Room 237

Near the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Caruthers) warns young Danny Torrance, “There ain’t nothin’ in Room 237.” He’s lying to the boy, but he could just as easily be speaking directly to the audience of the new Shining documentary Room 237, a festival favorite examining some of the meanings people have attached to Kubrick’s horror tale. It’s ironic the documentary quotes this scene directly because there’s nothing to see here unless a lot of continuity errors, subliminal boners and an imaginary Minotaur are your idea of something.

There’s a number of ways a documentary like this could go. It could be about the loopy theories themselves which in this case range from the absurd – The Shining is Kubrick’s apology for helping NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landing – to the plausible but unprovable – it’s about Native American genocide. Unfortunately, the theories are neither illuminating nor compelling and the filmmakers don’t seem to be very interested in whether they’re valid or not anyway. Each one is given no more than a cursory illustration and none of the presented “facts” are ever investigated. They’re taken at face value. What’s troubling is that, if one of these theories is actually correct, then Stanley Kubrick was a much less interesting filmmaker than we all thought. A film based on a series of codes and messages that are only decipherable to a select group of individuals who think they hold the key is not a film at all. It’s not art. It’s Da Vinci Code-level nonsense. Semiotics is the dullest kind of film analysis and I choose to believe Kubrick was above that.

There’s probably a camp value to watching these people make fools of themselves especially in this era of reality TV where every freak gets his own show and everyone has a place to publish their opinion whether it’s legitimate or not (the irony of me writing this statement in an unpaid blog that no one asked for is not lost on me and I will be happy to apologize on the day they make a documentary about it), but why bother? Even if that’s your cup of tea, none of these people are goofy enough to be truly entertaining. If anything, they’re sad, but again, the filmmakers never take an especial interest in any of them or reveal who they are or what really makes them tick.

Since it’s not about the theories and it’s not specifically interested in the people who believe them, Room 237 could instead have been about general human behavior or about the power of movies themselves and I guess it is a little bit of both of those things. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a lot to offer on either subject. Brain Science 101 tells us that the human mind has a remarkable capacity for making patterns out of the chaos all around us. It’s how we learn and it’s the basis of our language, but we also tend to find patterns where they don’t really exist. The random scattering of stars form themselves into meaningful constellations. The assassination of a president becomes a far reaching conspiracy. An arrangement of lights and darks on a grilled cheese sandwich becomes an image of Jesus or a typewriter that mysteriously changes color from one scene to the next in a horror film is an allusion to the Holocaust. None of those things are real, but our brains reject the alternative which is that sometimes things just are and there are no explanations for them. Because Kubrick is widely considered a genius and because his obsession to detail was matched by his unwillingness to talk about his films, The Shining is an easy target for every loon with an axe to grind. It’s the perfect Petri dish for any kind of grandiose theory anyone wants to grow from it. That people do is neither surprising, nor especially interesting.

At one point, one of the interviewees in the film says something to the effect that a filmmaker doesn’t have to consciously intend a certain meaning in order for that meaning to be there. His point I guess is that the movies are what we make of them. That’s very true, but just because someone thinks something doesn’t mean it’s worthy of a documentary. The result is a documentary that is unworthy of the film it seems to want to celebrate.

3 Responses to “Room 237 (2013)”

  1. I agree. The critical acclaim for this documentary and the general interest about it baffles me. I saw it at a festival before the hype started and found it really frustrating. The complete lack of commentary by the filmmaker makes it a fruitless enterprise.
    People who support it claim it does not embrace the opinions it presents. I can understand that but it is not enough. If the subject is the extremes that some people will go to to impose order and interpret an ambiguous work of art it fails as it lacks any analysis whatsoever. It is at best a collection of frustrating (if you take it seriously) and mildly amusing (if you don’t) anecdotes.
    I find it very odd that professional film critics are embracing this documentary. I find it painfully shallow.

  2. Yep, I also found this highly-praised film problematic, though the director conducted a most interesting after-viewing discussion at the IFC. I adore THE SHINING but expected more. As always you raise a number of excellent points. I am not quite as down on it as you are, but I can understand the disappointment.

  3. Petros, I get ultimately that this film isn’t meant to support or deny the various theories, and that’s fine, but it didn’t do anything else instead. The people weren’t any more intriguing than their theories were.

    Sam, I’m being a little hard on it because I keep hearing how great it is. I started watching it late last year and thought it was ridiculous and dull and shut it off after about 30 minutes, but then people I respect kept telling me it was so terrific so I thought I’d give it another shot. Nothing. Zippo.

    I’m cool that it wasn’t really interested in illuminating The Shining any though it’s clear the filmmakers have a lot of enthusiasm for it, but it would’ve been nice to feel like I was getting something about art or human nature that I didn’t already know.

    Turns out there are a lot more people who didn’t like the film than it originally seemed so at least I feel a little less out in the wilderness than before.

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