The other week I trawled through the archive of films available to stream on LoveFilm. I didn’t look at the whole lot but I did churn through the thousand or so presented when you dip into a genre view in the Xbox 360 app. I looked through drama, foreign cinema and documentaries in their entirety, creating a 50-strong to-watch list for the first time. Room 237 was one of a meagre handful added from the documentary category.
My hopes weren’t high. Room 237 is of course named after the notorious hotel bedroom depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining. That this was a documentary about The Shining was all I was able to divine from the poster, which borrows an overhead shot of Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) playing in a corridor: a shot which immediately precedes one of the films more subtly terrifying moments, if not one of the gorier ones. I bookmarked the film in the hopes that it would provide some insight into a fascinating piece of filmmaking, though I feared it would repeat the film’s more unsettling moments shock-doc style with the scantest pseudo-intellectual justification.
It did neither.
What Rodney Ascher’s 2012 film does turn out to be is an uncomfortable yet effective comedy about obsessive over-analysis. Visually, the film does consist largely of shots from The Shining, with additional footage from other Kubrick films (most notable Eyes Wide Shut) and beyond. The film isn’t lacking in what, for want of a better phrase (because pseudo-intellectual isn’t quite right), I’ll call abject bollocks, provided in spades from at least four of the film’s five narrators, fans who provide the marrow of the documentary in the form of their own subtextual interpretation of The Shining.
These range from the indisputable: that the film is at least in part about the plight of Native American people; to the ridiculous, including the oft-trotted line that Kubrick had a hand in faking footage of the moon landings. The Shining, apparently, was a coded message of contrition, as is apparently made clear by the Apollo 11 sweater Danny wears during the film, among various other pieces of so-called evidence.
Once the film veers towards the ridiculous, which is very early in the proceedings, it never looks back. This is welcome. A film that mixes the plausible with the fanciful would be a frustrating mess. Instead, it opens with the Native American stuff, segues (reasonably, in my eyes) into potential holocaust references, before diving off the cliff of reason.
Before the end, we’re asked to accept that the film has sexual undertones because, for a frame or two during the meeting of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), Ullman stands in front of a paper tray making it look as though he has an erection (which it doesn’t.) Like many horrors, the film does have sexual tones, but they’re of the over- rather than the under- variety, such as when Jack attempts to commit adultery with what turns out to be an animated rotting corpse in room 237.
And we’re asked to read significance into what amount to no more than continuity errors such as a missing chair or fridge sticker, or the inconsistent hotel layout. On few occasions are we actually told what these mean for the supposed subtext under discussion, though this may be down to impish editing on the part of the filmmakers.
The comedy stems from the fact that the film is almost always played straight, with some of the more ridiculous claims set against dramatic cues from the film’s score. A theory that an opening shot of clouds has Kubrick’s face superimposed on it is only slightly undermined by the narration being laid over the footage in question, so it is plain that this isn’t the case.
My only complaint is that on at least one occasion Ascher shows his hand, editing in a clip of Cruise from Eyes Wide Shut that openly ridicule the preceding analysis. Cruise may be speaking for both director and audience, but it undermines the effect of playing it straight. Removing all doubt that the director is in on the joke quashes the frisson.
I’m slightly uncomfortable that it seems a little mean-spirited in lending a megaphone to fanatics of the film to air their implausible views, but in the main they come across as just that: fanatics rather than idiots. And to edit out the silliest bits would do the audience a disservice.
Perhaps I’m wrong and Ascher does intend this to be a serious work. But that doesn’t alter the fact that this can be enjoyed as if it wasn’t.