Early in Kubrick’s version of The Shining, Stuart Ullman tells Jack Torrance, “For some people, solitude and isolation can of itself become a problem.” Ullman then hires Jack as winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, a position that led another man to murder his family with an ax and then kill himself a few winters earlier. Director Rodney Ascher might have taken Ullman’s warning and turned it into a thesis when he set to work on Room 237.
Assembled with the audio from five interviews and a raft of footage (mostly from The Shining, but with moments from all over Kubrick’s oeuvre as well as other near-random selections), Room 237 plays host to five different readings of Kubrick’s classic film. These range from the sorts of interpretations that might get a check mark and a scrawled “interesting analysis” from an English professor to the brand of conspiracy theory that therapists would deem diagnostically relevant. They all start from similar places: a general confusion or dissatisfaction with the film; attention to minor incongruities, patterns, and continuity errors found upon revisiting it; and the creation of a full-blown theory about what The Shining is really about. Two of these theories have been built enough currency that someone will probably mention them if you bring the film up at a bar at a daytime hour: first, that Kubrick wanted the film to act as an allegory for the eradication of Native Americans by European settlers, and, second, that The Shining works as a comment on the Holocaust. Both rely on Kubrick’s supposed attention to detail: the director simply could not have chosen Calumet brand baking powder or a German typewriter if he didn’t intend for these objects to behave as omens and referents. Both are offered by proud older guys who believe they’ve uncovered something real and true about Kubrick’s intent (the Native American theory belongs to journalist Bill Blakemore, the Holocaust to historian Geoffrey Cocks). Their theories bite back at one another, each genocide undercutting the other, though Blakemore can at least point to explicit mentions of the atrocities he champions in The Shining itself.
The thinness of Blakemore and Cocks’ readings pales alongside the batshit lunacy of Jay Weidner, who attempts to treat The Shining as a confession from Kubrick for directing the footage of the faked moon landing. Weidner’s pomposity takes him so far that when he says he expects to be audited by the IRS for his discovery, he delivers it as a boast. The other two interviewees, playwright Juli Kearns and John Fell Ryan, offer less strict readings and instead nod to clever ideas and hidden references that might actually enrich the film rather than the interpreter. Kearns looks to the mythological referents that lurk in the film, with Jack as minotaur, half-animal half-man, and hedge maze as labyrinth, while John Fell Ryan runs down the list of alternative readings, discussing The Shining as version of 2001 in reverse, or how The Shining might work if played backwards and forwards at the same time on a single screen.
Room 237 follows The Shining’s structure, divided into nine sections. Ascher went to great lengths to map out what the interviewees describe, whether it be Danny’s path through the Overlook on his big wheel or paired stills that prove a continuity error. Room 237 has as distinctive a score as The Shining’s, though Ascher employs an enticing sort of nu-Vangelis synth where Kubrick leaned on Penderecki and his quarter note hornet’s nests. The work that went into Room 237 appears staggering; Ascher has done his utmost to give these theories their most thorough (if not sympathetic) presentation. It’s the interviewees, not the directors, who undo their own arguments, in most cases. The structure of Room 237 approaches element of The Shining individually, with each interviewee offering what they think a particular choice means. By having each theory read out alongside the others, Ascher shows how each reader finds something different in the same object in order to bear out their theory. The hotel’s room 237 is one of these: Weidner will say it refers to the sound stage where the moon landing was filled, while Cocks sees in it a math that points to 42, the year the extermination of Jews began. A can of Tang on a dry goods shelf stands for space travel, while Calumet baking powder on the same shelf refers to a peace pipe. For the viewer who feels a deep enough need, even the hotel carpeting and stickers on a boy’s bedroom door can be profoundly revealing.
Ascher’s interest is not in The Shining, though his film includes so much footage from Kubrick’s work that every piece of press for Room 237 comes with a paragraph of legalese insisted upon by Warner Brothers and Kubrick’s estate. Instead, the director investigates the limits of interpretation, the moment when an idle interest becomes a fascination, and then an obsession. Kubrick’s version of The Shining is a mess, a work of sloppy genius: threads are picked up and forgotten, different elements collide, vast sections of the original work are dropped in favor of bizarre new details. Jack could be possessed by the burial ground beneath the hotel, or aggravated by his own inability to work, or haunted by his alcoholism. People can see things in the past and future, but this power has totally undefined rules. It’s not hard to see why someone might go too far in the hopes of dredging a consistent, interpretable breakdown of what Kubrick was trying to do in The Shining, and Ascher has found subjects as fascinating and incoherent as the subject they themselves tackle.
The director himself is only heard once in the film, asking John Fell Ryan (as you’d assume he asked all the interviewees), “But… why would he make the movie so complicated?” Ryan concedes that, for him, it’s oddly personal: he has a young son (the film pauses at one point so Ryan can calm him), he’s out of work, he and his wife are thinking of moving somewhere remote. Ryan’s tempted by what he sees of himself in The Shining, worried that he might be the kind of person Ullman is talking about at the start of the film. Ascher has put together an engrossing and vivid document of isolated, creative minds each at work on their own project of tainted analysis; he uses their misplaced passion to document a type of worship that serves only the worshipper.