Rodney Ascher: Room 237

IFC Films, 2012

Directed by Rodney Ascher, Room 237 is a documentary that examines several intriguing interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s much-praised 1980 horror film The Shining, which was based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name. The documentary is essentially criticism in a moving image medium, combining voiceovers with innovatively edited scenes from Kubrick’s films, similar to the film-essay style of Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), a documentary analysis of movies inspired by, or shot in, Los Angeles. Room 237 shows both real-time and slowed down scenes from The Shining, with many scenes repeated to allow for alternative interpretations. Its title refers to the mysterious room that seduces Jack Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance and his son Danny, while also alluding to The Shining itself as similarly seducing audiences with its mysterious cinematic language.

Each of the documentary’s five interviewees—Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan and Jay Weidner—apply a microscopic analysis to scenes that could only have been formulated through multiple viewings, as if inflicted with the same obsessiveness that drove Kubrick. This obsessiveness was the subject of an excellent documentary in 2008 titled Kubrick’s Boxes, which explores the filmmaker’s legendary research processes, his unfinished projects, hoarding, and probable Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is partly Kubrick’s obsessiveness that makes many of the interpretations in Room 237 sound more plausible than they should. Kubrick, who began his career as a photographer, is notorious for imbuing each frame of his movies with semiological significance; each film a system of signs, each frame a unit of meaning.

In late-2012 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) contextualised Kubrick’s career in terms of the visual arts, highlighting his enormous impact upon contemporary artists as well as the influence of artworks on his movies. While the LACMA exhibition showed evidence of how some of the scenes in The Shining directly referenced photographers such as Diane Arbus, Room 237 takes a more speculative approach, showcasing eccentric fans and film academics who have spent years formulating imaginative theories about the enigmatic horror film’s coded messages. 

Room 237 begins with the most plausible speculation by Blakemore that the major subtext of The Shining concerns America’s treatment of its indigenous population. Evidence is gleaned from numerous scenes: the prominent placement of Calumet baking powder (which has a logo of an American Indian in a headdress) in the storage room of the Overlook Hotel, the indigenous designs and taxidermied Bison heads on the wall that Jack throws his ball at, a brief scene that shows a portrait of an American Indian in the hotel lobby, a conversation at the beginning of the film about how the hotel was built on a indigenous burial ground, and the connotations of the phrase ‘white man’s burden’ spoken by Jack to the ghostly bartender. With these readings, the infamous scene in which blood pours from the hotel’s elevator shafts signifies the blood of slain American Indians. When discussing the final sequence in the maze when Danny escapes from his father, Blakemore claims that Kubrick’s underlying message is that the past impinges upon us like ghosts, and we can only get rid of these ghosts when we retrace our steps and deal with where we have been.

For Geoffrey Cocks, The Shining is full of references to the Nazi’s Final Solution, and he bases most of his theory on the numerous references to 1942, which was the year the Nazis began exterminations at Auschwitz. This includes such minute details as: Wendy swings the baseball bat at Jack 42 times, 42 cars are parked out the front of the hotel in the opening sequence, the sleeve of Danny’s T-shirt has the number 42 on it, and Danny watches a movie on the television called Summer of 42 (1971). Following this line of thought, Jack’s ‘three little pigs’ line that he manically states before hacking down the bathroom door to kill Wendy, is to be read as a reference to the Academy Award winning Walt Disney cartoon Three Little Pigs (1933); the ‘wolf at the door’ being a common anti-Semitic stereotype in this pre-Holocaust period.

In other analyses, Jack’s sexuality is called into question through the identification of numerous scenes alluding to the abuse of his son. The scene where Jack embraces the naked woman in room 237 and sees the horror of his predicament in a mirror has parallels with the scene where Jack sees himself in the mirror before calling his son over to the bed to hug him. Jack has his hands crossed over his crotch in this scene, which Danny appears to emulate when a psychiatrist examines him on his bed. These readings owe some of their foundation to the fact that Kubrick and Diane Johnson studied Sigmund Freud’s essay The Uncanny (1919) before embarking on the script for The Shining.

For John Fell Ryan, Kubrick intended The Shining to be watched simultaneously forwards and backwards, and these montages are some of the most compelling scenes in Room 237; coupling the film’s climactic moments with its opening scenes, as if depicting Danny’s psychic visions of the horrors to come. Alternatively, according to Jay Weidner’s analysis, Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater, the patterns in the carpet and dialogue between Wendy and Jack about contracts and employers, comprise an analogy about Kubrick’s wife discovering for the first time that he was commissioned by the government to fabricate the 1969 moon landing. So why then did Kubrick change the film’s room number from 217 in Stephen King’s novel to 237? Because the average distance from the Earth to the Moon is 237,000 miles(!). 

Although the interviewees occasionally come across as obsessives who are willing to see meaning in almost anything, Room 237 captures the sense of Kubrick’s films as puzzles that foreground the idea of the human brain as a type of flawed pattern-identifier. Like Andy Warhol’s work, Kubrick’s films incite endless speculation, and both artists are significant representatives not only of postmodern culture but also of the move towards anti-essentialist, or post-critical, perceptions of cultural analysis. Refusing to make distinctions between plausible and implausible theories, Room 237 testifies to the empowerment of the viewer by video, DVD and digital technologies, which help to make narratives and meanings malleable; art as so much data for the creative viewer to decipher at their leisure. In addition to this, Room 237 consists of some stunningly enhanced images of Kubrick’s films that provide further evidence of his brilliance as a filmmaker and his importance to the history of the photographic arts. 

The Shining. Still. Courtesy IFC Midnight.

VHS Tape. Courtesy Rodney Ascher.

Invitation. Courtesy Rodney Ascher.

Room 237 Poster. Courtesy Rodney Ascher.