It was clear that Rodney Ascher's documentary "Room 237" had found a receptive audience at the Locarno Film Festival right from the knowing laughter at the sight of the production company's logo, which was made to resemble the red and blue Warner Brothers shield from the 1970s. It takes a certain sort of person to memorize the era-specific logo of a single studio, and apparently that sort of person really wants to see a documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s "The Shining."
Ascher’s film consists of interviews with five people who all find different meanings and interpretations in the text of "The Shining." One reads it as a treatise on genocide; another sees a cautionary tale about Jack Torrence's (Jack Nicholson) destruction at the hands of psychosexual demons. Most outlandishly of all, a third believes it serves as Stanley Kubrick’s admission of his involvement in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing. In presenting all these differing theories, has Ascher made a piece of film criticism, or a work that seeks to belittle the overly analytic mindset that produces it?
Watching the film is a lot like reading an expertly crafted piece of criticism, except in this case, it’s an expertly crafted piece of filmmaking as well. The editing is precise and the music, both in the use of existing cues and original score, gives the film a constant sense of forward momentum. At a certain point, your own opinions become irrelevant; "Room 237" is so perfectly constructed you can't help but get swept up. Still, a slight but nagging sense of ironic distance repeatedly creeps into the film. As Ascher repeatedly dwells on the sheer amount of minuscule details, it feels like he's pointing out the ridiculousness of these "Shining" scholars.
Each one brings their own experiences to the film, but while they sometimes admit their personal biases, they refuse to acknowledge their views as interpretation -- in their minds, their subjective take on "The Shining" is its ultimate objective truth, a grand conspiracy only they are privy to. In a surprising creative choice, Ascher never shows the faces of the interviewees, or provides any real context about their backgrounds. The total anonymity of the speakers often makes it hard to tell exactly who is talking, forcing the viewer to assess each theory solely on the visual information offered by Ascher. Occasionally, one will mention something from their past, but those instances are quite rare. Each subject, no matter how absurd their beliefs, is given equal weight and attention, an interesting approach in the age of anonymous Internet commenters and bloggers.
Despite the prominence of "The Shining," "Room 237"’s ultimate subject matter isn’t Kubrick’s film, but rather obsession. Although the five interviewees have different views of what "The Shining" is really all about, they share one commonality: they all believe that Kubrick hid the film’s true meaning deep within its text, and they will stop at nothing to validate their argument.
It could be said that "Room 237" gently mocks its subjects' obsessions -- admittedly, some their theories are a bit silly, and maybe even a little bizarre -- but you never get the sense that Asher is deliberately dismissive in the way he contextualizes his interviewees' critiques. "Room 237" is in love with film and film discussion, criticism and analysis.
Ari Gunnar Thorsteinsson is part of Indiewire's Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden where he's in a Master's program in cinema studies. He's the co-host of The Movie Homework Podcast, which can be found in iTunes. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.