Nuttiness still reigns in Room 237, the iconic suite in the wintery, abandoned Overlook Hotel of “The Shining,” Stanley Kubrick’s chilling 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s psychological horror novel.
But in “Room 237,” director Rodney Ascher’s fascinating documentary of obsession, conspiracy and navel gazing, the nuttiness resides not in Jack Nicholson’s gradually unraveling writer Jack Torrance but in the fanatical, crack-brained theories of five fixated fans who’ve seemingly made picking the movie apart and finding peculiar meaning in every nook and cranny their life’s work.
The five extraordinary movie geeks – ABC-TV journalist Bill Blakemore, playwright Juli Kearns, author Jay Weidner, college professor Geoffrey Cocks and musician John Fell Ryan – appear here in voice only, espousing ever more arcane and complex “Shining”-related analyses and conspiracy theories that would likely have confounded or amused or enraged even the notoriously cryptic Kubrick.
For instance, can this tale of a snowbound caretaker at a remote mountain lodge who goes slowly mad and tries to kill his family really be rationally read as a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans? (Check out the Indian silhouette on the Calumet baking powder can behind Nicholson’s head.) Is the movie perchance an allegory for the Holocaust? (Even Torrance’s German-made typewriter offers a clue.) Or is the film a veiled commentary on faking the Apollo moon landing? (Look to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” for proof.)
Those are just a few of the far-fetched theories that these ersatz critics cook up as they venture deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of analysis (at various points they reference such far-flung touch points as T.S. Eliot, Bruno Bettelheim and James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”). Kubrick himself was often characterized as a fussy over-thinker, but even he probably couldn’t have foreseen the single-mindedness and cult-like devotion that these fanatics apply to his movie.
Ascher lays it all out in a straight-faced manner – playing ample clips from “The Shining” as well as other Kubrick films as the voices of the obsessives yammer on and on. The pathology reeks of equal parts compulsion, loneliness, curiosity and conspiracy, and in an unguarded moment of self-awareness one interviewee says, “I admit that I am grasping at straws.”
While it’s easy enough to laugh at some of the wild, hare-brained interpretations expressed here, any movie fan who has spent countless hours in the dark with a favorite film will also find much joy and entertainment in “Room 237,” a sanctuary of sorts for those of us who believe that movies expand our horizons and challenge us to look at the world in daring, creative, subversive and unconventional ways.
- Dennis King