Director – Rodney Ascher, Producer – Tim Kirk, Music – William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes, Animation – Carlos Ramos. Production Company – The Room 237 Group LLC
Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner
Room 237: Being an Inquiry Into The Shining in 9 Parts has cult film written all over it. Although it is surely the first cult film that consists of attempting to analyse another cult film – in this case, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). You cannot fully consider Room 237 a documentary – it is more like an illustrated series of theses. Although using the word thesis might be to dignify far too much what is presented in the film where what we have should be considered more like the airing of a series of crackpot theories.
Stanley Kubrick was a director who liked enigma and his films were frequently designed to leave audience guessing about their intended meaning. To this extent, The Shining is a film of figurative doorways and staircases that seem to lead nowhere (literally so, according to Juli Kearns). That was the way Kubrick intended it (or so it would seem). Just as equally, many of these answers could have disappeared in the far longer version of the film that ended up being cut considerably before its original release.
Room 237: Being an Inquiry Into The Shining in 9 Parts interviews several people, all of whom have whacky theories about what the film means. Oddly, though the five interviewees speak at length, none of their faces or likenesses are seen on screen, as you would usually get in a documentary. In its stead, Rodney Ascher has rather hilariously edited in footage from other Stanley Kubrick films – everything from Dr Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1974), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and, in particular, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – as reaction shots. There is a particularly hilarious use of footage of Stephen King from Creepshow (1982) when it comes to the scenes comparing the film and King’s original novel.
Journalist Bill Blakemore begins by arguing that The Shining was intended by Stanley Kubrick as a statement about the subjugation of the American Indian. In the first of the film’s weird turns, Blakemore points to the prominent placement of Calumet milk powder cans in the background of several shots, which he takes as being a coded reference to the Calumet Indians. This is supposedly backed up by the motifs of Indian paintings and artwork throughout the rest of the film – even the character of Ullman’s assistant Watson whose inferior functionary position Blakemore sees as a symbol of the subjugated American Indian.
Film critic and writer Geoffrey Cocks offers up the theory that The Shining was one facet of a long proposed project that Stanley Kubrick wanted to make about The Holocaust, citing aspects like the use of a German typewriter that Jack uses and drawing correlations between the repeatedly typed phrase “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” and the phrase “Arbeit macht frei/Work will set you free” that was placed over the gates of Auschwitz.
One of the more interesting interviewees proves to be artist Juli Kearns who has written massive online analysis of the topography of the Overlook Hotel (you can see this at Idyllopuspress). She uses scenes from the film to point out how the hotel does not seem to have normal views – windows that look out onto views they shouldn’t, items of missing furniture. The most fascinating scenes are where we are shown a detailed map grid of the hotel’s layout that she has drawn based on what we see in the film. Her thesis is based around the film’s mythic allusions – the use of the maze and images of minotaurs that she claims to see in the background of the film.
Then there are the completely strange interviewees. There is John Fell Ryan who has programmed screenings of The Shining where the film was simultaneously projected forward and backwards, which he uses to point out some of the unique mirrorings and overlaps that occur when this is done. It gets even stranger when Jay Weidner casually offers up the opinion that Stanley Kubrick was the one who directed the faked Moon Landing and that he has coded small symbols as proof of this into the film – Danny’s Apollo sweater and particular stray camera shots. Even loopier is when Weidner begins to interpret sexual symbolism in the film – how patterns on the carpet surrounding Danny are spermatozoa shaped and, in particular, the hilarious still-frame of a shot in which Ullman stands up and his crotch is level with a desk inbox giving the impression that he has a massive black erection pointing at Jack Nicholson.
Psychologists have a term for this. It is called apophenia – the ability to see patterns and meaning in otherwise entirely random events and objects. It is this that leads to people seeing the likeness of the Virgin Mary inside loaves of bread, faces formed by the shadows on a rock on Mars or the significance of the Number 23 – see the film The Number 23 (2007). Room 237 does briefly go into the significance of numbers too, although the number here is 42 (which for some reason nobody thought the obvious and drew connection to Douglas Adams) – at one point, one of the interviewees has counted a still frame blow up and discovered there are precisely 42 cars in the hotel parking lot. In other words, much of what is seen in the film is attributed to deliberate hidden symbolic meaning on the behalf of Stanley Kubrick. Although when Juli Kearns argues that the poster of a shadowy skier on a wall is meant to be a minotaur or where Jay Weidner argues that Stanley Kubrick’s face can be seen hidden in the patterns of the clouds during the opening panoramic shots, it is clear that this is something that exists entirely inside the interviewees’ imaginations.
The interviewees in Room 237 represent academic analysis at its worst. (This is not saying that the film is uninteresting by any means but is it is more fascinating in a loopy freakshow kind of way). They wholeheartedly accept that every aspect of a film is intended that way without allowing any room for continuity error, filmmakers’ inconsistency, lapses of memory or budgetary curtailment. Certainly, when it comes to seeing meaning in whether a chair is present in one shot, not in another or giving significance to Jack’s typewriter changing colour, this seems to be taking analysis a few logical leaps beyond the normal reading of a film and into apophenia. Going by Occam’s Razor, the least complicated explanation for these things is surely that the continuity people dozed off in between shots or that even the great Stanley Kubrick was prone to the odd lapse of memory.
The only message that you can conclusively say exists in The Shining is the one that Stanley Kubrick intended to be there. You can see what a writer-director intends a work to be about by following the sympathies and emotional upsurges that the film draws us to. To this extent, I have always seen The Shining as a film about the hijacking of Stephen King’s book about cabin fever into something that was clearly close to Kubrick’s heart – the issue of writer’s block. There is always an unintentional and unconscious level to a work as well – creators are often not aware of how much the culture around them shapes their views and sympathies. For example, someone who holds prejudicial views will deny that they are a racist but an expanded reading will show these things up. However, this latter kind of analysis as to a creator’s true meaning or unconscious intent can become a slippery slope where you are constantly having to decode aspects of a film and read its true meaning. There is a place for it – and this site has undeniably engaged in such speculation – but there is a certain point where it becomes the preposterous building of theoretical castles in the air based on slim to scanty evidence and vast leaps of deductive logic.
The line about Stanley Kubrick directing the Moon Landing appears to have taken off with the public and we subsequently saw Moonwalkers (2015), a comedy about the attempt by the CIA to recruit Kubrick, and scenes from Operation Avalanche (2016), a Found Footage film about the faking of the Moon Landing.
Director Rodney Ascher next went onto make the Q is for Questionnaire segment of ABCs of Death 2 (2014), followed by the full-length documentaries The Nightmare (2015) about sleep paralysis and night terrors and A Glitch in The Matrix (2021) about the theory that we are all living in a Virtual Reality simulation.