From the people who brought you the homeless guy on the corner rambling on about how the contrails of planes are a government conspiracy, comes Room 237, a “documentary” about the hidden meanings that lurk beneath the surface of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Various theories about the meaning of the film are discussed by anonymous people as we look at various scenes from Kubrick’s underrated and misunderstood horror film. Unfortunately I think this documentary will mean the film will be more misunderstood, but there are some interesting discussions from those participants who have not suffered some sort of brain damage from years of drug abuse (roughly half).
Whether or not you like this film will probably depend on whether or not you agree with the statement made by one of the anonymous film “critics” towards the end of the film:
“One can always argue that Kubrick only had some, or none of these (theories proposed in Room 237) in mind, but we all know that from post-modern film criticism that author intent is only part of the story of any work of art, and those meanings are there regardless of whether the creator of the work was conscious of them.”
We don’t all know that, in my opinion. The first problem with this statement is that it comes after about eight different mutually exclusive theories about the film’s true meaning are presented. They can’t all be right, or equally valid. Secondly, this statement seems to say that stretching to find meaning and clues in scenes says as much as what the film is about as the script does. Certainly in a Kubrick film there are subtexts and careful attention to detail, but Kubrick chose to make a film about a man losing his grip on reality. That’s what the film is about, you don’t have to create a new story as if the film is a painting that leaves itself open to interpretation.
To play the devil’s advocate with this theory, if you say any film is a work of art (which is a stretch but you could make that argument, because with this theory anything you say is valid), then I could say McG is an artist and Charlie’s Angels is a work of art. Rather than being a story about ditzy girl detectives, I could say that McG is commenting on the historic struggle of women to earn the right to vote. But we all know that McG is an idiot who made the only mediocre/bad Terminator movie. Saying that such a meaning is there regardless of whether McG was conscious of it is ridiculous, and not in any way true just because someone says it is.
Now I know this might burst some bubbles here, especially for those who believe everything they read on the internet. But if you can listen to the theories without getting angry, it’s actually a fun film to watch. If they don’t make you angry, some of the observations these people make will make you laugh. But they will also point out details the casual viewer might miss. One guy sees phallic symbols everywhere (although this may have been Kubrick’s idea of a joke). In the midst of some overbaked theories about latent homosexuality, the same guy points out that Jack is reading a Playgirl in the lobby, something I would have never caught. So while you may not buy their theories, most every person will point out something that you may have overlooked before.
But of course, noticing these details is one thing. Claiming they are hidden clues is another. It’s all good to point out that the Indian imagery and a German typewriter in the lobby; building upon that to say the film is really about genocide might be too much (outside evidence points to Kubrick reading about both the Holocaust and American Indians during the making of The Shining, so I was at least convinced it informed some of his choices as to what props to use in the film). Other details noticed are just silly (such as someone superimposing the film playing backwards on top of the film playing forward and commenting on how the images line up), or seem to excuse continuity errors. But I enjoyed hearing their theories as to why these were intentional and not mistakes.
The centerpiece of the film is straight conspiracy theory. One guy claims that The Shining was really about Kubrick’s role in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the relationship between Jack and his wife mirrors Kubrick telling his wife and how it affected their relationship. Even amidst this lunacy, there is a detail that lends just the slightest amount of credence to this interpretation (as is the case with any good conspiracy theory). Just look at this kid’s sweater, for god’s sake:
As crazy as this theory might be, I mean, c’mon! What is up with that sweater? If it was a mass produced t-shirt, I would think nothing of it. But this looks like Kubrick’s grandma knitted it herself, so there had to be a reason that it was an Apollo 11 sweater and not a Starsky and Hutch shirt or something. I have my own theory on this, but I was unable to find evidence for this on the internet. Again I think Kubrick was “taking the piss” out of conspiracy theorists, yanking their chain a bit. But in order for me to be correct, the conspiracy theory would have had to have to been out there before The Shining came out. I was not able to find out the origin of these rumors, or when they started. If someone knows, let me know. It seems like they might have originated with this movie, but I’m not sure.
Every theory presented in the film is entertaining, but the best discussions revolve around the use of space in the film. The rides the kid takes on his big wheel go from showing us the lay of the land (of the hotel) the first time through, to taking a sharp turn into the physically impossible during the last ride. These rides mirror the mental state of Jack, and there are details that Kubrick surely meant to be part of the film. The passion of the anonymous critics comes through in the maps they construct to show how certain aspects of what we see in the hotel are not possible, and what that might reveal about Jack’s character, and his relationship to his wife and son. There is also an interesting observation made about the rug pattern you see in the movie poster for Room 237.
Although I certainly didn’t buy most of it, Room 237 was for the most part intriguing, definitely entertaining, and at times considerate of Kubrick and his design for this film. Would I watch this again? Probably not, but it did make me want to watch The Shining again to come up with my own wacky theories.
My IMDB rating: 7 out of 10
My Netflix rating: 3 out of 5