I’ve seen THE SHINING dozens of times. It was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, as a matter of fact. This isn’t due to some inborn sense of cinematic good taste, but simply because it was the only horror movie my parents, who aren’t big fans of the genre, had on VHS. And THE SHINING isn’t really a horror movie fan’s horror movie. It’s something else entirely.
The quest to figure out that “something” is the subject of ROOM 237, the new documentary featuring Kubrick obsessives explaining at length their theories about THE SHINING. Those theories are roughly as follows: THE SHINING is a metaphor for the genocide of the American Indian, THE SHINING is a metaphor for the Holocaust, THE SHINING is Stanley Kubrick’s coded confession to faking the Apollo 11 moon landing, THE SHINING is a commentary on the horror genre, THE SHINING is a fairy tale complete with mazes, minotaurs, and children shoved into ovens.
I’m sure that I’m forgetting a few, but ROOM 237 is as scattered as the thought processes of its interviewees; threads are picked up and dropped again, only to (sometimes) re-surface later in the film (sometimes not). And while some of what is presented is by almost anyone’s definition insane, some of it is nothing more than the kind of symbolism discussed on a daily basis in college film studies courses. And that’s the problem.
The reason that ROOM 237 is ultimately nothing more than a diverting conversation starter for movie nerds is that it treats some pretty legitimate insights into Stanley Kubrick’s thought process with the same weight as faking the moon landing. It’s really interesting that so many people would find THE SHINING so intriguing that they would devote thousands of hours to analyzing it. But maybe it drives them crazy because it’s imperfect. You have to entertain the idea that maybe there is no puzzle, no cypher, and the magical thinking at work in ROOM 237 leaves no room for this possibility.
Conspiracy theories often arise out of the unwillingness to believe that people in power, whether they’re high-ranking government officials or a famous film director, are capable of fucking up. The idea that our social betters may be just as incompetent and lazy as the rest of us is something that some people simply cannot take, and so they concoct elaborate justifications to explain why what seem to be mistakes are actually evidence of a larger and invariably intricately plotted plan. The main crux of a lot of the arguments in ROOM 237 is that THE SHINING is full of what appear to be continuity errors, but since it’s famously controlled, detail-oriented Stanley Kubrick we’re talking about, those errors must be deliberate… right?
The style of the film (incidentally one of the most interesting things about it) doesn’t help: ROOM 237 is a talking-heads documentary with no talking heads, using stock footage and scenes from Kubrick’s movies to illustrate each speaker’s point. This technique imparts a sense of mystery as to who these “experts” are, to the point that keeping track of who is talking becomes just another maze to navigate. You could interpret these seeming structural flaws as subtle commentary on the labyrinthine nature of obsession. But to read too deeply into director Rodney Ascher’s intentions would be missing one of the most valuable lessons you can take away from ROOM 237: Sometimes, a typewriter is just a typewriter.
– KATIE RIFE
Katie is the founding member of the found-footage video collective Everything is Terrible (click here to follow the site) and regularly presents midnight movies at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago. She is also the author of of the book IF YOU LIKE QUENTIN TARANTINO, now available to purchase.
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