'Room 237': Kubrick, History, and Lots of Meanings

While this documentary is, on its face, about fans' devotion to Kubrick's Shining and his mode of working, it's also about fandom and investment, as well as about how meaning is gleaned and conjured.

Room 237

Director: Rodney Ascher
Cast: Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Geoffrey Cocks, Jay Weidner
Rated: NR
Studio: IFC Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-03-29 (Limited release)

"Well, no Kubrick film's just a regular movie," observes Juli Kearns. "I understood that from when I was 10 years old and I first saw 2001. I walked away, I thought, 'This is a film that's supposed to make me think.'"

Kearns' thinking since has led her repeatedly to Kubrick's films, pondering, for instance, "the carpet trick" and the door that opened when Danny Torrance was unable to open the door to room 237. These particular problems, of course, emerge from Kubrick's version of The Shining, the movie that provides a point of departure for the documentary Room 237.

Rodney Ascher's film offers Kearns and several other unseen speakers a chance to think out loud about The Shining, which means they also think about Kubrick more generally, as well as art and horror, family structures and expectations, the Apollo 11 moon landing, genocide, and, well, the universe. As these thinkers think, they invite you to do so as well, and not only about the map of the impossible space of the Overlook Hotel or Wendy's thematic association with the dead twins. Certainly, Kubrick's movie has long been an object of contemplation and debate, efforts to understand not only what he intended or what he might have done, on set or in the editing bay, to produce a particular image or set of plot turns.

The film has inspired books and websites, conversations and friendships, much like and also unlike other films. It's this unlikeness, perhaps, that makes Room 237 seem so provocative, so profound, and so inevitable, in its way. For while the documentary is on its face about fans' devotion to Kubrick's Shining and his mode of working generally, it is also about fandom and investment, as well as about how meaning per se is gleaned and conjured, that is, how it might mean.

The various meanings posited by the Shining experts -- how the Calumet Baking Powder can works in scenes featuring Jack Nicholson or Scatman Crothers, how Danny's retracting his steps in the snow represents the use of history, and how the skier in the poster looks like a minotaur and so looks forward to and reinforces the significance of the maze, as it appears at hotel and as the movie becomes one -- provide plenty of details for other experts and amateurs to parse.

Such parsing, as a process of thinking and also self-reflecting and political analysis, is the business of all movies and other cultural objects (the business apart from but also related to the generation of profits). Here, however, that process becomes an end as well as a means, an ever cyclical and fascinating coming back to yourself. This is a theme in Kubrick's film, as Jack Torrance (Nicholson) returns to the place that claims him and he claims for himself, the place where he's found and lost, the history that he represents and also produces. One speaker notes the long-lasting dissolves, suggesting these cause images not only to represent scenes and actions, but also that they allow us to see scenes "interacting with each other." The broader and more specific effect are a series of "perceptual shifts," he goes on, such that no scene is legible only as itself, but all shape your readings of what comes before and after.

This is especially true if and as you see the film more than once -- as these readers have done, monumentally. Seeing again, seeing anew, seeing more: all of these experiences emerge in the film, described by readers who remember seeing the film a first time, then thinking it over in a parking lot or in a car, then seeing it on VHS and then again on DVD. Each viewing experience produces more, though it's never clear what more can mean.

As Room 237 allows that repeat viewings lead to expanding and likely contracting meanings, the speakers here tend to state and restate their conclusions, some precise and some exponentially wide-ranging. Citing the research that the filmmaker regularly did for his projects, and noting the particular ways he researched Colorado and Native Americans, and other details beyond Stephen King's novel, one speaker assesses:

"Therefore, the way Kubrick made movies was not unlike the way, according to these current theories, the way our brains create memories and for that matter, dreams." So far, so deep, and so convincing. And then, "That's the ultimate shining Kubrick does. He is like a mega-brain for the planet who is boiling down for the planet all this extensive research, all of these patterns of our world, and giving them back to us in a dream of a movie because movies are like a dream."

Yes. No. And then again, maybe just a bit too boiled down. It's brilliant. And it's nutty. And it's exactly right. Maybe.


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