A funny thing happened on the way to reviewing “Room 237.” When I first watched Rodney Ascher’s documentary about fanatical theories on Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” I found it so patience-testing and angering that I had to turn it off at the halfway point. When I watched it a second time, obligated for reviewing purposes to watch it through its conclusion, I was slowly yet surely drawn into its heady, dreamlike and often absurd layers. What gives?
The film interviews five unusual individuals, all of whom proudly admit to being obsessed with Kubrick’s 1980 domestic horror masterpiece. Ascher doesn’t present his subjects in a typical talking-head fashion. Indeed, we never see their faces. (Or do we? Two shots in the film, though unlabeled with name credits, suggest that a couple of the interview subjects may have appeared on camera. But maybe this is a crazy theory of my own.)
Why choose not to show the interviewees? Not for anonymity purposes, as we’re given their names. This was one aspect of the film that I found hair-pullingly irritating upon first viewing, no doubt betraying my desire and expectation for a traditional documentary format. I now believe that we don’t see the subjects’ faces as a means of slipping perilously into their cavernously obsessive minds. It may be true that the eyes are a window to the soul, but sometimes a person’s face can block us from truly identifying with them.
As we hear these five eccentrics spout their theories (observant, wonky and batshit-stupid alike), images from Kubrick’s meticulous film move past, set to an infectiously catchy, synthy original score by Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson. As viewers, we’re drawn through the labyrinthine halls of the Overlook Hotel and its accompanying hedge maze, but as listeners we’re also caught in the twists and turns of a droning, never-ending rabbit hole of interpretations.
Making the film more labyrinthine still is its insistence not to identify its speakers. When each subject’s voice is introduced at the outset, a phosphorescent blue name intertitle appears. Once these introductions are over, we’re left alone to figure out who’s speaking. There’s only one woman, a Juli Kearns who has a particularly wacko theory about the presence of Minotaur imagery throughout “The Shining.” (Yet she does accurately note that one of Kubrick’s first films, “Killer’s Kiss,” was made by Minotaur Productions.)
A John Fell Ryan is another interview subject, recognizable for his slacker cadence and tendency to completely check out, like the Overlook’s summer guests, while speaking. His theories are the most incomprehensible, and I honestly can’t give you an approximation of what they are, outside of -- to use a Minotaur-ish reference -- bullshit.
However Ryan is responsible, in an indirect way, for the most striking images in “Room 237.” Based on a credo by online theory site Mstrmnd (which, in appropriately mysterious fashion, declined interview for the documentary), Ryan set up a screening of “The Shining” where it was projected simultaneously forwards and backwards, with its last images overlapping its first images, and played through this way for its entire running time. Ascher lets us glimpse portions of this experiment. Seeing Jack Nicholson’s crazed face from the hedge-maze denouement superimposed over his placid face (which, of course, is still a little bit crazed) during his Overlook interview is undeniably a visual treat.
The delights of the plausible and implausible collide in “Room 237.” World War II historian Geoffrey Cox elegantly quotes T.S. Eliot, saying that Kubrick’s film, like history, has “many cunning passages”; he argues that Jack Torrance’s scene where he maniacally plays the Big Bad Wolf has echoes of anti-Semitism. A Bill Blakemore makes several fascinating if stretched statements about “The Shining” being a metaphor for our country’s massacre of Native Americans. (He loses me, however, when he claims that the much-debated minor character Bill Watson “represents someone from a subdued race.”) Meanwhile another subject, who I couldn’t identify by voice, brazenly asserts that Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 moon landing footage, and that “The Shining” is his way of chronicling that stress. (As a humorous aside, Kubrick's assistant on the film, Leon Vitali, has recently come forward saying he thinks theories spouted in "Room 237" are "pure gibberish.")
For me, film analysis is real. It’s not an anything-goes, “if you see it, then you’re right,” relativist kind of activity. This might explain the intensely negative reaction I first had to “Room 237.” I firmly believe that certain film interpretations are plainly, objectively better than others. But I would also argue that perhaps the most wonderful thing about a great film is its ability to move the viewer in an ineffable way. To give us, above all, a feeling. And who hasn’t tried to put a feeling into words?
This is what “Room 237” is about, and ultimately it’s this quality in the film I now find hypnotic and strangely moving. Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is a formidable, queasy, terrifying work of art that has rightfully gained cult status and beyond. It comes from an obsessive mind with the ability to make others, in turn, obsessive. Rodney Ascher’s film documents -- and listens -- as five fanatics grapple their way through that obsession, taking in the horror of the film’s images, asking themselves how deeply and darkly it makes them feel, and trying to reconcile the two.
"Room 237" hits New York theaters on March 29, and L.A. theaters on April 5. It is released by IFC Midnight.