For a while, in the 1990s, I read all the Stephen King novels I could get my hands on. Killer clowns, pet revenants, rabid St. Bernards: I devoured them all, most of them repeatedly. It’s safe to say that I was a fan – but in spite of that, it wasn’t the telekinetic teens or the possessed Plymouth Furies that scared me most. No, it was the sheer length of those massive tomes: hundreds and hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of pages of horror, Americana and thinly veiled author stand-ins.
Room 237 is a strange beast. The documentary consists entirely of people talking about their interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, set mostly to clips from the film itself as well as of other Kubrick movies – and by and large the theories they espouse seem to have a shaky grasp of the process of film analysis, charitably put. Some of the speakers make interesting points and they don’t go out of their way to tie their observations into a grand theory of What The Film Actually Is About, but the majority come across as the film studies equivalent of conspiracy theories mixed with a flair for fabulation. The Shining is about the Holocaust! It’s about the genocide of the Native Americans! It’s Kubrick’s coded admission that he faked the moon landing footage for NASA! The poster of the skier is actually a minotaur!*
What is strange about the film, but partly accounts for how intriguing it is: it doesn’t overtly comment on any of the theories. Apart from the film clips, there is no voice in the film other than that of the Kubrick enthusiasts – which has prompted some film critics to read Room 237 as endorsing the theories, or at least as doing that relativist pomo spiel of flattening out hierarchies, so that any interpretation is as valid as any other. While Room 237 is subtle in its criticism, though, it trusts that the juxtaposition of the enthusiastic theories and the images from the film speaks for itself. There is no need to criticise or mock the Overlook Hotel’s conspiracy theorists: while their tones are engaging, their takes on The Shining are so obviously Through The Looking Glass that it’s unlikely any moviegoers will come away from the documentary thinking that Kubrick had indeed airbrushed his likeness into the Colorado clouds.
Having said that, I do wonder whether the average film audience will discern much of a difference between Room 237‘s theories and the analyses of poststructuralist, psychoanalytical or any other modern film criticism. As much as I enjoy Slavoj Zizek’s jazzy flights of fancy on film, I expect that to many they wouldn’t sound any less insane than the theories presented in Room 237. I do think there’s a difference, namely that most of the protagonists of Room 237 see The Shining as a puzzle to be solved, a spooky Rubik’s Cube of a movie, whereas critics at their best show how art – and yes, that includes the film adaptation of a Stephen King novel – can mean more, not less, through the act of interpretation. There’s a reductiveness to the theories: The Shining means this, and only this – and why doesn’t anyone believe me? This is where Room 237 is immensely effective: in hinting at the sadness that exists alongside the exuberance of obsession. Some people spend such a long time staring at the clouds that they start seeing Kubrick looking back at them, and at that point it may be more frightening to admit that the bearded guy isn’t actually in the clouds, he’s in your head.
*There are at least two speakers who don’t quite belong in this line-up of craziness: the topography of the Overlook is indeed very strange considering Kubrick’s own obsession with details, and one speaker’s screening of superimposing the film played back-to-front makes for an intriguing video installation, which is something that is categorically different from the outlandish theories.