Director: Rodney Ascher
The Shining is one of my all-time favourite movies. I’d put it in my top 5. I love watching it and have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it. Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to see it on a cinema screen, on Halloween no less. I jumped at the chance. As good as a lot of films were that came out in 2012, no cinema experience could beat it. I’ve gone on at length about it previously (Why I Love… #3) and yet still feel as though I have barely scratched the surface. That essay was a fraction of the things I could think of to say about it. Barely an introduction. Turns out I’m not alone, as Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 proves. However the ‘specialists’ on The Shining given a voice here have ideas and observations I hadn’t even dreamed of.
Though they are our guides back through Stanley Kubrick’s movie, they go unseen. Over collage images their voices speak to us, explaining their theories, enthusiastically describing the profound changes in their lives brought on by this movie. Their names are introduced to us (lovingly, in the same turquoise-hued font as The Shining‘s own credits) but they are ghosts. Apparitions from some other place. Like the images on the screen, they are out of sequence, drawn from different sources, appearing and disappearing at will. Their theories weave in and out of one another’s, their voices (to a British ear) almost indistinguishable from one another. They become a chorus.
Because of this, Room 237 becomes as much about fascination, obsession and passion as it does about The Shining itself. We do not see these devout fans, and picking them apart from one another proves difficult. In effect they are of one voice, provoked by Kubrick’s film into investing in details, burrowing further than the man himself may have ever consciously considered. These people (and there are surely more of them out there) represent a type of person, one who receives rich fulfilment from playing detective, building their own interpretations, creating for themselves their own version of The Shining.
Such enthusiasm is infectious, and setting aside the theories themselves for a second, this makes Room 237 an engrossing watch. Ascher, who plays editor here also, has created, in effect, a 100 minute montage, one which is built largely from the maze-like scenes of The Shining, but which also extends out into the surrounding movies of Kubrick’s career and beyond. It’s a fun cut-and-paste, with scenes from Eyes Wide Shut most prominently used to illustrate narratives being described to us. It’s a treat for film-fans who will enjoying box-ticking the archival footage.
That the majority of the theories expounded here are ludicrous adds to the fun of Room 237, but the film never intentionally makes fools of its narrators… not completely anyway. The mood is celebratory rather than mean. And at the end of the day who is to say who is right? That’s the beauty of such subjective debate and interpretation, no matter how bonkers. Is The Shining really about the massacring of the Native Americans? Is it about the Holocaust? A sexual awakening? It’s hard to believe any of the theories offered here were Kubrick’s intention, but that really doesn’t matter. What matters is that, for better or worse, these people get enjoyment out of pulling at the seams.
I can relate to them, scarily. It’s the same fascination for riddles that keeps me watching David Lynch movies, looking for more. Is everything that I take from Mulholland Drive exactly what Lynch thought of when he was putting it together? Probably not. But I enjoy the process. Self-satisfaction brought by self-delusion? Maybe so, but it keeps me out of trouble.
But back to Room 237. Ascher’s film keeps things pacey and is backed by an involving and enjoyable score put together by William Huston and Jonathan Snipes. All of the interviewees are engaging to listen to, and for everything that sounds downright ridiculous there’s something that genuinely makes you think twice. I particularly enjoyed the revelations about The Overlook Hotel’s impossible floor plans, not to mention one section in the second half which ran through the strange symmetries which occur of you run the film forwards and backwards simultaneously (I’d actually like to see that in full).
“Mr Hallorann, what’s in room 237?” asks Danny Torrance in the film. Rodney Ascher’s answer appears to be: whatever you want. Is it coincidence that the man with an interest in World War 2 finds links to the Holocaust, whilst the man who grew up near a Native American-named body of water finds correlations to their massacre in branded food cans on Dick Hallorann’s pantry shelves? Wherever these people’s passions (or hang-ups) came from, they all found focus in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
I’ll caveat this again by saying that I’m a huge fan of The Shining myself, but Room 237 was enormously enjoyable to watch. A love letter to Kubrick’s film as much as a tribute to the kinds of people who are fanatical about being fanatics. At one telling moment one of our narrators ‘gives’ us one of his observations. The implication being that he has a stash of them and that they’re precious. We’re lucky to have been allowed to know this, he seems to be saying. He has made The Shining his own. A measure of devotion which is almost touching. Minotaurs? Secret erections? Hitler moustaches? You may never see The Shining the same way again, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll still want to keep going back. And Room 237? Almost as good as the real thing.