I finally had a chance to catch up with the new doc, ROOM 237, at the IFC Center in New York City this afternoon. I was intrigued by its premise ever since reading about it -- a group of enthusiasts share their individual and often extremely quirky "takes" on the meaning behind Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film, THE SHINING. Given my deep respect and enjoyment of Kubrick's work, and THE SHINING in particular, it certainly caught my attention. And when I heard about the premise, I knew I had to see the film, although I was skeptical as to the level of analysis it would actually contain.
I should say upfront that I have an aversion to arcane literary analysis (with its need to find "meaning" in everything) applied to film analysis. That said, it's not really fair to apply this criticism to ROOM 237, because while the individual analyses do fall victim to the need to prescribe "meaning" to seemingly every element in the film, it's far from any kind of scholarly criticism and more of the "armchair critic" variety. (And I can't help worrying that the uninitiated will come away from the film with an overheated vision that this kind of discussion is what goes on in an academic film studies department!)
There's much to enjoy here for Kubrick enthusiasts, so I'll get out of the way first what didn't work for me. We never see the individuals' faces, only hearing their disembodied voices over a wide variety of clips. As a result, we never get to know any of these folks, and how their backgrounds, interests, etc. inform their ideas and points of view. The clips are another issue. While it obviously makes sense to include large amounts of footage from THE SHINING itself, there are too often cutaways to other films (some by Kubrick, some not) that struck me as largely irrelevant and there to fill up visual space while the commentators are expounding on their various theories. Director Rodney Ascher divides the film into nine "sections", each dealing with different aspects of the film, though it seemed he faced some real structural challenges that were never quite overcome.
The theories themselves range from the intriguing (one commentator makes a good case that the film is a metaphor for the massacre of American Indians, though given the fact that it's mentioned within the film itself that the hotel is built atop an Indian burial ground, this isn't as revelatory as he seems to think it is), others are less convincing (one commentator seems to offer little more than a play-by-play of the action that's happening on screen, with absolutely no indication as to why it's worth mentioning in the first place). And one commentator, in particular, sees the film (and seemingly the entire remaining body of Kubrick's work) as a giant "confession" to participating in the moon landing hoax! Toss in a bit about Barry Nelson's paper tray erection (trust me, you'll just have to see the film for further explanation), and it becomes difficult to take seriously.
It's theories like the latter that take the film into a territory that serious film buffs might find tiresome. While reading into the minutiae of visual details in the film might make for an interesting parlor game, theories about the moon landing hoax and other such nonsense suggest that THE SHINING has, for some individuals, become a kind of tabula rasa onto which they can project their own obsessions and ideas.
There is a kind of infectious earnestness that each of the commentators brings to the table, however, that makes it hard to dismiss the ideas outright. Sure, some of them might strike us as absurd, but they're presented in such a way that we're at least willing to entertain them. And there are some fun tidbits here and there, my favorite being the discovery that the magazine Jack Nicholson is reading in the lobby following his job interview is a copy of Playgirl!
ROOM 237 fails to address a much more interesting question (to me, at least): what is it about the movies, and about a film like THE SHINING in particular, which leads to so many theories being put forward to explain the "real" meaning behind it? And what compels someone to find such meaning in a film? We get just a tantalizing glimpse of this toward the end of the film, when one of the commentators reveals that he's been unemployed for quite a while, has a son of his own, and even half-jokingly notes some parallels between his own life and THE SHINING.
Given Stanley Kubrick's penchant for creating complex, challenging films and refusing to provide easy explanations or answers to his audience, I suspect he's smiling somewhere now, knowing that we're still discussing, analyzing and picking apart THE SHINING nearly 35 years since it first appeared.