The late Roger Ebert famously said “Movies are not about what they’re about, they’re about how they’re about it.” Room 237 is ostensibly a documentary/cinematic essay, detailing the theories of a collection of obsessives who have taken that quote to heart in regards to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film “The Shining”. But how Room 237 is about it tells a different story entirely.
One aforementioned obsessive sees The Shining as Kubrick’s cryptic apology for faking the moon landing. For another, recurring numbers indicate a film dealing with the evil of the Holocaust. Yet another sees a film about the way we repress the horrors of American history. This panel of “experts” is briefly introduced in captions but are never seen, and quickly their names are forgotten and their voices become hard to distinguish, merging into a greek chorus agreeing on only two facts: The Shining is a sneaky allegory for something, and that Kubrick was a mad genius who intended every single frame of it.
This ends up creating a bit of a paradox as far as post-modern art criticism is concerned. In divorcing authorial intent from the reading of art, all of these obsessives’ interpretations gain a little bit more validity. If The Shining is a functional allegory and exploration of the horrors of the Holocaust, it doesn’t matter if Kubrick intended it or not. But the only reason these interpretations exist in the first place is because Kubrick himself has a reputation as an obsessive genius. This contradiction lies at the heart of Room 237 and reveals the game director Rodney Ascher is really playing, which is to explore the lines between art and audience, and how the two interact. When considering why no other viewers in 1980 noticed the obvious importance of the cans of Calumet baking powder in the background of some scenes, one voice theorizes that because he’s a history professor and someone who grew up in Chicago near the Calumet River, he was uniquely capable of seeing that they symbolized broken promises to the indigenous people of America.
It should also be said that this film is simply entertaining as hell. Layered among the theories and interpretations, Room 237 lays out a considerable number of fascinating details about how The Shining is put together. The impossible geography of the Overlook hotel is extensively detailed with maps. Blatant continuity errors are read like tea leaves. These are things that most viewers would never notice, even after multiple viewings. The effect of seeing them all revealed in a row, like up close sleights of hand, is intoxicating. The most convincing assertion in Room 237 is that Kubrick intended the hotel to be a jumble of contradictions that prey on the audience’s subconscious But after accepting that, it’s not many steps before you’re tumbling down the rabbit hole of “Why?”. Some of the answers the chorus gives are ludicrous, but others seem to have some real weight to them. The film is consistently thought-provoking, because you never know exactly what to think.
But the film keeps a playful distance from it’s chorus, inserting clips of The Shining into, among other things, the movie theater scenes of Lamberto Bava’s less prestigious horror films Demons and Demons 2. Here Room 237 is almost challenging the audience to view The Shining as just another B-Horror movie. Then it challenges them to view it as something ridiculous as a confession of NASA conspiracy. By the end what’s really been questioned is how we interact with films, and at what point personal baggage can overwhelm a work of art. Many see this film as little more than a fun exercise, a novelty about a bunch of conspiracy theory nutjobs, but I think it’s a truly crowning achievement of post-modern film criticism. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.