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Arts & Culture

Review: 'Room 237'

Interpreting Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" is the subject of the new documentary "Room  237."
Warner Brothers
Interpreting Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" is the subject of the new documentary "Room 237."

'The Shining' And A Documentary About It Pair Nicely This Week

It's a good week if you love Stanley Kubrick. You can catch both a documentary about "The Shining," called "Room 237" (opened April 12 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theatres) and see "The Shining" on the big screen (as FilmOut's monthly screening at the Birch North Park Theater on April 17).

"The Shining" is Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's horror novel. It stars Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a couple hired to watch over a massive old hotel during the wintery off season. Nicholson famously goes crazy and tries to kill his family giving pop culture some of its favorite references from "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" to "Here's Johnny."

Recently, San Diego filmgoers had a chance to see Kubrick’s “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange” on the Arclight’s gorgeous widescreen. Seeing those 2 back to back gave me newfound admiration for Kubrick and the ability to add to more films in close proximity is a great opportunity. It allows serious filmgoers to make connections between films that they might not make as readily seeing these films years or even decades apart.

Room 237 Documentary Full Trailer (2013)

Watching films closely is at the heart of the documentary “Room 237.” This is not a behind the scenes documentary about how Kubrick made “The Shining.” Instead it is a documentary about taking “The Shining” apart frame by frame to try and discover the hidden meanings that lurk beneath the surface story.

This is film geekiness brought to an academic level if you buy into the commentaries made by a group of Kubrick junkies obsessed with “The Shining.” If you don’t buy in, then the film may feel more like being trapped in a room with the kind of nerds that you just want to slip away from and don’t want to encourage in any way. As someone who has a high level of film geekiness, I thoroughly enjoyed the documentary even though I didn’t buy into everything these obsessive fans feel they have uncovered in Kubrick’s work.

“Room 237” takes an interesting approach to the topic. Filmmaker Rodney Ascher has assembled a half dozen people obsessed with uncovering the hidden meanings of Kubrick’s “The Shining.” As each person speaks, Ascher illustrated what they are saying with images from “The Shining” (sometimes running a single frame at a time), from other Kubrick films, and from other random films that simply offer visuals appropriate to what is being discussed (when someone talks about exiting a building and going into a parking garage we see a scene from “All the President’s Men” when Robert Redford goes to meet Deep Throat). Initially, this is a bit distracting. We’re talking about Kubrick so it seems odd to edit in footage from non-Kubrick films. Ascher also chooses to begin with an interpretation that seems a bit outlandish. We see Tom Cruise look at a poster of “The Shining” in Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” and we have the tagline on the poster “The tide of terror that swept America IS HERE” read to us and then explained. The tide of terror referred to is not the horror of Stephen King’s novel or even the film, it is, we are told, the terror of the white man wiping out Native Americans, it is the terror of genocide.

What? “The Shining” is about genocide? My first reaction was to give the film a few more minutes and then maybe pass on reviewing this screener but I’m glad I stuck with it. Yes, that’s an extreme claim but as we delve deeper and deeper into the film and look sometimes at single frames held on screen, the idea sounds less absurd (although I still remain lukewarm to some of the notions presented).

The Shining - Trailer

Ascher slowly lets his commentators build their case and at times they make striking points and make us look at the film with fresh eyes. At the very least, “Room 237” will make you eager to see “The Shining” again if only to consider for yourself what it might be about and if you should take it at face value as just a horror film.


Kubrick’s films stand up to this kind of analysis because the man was a genius. He supposedly had an IQ of 200, he was excessively meticulous about what he put into every frame of his film, and his films just feel fueled by intelligence. So if something is in the frame of his film, it is there for a reason and is open for interpretation. Kubrick was something of a recluse and he rarely spoke about what he thought or intended for his films to be about. He smartly and rightly wanted to leave interpretation up to the viewer and by doing that, he allows his films to be great points of discussion.

So while you may not agree with some or even all of what’s being said in “Room 237,” it is fun to delve so deeply into a single film. Occasionally, though, I did find moments of brilliant insight. At one point, someone points out that Kubrick grew bored with the possibilities offered by film and “Barry Lyndon” is a film dealing with that boredom. I had never thought of that film in those terms but it makes perfect sense. And “The Shining” is in part a further exploration of that boredom.

There’s also talk about subliminal advertising (which was a hot topic back then) and how Kubrick might have brought his own kind of subliminal methods to “The Shining.” This leads to some amusing analysis that may make it impossible to look at one scene without smirking a little.

I love movies and I love people who have a passion for film and a burning desire to talk about their obsessions. “Room 237” (no rating listed) celebrates the obsessions of these 6 filmgoers as well as the genius that is Stanley Kubrick. Please see “Room 237” an then Head on over to the Birch North Park Theater to see FilmOut’s presentation of “The Shining.” You can’t ask for more perfectly paired film events. For my part, I always took "The Shining" as Kubrick's sly parody of the Stephen King horror genre and its fans. I remember seeing the press screening in 1980 with a friend and almost being kicked out of the theater for laughing at moments when Jack Nicholson was emoting over the top. I have not seen the film since and am looking forward to seeing it again, especially with all the ideas raised by "Room 37" now swimming in my head.

Companion viewing: “Barry Lyndon,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Dr. Strangelove”