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Room 237 (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Room 237

ROOM 237 (2013)

Featuring Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan and Jay Weidner and archival footage of Stanley Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joseph Turkel, Anne Jackson, Tony Burton and Stephen King.

Directed by Rodney Ascher.

Distributed by IFC Midnight. 102 minutes. Not Rated.

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining has been confounding for the three decades since its release to mostly lukewarm reviews and sluggish box office.  The movie turned off both of its target audiences – Kubrick fans felt that the ghost story was a squandering of the master filmmaker’s talents while King’s fans and fans of the best-selling novel (and famously, the author himself) were distraught by many of the wholesale changes Kubrick made to the story.

Personally, as one of those fans of the novel, I’ve always felt it to be a fascinating failure, a beautifully filmed and interestingly acted movie, though unlike so many others, I think that Jack Nicholson was misused in the film.  Not that he wasn’t wonderfully over-the-top in the latter scenes, but the handyman’s breakdown was supposed to be gradual and Nicholson’s Jack Torrance was obviously crazed from the get go.  Also, the final shot was rather ridiculous.

However, even from the slight disappointment I felt from the movie, it was obviously a dense, intriguing story with some truly significant scares.

In the years since the video revolution, The Shining has become thought of as a horror classic and Nicholson’s performance a standout.  While I don’t really agree with these things, for the reasons listed above and many more, I still find the movie fascinating and do watch it periodically.  As a straightforward narrative telling of the novel, the 1999 mini-series is much better, if much more pedestrian in its filming.  However Kubrick’s Shining has an undeniable hallucinogenic hold, drawing the viewer deeper with lots of little touches and clues.

Room 237 introduces us to five fans of Kubrick's Shining who over the years have become fascinated by the clues strewn about – many probably intentional clues from the notoriously meticulous Kubrick but at least some of which are probably imagined – and come up with their own theories of the broader cultural and spiritual meaning that the director had embedded into his film.

Sometimes the speakers sound completely sensible and coherent. Sometimes they seem to be grasping at straws or stretching logic. Sometimes they just sound bat-shit crazy. But they are believers, they are passionate, they are questing and sated with the mysteries of celluloid and the obsessive-compulsive style of a cinematic genius. They are also more than a bit paranoid and maybe just a bit off mentally, but that jibes with the whole point of The Shining, in which sanity can be such a fleeting concept.

Many of the conspiracy theories are taken to ridiculous extremes – a Calumet baking soda can means that the film is about the genocide of the American Indians, a German typewriter suggests it's about the Holocaust, an Apollo XI sweater suggests the movie is Kubrick's admission that he had faked the moon landing, a smashed red VW Bug briefly seen on a snowy highway is Kubrick's personal (but slightly obscure) "fuck you" to novelist King.

Yet some are fascinating. And even when the fans seem to be off-target (and none of these are teachers or reviewers, they are just extremely passionate viewers) it gives you both a fascinating look at cinemaphiles and also a less obvious undercurrent about the dangers of obsession. The Shining has become a shiny object to these people, who spend way too much time watching the film frame-by-frame, forward and backward (at one point both at the same time) to search for clues which appear to tell more about the viewers than they do Kubrick. More than one of these über-fans acknowledge, in off-handed ways, that they are quite possibly too tied up in Kubrick's world, their work, families and mental health have been touched by their haunted allegiance to the film.

With its hallucinogenic and non-judgmental structure, mixing narration by the fans with footage from most of Kubrick's films and many unrelated movies which vaguely echo the speaker's words, director Rodney Ascher has almost recreated the off-kilter seductive puzzle box of Kubrick's film. It is an odd, slightly surreal, but doubtlessly intriguing state of being which offers wisps of beautiful logic, secrets and lies, before they dissipate into the night.

In some ways, what else are movies for? To delight, titillate and enthrall you. To draw you into their world and take hold of your imaginations and emotions. By showing us some of the more extreme examples, Room 237 taps into the more universal truths of how works of art can take up residence in all of us.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved. Posted: March 29, 2013.

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