Watching movies is an enjoyable experience. Thinking about movies is illuminating. Writing about movies can be agonizing. And attempting to interpret movies is downright futile. Room 237 is an analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining (1980), divided into nine parts, each section focusing on a certain subject. Six unseen theorists delve into minute moments and hidden symbols that might explain the larger themes of the movie. They are all right, and they are all wrong, and reading about people’s take on Room 237 is just as fascinating as watching Room 237. The proverbial snake is eating its own tail.
The six theorists are Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner, and Buffy Visick. Ascher does not identify them each time they speak, but you will associate their theories with their voices. Here are six people who have watched and thought about The Shining to the point where it ceases to exist as a movie anymore. I doubt that any one of them can sit back and watch this movie and appreciate anything other than items that support their theories. Often we use the phrase, down the rabbit hole. It comes from Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, where Alice literally fell down a rabbit hole into a fantastic land of wonder. In contemporary society, we use “down the rabbit hole” to refer to following a particularly wild train of thought. To follow these theorists is to not just fall down a rabbit hole but to reign in Wonderland. They don’t just border on obsessive they are obsessive.
Some theories are almost laugh-out-loud absurd. Some catch you so off guard that you buy into them immediately. One of the theorist cops to post-modern criticism, artistic intent does not alter the experience of the work. Much of the theories put forth stem from personal experience rather than filmic evidence. One theorist noticed the Calumet baking soda tins because he grew up on the banks of the Calumet River and knew that the word “Calumet” meant peace pipe. Convinced that the way the tin was arranged in the frame was of importance, he fixated on it and went on to develop a very intricate and almost convincing argument about The Shining as the blood-letting of The White Man. What’s most important here is how he fixates on that piece of information (Calumet) because he is already aware of it. Often we confuse a personal experience with a universal experience. That sentence could probably sum up all the theorists of this documentary.
One of the theorists even plays the movie forward and backward simultaneously, superimposing one frame onto the other. I don’t know if it answers any questions about the movie, but it does provide some stunning images. It also shows how rigorous Kubrick was with his One-Point-Perspective filming style that he used for this film (and Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange).
The X factor to all these theories is the man himself, Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was typically labeled as enigmatic, mainly because he did not seek the fame that Hitchcock and Welles did, nor did he discuss his films publicly in a way that so many others had. To suggest that Kubrick meant this and Kubrick meant that is not too out there. Watch Charlie Chaplin, and you will know exactly what Charlie Chaplin wanted to say about whatever it was he was saying. That can even be said about Frank Capra, Howard Hawkes, John Ford, and a slew of GREAT filmmakers. Stanley Kubrick was entirely different, and that is where all of these theories stem from. Here is an artist who might actually have hidden meanings everywhere.
There is a Zen poem that has been copied and used over and over again: “When I first studied Zen, a mountain was a mountain. While studying Zen, I realized that a mountain was more than a mountain. Now that I have mastered Zen, a mountain is just a mountain.” As a child, I watched movies constantly, but they were just movies. They didn’t mean anything more than what they were about. Then something happened when I was in my teens, movies suddenly became about something. Roger Ebert impressed upon me, “Movies are not what they’re about, they’re how they’re about what they’re about.” That’s currently where I am, and someday, I hope that movies will go back to just being movies. I am convinced that I will get there. I hope that these theorists get there too. If not, I fear they will spend their movie-going experiences freezing framing of this and that and missing the forest for the trees.
Room 237 (2012)
Directed By: Rodney Ascher
Produced By: Tim Kirk
Starring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner, Buffy Visick
IFC Films, Running Time 102 minutes, Not Rated, Released March 29, 2013