Published May 09, 2013Film criticism and interpretation, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder, and Room 237 looks at five different people who've gazed (way, way too many times) at Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film, The Shining, and found in it depths previously unseen, unheard of and potentially entirely untrue.
But in the act of looking deeply — and finding, amongst other things, an allegory for the Holocaust (for the decimation of the American First Nations), an interpretation of Greek myth and a confession to one of the greatest cover-ups in American history — one discovers that maybe one can find whatever one wants, and that is the point.
Kubrick's The Shining — distinct from the Stephen King novel on which it's based — is uniquely qualified for this kind of cultish treatment. Kubrick was famously a recluse, genius, infinitely curious intellectual and stickler for precision in how his films were seen.
It's not a huge leap, then, to presume that any change, however minor, between King's book and Kubrick's film is symbolic and therefore significant. The film's title comes from the "mystery" hotel room — in King's book it's Room 217, in Kubrick's film, 237. From the colour of the family car to the posters on the walls of the common areas, the style of typewriter and the design of carpeting, everything is up for interpretation.
That one can find symbols of oppression and violence in a psychological horror movie isn't surprising, and thus theories about genocide seem the most rational, the closest to mainstream film theory and thus the least interesting members of this particular crazy town.
My favourite, and the most outlandish, is the idea that Kubrick was hired by NASA, while filming 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late '60s, to fake the moon landing for them. (The film goes out of the way to not deny that people landed on the moon, just that the filmed footage we've seen was faked — by Stanley Kubrick.) With that as its foundational premise, we look at The Shining as a series of confessions by Kubrick about his involvement with the moon landing.
Aside from the three core theories there are a handful more ideas thrown out: that there's Minotaur symbolism throughout (primarily the lawn maze); that if you project the film backwards and forwards simultaneously atop each other the images line up in surprising ways; and that the layout of the hotel is geographically impossible. Kubrick's reputation as a nearly insane stickler for detail means that nothing, in certain people's eyes, can be a simple continuity error — there are no coincidences here, only connections.
Room 237's thesis is that Kubrick's The Shining can be seen and interpreted in different ways, depending on one's perspective. What's fascinating is that the doc also operates the same way. Which theories ring true and what evidence seems compelling say more about the viewer than this decades-old movie.
In the film's construction — entirely from filmed footage from Kubrick's career and occasionally others to make a point, without ever showing the interview subjects/theorists — I see an honouring of the "text," a reliance on the filmic source material. But in taking the idea of a "close reading" of any piece of art to the most extreme degree, it also demolishes the idea of ever finding meaning by taking art apart and trying to interpret the detritus.
Am I guilty, in seeing the results of Room 237 as a potentially fatal blow to the art of film criticism, of seeing the movie only through my perspective, as I watch it in order to write a critical review? Almost certainly. Is that how others are going to interpret it? Probably not.
Is that an exciting and delightful aspect of a documentary that will lead you back to the original film, if not straight to film school? Definitely. (Mongrel Media)