Saturday, April 6, 2013

Room 237

Grade: 77/B+

“Mr. Halloran, what is in Room 237?”
“Nothin’. There ain’t nothin’ in Room 237, but you ain’t got no business goin’ in there anyway, so stay out! You understand? Stay out!”

That exchange in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining could easily be interpreted as a dare to certain film fans. Kubrick’s horror masterpiece is perhaps his most ambiguous (some might say nebulous), and for three decades the film has inspired as much obsession and analysis as any horror movie. Rodney Ascher’s recent documentary Room 237 gives a few of the film’s fans a chance to expound on their own theories of what the film’s really all about, what Kubrick was trying to say, and what’s going on in Room 237 anyway.

The film cuts back and forth between five The Shining obsessives. One, Bill Blakemore, asserts that Kubrick meant it as an overarching metaphor for the slaughter of Native Americans by white conquerors, something he extrapolated from a shot of a Calumet Baking Powder can. Another, Geoffrey Cocks, believes it’s actually an allegory for the Holocaust, for which he uses, among other things, a shot of a German typewriter as evidence. A third theorist, Juli Kearns, believes that Kubrick is using mythology to strengthen his film, posing Jack Nicholson’s character as a minotaur and the Overlook Hotel as a maze to keep him trapped. A fourth, John Fell Ryan, believes the film to be a formalistic experiment from Kubrick, and he has staged screenings of the film played forwards and backwards simultaneously to prove his point. Yet another obsessive, Jay Weidner, gives the most far-out theory of the bunch: the film is a coded confession that Kubrick helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Ascher takes a rather shrewd approach by never showing the five theorists, rather letting their voices and the clips from the film do the work. It occasionally backfires, as some of the male theorists have similar voices, and it’s a flaw that could have been corrected had Ascher just let each theorist have his own section of the film rather than weaving the theories together. Still, it’s largely a successful choice, and the film becomes clearer when the theorists expound on their own interpretations.

It has to be said: most of these theories are completely cockamamie. Each of the commentators make some rather keen observations- Weidner on Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater, Kearns on the impossibility of the Overlook’s layout, Cocks on Kubrick’s own Holocaust obsession, Blakemore on the use of the phrase “Keep America Clean”, something taken from the famous Iron Eyes Cody commercial in the 70s. Still, each one has at least one moment that makes them seem like a crackpot: Blakemore’s insistence on the baking powder can as evidence for his genocide bit, Weidner’s use of convoluted math as a way to support his moon landing stuff (not to mention his own fear that the government is watching him for this), Kearns’ insistence that a picture of a skier is really of a minotaur (analysis: no, it’s definitely a skier), and so on. Hell, Ryan’s own theory is vague compared to the others, and his argument that The Shining comes from a bored director who previously made a film he was bored with (Barry Lyndon), ignores that Kubrick claimed Barry Lyndon was his favorite of his own films until he made Eyes Wide Shut.

Still, Ascher doesn’t ridicule or necessarily praise any of these theories, but lets them stand on their own. Room 237 is less about the theories of obsessive fans and more about the nature of semiotics, particularly with a film as malleable as The Shining. I wrote in my review of The Shining that I was caught on a theory myself, that the film was all about alcoholism, before I learned about some of the other more far-out theories. My interpretation had as much to do with my own life experiences as the theorists interpretations have to with their own life experiences- Blakemore grew up around Native American lands, Cocks is a Holocaust scholar, and so on. There’s no doubt elements of many of these theories in there, but The Shining is ultimately the great cinematic Rorschach test, a film where any analysis says more about the interpreter than the work. Room 237 illustrates that.

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