When Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining was released, Stephen King famously hated the film. In criticizing the movie, he described Kubrick as a man who “thinks too much and feels too little,” which was not so much a dig as King feeling Kubrick’s unwillingness to consider Jack Torrance as a victim as much as Wendy and Danny kept the film from being as truly frightening as it could have been. Certainly I can agree there’s a distance that make The Shining a film one studies from afar, like a painting, rather than a more visceral experience that pulls you into the story, like Psycho did twenty years earlier.
That distance becomes a veritable playground for the five Kubrick “scholars” interviewed for Rodney Ascher’s new documentary Room 237. I put scholars in quote because part of the genius of Ascher’s film is it’s refusal to provide any context for the five interviewees as they relate their analyses of Kubrick’s foray into horror. We get no background on their credentials, and none of them appear on screen, just their voice relating their thoughts. Each has their name flashed on screen the first time they speak, but for the rest of the movie they are woven together, one’s theory flowing into the others. Sometimes they harmonize, talking about the general themes they believe Kubrick was exploring, then we’re jarred as one or another puts forth what they believe the grand message of the film may be. We hear theories Kubrick was exploring Freudian imagery, commenting on the Holocaust, chastising the United States for the slaughter of Native Americans, and confessing to faking the moon landing footage for NASA.
Each outlandish theory is presented over the pertinent scenes of the movie, which are sped up, slowed down, enhanced, inverted, and interspersed with shots from other movies. The effect is the opposite of The Shining itself. Instead of hypnotic, Room 237 is hyper-aware, moving quickly and layering images to juxtapose them. Of particular note are segments that break down the floor plan of the Overlook, detailing how the set contains multiple impossible arrangements. I’ve seen and heard others comment this same subject, and it’s always fascinating to see how people interpret the set design. As each theory was laid out, I found myself finding truth in the general concepts, then being stunned when those interpretations launched off into wild speculation. When we get to the part where someone overlays the movie played forwards and backwards at the same time, you begin to feel like you’re listening to Fox Mulder or the Lone Gunmen; you marvel equally at the nuttiness of their interpretation and the strange logic by which they got there.
Ultimately, the theories didn’t convince me (I doubt that was Ascher’s intent), but the documentary accomplished (what I believe is) it’s ultimate goal. By constructing the interviews and cutting them together, Ascher presents a fascinating conversation on how an artist’s vision is only part of the interpretation of a film, or any story. Just as King was displeased with how his book was adapted, I suspect Kubrick would be dismayed at what people read into his film. In fact several collaborators have come forward in stories last week saying just how Kubrick would roll his eyes at the theories presented. But while they might annoy him, ultimately the audience’s interpretation is part of the conversation, no matter how outlandish. And listening to that conversation, while watching the scenes played out, I’m left with the desire to re-watch The Shining, both to see if their arguments work as well once they’re no longer under the microscope, and to see what strange ideas of my own reveal themselves. I highly recommend Room 237, which is playing now in theaters and available at iTunes for rental.