More so than Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Shining, writer/director Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 seeks and finds the heart of obsession and insanity.
But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Documentaries often feature thought-provoking, intelligent, smart people with some appropriate credentials espousing new theories. You will likely walk away from Room 237 thinking your own descriptive words about the participants in the film. These may include: Eccentrics. Crackpots. Batshit crazy. Although the film gives these participants ample opportunity to prove their theories, and despite some obvious effort on their part, no rational person would likely use these words to describe them by film’s end: Geniuses. Visionaries. Lucid.
The title Room 237 comes from the numbered hotel room in the Kubrick film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, where a lot of the terrifying horror plot is centered. (King reportedly hated Kubrick’s adaptation of his book). The documentary is predominantly the voices of five fanatics who have watched The Shining far too many times for their own good, who we never actually see in the film. The voices are carried over clips of a variety of Kubrick movies that serve to attempt to prove the theories being discussed. Room 237 was acclaimed by a number of critics and was named an official selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and nominated for several other awards.
Documentaries oftentimes have a balancing act to maneuver. Does the creator present people and their ideosyncracies in a way that draws ridicule on its subjects or are the targets handled in a way that celebrates their differences? The subjects of Room 237 certainly seem passionate about their far-flung beliefs in hidden meanings behind Kubrick films–and not just in The Shining, but many of his other celebrated works. But their conspiracy theories are so easily disproven, and delivered in such an unconvincing way that it’s hard not to think it’s like the director is saying with a clever eyebrow raised “look at those weirdos.”
The hidden meanings the subjects of Room 237 espouse in the film range from a belief that the film is truly about Kubrick’s view of the plight of the Native Americans (in part based on the camera angle of Calumet baking powder boxes in background scenes), to a reflection of Nazi terror during the Holocaust (based in part on a split-second frame of Jack Nicholson fading into an image that could be seen him with a Hitler moustache), to the view that Kubrick was really creating a retelling of the myth of the Minotaur (based in part on a hard-to-decipher poster in the background in one scene and Nicholson’s bull-like look at the end), to the government secret that Kubrick created the actual moon landing film that was shown to the public as the (ahem) faked Apollo 11 moon landing. And last but not least, the view that the film can best be understood by playing it–wait for it–backwards. “Red rum” and all.
The truth is, what Ascher did with The Shining could be done with any movie with little effort. Why Raiders of the Lost Ark is really about the death of Marilyn Monroe, Star Wars is really about the tragedy of the Donner Party, and Jaws is really about the benefits of annual crop rotation, for example.
If there is any entertainment value to be found in the threads of smoke and mirrors revealed in the film, it’s in the Apollo 11 conspiracy theories. In one scene the boy actor arises with an Apollo 11 rocket knitted onto his shirt and the key in the door states “ROOM No 237”–the capitalized letters can be rearranged to spell (gasp) “Moon Room”. Sort of. (Also, it spells “moron.” Just sayin’). And the presenter of this theory claims to have proof that the Moon Landing footage was faked and was somewhat based on 2001: A Space Odyssey footage, and that the change from the room number in Stephen King’s novel from 217 to 237 was to reflect that the Moon was 237 thousand miles from the Earth (actually 238,900, but who’s counting?). Apparently Kubrick signed some non-disclosure agreement with the government and The Shining was the only way Kubrick could reveal his hidden truth to the world. Finally I can understand 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The realities behind the hidden meanings in Room 237, if any, more likely reflect the realities of human nature, which, when applied to Stanley Kubrick movies–movies full of confusion that require the viewer to concoct his or her own meanings–are likely to result in a unique level of absurdity. In this case, truths that probably don’t need a film made about them. These include the basic desire for people to make sense of things that are difficult to make sense of. Sometimes this requires a wild imagination because some things really, simply don’t make sense. Like much of Kubrick’s works. Also, the fact that everyone brings something with them when they encounter a new piece of artwork, a new book, a new film, something unique to them–a combination of years of varied and different experiences. This means they naturally will see things that others don’t see. In this case, writer/director Ascher singled out a handful of fanatics that brought their areas of interest to the film The Shining–fanatics that take fandom to a new and scary place of its own. The result says more about them than could possibly be said about the movie.
The two-disc DVD of Room 237 is now available via Amazon.com, and the package includes the feature “The “mstrmnd” Speaks: Feature Commentary with Kevin McLeod,” “Secrets of The Shining: Panel Discussion from the First Annual Stanley Film Festival,” 11 Deleted Scenes, The Making of the Music Featurette, Mondo Poster Design Discussion with Artist Aled Lewis, and multiple trailers for the documentary.