Thursday, October 24, 2013

Room 237: Living la Vida Loca

By Steve Evans

Room 237 is a documentary that tells us what some people think Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is really about. This is not as interesting as it sounds.

Over the course of a long 143 minutes, I was subjected to one insanely crackpot theory after another. It took me three days spread over two weeks to slog through this documentary, in which I am supposed to believe, variously, that The Shining is actually about the Holocaust, the plight of Native Americans at the hands of settlers, or that it is, instead, Kubrick’s public apology for faking the footage of the Apollo moon landing (my personal favorite), or that it is a dialectical exercise in the deconstruction of American capitalism. Oh, and running The Shining backwards supposedly reveals hidden meanings, too, although I’ll be damned if the documentary explains them.

For those who need a refresher, The Shining takes place in Colorado at the fictional Overlook Hotel, where extremely unpleasant things happen in Room 237. The room number was changed for the film from Stephen King's novel, in which the action occurs in Room 217. That's because the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, where the hotel exteriors were filmed, actually had a Room 217 and the owners didn't want guests to be afraid of staying there. This simple explanation for the alteration in room numbers from novel to film further undercuts many of the more salacious theories put forth in the documentary.

Kubrick, who died in 1999, was famously elusive and loathe to discuss his films once they were released. He preferred to let the films speak for themselves, leaving audiences free to interpret them as they wish. Ironically, it is Kubrick's own elliptical stance toward his work that encourages the fans interviewed in Room 237 -- let's charitably call them eccentrics -- to come up with their own goofy explanations. If Kubrick could see Room 237 he might well make an exception to his no-comment policy.

One theorist who claims The Shining is a veiled reference to the Holocaust holds up such proof as the numbers of the film's title, Room 237. When multiplied thus: 2 x 3 x 7 = 42, the Holocaust-theory guy claims that this represents the year 1942, which is when Hitler and Nazi Germany accelerated the Final Solution. The man says he is shocked no one else has noticed this hidden mathematical clue.

In other words, Room 237 is a hoot.

Seldom in my life have I heard so much amazing bullshit spewed with such utter conviction. This documentary is proof that some people will twist and contort anything to fit a thesis. Some of this stuff is fascinating. Just about all of it is gibberish.

For these reasons alone, the documentary is worth watching. Call it a meta-film best enjoyed by diehard film buffs and perhaps clinical psychiatrists. I don’t deny The Shining is a multi-textured film that rewards repeat viewings, but you won't learn anything about it from watching Room 237. The documentary succeeds mainly in tracking down the sort of people you wouldn’t want to be alone with, then letting them expound at length on their wild ideas. That they actually seem to believe their own nonsense is just precious.

It's probably pointless to review a film based on what I wish had been included rather than what is actually there. But I think the makers of Room 237 missed a prime opportunity to consider why The Shining continues to fascinate people 33 years after its release. Instead, they focus on the side show, the lunatic fringe who can be found lurking on the edges of just about any cultural ephemera that generates obsessive interest. That's too easy. Instead of crafting a challenging documentary, they've produced the year's best comedy.

Room 237 could never have been made during Stanley Kubrick’s lifetime. Even a recluse like Kubrick would probably be compelled to ridicule every whacked-out theory put forward in the film – even if he would not discuss his own intentions. Actually, he already did. A few years after the film was released Kubrick in an interview said The Shining is about "a family going insane together.”

Just like the people in this documentary.

Room 237 is available on Netflix.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.