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Tuesday 16 April 2013

Film Review: Room 237

Room 237 opens with a man explaining that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is an extended metaphor for the genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America. His chief justification is a can of baking powder in the background of a shot, though he's got lots more evidence. A subsequent critic agrees that the film is about genocide, but argues that the focus is actually the Holocaust. The proof is a German typewriter and the prevalence of the number 42.

I've seen The Shining, but so long ago I can't remember specifics. Mostly I remember being baffled and bored. I was probably too green to pick up on the subtleties, so I always planned on watching it again. Before I did I figured I'd watch Room 237, a documentary about the many possible interpretations of the film, so I'd go in primed. Boy am I primed.

Many of the ideas floated in Room 237 are ridiculous, but it doesn't seem to matter. The movie fascinates because it's a testament to the associative power of the human mind. Being a Kubrick fan probably intensifies the experience, but it's just as easy to study the interviewees as the film in question. There's scant mention of The Shining's plot or characters, or anything that takes place in the foreground - most critics are more interested in the poster on the wall behind the ghostly apparitions, or the aforementioned baking powder. Snatches of dialogue are given close scrutiny, but only if they're considered a cryptic allusion, say, to the theory that Stanley Kubrick staged the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Not all the theories are quite so fringe. Room 237 has a lot to say about the artistry of the film techniques Kubrick employed. The Overlook Hotel where the The Shining is set has an impossible architecture, and though you might not notice the discrepancies when you're caught up in the storytelling, they contribute to the sense of unease. I think I understand film language well on the intuitive level, but it's interesting to be consciously reminded of what a dissolve means, or to notice how the extras in a casual scene are exquisitely timed. This element might only appeal to a geekier segment of watchers, because my wife Rebecca gave up around the halfway point. But that meant she missed the eeriest observation of all - when the film is superimposed forwards and backwards over itself, it has a disturbing symmetry. Seeing how meaningfully the images comment on each other, it's hard not believe the effect was intentional.

Believing in the intention is important, because I doubt people would be willing to devote so much time to watching a less prominent artist's work frame by frame. They spend hours decoding the significance of a minor character who would be dismissed as unnecessary in a lesser movie. There's an element of projection, in that the willlingness to believe fosters connections we would never make otherwise. What marvels would we find if we trusted in the greatness of a dish soap commercial? (Some of the same things, apparently - one critic claims Kubrick studied subliminal messages in advertising.) Nonetheless, I'm certain Kubrick's rigour as a filmmaker encourages and supports the investigation. It's just too bad he couldn't live to see Room 237, I'm sure he would've gotten the biggest kick of all.

As a documentary, Room 237 has its flaws. The critics interviewed in the film are never shown on-screen, and two of them have such similar voices it takes a moment to realize who's talking. The soundtrack is pretty intrusive, and it's clear the project was done on a shoestring. None of that ultimately detracts from the message, though: I came away in awe of the mind's ability to see the entire history of humankind in the pattern of a carpet. And with a yen to watch The Shining.


  1. My buddy Larstonovich has recommended this. I really want to see it. I love 'The Shining,' a movie that has my favorite scene in any movie. My write-up for 'The Shining,' which I just skimmed, is really lame. Seems like I was in a hurry. Anyway, I haven't seen this documentary but look forward to checking it out.

  2. I did finally see this and really enjoyed it as a fan of movies, a fan of Kubrick and this movie, and a fan of oddballs. I think I really like the dissection of a movie like this. I was stunned a couple times. The thing with the guy who watched the movie forward and in reverse at the same time was fascinating, and I really enjoyed the discussion about the hotel's impossible architecture. And I think my favorite thing was when they showed that scene with the ball rolling toward the kid and how the carpet pattern changes. Kubrick's perfectionism means that that was likely intentional, and it's just such a neat little touch that I never ever would have noticed on my own. Really cool stuff.