How much symbolism is buried in a film? And how much is this the director’s intention? Do we, as theorists, fans, fanatics, etc., choose to see certain symbols, a thrill of excitement running through us when we think we’ve cracked a film’s code? The new film, Room 237, might be the ultimate example of this type of fanboy private investigation.
Its title referring to the forbidden hotel room in Stanley Kubrick’s massively popular film The Shining, Room 237 is a new documentary that lays out several theories as to what mysteries and meanings the perfectionist director hid within each shot of his1980 horror classic. The documentary’s director, Rodney Ascher, is aided by several obsessives who all speak defiantly about their own views of what they think Kubrick was attempting to say with the film. From crackpot ideas to rather convincing bits of proof, Room 237 is pretty much a feast for the mind for anyone who considers her or himself a film buff or puzzle lover. Happily, I am both.
The setup for the documentary is pretty straightforward. We are introduced to this panel of theorists, each arguing a major theme or communicating a devout interest in the film’s symbolism. Smartly, Ascher chooses not to show any “talking heads” throughout Room 237. He knows the audience is here for one thing, and it’s to watch The Shining through a new set of eyes. Any glimpse of what these people look like is unneeded and takes away from the Kubrick study period we all signed up for. Ascher also matches visual cues from other Kubrick films to specific lines in the various voiceovers as a sort of narrative motivator and way to add his own attempts at symbolism. At times they can feel a bit on the nose and uneven, but he also knows that any fan of the mysteries of The Shining is at least a devotee to another Kubrick work; glimpses of 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The music is also a bit distracting at times, the volume threatening to overwhelm the theorists, but the synth-like builds it contains, along with the blue interspersed titles, add an almost cult-like devotion to the source film that really plays home the idea that this documentary was created by a fan at heart.
So does the dissolve from one shot where there is a large pile of suitcases in the background to another shot where, in their place, stands a group of people, mean Kubrick was symbolizing the extermination of the Jews in World War II, the victims’ luggage strewn aside as they were shipped to the concentration camps by the Nazis? Or how about the famous blood gushing from the elevator’s closed doors, actually coming from the Native Americans buried deep beneath the Overlook Hotel, the closure of the doors representing our present need to repress the atrocities committed by our ancestors who massacred the First Nations people hundreds of years ago? Or does Danny’s space rocket sweater and Wendy’s inability to talk to Jack about his work both refer to Stanley Kubrick’s own secretive participation in the filming of the first moon landing? Room 237 never chooses one theory over another, but it does a marvelous job at giving each one a shot, examining The Shining frame by frame (and with the use of an incredible digital map of the Overlook). I have only seen The Shining twice, but more than anything, Room 237 has stirred up a great appreciation and awe for a director who was meticulous, artistic and detailed enough in his craft to create a mystery that will have many of us pondering, without a definitive answer, for a long time to come.