The rapturous responses to Room 237 that came out of the Sundance Film festival seem wildly
overstated, but understandable. This modest, entertaining, and at times
visually clever documentary about The Shining — in which a handful of
obsessives decode the signposts to supposedly “true” meanings lurking
in Kubrick’s subtext — is exactly the kind of inbred film that some cineastes go
bonkers for. Not as bonkers as the theorists interviewed for the film, of
course. They are hard to top in the thinking-gone-haywire department.
The theorists in Room
237 are all disembodied voices, as ghostly as the visitors to the Overlook Hotel,
where most of The Shining is set.
They speculate about the meaning of the story about a couple and their small
son alone in a spooky isolated hotel where murders have taken place. What’s
really going with Jack Torrance (Jack Nicolson in one of his now-iconic roles)
the father gradually losing his mind — or is he a murderous ghost? And what’s
with his psychically-gifted son, Danny? Attacking these questions, they make
the kind of arbitrary connections you might find in a bad term paper — excited,
no-context speculation that makes you realize the true meaning of “sophomoric.”
What they say is ultimately less
intriguing than what the film suggests about Kubrick, fanaticism and how The Shining has been absorbed into pop
One of the voices, from ABC News Reporter Bill Blakemore,
insists the story is a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans. Much of his
argument hinges on the hotel’s location over an Indian burial ground and presence
of a can of Calumet baking powder, with an Indian’s image on the label, which
we can see clearly when Jack is locked in the store room.
Looking at the scene in Room
237, I wondered: Calumet? Why not choose Tang as the single, loopy thread
to pull? Plenty of that is conspicuously on the shelf too. Sure enough, soon
someone is arguing that The Shining
is Kubrick’s metaphor for his participation in faking film of the moon landing.
Just look at all that Tang! (And of course if Kubrick had done such a thing, he
would definitely want to spill his guts, metaphorically, all over his work.)
You see the problem. Kubrick himself clearly alluded to
Diane Arbus’ famous photograph of twins in the image Danny sees of identically
dressed girls, murdered long ago. Where do you draw the
line? Let’s say canned goods. There are cartons of canned peaches right behind Jack’s
head too — where’s the canned peach theory of The Shining?
Room 237 is visually
energetic and playful enough, with clips
from The Shining and touches like inserts
on TV screens within those clips. But the documentary’s true appeal is letting
us argue with the lunacy — yes, it’s loony — of the theories. Early critics
have pointed out that the film doesn’t laugh at its contributors, which is technically
true, but only because its non-committal stance lets us do that for ourselves.
Their theories are laughable because they are so reductive
about art. Kubrick understood that art is more nuanced and ambiguous than
anything we hear in Room 237. That’s
why the image in The Shining of blood
gushing out from the sides of the closed elevator doors and flooding the
hallway, coming right at us, is so terrifying — it’s a horror that is both
chillingly lucid and without rational explanation.
And since the fun of watching Room 237 is arguing back, it helps to have seen the film recently. That
is a real joy. Kubrick’s film still works as horror. But we also see how much
Nicholson, with his demonically arched eyebrows and his sinister line “Heere’s
Johnny” as he puts an axe through a door, was so thoroughly in on the
joke. This is a witty horror film. A
whole generation has grown up without knowing that “Here’s Johnny” was
Johnny Carson’s famous intro, but Nicholson’s reading transcends that.
Even when he was alive, Kubrick’s reclusiveness and secrecy
made him an easy target for quacks and fakers. l like Room 237, but here’s a film I recommend even more highly: Color Me Kubrick (2005), a comical, fact-based
story with John Malkovich as a man who masqueraded as Kubrick for years,
despite looking nothing like him and knowing nothing at all about film. The trailer gives you a good sense of its sly tone.
And here’s Room 237’s
trailer. This is not a scene from the movie, but the ending hints at the film’s visual