Directed by: Rodney Ascher
Starring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns and John Fell Ryan
There are no talking heads in Room 237, at least not in the traditional documentary sense. Using footage from the movies, mostly Stanley Kubrick ones and mostly scenes from The Shining, Rodney Ascher creates an obsessive, absurd paean to the movies. He weaves together five intensely different theories about Kubrick’s 1980 horror staple, all of them bizarre sometimes to the point of ridiculousness.
We are given the names of these people at the beginning of the movie when they each speak for the first time, and then we don’t see them again until the credits. Ascher rotates between their explanations of what is really going on inside The Shining with the slyness if not the total condescension of a reality show host. One man believes there are hidden messages about the genocide of Native Americans, another sees a heavily layered Holocaust subtext. By far the most bizarre of these theories, though, is that of Jay Weidner, who believes that The Shining is Kubrick’s confession to helping the U.S. government fake the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
What these testimonials do more than anything else, though, is illustrate the obsessive nature that a good movie can bring out. It’s not hard to imagine a documentary like this being made about The Matrix, Inception, Mulholland Dr., The Searchers, Kubrick’s own 2001: A Space Odyssey (which is also featured extensively in this documentary) or any other movie that sparks varied, obsessive debate no matter its overall quality.
Many of the subjects become long-winded and annoying by the end of Room 237, and the movie will likely either infuriate you or make you die laughing at how absurd they become. But think of your favorite movie. Think about how you would talk if someone asked you to really explain why it was that you liked this movie so much; what about it that spoke to you, a little detail that sticks with you that many others may not really see or really care about. Room 237, which takes its title from an important hotel room in The Shining, inflates that kind of cinematic obsessiveness to a sometimes-obnoxious extreme.
Juli Kearns, the only one whose name I could easily pick out at the end because she was the only woman interviewed, draws elaborate reconstructions of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel in an attempt to map out the events of the film. The inconsistencies drive her somewhat mad, as they likely would mapping out any internal setting of a movie. This is a good example of how curiosity (and having way too much time on your hands) can lead someone to be consumed entirely, and also a good example of how Ascher has exaggerated movie love to a somewhat unhealthy degree.
Perhaps the most famous of Room 237’s subjects, though, is Bill Blakemore, an ABC News correspondent whose Shining theorizing is more of a pastime. His theory about the subtext alluding to the slaughter of Native Americans, is probably the most plausible along with Albion College Professor Geoffrey Cocks’ Holocaust interpretation. They don’t all have bizarre political or social theories, though; Kearns and John Fell Ryan, who plays the film for audiences backward and forward with one print overlayed onto the other, really just love The Overlook.
Ascher’s decision not to show any of their faces was bold, but also loses a lot of its novelty well before his movie’s 102 minutes have expired. Taking this insane trip through Kubrick’s labyrinthine horror film will either make you want to watch it as soon as this documentary is over or never watch it again.