Movie Review: Room 237

Room 237. Courtesy TIFF.

Room 237 is a documentary directed by Rodney Ascher, which presents several interpretations of possible hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, ranging from subtle symbolism to grand conspiracy theories. These interpretations are delivered in the form of commentary from 5 different individuals, set to clips of The Shining and snippets of other Kubrick films.

Bill Blakemore, a veteran ABC news correspondent, provides a reasonable argument that Kubrick’s deliberate repetition of Native American themes in the film may indicate a hidden over-arching theme. Kubrick may have set the Overlook hotel on an American Indian burial ground (this was absent in Stephen King’s novel) in order to boost the creepy haunting element. He also could have used a wealth of American Indian themed decor, photographs and other props in order to create a geographical context to the location. Or, as Blakemore postulates, these choices may reflect a deliberate double-meaning to the entire film. According to him, Kubrick selected the story of a man who goes mad and tries to kill his family, surrounded by ghosts of past atrocities, to act as an allegory for America’s bloody history.

Geoffrey Cocks is a historian, history professor and has written several books about the holocaust. His arguments start off badly with a rambling about a typewriter being used in the film as a symbol of the holocaust. Call me crazy, but to me, in a movie about a writer, my theory is the typewriter represents… wait for it… a typewriter. In fairness to the  guy, if I had written books about mass murder, I’d probably be seeing holocaust imagery in my cereal in the morning. There is also plenty of connecting of numbers used in the film (room numbers, dates, etc) to dates of historical significance in the Nazi invasion. I can’t say I was convinced about those, more like neutral.

Luckily things do get much more interesting, and Cocks at least provides third-party accounts that Kubrick had a pre-occupation with the holocaust which he had wanted to work up the courage to confront directly in his work (but admitted he was not able to). This is regrettably one of the only instances in the whole film where the question of what Kubrick actually said he intended to do comes in to play. The rest of the documentary is mostly just speculation of what these 5 self-proclaimed experts think they see.

Unfortunately, we get doused with some truly ridiculous ones, like when a scene in an office is paused until the profile of a man turning towards the desk lines up with a letter tray… And in one of the most immature Porky’s-style analyses I’ve ever seen, we are told this symbolizes his erect um… yeah. We’re then given a sales pitch that this standard office interview scene is for some reason supposed to be sexy.

Another pause-by-pause gem is when we are told to look for Kubrick’s face superimposed over clouds, and we see nothing even remotely close. I also highly doubt a man with a genius IQ got his giggles from fooling us all by photoshopping his face into a cloud.

Juli Kearns is a writer, photographer, and former playwright who has attempted to fully map the entire Overlook hotel layout, and seems very worked up over the fact that it is not designed as a perfectly functional hotel (hint: it’s a movie set, sweetie). She seems to think she has struck some kind of cinema interpretation genius by noticing that Kubrick may have placed a window or two in a place that (map-wise) would not make sense, in order to create visual appeal instead. Not sure what’s so shocking about a filmmaker who might choose to sacrifice the logic of a floor plan that fans were never intended to see, in order to create atmosphere.

Similarly, the point is made a few times that Kubrick would add or remove a prop or piece of furniture from a room within the same scene. It’s an interesting device, likely used to create tension and add to the spookiness factor (for example there’s a chair up against the wall and a second later it’s gone), however any interpretations of the symbolism were quite ludicrous. On the door of young Danny’s bedroom, amongst a dozen other stickers, the sticker of Sleepy dwarf suddenly disappears after he has a dream. An explanation that it is because Danny was “asleep” and now he is “awake” sounds kind of neat, but eye-rollingly presumptuous and grasping at straws.

John Fell Ryan is a musician and former video librarian, who for some reason is convinced that playing the film backwards and forwards simultaneously and overlapping each other reveals some deliberate master plan of Kubrick’s. Examples of this are shown in Room 237, and I remain utterly unconvinced. Fell Ryan delivers some of the most lame observations of the whole documentary in this segment, pointing out for example that in this amount of minutes into the forward version, Jack’s image overlaps with an image of him the same amount of minutes into the backwards version. Hm, could that have anything to do with the fact that (1) He’s the main character so he’s in most of the scenes and (2) a standard shot is to have the figure in the middle of the screen (so, yes, wow, he’s in the centre of the screen in both scenes!)?

Jay Weidner, dubbed the “Modern-day Indiana Jones” (apparently by someone who failed to realize Indiana Jones isn’t a real person) and a “conspiracy hunter”, has produced several documentaries on Kubrick’s other works. According to reviews of some of his books by Amazon users, Weidner “reveals” and “proves” that Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing footage… Neither of which he succeeded at in this film. His theory is very interesting, and sure, it’s possible (although the political implications would be huge). However the “proof” he provides could be deconstructed fairly easily.

For example, in the film little Danny wears a sweater with the Apollo on it. Could it be that Kubrick simply had an interest in space exploration (hint: 2001: A Space Odyssey)? Or, if anything, maybe it was a symbol of man’s imperialistic need to conquer new lands, thus perhaps supporting the genocide theories instead?

Then there are theories like how the room number of 237 coincides with the number of miles between the moon and Earth. Again, interesting, but pretty thin. If I was to pause in every scene and jot down every numerical value I could find (number of tiles in a bathroom scene, number of doors in a hallway, etc.) surely one of those numbers can pop out as a number that coincides with something else related to the moon (number of days in a lunar calendar’s month, number of new moons in a year, etc.). So if Weidner’s books provide more meat to this quite serious accusation against Kubrick, that’s one thing… But the info given in Ascher’s film certainly doesn’t.

Director Ascher’s comment on his own film, to Complex Magazine was “My personal take on it is, for one, I don’t think it’s nearly as visionary as any one of these folks have found. I just see it as sort of a story about juggling the responsibilities of your career and family and as a cautionary tale of what may happen if you make the wrong choice.” Which begs to question: then why make a film showcasing these theories, if you seem to not see much validity in them? And if that is the case, why not provide an intelligent and unbiased dialogue where each theory is presented with a counterpoint?

The answer I keep coming back to is complacency. The film lacks the passion you would expect to see, of filmmakers obsessed with exploring the vast brilliance of Kubrick and his films. Instead it feels like someone just randomly plucked a handful out of the thousands of Kubrick symbolism theorists on the internet and instructed them to just start talking.

The genocide and moon landing theories are very interesting, but backed up with little  substance. The documentary could have been rich with interviews, documentation and proof from actors or crew who worked on The Shining, individuals who knew Kubrick or Stephen King. Unfortunately, some of the ideas are about as valid as if I was to show you a picture of Kim Kardashian and surmise (by the deductive powers vested in me by being compared to Indiana Jones) that because Kardashian wears eyeliner and Liz Taylor also wore eyeliner, the two therefore must be long lost relatives.

In general, this film has rated high with the public and critics, with only a small peppering of ouchie reviews like this one. I suspect those who rated it highly, did so more because of the excitement of opening up possible meanings to a film we haven’t seen for a while, and of discovering a few interesting ideas (such as the Holocaust one). However, these theories (and many more) already exist ad nauseum on the internet just as easily and with more data and credibility.

Room 237 has a very exciting general premise, but falls somewhat short on content and credibility. It fails to provide enough strong examples, contains no first-hand accounts from anyone connected to Kubrick, yet a whole lot of sensationalist speculation and conspiracy theory.

Room 237 is playing, followed by The Shining, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto from Friday May 10 to Thursday May 16.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Cast: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner
Directed by: Rodney Ascher

Isabel Cupryn

About Isabel Cupryn

Isabel Cupryn is a freelance writer and film blogger in Toronto.