There exists a rare species of obsessive moviegoer, the hyper-fan who focuses on one film, mentally and emotionally ingesting it dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. Along a certain parallel, there is also a serious breed of conspiracy theorist, compulsive in his or her beliefs, taking things far beyond just watching Doomsday Preppers for fun. Put these two types together, and you get Room 237, the confounding, eye-opening, and often hilarious documentary about individuals whose over-wired brains are devoted to one cinematic masterpiece: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Seen Kubrick’s polarizing film a bunch of times? Think you know The Shining inside-out, the quotes, the symbolisms, the whole shebang? You’ve got nothing on the stars of Room 237. Using a chapter-by-chapter format, director Rodney Ascher introduces each Shining theorist and his or her obsession with the film—yet, the contributors never appear on camera. As a result, the actual footage from Kubrick’s oft-debated film is onscreen throughout, with each painstaking dissection voiced over by its originator. These super-viewers, mesmerized by the movie’s minutiae, are the only storytellers of Room 237 (save for the The Shining itself, of course), and what strange storytellers they are. If there were a Shining fan convention, you could imagine them all coming dressed in the rabbit costume. (Okay, some would arrive as Mr. Ullman or Lloyd the bartender.)
The most outlandish—and perplexing—theories in Room 237 posit The Shining either as a vehicle meant to comment on dark, oppressive periods in history, or as a massive, cryptic revelation. In the first category, there’s the fan who believes Kubrick is making a statement on the condition of the Native American Indian, leaning as proof on the persistent presence of Calumet brand baking powder containers that feature the profile of a Native American.
The revelation theme is a doozy: its author says The Shining is Kubrick’s quiet admission that he participated in faking the NASA moon landing, which the director apparently conveys via numerous clues throughout the film. This one’s a flat-out show-stopper, primarily because its teller is so self-assured, confidently explaining that “Room No.” printed on an Overlook Hotel room key is clearly an anagram of “No Moon.” This conjecture requires suspension of disbelief times two: We are asked to accept both the moon conspiracy and that Kubrick would want to share it via an artsy horror film.
As a cinema sociologist, Ascher acts as non-participant observer, letting his Room 237 subjects sell themselves, leaving us to jump on, laugh, or stare in amazement. As a documentary filmmaker, Ascher voraciously digs into the stories, freezing frames from the 1980 classic, adding explanatory graphics and complex maps of the hotel’s physical layout. The effort is not only entertaining, but narratively on the money, as Ascher treats the mythology of each participant with the same exhaustive attention they commit to The Shining. As they analyze Kubrick, he brings their theories to life.
This, in turn, inspires an analysis of Room 237 itself. After the movie, I found myself contemplating the voiceover-only approach, and asked a colleague his opinion on why we don’t see the subjects onscreen. His answer? It’s difficult to properly film aluminum foil hats.
Director: Rodney Ascher
Starring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner, Buffy Visick
Release Date: Mar. 29, 2013