Everyone's a Critic: 'Room 237' Explores Multiple Readings of Kubrick's 'The Shining'
Driving around Los Angeles over the past few months, one can easily have Kubrick on the brain. Staring down over Sunset Boulevard from atop endless light posts are the iconic faces of some of the best-known characters of the Kubrick oeuvre: Sue Lyon, as Lolita, peers over the top of her heart-shaped sunglasses; Malcolm McDowell's Alex leers at passing cars; and, of course, Jack Nicholson, playing a crazed Jack Torrance, grins maniacally at the pedestrians below.
The faces on these banners serve as promotion for the Stanley Kubrick exhibit currently running at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. One of the main motivations for staging this exhibit was to celebrate Kubrick's inimitable 50-year career. But luckily for filmmaker Rodney Ascher, this exhibit is also providing free advertising for his latest documentary, Room 237.
Only the most diehard fans of Kubrick's 1980 film, The Shining, might be able to pinpoint the title of the documentary as a reference to the haunted room at the Overlook Hotel, the building itself one of the main characters of the story originally penned by Stephen King in 1977. (King hated Kubrick's interpretation of his story, and later created a three-part television miniseries of the same name, which aired in 1997.) Room 237 is a place of danger, sexual fantasies and ephemera, serving as a physical space where these and other recurring themes reside throughout Kubrick's psycho-horror classic. Ascher's documentary uses the locale of this mysterious room as the jumping-off point from which five vastly different readings of The Shining are presented for the audience's consideration.
Ascher and his producer, Tim Kirk, sourced their subjects from the farthest reaches of the Internet, eventually settling on the five Kubrick obsessives. There's Bill Blakemore, a journalist who, based on visual clues like the Calumet baking powder in the hotel's pantry, insists that The Shining is about the genocide of the Native Americans. Artist and author Juli Kearns fixates her analytic eye on the myth of the Minotaur, which she sees in everything from posters in the Games Room to the iconic maze that ends the film. For Professor Geoffrey Cocks, The Shining is the Holocaust film that Kubrick, who was raised Jewish, always wanted to make but felt he could never execute literally. Hermetic scholar and filmmaker Jay Weidner believes that Kubrick used The Shining as a confession to his wife that he had played a role in faking the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Writer and experimental artist John Fell Ryan contends that Kubrick's film is meant to be watched forwards and backwards at the same time, a process that he insists leads to revelations about the film's real message.
I first watched Room 237 with a film student and a computer programmer. While the cinephile and I giggled with delight at the interpretations of everything from Jack's German typewriter to the pattern on the rug in the hotel's hallway, the computer programmer got more and more upset. Not regularly exposed to postmodern film criticism, he was annoyed at these readings, which to him seemed completely unfounded.
Ascher was just giddy when I told him this story. I asked if my experience was similar to the way most of his screenings played out: "Skeptics have been kind of a minority in my experience," he told me in a phone conversation. "There are skeptics who don't find any of these interpretations interesting or plausible, and therefore it's a waste of time listening to them. And then there are skeptics who enjoy it nonetheless, who think that might not have been what [Kubrick] intended, but [that] those [readings] are meaningful and interesting."
While the five Kubrick experts comprise the majority of Room 237's soundscape, we never see their faces on screen. Images from The Shining and other Kubrick films are repeated throughout Room 237, allowing us to meditate on the film without distracting us with the faces of the interviewees. Each person is briefly introduced the first time they speak by simple blue text with just their names—no reference to their occupations or to why they have been included in this project. These people could be professors at prestigious universities (and one is) or unemployed experimental media artists (and one is), but when it comes down to it, their jobs are irrelevant.
These theories, while arguably better formulated and fleshed out than those of your average man on the street, represent just a small handful of the many possible readings of this and any filmic text. Room 237 celebrates the possibilities allowed by a trend in criticism where everyone is entitled to approach art with their own unique backgrounds and contexts.
"Part of what attracted me and Tim Kirk to this project was how interesting it was that this movie made in 1980 seems to be generating this really deep, deep analysis and engagement 30 years later," Ascher explained. "It's continuing to happen." Ascher is happy to have his documentary contribute to this immersive appreciation for a work of art, even though he doesn't fancy himself a master of critique. "I'm not actually much of an expert in postmodern film theory, but I can see that there are similar issues being addressed in what I tried to do in this film. I don't know that I've offered a ton of concrete answers, more than I've asked a lot of questions."
Toward the end of Room 237, when some of the interviewees start to dig deeper and deeper-one subject even admits he might be "grasping at straws"-Professor Cocks does a beautiful job of hushing those who might naysay some of the more wacky theories. "One can always argue that Kubrick had only some or even none of these [theories] in mind," he says. "But we all know from postmodern film criticism that author intent is only part of the story of any work of art. Those meanings are there regardless of whether the creator of the work was conscious of them."
Ascher wrapped up our conversation with something of an invitation: "Just because my project is done has not stopped anyone from continuing to investigate and share new discoveries." And with the Kubrick exhibit running at LACMA through June and Room 237 hitting theaters at the end of the month, odds are that the discussions and analyses about this director's work are only just beginning to ramp up.
Room 237 opens March 29 in New York and April 5 in Los Angeles, through IFC Midnight.
Katharine Relth is the Web and Social Media Producer at IDA.