Room 237 is a film about ideas. It particular it is about the idea of developing your own interpretations and the joy of discovery that comes with realizing something new about a piece of art (or entertainment, depending on your viewpoint) consumed by millions of others. That chemical reaction in your brain that rewards you for creativity, the joy gained from using your brain and figuring something out on your own. The film is about the inherent joy in interpreting a piece of art in the way that you choose to interpret, a vigorous defence of the postmodern right to infer meaning from work created regardless of whether the intent of the author was aimed in that direction or not.
Room 237 is a film about people. Deluded people, sometimes slightly worrying people. It warns against the perils of falling into your own imagination, of convincing yourself utterly of something that just isn’t there. Those chemical reactions in your brain that tell you something that nobody else can see because it just isn’t there. You’re not seeing anything. You get the same joy of discovery but it is an empty joy. Not that you know. The film is a repudiation of the postmodern idea that one can interpret artistic work in any manner than otherwise intended. If we can, where do we stop?
These are two different ways of looking at this film. I’m being a little cute here, and if I wanted to be completely unbearable I’d crank out another two or three separate interpretations. My aim isn’t to ape the structure of the film though but to comment on it some. Of the two interpretations here, I support the latter as I suspect will most. I do think that we can interpret works of art in ways that were not necessarily originally intended, but Room 237 is a splendid illustration of just how far that can go. How ugly it can get.
Ugly is the word. Room 237 is often very funny. It’s a joy to watch, though I certainly worried at myself as to whether I was engaging in cheap schadenfreude at the expense of people that might need some kind of clinical help. It’s beautifully made. After seeing the film it dawned on me that I had actively enjoyed the use of footage from Kubrick films to convey emotions and actions from the conversations in voiceover (such as the act or surprise or entering a cinema) but by about a third of the way through had become completely used to it. I want to watch the film again to specifically focus on how well this was done, though in truth I suspect it fades a little towards the end as the audience is invited to focus ever more centrally on visual imagery in The Shining and the interpretations of the film’s participants. Room 237 has a lot going on, and so it’s never in danger of being seen as a limited party trick, a one-note mockery of innocent and deluded individuals. The film does not seek to defrock its interviewees, it simply presents their theories.
Oh my, what theories they are. The film is clearly an allegory for Native American genocide. Scratch that, it’s clearly an allegory for the Holocaust. Scratch that, it’s clearly an intricately coded message to the American people that Kubrick faked the moon landing footage. He can no longer live with himself by the end of the 1970s and has decided to come clean by making a horror film that discusses his role in faking the footage through visual symbolism and subtle inference. So subtle, in fact…
Well, you know where that sentence is going. The film is about sex, the film has an “impossible window” that’s part of a set architecture that just doesn’t work and is intended to discombobulate the audience and inform us of the chaos of life. The film is about… all these things I suppose. What worries me, and has worried me consistently, is the earnestness of the theorists who agreed to be interviewed for the documentary. They are each convinced of their own theory’s accuracy. This is most effectively highlighted when two interpretations are presented back to back over the same scene, one of my favourites from Room 237, wherein Barry Nelson gets up to shake Jack Nicholson’s hand and we can clearly make out a piece of paper lying in a document tray on his desk as an erection. Except it is also clear that he represents the United States. Maybe the two theorists can get together and discuss how the United States’ erections affect the manipulation of individuals. Horribly, I would imagine.
This is not my first encounter with worrying interpretations of The Shining. In fact, there are numerous theorists out there that either refused to talk to the filmmakers or were not approached. One of my favourites is Rob Ager, an intelligent man that presents some very interesting theories on why continuity in The Shining is so off before diverging into a bizarre argument about Woodrow Wilson and the Gold Standard. Ager becomes remarkably animated when discussing one of the central points of his argument, that the photograph in which Nicholson’s character appears at the end of the film features lookalikes of Wilson and members of his family positioned in meaningful ways around the film’s protagonist. Ager at one point closes in on the face of the man he believes to be Wilson, and drifting as far from the academic tone of his reading as he will throughout his argument, enthusiastically expostulates “It’s Wilson!”
It’s not Wilson. It’s a white man with glasses, yes. It’s not Wilson. Just as that piece of paper is most likely not an erection. The film is most probably not an allegory of Native American genocide, or the Holocaust. The shots that cut from behind Danny’s trike on one floor to his trike on another floor do not have inherent narrative meaning but are simply conveying the swift passage of time.
Unless they are conveying meaning… This is where I have the biggest problem with the theorists participating in the film (and some who do not, like Ager). By reading so much into the film in such a specific manner, the possibility of more interesting artistic ambitions by Kubrick are ignored. Perhaps the problems with continuity stem from a deliberate reason to confuse the viewer and create a specific mental state (an argument that Ager pursues very effectively before losing the plot). Perhaps Kubrick is commenting on the relationship between the creator and his artwork. Perhaps Kubrick is layering on metaphors for all kinds of arguments including the ones discussed in Room 237 and beyond.
Or perhaps the continuity wasn’t quite right because Kubrick was too busy terrorizing Shelley Duvall. I doubt it, to be fair. Of all the arguments, I find those centered on the issue of continuity the most interesting. Those that infer connections bordering on the spiritual, such as the carpet in Room 237 being an intentional representation of sexual reproduction or one of the theorist’s young sons walking in and recounting a story that tied into her interpretation of The Shining years after Kubrick’s film was produced, are meaningless.
It’s also where the worrying comes in. Are these people okay? I genuinely fear for them. This is the same inability to understand reason and how to filter information that affects conspiracy theorists from Holocaust deniers to 9/11 truthers. How can they be so convinced of what they are seeing? Why do they ascribe such importance to The Shining? Do people really think that playing the film backwards and forwards simultaneously gives us significant insight into intended hidden meaning on the part of Kubrick, and that he intended for us to watch the film in that manner at some point?
Why are all these people wilfully ignoring Kubrick’s use of the visual language of cinema? I think this is the point that frustrates me the most. Yes, Kubrick knew what he was doing. Yes, he was a master. He was creating specific images to reach our intellects in specific ways. He did that through framing shots and shaping his narrative and working extremely hard to coax just the performance he wanted out of his leading actors. He didn’t do it by picking a certain type of carpet or hanging a framed poster of a snowboarder that we are apparently supposed to think is a creature from Greek myth. It’s fascinating, this complete inability to account for common sense. For example, why would Kubrick hire a Caucasian man that has skin that is “almost brown” to represent disadvantaged racial groups? Why wouldn’t he hire a person of colour? I guess because it would be dumb. You know, because the whole idea is dumb.
There are so many moments in the film that you can’t help but laugh at, wonder at, shake your head at. It is to the film’s credit however that it never seeks for this response aggressively. It doesn’t make fun of these people and it does not encourage you to do so either. By taking a genuinely impartial view, the makers of Room 237 have produced something very special, an insight into just how important films can be and the places those films can take us.
Room 237 has also reminded me how much I like The Shining. I’m going to watch it again in the next few days. I wonder what theory will present itself.