Directed by Rodney Ascher–2012–102 minutes
There has been a fair amount of buzz surrounding “Room 237” and being a longtime Stanley Kubrick fan, I jumped at the chance to see this compilation of conspiracy theories that have grown up around his 1980 film, “The Shining”. Leaving my local art house a couple hours later, I felt sufficiently entertained (if a bit bewildered) and also a tad envious: where do these people get the time to come up with this stuff? According to the half-dozen interviewees here, Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King horror novel is really one or more of the following things.
A) The veiled confession of a man who feels remorse for helping fake the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
B) An encyclopedic film essay about sexual repression
C) A coded allegory of the Nazi holocaust
D) A connect-the-dots method of decrying the violent disenfranchisement of Native Americans
The director, Rodney Ascher, never shows onscreen the six conspiracy buffs that are heard expounding their obsessive ideas. This molecular-level investigation of details from “The Shining” runs the gamut from thought-provoking to barking mad. Yes, mainstream critics have kicked around aspects of theories “B” and “D” since the film’s original release. It didn’t take me long after pulling down my copy of “The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick” to find a section where author Norman Kagan quotes writers who spotted the Oedipal implications in the script. The tale of struggling author Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson of course), slowly going crazy over a long winter as caretaker of the snowbound Overlook Hotel, eventually menacing his wife (Shelley Duvall) and his physic young son played by Danny Lloyd, is well-known for its domestic abuse angle. The clues on offer here, though, can get a little outlandish. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a letter tray is just a letter tray. See it and decide for yourself.
The Native American supposition is also not far-fetched, as early on in the film the hotel’s manager reveals that the Overlook was likely built on a tribal burial ground and that the builders were engaged in a few skirmishes during its construction. Kagan details how writers like “History of Narrative Film” author David A. Cook see this “as a film metaphor for a society built on exploitation and even murder.” In “Room 237” one commentator can barely contain his excitement over the prevalence of stacked cans of Calumet Baking Powder (with its Indian logo) in the kitchen scenes. But a more convincing interpretation has to do with the film’s most iconic image. The stationary shot of double elevator doors, from behind which a torrent of blood is unleashed, is all the more powerful when the viewer is reminded that the elevator doors never open, that the genocidal truth will be uncovered even when access to evidence is closed out. It is also intriguing to think that the Jewish, Bronx-bred Kubrick, who never got past the pre-production stages of a planned Holocaust-themed film, may have inserted some below-radar clues that dovetailed with the other secret theme of Indian genocide. But details like the fact that Jack used a German-made typewriter are circumstantial at best.
By here in the land where astonishing revelations lurk behind every continuity error, by far the most eye-rolling of all the theories here is “A”. How did we not know that Kubrick, who set the standard for sci-fi visual magnificence in his 1968 epic “2001”, was somehow recruited by NASA to create on a soundstage what everyone thought they were watching on TV for real when the first men walked on the moon a year later? The old fake-moon-landing gambit has been around forever (remember “Capricorn One” starring O.J. Simpson?) and I doubt that Neil Armstrong would give featured conspirator Jay Weidner the satisfaction of rolling over in his grave. But this part of the film works as well (Ascher is on record as not endorsing his subjects’ opinions) because sometimes it’s just fun to let these people come in from the margins and air it out.
If you can’t tell that Kubrick faked the historic Apollo 11 mission from looking at this still from “The Shining” then you’re simply not trying hard enough.
Weidner is an admirer of Kubrick and in this legit documentary (as opposed to the self-produced ones he hawks on his website) he hedges his bets by stating that he’s not denying those astronauts landed on the moon, only that what we saw on the tube was not all that is seemed. But to use Where’s Waldo methodology to cast doubts on one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements is plain irritating. True, there are eleven cars in the front row of the Overlook Hotel parking lot, and the forbidden Room 217 of the Stephen King novel was changed to 237 for the film, signifying (of course) the approximate distance from Earth to moon in thousands of miles. But that may say more about OCD than it does about the possible secret motives of even a meticulous filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick. Still, some of this does leave you wondering:
So, yes, there’s a lot of intriguing stuff here and dedicated movie buffs all over will be tipping their caps to Mr. Ascher for this sensory feast. He adds in bits of all the other Kubrick films into the stew and at one point shows us the handiwork of an offbeat film club who project “The Shining” both forward and backward simultaneously, the resulting overlay offers a tantalizing glimpse of thin-air serendipity, comparable to the uncanny sync-up of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” with “The Wizard of Oz.” But Kubrick’s profile in the clouds during the film’s opening aerial shot? I’m just not seeing it. It is possible, as one “Room 237” interviewee suggests, that Kubrick’s 1975 Georgian-period drama “Barry Lyndon” shows a bored artist who came out of the experience with a determination to formulate a new secret language of film. (While we’re at it, let me put in another vote for the reclamation of “Lyndon”, which not only features some of the greatest cinematography ever but also stands tall as an indictment of the economic and class cruelties that dog us to this day).
But whether or not this assumed “secret language” was Kubrick’s intention is a mystery that he took to his grave in 1999. Since conspiracies are hard to prove and too interesting too ignore, they persist over time, whether it’s the “Paul is dead” hoax, the JFK assassination, devil-worshipping messages in heavy metal songs, etc. It lends us a sense of wonder, that there’s a clandestine layer of existence just underneath our everyday world. It’s a fun source of speculation and rumination, although be careful not to let your interest level get you to the point where people cross the street when they see you coming. It may be a bit too late for some of the interviewees of “Room 237.”