When Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was released in 1980, it baffled many film buffs, who couldn’t figure out why the man who’d made some of the most challenging, brainy, and beautiful movies of the previous 20 years would spend his precious time and talent on what seemed at the time to be a hammy, heavy B-horror flick. The Shining has all the hallmarks of a Kubrick film: the intentionally one-dimensional performances, the gliding camera moves, the precise framing, and the wealth of detail in the set design. But on the surface, the material doesn’t seem as intellectually engaging as Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or A Clockwork Orange. The elements that make King’s novels work—his troubled-but-relatable characters and his unabashed embrace of American vulgarity—clash with Kubrick’s coldness, making The Shining’s over-the-top moments seem more comic than scary. The film’s reputation has improved over the decades, as many of its scenes and lines have become ingrained in popular culture. But that process took a while, and some people remain unconvinced that The Shining is a good movie, feeling either that Kubrick halfheartedly bungled a job that was beneath him, or that he was working at a higher level than mere mortals could understand.
Rodney Ascher’s haunting, absorbing essay-film Room 237 (subtitled Being An Inquiry Into The Shining In 9 Parts) lets a handful of hardcore Kubrick-philes spin some of their theories about what they think The Shining is really about. These aren’t mere theories—at least not to the people spouting them. Most of these fans are certain they’ve cracked Kubrick’s code, and at times, they’re highly persuasive. Each explains to Ascher at length what The Shining is. Is it Kubrick’s coded confession that he helped fake the moon landing? A metaphor for the Holocaust? A symbolic representation of the government’s slaughter of the American Indians? A subliminal-message-filled exploration of deviant human sexuality? A complicated structuralist film that’s essentially 2001 in reverse? Or something else entirely?
Not all of these theories can be right, and one approach Ascher could’ve taken with Room 237 would’ve been to put all of the theorists together to let them slug it out. Instead, he keeps them isolated from one another, and even from the viewer. The interviews are all audio-only, and sometimes include awkward moments where real life intrudes, and the subjects have to step away for a moment to take care of something around their homes. At times, these little vérité interludes humanize the Kubrick fans; at other times, it makes them seem weirder. Either way, it adds to the overall effect of Room 237. Here’s a movie about interpreting another movie, and through his structure and style, Ascher asks the audience to interpret Room 237, too. Are his interview subjects brilliant? Or are they loons?
The assuredness and devotion of Ascher’s interviewees does make them seem at least a little loony. It’s hard to take seriously their insistence that every continuity error in The Shining—and every errant reflection or shadow caused by the film crew—had to be intentional, because Kubrick was a master, and masters don’t make mistakes. Still, at least the wilder theorists in Room 237 are impressively thorough. Every painting on the wall, every pattern in the carpet, and every product in the pantry of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel goes under the microscope, parsed for its potential meaning. Even Kubrick’s famous Steadicam shots are mapped out, to prove that the Overlook as depicted in the film is an impossible structure, with corridors that don’t lead where they should, and windows where none should exist. Kubrick was known to spend years on his films, and to put his vast knowledge of history and culture into play every time he designed a scene. To the aesthetic detectives of Room 237, the least a Kubrick-lover can do is to give his work the kind of close analysis that they believe the director encouraged.
Whether or not they’re right about what Kubrick meant, these fans aren’t wrong to take his intentions so seriously. That’s what being a movie buff should be all about: trusting that filmmakers are artists who make choices that bear close scrutiny. Room 237 joins the ranks of such classic movie-related essay-films as Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and Los Angeles Plays Itself, which encourage cineastes to examine the secret messages that movies send, and to ask whether they were intended—or whether that even matters. What makes Room 237 so energizing is how, as Ascher shows the same Shining clips over and over, with different interpretations, he gives even people who’ve watched this film a dozen times the gift of experiencing it afresh. The effect of Room 237 is intense. It’s a deep dive into the rabbit hole of semiotics, designed to train viewers to become alert to what they’re really seeing.