From the Vault #12: ROOM 237 (2012)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from August 18th, 2014…

It’s hard to conjure in the mind a movie that has created more theory, enigma and speculation than Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece The Shining, which stands personally as one of my all-time favourite pieces of cinema, precisely because it’s so open to analysis and interpretation.

Room 237 is concerned with such analysis, Rodney Ascher’s documentary focusing as it does on the testimony of five filmmakers & researchers–Geoffrey Cocks, Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan & Jay Weidner–each of whom have their own specific theories about precisely what kind of hidden meanings Kubrick layered into The Shining, hidden in plain sight as it were. Ascher’s film, however, might be ostensibly about Kubrick & his puzzle box of a film but that’s truly just a prism that allows him to explore the depth of cinematic obsession, with these five unseen but oft-heard individuals espousing just how far they’ve gone down a rabbit hole of bewildering analysis.

The result is a film that both fascinates and grates in equal measure.

It could just have been the version I personally watched, but there seemed to be an audio disparity with Room 237 that felt distracting.

The incidental music & scenes that continuously ran felt louder than the voices of the researchers overlaying what we saw, almost giving Ascher’s film less a cinematic angle and more like a recorded podcast, especially when we never actually see Blakemore, Cocks et al… which feels a strange choice, perhaps designed to focus in closer on what they’re communicating backed up with scenes & visuals, maps & pointers to aid our understanding, but at times it’s jarring and relentless. Equally strange at moments felt the use of other Kubrick films to illustrate points – this opens with Tom Cruise walking down a street in Eyes Wide Shut, while Blakemore talks about his personal experience first watching The Shining and, again, that disparity felt present. Perhaps this was the intent, with Ascher wanting to evoke that same sense of sensory confusion The Shining often delivers, but if so it doesn’t have the same impact. 

As to the theories of the researchers, well… at times you have to wonder about their sanity and it’s interesting to note that in an interview around the film’s release, Ascher himself admitted he didn’t read into the film to nearly the same depth these people have – seeing it as they do being dually a paean to the Holocaust, or about the slaughter of American Indians by invading colonists, and most ludicrously that Kubrick helped fake the 1969 Moon landings, or knew they’d been faked, and coded the truth in his film; the theorist of this even goes so far as to suggest NASA are ‘watching him’.

Of all the theories, the Native American one ties the most closely to actual narrative within The Shining, and it’s the only one that truly merits holding any belief in – despite how intriguing the other theories are, they’re pure hokum. Ascher knows this and it’s why he frames his film to let these analysts really explore the signs, symbols & portents they *want* to see in the film, reflecting more on the researchers truly than the film itself & their clear desire and need to unlock a mystery that may not even be there. He leaves you to draw your own conclusion on how dangerous such an obsession can be.

What’s interesting though is that Ascher commented in the same interview mentioned above that he sees The Shining truly as a warning about becoming so involved & obsessed with ghosts of the past, you neglect your family, and maybe that’s the real message the director is trying to convey from Room 237. Much like most conspiracy theories, as intriguing as certain of these puzzle pieces are–such as layering a forward & backward frame of the film together & seeing how curiously they match up–they’re all mere interpretation, forced interpretation often, that could only be reached by someone who is truly obsessed & consumed by the world they’re in, much like Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance became in Stanley Kubrick’s legendary film.

Room 237 is not a great documentary, it doesn’t really tell you anything concrete about one of the cinema’s greatest films, but it does have something to say about obsession & perhaps serves as a warning: look too hard at something, and you may go slightly mad…

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