How many times have you watched your favourite film? Twice? Three? Four or even more? The documentary Room 237 features five people who must have watched ‘The Shining hundreds of times. It’s arguable that the best films stand up to multiple viewings and have subtexts and meaning beyond the surface story and Stanley Kubrick was certainly a filmmaker who pored over every detail of his films even down to how the film should be projected. The Shining is possibly Kubrick’s most accessible work but here in Rodney Ascher’s intriguing documentary it is suggested that it’s not the story of a man haunted and sent mad by his demons. At least that’s what the five ‘experts’ that he’s gathered together here would have you believe because some of their theories really do have to be heard (and seen) to be believed.
Possibly the most convincing of these is that the entire film is about the genocide of Native American Indians, which would be in keeping with Steven King’s source novel’s Overlook Hotel having been built on ceremonial burial grounds.
But this is about as sane as it gets because from here on the theories get wilder and frankly more insane and they’re all the more enjoyable because of it. Kubrick had toyed with the idea for years of making his film about the Holocaust, a subject which had so troubled him that he was reportedly glad to have had to let the idea go after Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was released and according to one of the experts the Holocaust is exactly what The Shining is about. Or is it?
Because the most entertaining theory of the lot and perhaps the most bonkers, out-there, quick call the medic, fetch the strait-jacket argument of all is that of a conspiracy theorist. Now conspiracy theories are great fun taken with a pinch of salt but Room 237 has plundered an entire salt mine with the conspiracy featured here. Ready? See if you can get your head round this one.
Kubrick had kept it secret for years that he had filmed the fake Apollo moon landings – even from his wife – and the responsibility of keeping it secret knowing that he could not tell anyone without his personal safety being at risk weighed so heavily on his mind that he decided to reveal his involvement subliminally in The Shining. It would spoil things to reveal just how Kubrick has allegedly done this except to say that one of the major points featured in the conspiracy centres around where the documentary gets its name. But it’s safe to say that after hearing this conspiracy theorist’s evidence you’ll be calling for the nurse to fetch his medication!
In fairness all of the theories, including one where the film, if projected simultaneously forwards and backwards whilst overlapping then reveals images of emphasising aspects of what is going on within the story, are never less than compelling – although the US And UK release of the film were different length and consequently would have different overlapping images if projected as mentioned. Many of the ideas, though, are lamentable and the contributors have read far too much into what are clearly continuity errors (which were bound to occur over as extended a shoot as Kubrick’s always were) or were merely coincidence.
The documentary makes copious use of clips from the film, slowing it down, highlighting frames, and uses edit points and dissolves, animation, diagrams, behind the scenes footage which are all thrown in the mix to back up the arguments and the claims which the theorists are so convinced about.
But despite or even because of all this it is one of the most entertaining documentaries about a film we’ve seen in quite some years and though some of the arguments are intriguing, some are tenuous, and some are downright absurd, they are all fascinating. In turn both thought provoking and laugh out loud ludicrous it’s fair to say you’ll never watch The Shining in the same way again.
Review by Simon Hooper