A film review by Craig J. Koban June 20, 2013

ROOM 237 jjj

2013, No MPAA rating, 102 mins.

A documentary directed by Rodney Ascher

I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING probably four or five times in my life.  Even after my most recent viewing I still regard it as a creepily cerebral horror thriller, which is the reason, I suspect, that the film turned off many a critic and horror fan upon its initial release in 1980 (most were, no doubt, expecting conventional genre gore and mayhem).  

Alas, I’ve never really scrutinized the film as much as the interviewees in ROOM 237, a new documentary that’s less about the making of Kubrick’s film than it is an intoxicating and frequently maddening look at movie love.  Actually, scratch the term “love” and replace it with obsession, because most of the participants in the film that relay their views on what Kubrick was really trying to say range from strange to downright laughably insane, which is why the film makes for a compelling watch. 

Directed by Rodney Ascher, ROOM 237 will not score huge points for being democratic with its subjects.  Very little effort, if any, is made to seek out, shall we say, more grounded film critics and scholars about their interpretation of THE SHINING, probably because most of their prerogatives are simply not as batty as those on display here.  Interestingly, the film is not told in a standard talking-heads approach for documentaries; rather, Ascher uses clips from THE SHINING – as well as images and scenes from other classic Kubrick films – to run over the subject's voices.  It should be noted that ROOM 237 is not a doc about overt film criticism; it’s more about the insatiable cult of the superfan and how so very many take a film that they hold dear and dissect it in such a infinitesimal manner that hits fanatical levels.  Oftentimes, it’s a giddy pleasure hearing these people endlessly discuss their Kubrickian theories, whereas other times it's positively scandalous.

ROOM 237 is broken down into nine specific parts, each one focusing on different elements in THE SHINING which may – or may not, depending on your view of them – reveal even larger, startling insights into Kubrick’s mindset and the real inspiration for the film.  Some of the opinions seem thoughtfully articulated and even passably logical at times, and then there are others that…well…make it seem like the speakers should be in straight jackets.  Bill Blakemore, for example, feels that THE SHINING is a parable about the genocidal murder of Native Americans by white European settlers coming to the continent.  Then there is Geoffrey Cocks, who strongly adheres to his theory that Kubrick was exploring Nazi-dominated Europe and the Holocaust in World War II, mostly because Kubrick always wanted to make a Holocaust film, but could never figure out how.  




These people feel downright rational and sane compared to Jay Weidner, a self professed “conspiracy hunter,” a moniker that, in my humble opinion, always manages to worry me.  He proposes perhaps the most out-there explanation regarding what Kubrick was trying to relay with THE SHINING.  He believes – wait for it – that THE SHINING was Kubrick’s way of atoning for keeping the secret of the faked Apollo moon landing footage to himself all of these years.  Oh, it gets better.  Not only does Weidner believe that Kubrick directed the Apollo 11 moon landing footage using old sets and special effects techniques that he pioneered on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but also that THE SHINING is littered with visual references to the moon landing.  The character of Danny, for example, wears a hand-knitted sweater with the Apollo 11 rocket on it.  The carpet in the Overlook Hotel, from a bird’s eye view, looks like a sprawling vista of multiple NASA rocket launch pads.  And, wait a tick, the infamous Room 237 from the film factors into the actual distance from the Earth to the moon: 237,000 miles.


Certainly, theories like this are most certainly guffaw inducing, but it’s nonetheless continually entertaining to hear these nutjobs kind of matter-of-factly relay them as fact.  Even when these cockamamie positions never once convinced me, I still found myself oddly mesmerized by them.  There are some that I did find eerily compelling, like how John Fell Ryan – in a really bold and audacious move – decided to publicly screen THE SHINING by projecting two prints of it on top of each other, one going from beginning to end and the other from end to beginning, during which some very odd juxtapositions of imagery can be found.  Then there are the more substantial propositions that Kubrick made heavy use of subliminal imagery in the film, which I buy more than just about any other hypothesis.  Granted, when one scholar concedes that a chair in one shot seems purposely left out in the same shot seconds later after a cut away and back I can't help but think that it had more to do with a simple continuity gaffe than it did with Kubrick eliciting something awe-inspiringly mind-blowing.  Seriously, even the masters make cinematic boo-boos from time to time. 

It is fun, to be sure, to hear all of these people tear apart THE SHINING in an effort to find hiding meanings and layer upon layer of hidden meaning and context to the film, even when you rarely find yourself sharing their views.  I think that ROOM 237 sort or reinforces, in its own way, how we as fastidious movie buffs try to convince ourselves that the movies we hold most dear are actually about something that…they are frankly not.  Yet, that’s what makes the microcosm of the insatiable movie lover so endearing, because these noble-minded souls love the art of viewing, dissecting and extrapolating meaning from their most worshipped films over and over again.  The fans in ROOM 237 go well beyond the simple definition of casual filmgoers; most people go to the movies for short-term escape and then return to their lives later.  ROOM 237 shows an alternate universe of souls that just can’t switch off the lingering memories of movies like THE SHINING, which has possessed them in ways that not many films are able to. 

In the end, I just wished that the doc had a more wide-ranging exploration of opinions; it seems to specifically cherry pick the most outrageous and disregards the rest.  Yet, as an assessment of uber fan adoration, ROOM 237 is undeniably enthralling, even if it leaves you yearning to smack your head against the theater walls out of sheer incredulity at times.  I saw the film as the first part of a double feature that had a screening of THE SHINING that followed it.  ROOM 237 made me giddily excited for exploring THE SHINING again, which might be its ultimate end-game.  Did I leave my latest viewing of it thinking that Kubrick was using it to apologize for his complicity in hiding his knowledge of counterfeiting the Apollo moon landings, though?  

No.  Chance.  In.  Hell.

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