11/04/12 - Chinese 1, 9:00 p.m.
11/07/12 - Chinese 3, 1:15 p.m.
By Dennis Cozzalio
When I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s film of THE SHINING back in the summer of 1980, one of the many questions swirling around in my head as I stumbled out of the theater into the midday sun was, Why would Kubrick change the number of the sinister hotel room from 217 (as it was in Stephen King’s book) to 237? It seemed like such a random choice, but it gnawed at me, right along with the many reservations I had about the movie itself. My own efforts to contemplate Kubrick’s motivation never moved beyond the rudimentarily mathematical, not to mention the absurdly inconsequential — “Is the director saying his movie is better than King’s book by, um, 20?” — before I gave up altogether.
It’s been 32 years since the movie came out, and over the course of subsequent summers the movie — which got very mixed reactions from critics and audiences at the time — has been embraced by many as yet another Kubrick masterpiece. But it turns out some people never gave up wondering about that room number, and scores of other mysteries apparently buried within the text of the movie’s visual and aural design.
Rodney Ascher’s delightful, nimbly directed, perplexing but never condescending ROOM 237 allows that freeform wonderment a postmodern sort of forum, charting the conspiratorial theories of five people who have poked at the carcass of THE SHINING for decades, each unearthing wildly divergent, improbable, thought-provoking and, of course, conflicting conclusions.
The movie, blessedly talking heads-free, uses plenty of fair-use justified clips from Kubrick’s movie as a sort of an illustrative guide, functioning as an exhibit of evidence to support the various claims made by its multiple narrators, alongside scores of found footage and clips from other films, some directed by Kubrick, some not.
If ROOM 237 never allows the viewer the luxury of “getting to know” the folks who have submersed themselves so profoundly into Kubrick’s methods, then the very nature of their obsessions provides clues for further psychological archaeology. One man claims the movie as a treatise on the genocide of the American Indian, another on the Holocaust. There’s a woman who tracks with three-dimensional precision the lay of the Overlook Hotel (Ascher cleverly places us inside her maps) and the meaning taken on as the various characters move through it. And two different observers focus on how Kubrick apparently used the nascent trend of technological manipulation of imagery (originated in the groundbreaking effects of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) to his own end — one weaving an elaborate theory involving that changed room number and Kubrick’s involvement in the faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the other postulating that the simplest answer to why the movie is so packed with seemingly random information might be the most reliable — Kubrick was bored.
ROOM 237 has been criticized for elevating the nitpicking mania of marginalized viewers to the level of film criticism, and it is true that there’s a certain similarity between what goes on here and the sort of geeky-smart exegesis found in modern video essays, ones produced by reliably intelligent writers as well as the kookier fringes of the fanboy brigade. But what Ascher does here hardly negates 32 years of serious consideration of a movie that by no means holds a consensus of quality either among critics or the public.
Some of the defensive railings against the film from reputable critics imply a presumption that Ascher lends credulity to either the notion that the theories in his film belong on the same platform as traditional film criticism, or to the veracity of the ideas themselves. But what makes Ascher’s approach admirable is his refusal to editorialize about his subjects, to use his movie to demonstrate a hipster’s directorial aloofness, a constant invitation to chortle at the plausibility of what’s being offered. The invitation is not to award these theorists the credibility of seasoned film critics but instead to allow the audience the luxury of deciding for themselves how to process the wildly conflicting information, a method strangely similar, if the interviewees are to be believed, to the one which Kubrick employs in his own film.
Ascher’s clever and illuminating movie ends up offering a road map into the consciousness of obsession not only of those who have plumbed THE SHINING for its secrets, but also into that of any cinephile who has ever found a measure of passionate derangement in whatever their cinematic obsession might be, film critics included. To a certain degree it is to Kubrick’s THE SHINING what Les Blank’s BURDEN OF DREAMS is to Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO, a demented wrinkle on the traditional “making of” promotional documentary, with a particularly obsessed and gesticulating portion of the audience taking up the mantle of a notoriously reclusive director who is in death only marginally more reluctant to pontificate on his motivations than he would be if he were alive to see ROOM 237 for himself.
Dennis Cozzalio writes for his Los Angeles blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.