TIFF12: Room 237 (2012)

Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is the Sundance documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the 1980 film that, judging from audience that filled the Bloor Hot Docs Theatre at TIFF, still holds a great deal of fascination for the generations that have grown up with it. Room 237 is not a documentary on the making of the film, but rather about the fascination it continues to generate and particularly the various idiosyncratic interpretations of the film that have arisen in the 30 odd years since it came out.

Kubrick is a filmmaker who generates fawning adoration from his fans. As Anton once wrote in an essay on this site, most cinephiles go through a Kubrick phase. His reputation looms large over contemporary cinema considering the relatively concise filmography he left behind.

However, The Shining isn’t the most immediately apparent of Kubrick’s films to earn such a devoted following as it was perceived by some as a sort of failure after the acclaim of 2001: A Space OdysseyA Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon (which has deservedly seen a major reevaluation as a significant Kubrick work). Nonetheless The Shining has garnered a dedicated group of admirers who have dissected the film for evidence of Kubrick’s genius and promoted its status as a kind of shibboleth for true believers. Like the titular Room 237 of the Overlook Hotel, the film itself has earned a reputation for mystery and a site for the revelation of certain truths about Kubrick’s intentions.

Ascher’s film presents six theories about The Shining, divided up into roughly thematic categories. The film is made up of clips taken from Kubrick’s films and other films, edited together, not unlike many of the video film essays that you can find on YouTube. He begins by introducing us to each of the subjects – whose faces we never see, only their names and voices – who discuss their theories beginning with their first experiences with the film; reactions range from rapt attention and involvement in the film to initial disappointment, giving way to gradual realization of the film’s hidden depths. More than one interviewee cites a seemingly random detail – the direction of the carpet design, or a disappearing chair – as key to sending them down the road of obsession with the film and its supposedly hidden themes.

Some, like Geoffrey Cocks and Bill Blakemore, believe that the film is really about historical traumas such as the Holocaust or the genocide of the American Indian. Juli Kearns has created intricate maps of the hotel revealing its impossible architecture, while others believe Kubrick reveals his involvement in staging the Apollo 11 moon landing in the film or that playing the film backwards and forwards simultaneously reveals hidden synchronicities

As much as I chuckled at some of the interpretations, try as I might to see Kubrick’s face in the clouds at the beginning of the film as one interviewee insists is clear, I have to say that not all the interpretations were equally plausible. But this doesn’t mean that I found them all worthy of mockery, as some of the audience in attendance clearly did. At moments I found myself nodding along in agreement, thinking to myself that they might actually have a point with their theories.

Some will dismiss the subjects of the film as reading too much into a work of art, but the film gestures towards being insightful about the way that viewers play an active role in crafting the meaning of a “text.” It is also a great example for showing that while one can suggest an almost unlimited number of interpretations of a text, not all interpretations are equally plausible or likely.

Furthermore, there is the fascinating duality between the notion of “viewer response” interpretations and the appeal to Kubrick’s status as an auteur: his genius holds a special place in the minds of these viewers, yet the interpretations are all their own. They will point to the fact that if something seems off in the film, if the camera angle is clearly changed, or an object goes missing, these are not mere continuity errors or mistakes, but because Stanley was such a genius (one interviewee cites Kubrick as having a 200 IQ) each frame holds meaning that was intended by the filmmaker.

But the film never delves deeper than the interviewee’s claims about the film, fascinating as they are. Connections remain to be made between the response to The Shining and other films by Kubrick. Why this film? Why does The Shining hold such appeal?

Perhaps, despite its status as an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, King’s dislike of the changes made by Kubrick adds more weight to the claim of director as author (auteur) of a film’s meaning. But clearly some of these interpretations owe more to the viewer’s own idiosyncratic interests and the more universal desire of human beings for narrative cohesion. Given long enough, people begin to see patterns everywhere. It’s what we do.

Kubrick, because of his meticulous reputation, seems to hold a special fascination for such viewers. And it is the strength of The Shining and Kubrick’s cinema in general that makes Room 237 as compelling a viewing experience as it is. But it also seems like wasted opportunity for further reflection on the role of the viewer in shaping a film’s interpretation. Ascher lets the interviewee’s ideas speak for themselves. Supposedly. But there’s enough material here for Ascher to go on past the novelty value and to start making his own connections and crafting a narrative.

The video essay as a vehicle for film criticism is beginning to come into its own and I’m all for it. Room 237 is very watchable and entertaining but unfortunately it doesn’t fully realize the potential for critical reflection that it flirts with.

Room 237 (2012)

Directed by Rodney Ascher; featuring Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner, and Buffy Visick.

6 out of 10