“In 1980, Stanley Kubrick released his masterpiece of modern horror, The Shining. Over 30 years later, we’re still struggling to understand its hidden meanings. Rodney Ascher’s wry and provocative documentary Room 237 fuses fact and fiction through interviews with both fanatics and scholars…”
So reads the back cover summary of the documentary, Room 237, an initially attractive piece of independent filmmaking which breaks down Stanley Kubrick’s classic recreation of Stephen King’s horror novel, The Shining. There are plenty of films, new and old, deserving of a feature length scholarly analysis, and The Shining is no exception. Though I’m not a devotee of the Kubrick cult (other than Eyes Wide Shut), his whacked out haunted hotel film from 1980 sure begs for further thought than, “Oh. It’s really not as scary as when I was 12.” Unfortunately, the thoughts provided by Room 237 come from inconsequential sources unjustified by the film that barely hold focus, let alone unveil hidden secrets.
First, let’s address the “hidden meanings” we’re all “still struggling to understand.” Ignoring for a moment that this is a completely subjective opinion and not a fact, the promise of anyone discussing “hidden meanings” in a popular horror film from a now-deceased auteur is hook enough for most film fans. Yet Room 237 bats a little under .500 when it comes to feature-worthy ideas. What starts off as a film theory course soon morphs into a series of lectures from Mel Gibson, a conspiracy junkie who actually gets one prediction right in the film, Conspiracy Theory (1997) and has to stave off a concerned government so-and-so played by Patrick Stewart. Only in Room 237, the odds are heavily against anyone being on the nose with their loony assumptions.
Perhaps the most interesting breakdown in Room 237 comes in the form of a can of Calumet baking powder. The product famously features a depiction of Native American with full headdress, and Bill Blakemore, one of director Rodney Ascher’s narrators (none of his subjects appear on camera, speaking only in voiceover), contends that its appearance represents the false promises made by European settlers to the Native American population upon their “discovery” of the “new world”. This goes along with an overarching belief regarding The Shining as an allegory for the genocide of Native Americans. There’s enough evidence presented for this theory to justify its existence and even consider to consider while rewatching the film.
The same cannot be said for theories about the film’s overt sexuality, including a lengthy breakdown of Jack’s interview scene amounting to a completely inane climax; a less than fully fleshed out discussion about a minotaur; and how watching the film forward and backward simultaneously unveils hidden meanings in how scenes and compositions overlap. All of these hypothesis hinge on Kubrick being such an over-the-top control freak he’d scare David Fincher off the set. Kubrick holds the Guinness World Record for the longest constant movie shoot for Eyes Wide Shut (15 months), and he is undoubtedly obsessive. Yet a few of these specifics are a little too thought out. I really can’t believe Kubrick edited his movie so scenes would match up when you watched them forwards and backwards at the same time.
The only theory with some real meat to it—something juicy out there that’s sourced well enough to make you consider it, at least briefly—is the long-standing conspiracy theory contending that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing and The Shining is his confession. If you can accept the idea that Kubrick (and thus, the American government) faked the moon landing (one giant leap, for sure), Jay Weidner can convince you that Kubrick had a hand in it. Just when you think the evidence is a little too circumstantial, Weidner pulls out his trump card: Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater. Though his assertions are later forcibly contended by Kubrick’s “right-hand man”. Leon Vitali in one of the disc’s bonus features.
“Secrets of ‘The Shining’: Live from the First Ever Stanley Film Festival,” is a 50 minute recording of Ascher, Weidner, Vitali, and Mick Garris, the director of “The Shining” miniseries, discussing the film. When Weidner’s contentions are brought up, Vitali adamantly denies the claims. He says the sweater was just a sweater. They needed one. He wore one. There’s nothing more to it. He claims many of the “hidden meanings” are simply continuity errors. This healthy debate is what Room 237 could have been, and it would have been far more compelling had it created controversy surrounding its conspiracies. Instead, the audience serves as a sounding board for every batshit crazy idea ever thought by anyone who ever thought them.
All of this could work if the film gave us any indication toward who was crazy and who was legitimate. Objectivity is a dying art in documentaries, so I feel funny for chiding Ascher for using too much of it in Room 237. Yet the film doesn’t work as a neutral piece, allowing the viewer to decide for himself what to believe and what to ignore, partially because the “fanatics’” opinions simply shouldn’t be heard. They’re a tremendous waste of time, an expenditure Ascher could have spared us with a bit of wily editing. Methinks someone got a little lost in Room 237, and it cost us all (two hours of) our lives.
If you’ve got a masochistic streak in you, the Blu-ray edition of Room 237 sports 11 deleted scenes in addition to the aforementioned footage from the Stanley Film Festival. They’re simply recordings played straight from Final Cut Pro, but consider that these are the theories they didn’t use before viewing. Also included is a three-minute making-of the score mini-doc, trailers, and commentary with Kevin McLeod, an online essayist who writes extensively about The Shining.
Other than the film festival footage, the only standout feature is a Mondo poster design discussion with its creator, Aled Lewis. The artist walks us through the various symbols he incorporated into the poster one by one, all of which are cleverly hidden in plain sight. It’s a rare occurrence in which a special feature trumps the feature film itself, and it certainly happened here. While Room 237 lacks the essential “wow factor”, Lewis’ succinct poster dissection isn’t lacking at all.