cocks’ is more of a speculative stretch, often relying on fuzzy numerology, Jack Torrance’s German-made typewriter, and haphazard thematic and visual similarities to Thomas Mann novels and Walt Disney’s “Three Little Pigs” cartoon. Blakemore’s reading, though it was sparked by a conspicuous can of Calumet Baking Powder, is internally consistent and compelling, greatly supported by the Indian-inflected decorative patterns of the Overlook Hotel, Jack’s reference to the “white man’s burden” and the memorable detail of the hotel being built on a Native burial ground. Blakemore builds up to a powerful thesis about historical memory and forgetting that centres on the legendary, terrifying, ambiguous image of blood cascading out of (closed) elevators, which he believes is both a literal reference to the hotel’s elevator shafts sinking down into the corpses of the graveyard beneath and a metaphor for the erection of a modern American capitalism superstructure on the widespread but disavowed denuding of the continent’s autochtonal population.

But Ascher gives a not-unequal portion of this cinematic soapbox to a charlatan on a wild goose chase and to a conspiratorial nutcase. Juli Kearns offers up a reading whose focal point is Theseus and the Minotaur, not an invalid reference point considering the literal labyrinth of the hedge maze outside the Overlook and the functional labyrinth of the jumbled, architecturally impossible interior rooms and corridors of the hotel itself. But her leaping-off point is a ski poster that she believes to resemble a minotaur when, in fact, it’s totally a guy skiing and not a goddamn minotaur, sorry.

Even more ridiculous is the theory woven by Jay Weidner, who understands The Shining as Stanley Kubrick’s artistically-obscured mea culpa for participating in faking the footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. You read that right, and if you see the movie, you will hear that right. The technical particulars of Weidner’s arguments have more to do with 2001, but he does link Danny Torrance’s Apollo 11 sweater into it, if you must know.

Ascher cannily titles Room 237 after the mysterious core of bizarre, unsettling psychic energy in The Shining, and it likewise stands for a vibrating interpretive engine of the film’s potential implications. All of the analysts agree that Room 237 is significant. John Fell Ryan, whose interpretations run towards the psychological and who interrogates Kubrick’s self-evident Freudian influences, sees it as a nerve centre of disturbing sexualized imagery. Cocks’ Nazi-centric numerology leads him to multiply the digits of the room number and get 42, as in 1942, the year Nazi Germany purposely embarked on the pitiless bureaucratic process of exterminating Europe’s Jews. Weidner ludicrously reads a word game with the room key’s tag hanging in the lock, meanwhile. The tag reads “ROOM No. 237”, and he breathlessly explains that the only two words that can be spelled with the most-visible capitalized letters are “room” and “moon”. I would posit insolently that they also spell out the word “moron”.

What does Room 237‘s obsessive chasing of interpretive clues down any and every available rabbit hole ultimately tell us about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? It tells us that meaning is not merely a matter of authorial intention but very much of audience engagement and understanding, as one narrator states near the documentary’s end. But plenty of films feature embedded ambiguity and unstable symbolism and have not inspired the disparate variety of readings that The Shining has. What makes this film so special when it comes to metaphorical discussion?

Maybe an answer to this riddle in the form of another interpretation can be ventured. Room 237 makes the recurrent, meticulously-arranged visual patterns of The Shining highly apparent, and every analyst wrestles with the schematic nature of Kubrick’s construction of the Overlook Hotel setting in their own way. It’s a self-contained haunted mansion of geometric patterns that gradually becomes a disorienting house of mirrors. Kubrick very carefully and deliberately establishes the layout of the hotel premises, first through the Torrances’ tour of facility and then through Danny’s Big Wheel rides through the halls. The repeating patterns on the carpets and decorative wall features become visual focal points, suggestions of an uncanny continuity that the film’s famous final shot suggests has consumed Jack while he has become disoriented and lost in the literal frozen maze as his sanity has inside the hotel.

Kubrick’s film is a series of patterns, repeating and melding into each other as the present and the past feed back into each other with the deepening of Jack’s derangement and of Danny’s preternatural titular mental gift. The key instance on which to conclude this consideration without firm interpretive closure is one pointed to with great intent in Room 237. As can be seen below, before Danny makes his fateful journey into Room 237, he plays with his trucks along the lines of a repetitious polygonal carpet design. Kubrick’s composition is deliberate and symmetrical, as ever, and when a ball rolls up to Danny to draw his attention from his toys, it travels straight up the passage of sorts formed by the rug pattern. But when Kubrick cuts to a shot of Danny standing up, the pattern has shifted: the boy, his toys, and the ball are now all contained (trapped?) inside the carpet’s polygon, and the passage appears closed. The Shining is a film of just such tantalizing symbols, opening up possibilities but then closing them, losing them, allowing them to sink into larger patterns. But a film of patterns is an irresistible territory to attempt to map, and the enthusiastic cartographers of Room 237 prove that conclusively, even if they cannot do the same for their various theories.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. February 13, 2014 at 12:35 am

    Good review Ross. A lot more of this does seem to be just a bunch of people going-off on a whole bunch of tangents without much rhyme or reason, but while it is altogether a mixed bag, some of it’s still very interesting to see.

  1. March 23, 2014 at 4:45 am
  2. May 22, 2016 at 11:27 am

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