For a great writer, Stephen King can be kind of an idiot. One of the subjects on which he is most frequently an idiot is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” whose lack of fidelity to King’s book still eats at him after nearly three and a half decades. But it’s surprising that blind spot extends to “Room 237,” Rodney Ascher’s documentary about “Shining” obsessives and their wacked-out theories of what it’s “really” about. A Q&A from Rolling Stone featured this exchange:
Did you see that new documentary Room “237” about obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”?
Yeah. Well, let me put it this way – I watched about half of it and got sort of impatient with it and turned it off.
These guys were reaching. I’ve never had much patience for academic bullshit. It’s like Dylan says, “You give people a lot of knives and forks, they’ve gotta cut something.” And that was what was going on in that movie.
King joins a distressingly long line of viewers who continue to miss the point of “Room 237,” ranging from Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s former assistant and the current caretaker of his work, to Uproxx’s Heather Dockray, who wrote “It isn’t just that ‘Room 237’ is bad, it’s thoroughly insufferable, some NYU freshman’s five-page paper, magically transformed into ‘a movie.'” (Why the scare quotes around “movie”? Who “knows”?)
Considering that “Room 237” is about the perils of over-interpretation, there’s a fitting irony in the fact that so many people continue to under-interpret it, taking the movie as a flat representation of plausible theories, one of which posits “The Shining” as Kubrick’s coded confession for having helped fake the moon landing. Ascher could bolster his subjects’ credibility, informing us that Bill Blakemore, who surmises that the movie is secretly about the genocide of Native Americans, is a veteran ABC News correspondent and not some basement-dwelling black helicopter obsessive, but he deliberately withholds that information, letting the theories stand — and inevitably fall — on their own.
What’s frustrating about King’s remarks is that he walks right up to the edge of understanding before storming up in a huff. His Dylan paraphrase about knives and forks is on the money: “Room 237” is indeed about the indiscriminate application of analytical tools, which is what happens when film criticism is practiced without self-criticism. (Many initial reviews pegged “Room 237” as a movie about film critics, which I would agree with only with the stipulation that they are bad critics.) But to dismiss it as “academic bullshit” says much more about King than it does about “Room 237.” In discussing what “Room 237” is really about, one runs the risk, of course, of sounding perilously like one of the movie’s subjects, but that’s just one more way in which it functions, brilliantly, as a kind of recursive Rorschach test.
Although some of “Room 237’s” subjects do have university backgrounds, their methods have less to do with academia than the Internet, and with a specific kind of close reading that would have been extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, when Kubrick made “The Shining.” In poring over still images, like the purported picture of a minotaur or the Dopey sticker on Danny’s door, they effectively thwart the film’s forward motion, ignoring its obsessively crafted text to construct their own, often unrelated meanings. (What does faking the moon landing have to do with a writer driven mad by his inability to create?) It’s strikingly similar to the way “Sopranos” fans pore over the supposedly hidden details of the series’ ending while breezing right past its actual form. In both cases, the creators — Stanley Kubrick and David Chase — are assumed to have infinite control over their work, so much so that any detail must have been put there on purpose, a bizarre and incoherent inversion of literary deconstruction. What makes “Room 237” so powerful is the way it implies that this apophenia (look it up; you’ll be glad you did) is a necessary form of madness, one that critics and viewers should employ as they might a powerful demon, exercising great caution lest they lose themselves in the process.