I (very) recently gave an introduction to a screening of Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012) at KinoEgo, a rather lovely film club based at EGO Performance Company, Coventry, for their season of films celebrating cinephilia. Here’s what I had to say.
When The Shining was released in 1980, it didn’t immediately receive the acclaim that it has subsequently attracted and that many expected. Instead, it was treated with scepticism by critics and it disappointed many fans of writer/director Stanley Kubrick’s earlier work. Writer Mark Jacobson describes how, among he and his friends, “the verdict was that the great Stanley, egghead avatar of Cold War cool, had gone terminally corny midway through A Clockwork Orange, halfway through the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ scene”, and that “The Shining seemed the final nail in the suddenly square-shape coffin”. Only with the passing of time did the film garner both a cult status and retrospective critical acclaim, and some thirty-odd years later The Shining is held up as not only one of the greatest horror movies ever made, but as a contemporary classic of Hollywood cinema. Its place in pop culture has been enshrined by endless homage and parody – in everything from The Simpsons and Toy Story to The Young Ones and Saturday Night Live. Jack Nicholson’s maniacal “Here’s Johnny!” has become immortalised by repeated spoofs, and the film’s influence on the modern horror film is ever apparent.
That Room 237 is at once both a gushing loveletter to The Shining, and a study of zealous fandom and the potentially obsessive nature of cinephilia seems fitting, then. Rodney Ascher’s documentary explores the theories of five fans of Kubrick’s film who attempt to uncover its hidden meanings and messages. Employing a mix of numerology, topography, historiography, conspiracy theory, and good old fashioned textual analysis, his interviewees strive to show us what The Shining is “really about” once we look beyond its apparent surface themes of domestic violence and isolation – and just what that does to a man on the edge. Room 237 provides a number of alternative takes. Is The Shining a metaphorical reflection on the holocaust, as Professor Geoffrey Cocks suggests? Perhaps, as ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore argues, it is instead allegorically concerned with the historical treatment of Native Americans. Another suggestion – and my personal favourite – is that The Shining was Kubrick’s admission of his part in faking the moon landings; hermetic scholar and filmmaker Jay Weidner proposes that the film in part acted as an apology to Kubrick’s wife for his apparent deception. The final two contributors are more concerned with the text itself: Playwright and novelist Juli Kearns explores the confusing and often impossible physical layout of the Overlook Hotel, and performer John Fell Ryan simultaneously screens The Shining forwards and backwards, one version superimposed over the other, resulting in striking combined images that could raise further questions about the film’s meaning.
That these contributors remain unseen, that they are not filmed as per the traditional ‘talking heads’ frequently seen in documentaries, is testament to Room 237’s apparent love of both The Shining and of cinema itself, nearly every frame devoted to the repetition or interpretation of the moving image, as created by Kubrick and beyond. A bricolage mash up of clips from films, adverts, photographs, newsreels and archival footage, poster art, animation, re-enactment, and graphics is carefully constructed as a visual representation of the interviewees’ narration. Room 237 is built mostly from the work of others, and yet is so intricately put together, so lovingly detailed, that it becomes a thing of visual beauty in its own whole right, a spectacularly edited homage to cinematic analysis that is capable of eliciting our own memories of cinema and the films we have loved. The film opens with Bill Blakemore’s description of his first viewing of The Shining at a cinema in Leicester Square, and this account is accompanied with the combination of scenes from a number of films. The establishing shot is taken from Kubrick’s final film, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, where Tom Cruise’s character, Dr Bill Harford, strolls down a neon-lit parade of cafes and clubs, stopping outside the Sonata Jazz Café, where he notices a former colleague from medical school is featured on the listings outside. This sequence is employed and adapted in Room 237 to represent Blakemore’s cinema visit. The sign for the Sonata Café has been carefully changed to the Sonata Cinema. The listings board shows not the details for Bill’s old friend’s band, but instead a poster for The Shining and a set of lobby cards promoting “the wave of terror that swept across America”. Now, rather than seeing Bill’s growing sense of nostalgia as he remembers his buddy and decides to go in and see him play, we see Cruise as Blakemore, transfixed by the images on display and the promise of the “wave of terror” which The Shining offered. Cruise, as Blakemore to us, enters the jazz café, now cinema, and the scene is intercut with shots of rows of old, dusty, red velveteen cinema seats, and an audience silently watching the famous opening tracking shot of The Shining, following Nicholson’s yellow beetle as it makes its way through the winding mountain roads. When Blakemore leaves the cinema, it is no longer as Cruise but as Robert Redford in All The President’s Men, exiting in a stunned daze to find his car, and silently contemplating what he’s just seen. These carefully constructed representations feature throughout Room 237, and the opportunity for the knowing audience member to identify its numerous sources are but one pleasure that the documentary offers.
In the digital age, a film like The Shining can attract a new audience on DVD, and its every detail can be pored over and analysed in continuous re-watching. Bonus features and internet access provide a wealth of information on Kubrick’s perfectionism and deliberately cryptic style for even the most disinterested viewer, and the DIY nature of contemporary cultural criticism means every opinion is easily voiced through blogs, social media and forums. In the digital age, everyone is, indeed, a critic, and credentials are no longer required for film analysis. It is this that Room 237 simultaneously celebrates and gently mocks. On the one hand, it exemplifies the sheer joy of looking below the surface, of peeling back the obvious to search for hidden meaning, and the fascination over other people’s observations, attention to detail, and understanding of things that we might ourselves have missed. On the other, it highlights the potentially problematic or even highly entertaining results of subjective scrutiny, of interpretative textual (and what some may think of as over-) analysis. This ambiguity angered some critics – for example Jonathan Rosenbaum, who criticised Rodney Ascher’s refusal “to make distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic, conceivable or ridiculous” – but I think that its lack of identifiable agreement with or refusal of any one of the five theories is one of Room 237’s strengths. After all, a film which deals with subjective interpretation has no real right to tell its audience what to think.
So, after all that, how are we meant to view Room 237? As an accompanying feature to The Shining which helps us to decipher its hidden meanings and messages in ways we might never have dreamt up? As a film paying reverence to a contemporary classic? Or as a study of both cinephilia and film analysis? Ultimately, Ascher’s film, like The Shining itself, is maze-like, full of twists and turns, dead ends and red herrings, and its own potential meaning is open to interpretation. It is named after perhaps the most mysterious element of Kubrick’s film. The Overlook’s Dick Halloran, played by Scatman Crothers, warns young Danny: “There ain’t nothing in Room 237, but you ain’t got no business going in there anyway, so stay out! You understand, stay out!”. But Danny doesn’t stay out, and though we never find out what goes on in the room he’s strangely drawn to, it’s clear it has a profound effect. Sigmund Freud observed that the uncanny is the only feeling more powerfully experienced in art than in life, and Stanley Kubrick drew from this in a discussion of The Shining to assert that “if the [horror] genre required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.” Perhaps this can be used equally to go some way in explaining the appeal of a complex, multi-levelled exploration of the unseen and uncanny in a film like Room 237 – where, if we (like Danny) choose not to heed the warnings to “stay out”, we instead take a “head-first plunge down the rabbit hole of Kubrickiana from which, for some, there is evidently no return” (McCarthy, 2012). You can make your own meaning, or choose not to – but either way, it’s a fun journey.