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'Room 237,' Kubrick Fanatics And a Bonus Recommendation

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by Caryn James
March 27, 2013 9:15 AM
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The rapturous responses to Room 237 that came out of the Sundance Film festival seem wildly overstated, but understandable. This modest, entertaining, and at times visually clever documentary about The Shining -- in which a handful of obsessives decode the signposts to supposedly "true" meanings lurking in Kubrick's subtext -- is exactly the kind of inbred film that some cineastes go bonkers for. Not as bonkers as the theorists interviewed for the film, of course. They are hard to top in the thinking-gone-haywire department.

The theorists in Room 237 are all disembodied voices, as ghostly as the visitors to the Overlook Hotel, where most of The Shining is set. They speculate about the meaning of the story about a couple and their small son alone in a spooky isolated hotel where murders have taken place. What's really going with Jack Torrance (Jack Nicolson in one of his now-iconic roles) the father gradually losing his mind -- or is he a murderous ghost? And what's with his psychically-gifted son, Danny? Attacking these questions, they make the kind of arbitrary connections you might find in a bad term paper -- excited, no-context speculation that makes you realize the true meaning of "sophomoric."  What they say is ultimately less intriguing than what the film suggests about Kubrick, fanaticism and how The Shining has been absorbed into pop culture.

One of the voices, from ABC News Reporter Bill Blakemore, insists the story is a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans. Much of his argument hinges on the hotel's location over an Indian burial ground and presence of a can of Calumet baking powder, with an Indian's image on the label, which we can see clearly when Jack is locked in the store room.

Looking at the scene in Room 237, I wondered: Calumet? Why not choose Tang as the single, loopy thread to pull? Plenty of that is conspicuously on the shelf too. Sure enough, soon someone is arguing that The Shining is Kubrick's metaphor for his participation in faking film of the moon landing. Just look at all that Tang! (And of course if Kubrick had done such a thing, he would definitely want to spill his guts, metaphorically, all over his work.)

You see the problem. Kubrick himself clearly alluded to Diane Arbus' famous photograph of twins in the image Danny sees of  identically dressed girls, murdered long ago. Where do you draw the line? Let's say canned goods. There are cartons of canned peaches right behind Jack's head too -- where's the canned peach theory of The Shining?

Room 237 is visually  energetic and playful enough, with clips from The Shining and touches like inserts on TV screens within those clips. But the documentary's true appeal is letting us argue with the lunacy -- yes, it's loony -- of the theories. Early critics have pointed out that the film doesn't laugh at its contributors, which is technically true, but only because its non-committal stance lets us  do that for ourselves.

Their theories are laughable because they are so reductive about art. Kubrick understood that art is more nuanced and ambiguous than anything we hear in Room 237. That's why the image in The Shining of blood gushing out from the sides of the closed elevator doors and flooding the hallway, coming right at us, is so terrifying -- it's a horror that is both chillingly lucid and without rational explanation.  

And since the fun of watching Room 237 is arguing back, it helps to have seen the film recently. That is a real joy. Kubrick's film still works as horror. But we also see how much Nicholson, with his demonically arched eyebrows and his sinister line "Heere's Johnny" as he puts an axe through a door, was so thoroughly in on the joke. This is a witty horror film. A whole generation has grown up without knowing that "Here's Johnny" was Johnny Carson's famous intro, but Nicholson's reading transcends that.

 Even when he was alive, Kubrick's reclusiveness and secrecy made him an easy target for quacks and fakers. l like Room 237, but here's a film I recommend even more highly: Color Me Kubrick (2005), a comical, fact-based story with John Malkovich as a man who masqueraded as Kubrick for years, despite looking nothing like him and knowing nothing at all about film. The trailer gives you a good sense of its sly tone. 

And here's Room 237's trailer. This is not a scene from the movie, but the ending hints at the film's visual playfulness


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