Did you know that there are pictures of minotaurs hanging in the Overlook Hotel? Or how about that Stanley Kubrick used a horror film to detail how he helped fake footage of the Apollo moon landing? And I’ll bet you didn’t know that THE SHINING was actually an allegory for the genocide committed by white settlers against the Native Americans. These are just a few of the loopy allegations made in the documentary ROOM 237, a film that on the surface is nothing special but at its heart raises interesting questions about the nature of film theory.
When Warner Bros. Released Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING in 1980, it was viewed as a major disappointment. It was decided that the film was overlong and lacked the depth of Kubrick’s earlier work. Of course, few people still see THE SHINING in the same light today. It is regarded as a great film by many and even a modern classic by some. My own history with the film is equally troubled. By big brother, knowing how prone I was to nightmares and an overactive imagination, forced me to watch the film on VHS. It is not an exaggeration to say that I did not have a restful night’s sleep for more than a year following my viewing of THE SHINING. Not a day went by that I didn’t think of the vivid images of the two little girls, or the deteriorating psychosis of Jack Torrence, or the overall feeling of unease that the film presented. I wanted nothing to do with Kubrick, Jack Nicholson or even Scatman Crothers. I was convinced that there was a dark malicious force behind a film that could affect me in such a way and that the people involved in the film – from the ground up – were up to no good. Of course, years later I put those feelings away. Not only did I find other films by Kubrick and the cast that I loved, I also grew to love THE SHINING and the entire horror genre. What other artform could completely alter an impressionable mind like that? My theories were crazy, but my enthusiasm grew.
We never see the faces of anyone in ROOM 237. What we are presented with instead is a series of images, mostly taken from THE SHINING or other Kubrick films, as various people recount their personal theories about what Kubrick’s film means. Images from other films as varied as LOOKER and Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS are also spliced in. Some of the people presenting their theories have some standing in their respective fields. Most have none. None of them seem to be film historians in the classical sense.
Stanley Kubrick is a filmmaker that is not merely respected, he is revered and even worshiped by many of his ardent supporters. I have read pieces where fans have said he was the one completely perfect director. This of course is foolish, but it shows how people can derive crazy theories from THE SHINING, more so than say POLICE ACADEMY. Stanley Kubrick was a ridiculously precise director, taking immense time with every film, arranging every shot to the smallest detail and shooting multiple takes of even the most mundane scenes. He was so precise that people could not imagine that Kubrick could make some very human mistakes. Any filmmaker will tell you how easy it is to miss something, no matter how much time you spend with the material. Still, many fans cannot fathom that Kubrick could be guilty of continuity errors. Also, every thing in Kubrick’s frame must be intentional and filled with some sort of deeper meaning. Nobody spends this much time on nothing. Surely, even the make of Jack Torrence’s typewriter or the blurred pictures hanging on the wall could not be present… just because? While I say that there is no specific reason for certain pictures to be hanging on the wall, the inquisitive minds of ROOM 237 would likely ask “Or is there?”
Incidentally, some of the theories do have something to them. There is evidence to back up certain allegations like for instance the spacial impossibilities of the Overlook Hotel. And that of course makes you look at everything else with an inquiring eye. Damn, this stuff is catching.
ROOM 237 is presented in nine parts, but claims to present five theories. There are certainly five people interviewed, but honestly it was hard to keep track over which theories were which. Because while one would think that each theory would be presented separately, director Rodney Ascher (who previously made a short detailing the irrational fear people have over the old Screen Gems logo) instead chooses to intersperse the theories together. The film begins and they are presented one at a time. But then, old voices reappear to present further evidence to their own theories. The viewer is confused, losing track over which person is relating perceived Freudian imagery and which person is pointing out Greek mythological figures. The rabbit hole gets deeper still.
And that seems to be the point, really. It becomes evident early on that the point of ROOM 237 isn’t the presentation of these theories, nor is it even that such differing theories exist. The point is in how muddled the theories get when mixed together and how subjective each theory is to the viewer. None of the theories hold much weight. They alternate between sounding like the obfuscations of people with too much time on their hands and the ravings of bus stop lunatics. In the presentation, Ascher presents a number of interesting questions about film theory itself.
Film theory is something people like me are intimately familiar with. Whether we’re film scholars, cinéastes, enthusiasts or for the purposes of this site, simple film geeks, film theory is a double-edged sword. People who only look at the surface of a film are missing out on a lot. Trust me, many films are the result of months if not years worth of labor. In that time, a filmmaker will throw in a lot of him or herself into a film. After all, if you spent five years bringing a motion picture from concept to filmed image, would a duck always be a duck?
Finding the meanings behind films is one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences for any true lover of cinema. Sometimes, these meanings are barely concealed. Other times, they are hidden behind layers of emotional, subliminal, psychological imagery. Film theory allows people to unravel strange puzzles and find new ways to appreciate this most wondrous of artforms.
Unfortunately, it also allows for the opportunity for people with big heads to talk out of their ass. I remember when I went to college, I took a number of film courses. Because of an arrangement with private universities in the Twin Cities, I was able to take classes at many different schools. Hence, I took film classes at St. Thomas, Augsberg and my home school of Hamline University. And I loved film theory. Looking at what was really going on in films as varied as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, 8 ½, THE 400 BLOWS and PERFORMANCE was some of the most personally rewarding schoolwork I undertook.
But then I took a film class over at Macalester College and I was completely lost. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL is actually about Jesus Christ? Okay, I can see how you get to that point, but I really don’t think so. The use of random images in IVAN THE TERRIBLE PART I was designed to put audiences in a helpless and hypnotic state? Unintentional, if even possible. And Billy Wilder was sneaking in a piece of pro-Communist propaganda with DOUBLE INDEMNITY? Now, you’re just talking crazy.
I still believe many of the theories presented in that course to be as ludicrous as the ones presented in ROOM 237. But this in itself presents an interesting conundrum. Do we bring our own baggage with us when we watch a film? Yes, undoubtedly. It is no accident that the people who propose their takes on THE SHINING are people who have a personal or professional history with some of the aspects of those very same takes. If that is the case, then are we seeing merely what we want to see and not what is really there?
And does it matter? Clearly there is something to film theory if we are spending this time analyzing the various facets of the nature of film theory itself. But if art is ultimately subjective and prone to the whims and attractions of each individual that spends time with it, where in that is the original author’s intent? Stanley Kubrick probably did not intend for people to gleam the meanings they do from his work, as ROOM 237 practically admits. But they do see it. And where in that is Kubrick’s intent? What did he want to convey with his intricately positioned images? ROOM 237 frustratingly does not attempt to broach this issue.
It also seems dubious to be looking at this film as a major documentary release. The internet has made the creation of films such as this much easier. Typing in “Room 237″ into your YouTube search bar will not only yield the trailer for this film, but other theories made by people not affiliated with the film. Type in “fan theories” in Google and be prepared for a Pandora’s box of material from every conceivable film, television, video game or comic book universe. The nature of the internet is that it gives a voice to people who previously didn’t have an outlet for their speculations. At least, that’s my excuse. ROOM 237 is in fact very similar to fan videos we have seen so far. While it may be a very good fan video, that’s pretty much all it is. The presentation itself is nothing special, even if the questions presented within are. The format of the film is not completely unlike my own YouTube series, Moviocrity, and that could never be a motion picture. Or could it?
This article also appeared at Film Geek Central.