The question of whether the meaning of a piece of art begins and ends with the creator’s intention is explored in Rodney Ascher’s unusual ‘documentary’ Room 237, which uses Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining to show how an obsession with a film can produce any number of weird and wacky theories and conspiracies. The results are by turns fascinating, infuriating and downright crackers, resulting in a film that may not have much appeal beyond Kubrick fanatics and conspiracy theorists but does make a refreshing change from the standard talking-head-based movie making-ofs that accompany so many DVD and Blu-rays these days.
For a start, there are NO talking heads in Ascher’s film. Room 237 is constructed entirely from clips from The Shining, animated maps and various pieces of visual trickery, plus footage from Kubrick’s other films and numerous additional movies that are used to create an often humorous narrative. A voiceover is provided by five Shining obsessives, each of whom has developed their own take over many years and from countless rewatches, on Kubrick’s horror classic. Although the names of each participant is flashed up on screen at the start, without the context of faces these conjectures do start to merge into one giant demented thesis.
There’s the guy who believes that the film is an analogy for the holocaust, another who thinks it’s actually a commentary on colonization of the US and subjugation of the Native American. The lone woman has developed detailed maps of the Overlook Hotel to show the bizarre impossibility of hotel’s layout, while the craziest (and funniest) theory basically sees the whole film as Kubrick’s confession for his involvement in the faking of the Apollo moonlanding in 1969. These people have names – Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns – but it doesn’t matter who they are – only what they are saying.
While the argument could be made this kind of obsessive, crackpot theorising could be applied to any film, there is something about Kubrick’s work that lends itself to such treatment. For a start, this was a director infamous for his meticulous approach to the craft – take after take after take, immaculate production design and nary a wasted frame. And yet some of the continuity errors that are focused upon on Room 237 seem so glaring that it’s hard to believe they weren’t intentional. Or rather, the film is very persuasive in making you think this way. Because I can’t say I’d spotted them before, but when replayed again and again with a narration of utter conviction, it’s very easy to start to believe them.
And when the film is really working it doesn’t matter whether the theories are ‘true’ or not. I loved Kearns’ breakdown of the Overlook’s layout, revealing the impossibility of the way the rooms and corridors slot together, while idea of watching the film play forward and backwards simultaneously, the images superimposed upon one another to reveal weird coincidences, is inspired. Ascher gives the film plenty of visual pizzazz – his use of clips from the likes of Bava’s Demons and Romero’s Creepshow will give horror fans much to enjoy – and there is a striking Goblin-esque score from William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes.
Unfortunately, it all runs a bit too long. 80 minutes of nutty Shining theories would have been plenty, but at 102 minutes I must confess losing interest a little. Ascher does perhaps overestimate how interesting viewers will find the various arguments, and those that are less easily illustrated visually do tend become a bit of a bore. There will of course be many who simply find the whole thing a pointless exercise, but for those that can get into Room 237’s weird, erm, outlook will almost certainly find themselves unable to watch The Shining in the same way again.