Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining has been the subject of much speculation over the years. Evidence that Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing? A story about genocides, both American and European? A tapping of the labyrinth of our collective unconscious? Room 237 brings together many of these theories in a low-budget documentary that is nonetheless interesting and invigorating to watch.
I should probably begin this review with two disclaimers: One, I think The Shining is a fascinating horror film that uses place (The Overlook Hotel) as a metaphor for insanity, with the twist that place and mentality are so intertwined we become uncertain of whether Jack Torrance and The Overlook are easily separable. I love the disorienting visuals, the symbolic objects (like the labyrinth), and the thrills both short-term and longer-lasting.
Second disclaimer: I’m not a Kubrick expert by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t understand 2001, because I’ve only watched it once and don’t care to watch it again. Whatever questions it raises are not questions I am interested in answering. I’ve seen only a few of his other films. So any ideas I have about The Shining come from a place of innocence, if not willful ignorance.
Not so for the experts whose voiceovers make Room 237 what it is. Academics, Kubrick fans, and wacky theorists narrate scenes from The Shining, other Kubrick films, and a few random clips as they explain their varied and interesting theories. While clearly each narrator has thought more deeply about The Shining than I ever will, the quality of their analyses differ wildly—sometimes even within one theory or another.
Take Jay Weidner, an expert conspiracy theorist who is convinced that the moon landing footage (but not the actual moon landing) was faked by Kubrick. Part of his evidence is the room key for the eponymous room 237 in the film: the key reads “ROOM No. 237.” He points out that, of the capital letters on that key chain (M, N, O, O, R), only two words can be made: “moon” and “room.” 237 is, therefore, the “Moon Room”: the key to understanding The Shining as Kubrick’s complicated confession.
That’s a bit nit-picky of me, although nit-pickiness is the rule of the game. Background posters, maps of the hotel layout, and the infamous can of Calumet baking powder play a larger part in the analyses than anything as mundane as, for instance, Jack’s alcoholism, which goes unmentioned in the documentary.
Not all the tidbits are nit-picky, of course. Narrator John Fell Ryan discussed running The Shining simultaneously forwards and backwards: the results are more interesting and thought-provoking than you might think. I admire the way Room 237 highlights those (dare I say “more likely”?) aspects of Kubrick’s film. Juli Kearns’s detailed maps of how The Overlook doesn’t fit together are another example of brilliant and dogged interpretations.
Perhaps more interesting is what Room 237 says, both implicitly and explicitly, about reading against the grain: you know what I mean if you, like I, spent hours decoding the meaning of each number in Lost. (By the way, one of those numbers is a key to The Shining.) Postmodern literary and film theory, taking a cue from the earlier New Criticism, dictates that there is no author. Or, rather, authorial intention is irrelevant, because the text is all we have. The text, and the reader or viewer, of course.
That’s what I enjoyed most about this documentary—listening to other fan(atic)s wax ecstatic about their love of a particular text. The Shining isn’t my obsession, but I appreciate how that obsessive inquiry can bring joy to others, even as I’m able to dispassionately chuckle at some of the answers the theorists come up with.
Above all, Room 237 made me want to watch The Shining again, even though I watched it just a month ago in preparation for this documentary. Any interpretation of a TV show, film, or book that makes me want to return to the original is worth recommending. And so, without further ado: go watch this film.
Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)