Does a place absorb the evil that has been committed within its confines? Can a location be tainted by prior acts of depravity and then infect its new inhabitants, compelling them to commit evil acts of their own? These are a couple of the central themes of Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film, The Shining. But is that what the film is really about, or is that simply the first layer of a much more complex puzzle? A new documentary, Room 237, poses just that question, and answers it with an interesting look at the text and sub-text (real and imagined) of Kubrick’s film as well as a discussion of the nature of art and the relationship between artist and audience.
Room 237 is narrated by six fans of Kubrick’s film whose analysis of The Shining is frequently insightful, but often borders on obsessive and unrealistic. They are ostensibly normal folks from all walks of life who have unearthed what they believe to be the “real” messages and themes hidden in Kubrick’s film. One believes that it is a meditation on the genocide of the Native American people. Another posits that the film is about Hitler and the Holocaust while a third narrator submits that The Shining is filled with references that Stanley Kubrick helped to film fabricated footage of the Apollo moon landing. And, of course, one interpreter claims that it is all about sex and sexual interaction between adults. (I must admit I haven’t heard the phrase “phallic symbol” since I was studying “Moby Dick” in high school.)
All of the theories posed during the film are based on the premise that Stanley Kubrick was a genius, and every image hidden in his film was a gateway to another intended layer of understanding that the director wanted his audiences to explore. According to one of the narrators, Kubrick had an IQ of 200 and had grown bored with conventional film-making. So, he made The Shining and packed it with subliminal messages and hidden meanings for the viewer willing to unearth them. From the wall hangings adorning the corridors of the Overlook Hotel to the cans stacked in the hotel pantry to the minor characters with no lines, every minor aspect of the film is bursting with important sub-textual information. One of my favorite moments was the commentator who attempts to ascribe significant meanings to the lay-out of the Overlook Hotel gleaned through Danny Torrence’s Big Wheel rides down its corridors.
There are unintentionally humorous moments when our amateur film theorists attribute purpose and significance to moments that are clearly continuity errors. In one scene, there is a chair against a wall behind Jack Nicholson. After a brief cutaway, the camera returns to Nicholson, and the chair is gone. The narrator attempts to pull this occurrence into his working theory of the film as intentional sleight-of-hand on the part of the director. In another scene, a character is wearing checkered pants, and a moment later his pants are a solid gray. Accidentally wearing the wrong clothes on the second day of the shoot? No. It has a deep inner meaning. It was intentional because Kubrick and his crew are beyond making a simple mistake.
The true joy of this film is not the theories about The Shining. The documentary does not aspire to be an insider’s view of the making of the movie. There is very little behind-the-scenes footage. The visuals consist mostly of scenes from various Kubrick films and most of it will be familiar to seasoned viewers. For a film about subtext and interpretation, the joy of Room 237 is its own subtext: That film-making, even genre film-making, can rise to the level of art, and consequently spark debate and discussion. No different than the paintings in museums and galleries across the globe, your local cinema can bring you works of visual art that contain themes, symbolism and subtle meanings that may occupy your thoughts days after the credits have rolled.
It’s important to note that all six narrators have six completely different takes on the meaning of Kubrick’s film. Do I think any of them are correct? No, I don’t. I think The Shining is about alcoholism, domestic violence, mental illness and what happens when we can no longer trust the people we love. Am I right? There’s no way to know, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. The beauty of films and film fandom is that we can all be right, and a movie can hold importance for us for our own reasons. From universally accepted cinematic classics to our own personal guilty pleasures, we can rent, buy, stream and download works that transport us into the minds and artistic visions of people that we will never meet, but they will impact our lives nonetheless.
7 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.