There was a time when cinephiles were not content with film reviews that simply told you whether a movie was "awesome" or "crap." In-depth analysis was the name of the game, and it wasn't uncommon that a critic might watch a movie several times before offering up an opinion about its worth. In fact, the pure entertainment value of the work wasn't always a part of the conversation. Film writers would dig deep for the meaning of the film (hidden or otherwise), sometimes picking up on visual clues or vague references in the dialogue. Sometimes, their theories sounded preposterous; but every so often, a thesis had a ring of truth and accuracy—or at least enough to keep us reading to the end of the writer's conjecture, suppositions and educated guesses.
Welcome to the asylum of ROOM 237 (subtitled "Being an inquiry into THE SHINING in 9 parts"), the first feature-length work from director Rodney Ascher, which collects five radically different theories about the deeper meanings of Stanley Kubricks's 1980 THE SHINING, loosely adapted from the early novel by Stephen King, who was never a fan of the film, due in large part to Kubrick's injecting strange, seemingly unrelated ideas into his haunted house story. But what were the nature of these new elements that Kubrick was so keen on making a part of this and many other of his later works? Some think it was his statement on the Holocaust, while other believe it was Kubrick's commentary on the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. Still more believe it was the notoriously enigmatic filmmaker's covertly commenting on his role in the faking of the first moon landing. Maybe it's an exercise in subliminal messaging, as Kubrick had a documented interest in hidden sexual messages in advertising. The list only gets more obtuse from there.
The five subjects of the film are never seen on camera; their disembodied voices simply float over film clips of both Kubrick's work and other movies that illustrate some of their points. A few of these "experts" specialize in noticing and interpreting small details in the background of each scene: a poster or photograph; the design or color of the walls or carpet; or props that are there one second and gone the next. These folks never met a continuity error they didn't love or one to which they couldn't assign a great deal of value and meaning. But as ROOM 237 progresses, some patterns do appear to emerge that more than one of the commentators mentions—bigger-picture themes about the cruel and violent nature of humanity, the restorative power of sex, and the value of family. Of course, The Shining is also about insanity, murderous rage, and elevators full of blood, but all of these have multiple interpretations provided to by these five.
What's most amusing about ROOM 237 is how sure the subjects are that their version of what THE SHINING is about is the correct one. Phrases like "It's obvious!" pop up more than once. But a favorite statement is, "How did I see this and nobody else did?" And while some of the experts' observations and wild-guess interpretations are little more than intellectual exercises, a few are downright fascinating.
One of the more interesting experiments performed on THE SHINING—at least none of the subjects tries to pass it off as Kubrick's intended means of viewing it—is the famed "Forwards and Backwards" experiment, in which the film is shown as originally intended, but a second projector shows the film from back to front, creating some admittedly eerie juxtapositions. While this means of display holds about as much water as playing Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" over THE WIZARD OF OZ, it's still a surprisingly watchable experience.
It seems appropriate that the focal point of THE SHINING's climax is a maze, with passageways that lead to dead ends and others others that may actually take you somewhere more to your liking. As one interviewee correctly points out, one of the many facets of post-modern film criticism is that author intent is only a part of the story of any work of art, and that the meanings these five people have assigned to this film are there, whether Kubrick intended them to be there or not.
Kubrick was among the most deliberate stylists ever to have worked in cinema, so there's little doubt that visual cues were a big part of his repertoire. Absolutely, he is manipulating our acceptance of visual information, but that doesn't mean there is a hidden image of a minotaur in a poster that is clearly a photo of a guy skiing and nothing more. Still, all of this speculation and peeling back the layers is part of the great game those of us who love movies play in the darkened theater when we become fixated on a film we love and admire. It's difficult to fault such undiluted passion, even if it seem a bit nutty.