In a world that has been deprived of Stanley Kubrick’s unique vision since he left us with the whimper of Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, anything new about the great man is greeted with open arms by his vast legion of admirers and devotees, of which I am one; thus, when I saw that The Shining documentary Room 237 was playing at TIFF, it instantly made my list of festival ‘must sees’.
The documentary, made without the co-operation of Kubrick’s estate, presents the theories of a number of people about the coded messages and secret meanings that he allegedly included in his 1980 adaptation of The Shining. The theorists include a woman who is a playwright and novelist, an academic who specialises in the Third Reich, a veteran foreign correspondent, and a musician cum radio pop culture commentator; they are certainly not just a collection of fanboys trading barbs or trying to outsmart each other on web forums.
And as for the theories themselves, most of them are quite spectacularly far out. The foreign correspondent is convinced that the entire film is a metaphor for the destruction of Native Americans by the white man; the playwright rambles on about all manner of things which don’t really connect up to create any sort of whole, with most of her thinking being rooted in the ‘impossible geography’ of the Overlook Hotel; the academic sees a Holocaust subtext lurking in many corners; and the pop culture bon vivant sees a plethora of subtexts and explicit references, including an apologist effort on Kubrick’s part for his alleged role in filming the faked moon landing (he also discusses the most interesting concept of the lot, the overlaid screening of the film running forwards and backwards simultaneously, which makes for some strange coincidental superimpositions).
All of this is quite entertaining for the first 30 minutes or so, but even one’s snorts of derision at the more outlandish statements subside after that point, and what was initially engaging becomes more like a chore, and one with a diminishing return at that. Part of this may be attributable to the director’s decision never to show the faces of the theorists; all that the viewer knows about them is what they and the director choose to reveal through their voiceovers, as they aren’t even identified by any on screen captioning, and this conscious decision to depersonalise the participants denies the viewer an important point of entry. The director uses footage from a lot of different fiction and non-fiction films, much of it looking like it was lifted from VHS quality sources or from off-air analogue recordings, which is of course accentuated by large screen projection.
This gives the film a sort of guerrilla/bootleg quality, which one would think has to be intentional, as being a legitimate release screening at major film festivals and being sold to distributors internationally (it’s released in the UK in late October by Metrodome), all the footage has to have been cleared and paid for. Is the poor quality footage meant to add to or accentuate the air of conspiracy and illegitimacy that hangs about the film, already present thanks to the non-appearance of the theorists and the lack of involvement by anyone associated with The Shining or Kubrick?
The idea of collating these people’s ideas in a feature film and dragging them off the internet and into the light of a projector beam is an intriguing one, but at over 100 minutes it’s fair to say that most peoples’ interest will wane before the end. One can’t discount the hold that the enigmatic director still has over many people who, like me, will have to check into Room 237 at least once to satisfy their curiosity, but are unlikely to visit again.