An ode to movie love at its most deliriously unfettered, “Room 237” is a nonfiction look at some very serious film fans who take “The Shining,” Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece, very, very seriously.
They know — deep in their obsessive, sometimes demented cinephile hearts — that Kubrick did more than make a feverishly entertaining film about a family falling apart in an isolated hotel called the Overlook. He also embedded amazing messages in “The Shining,” cunningly weaving secrets and signs into the film’s very fabric, leaving clues about the Holocaust in elevators and messages about the Apollo 11 moon landing in a sweater.
In books, blogs and now this movie, these fans carry forth the godhead’s gnostic communiques.
And here you thought “The Shining” was a movie, as in a dazzling aesthetic object, a cultural touchstone, a showcase for Jack Nicholson, a perverse family drama, a fiendishly clever horror story, a triumph of personal vision and yet another Kubrickian technical tour de force — all or none of the above.
For contemporary reviewers it was, like much of Kubrick’s work, a divisive object. Some lavished praise on it, while others picked up an ax, dismissing the film as boring and flaccid, comparing it unfavorably to Stephen King’s book. For his part, King was so dissatisfied that he adapted his novel into a six-hour miniseries called “Stephen King’s The Shining,” leaving no doubt whom he deemed its true auteur.
King and some reviewers might have been unhappy with Kubrick’s adaptation, but it exerted an astonishing, almost hypnotic pull on moviegoers like Geoffrey Cocks, one of the voices that the filmmaker Rodney Ascher has tapped for “Room 237.” (The title refers to an Overlook room.)
Cocks, a history professor at Albion College in Michigan, explains that he wasn’t impressed when he first saw “The Shining.” But it snaked under his skin, and he wondered if he’d missed something. So, “I went back to see it again, and I began to see patterns and details that I hadn’t noticed before,” he says in “Room 237.” “I kept watching the film again and again and again.” And what he found, gleaning significance from props like a typewriter, is “a deeply laid subtext that takes on the Holocaust.”
You never see Cocks in “Room 237,” though if you visit the Albion College website, you can peek at his photo and check out his academic bona fides.
In broad terms “Room 237” is a nonfiction movie — its human and cinematic subjects are real enough — but it’s more of a personal essay than a traditional documentary, specifically in its truth claims. Its five interviewees are chatty (most are men, unsurprising given the film-nerd world), whose voice-overs accompany a stream of visuals. Most of the images have mostly been plucked from “The Shining,” but Ascher also draws on other Kubrick titles, including “2001: A Space Odyssey “and “Barry Lyndon,” along with an assortment of archival material.
Cocks, whose books include “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust,” proves the most rational of these voices because, however tenuously, he grounds his interpretation both in history and the visible evidence that is “The Shining” itself. “Why a German typewriter?” he asks, as Ascher shows the machine in question. An Adler (“eagle” in German), it sits ominously on a desk in the Overlook, where each day Jack Torrance (Nicholson) tries to untap his genius. It’s the same one on which he types — again and again — “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” — the refrain that Kubrick, with music, camera moves, framing and a smothering air of dread, transforms into a portent of evil.
That the typewriter changes color in the film doesn’t shake Cocks. For him the machine is a crucial referent as is the repeat of the number 42 (which appears on a jersey and elsewhere).
“If you put the number 42 and a German typewriter together,” Cocks says, “you get the Holocaust.” All right — but what does that mean? No one says, but, like a dutifully literal (or sly) student, Ascher illustrates this part of Cocks’ thesis by cutting from the notorious tsunami of blood in “The Shining” to a photo of Auschwitz and then back to Kubrick’s red wave. “Because it was in 1942,” Cocks continues, “that the Nazis made the decision to go ahead and exterminate all the Jews they could. And they did so in a highly mechanical” — Ascher cuts back to the typewriter — “industrial and bureaucratic way.”
That sounds bonkers and close to a trivialization of a historical catastrophe, even if Cocks presents a case that’s reinforced by Kubrick’s interest in the Holocaust (it was the subject of one of his unrealized projects, “Aryan Papers”) and by the evil throbbing throughout “The Shining.” The problem is that his reading, at least here, doesn’t resonate as anything but a deeply personal, even private interpretation.
The four other interviewees in “Room 237,” including the entertaining Bill Blakemore, a correspondent for ABC News, advance even less persuasive arguments about Kubrick’s film that are tethered, at times laughably, to what could be just resonant props, continuity errors or — as with a carpet design — tantalizing, teasing emblems of Kubrick’s oft-repeated interest in puzzles and enigmas.
Ascher doesn’t overtly comment on these theories, although his comical insertion of Tom Cruise smashing one gloved hand into another in “Eyes Wide Shut” — to represent the interviewees thinking super-hard — strongly conveys an amused, ironic detachment. Like “The Shining” and its maze within a maze, Ascher’s movie is something of a labyrinth.
Puzzling your way through its compilation of vaguely lucid and crackpot ideas is pleasurable though, for avid movie lovers, it may also feel like a warning.
To listen to one other interviewee, Juli Kearns, talk about an “impossible window” in the Overlook (“It’s like a character in itself, it takes over”), you are reminded (again!) of Susan Sontag’s declaration that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”
Such readings have only proliferated because of the ease with which a film like “The Shining” can be watched, paused and re-watched at the touch of a remote. And part of what makes “Room 237” fascinating to watch and think about (beyond other people’s loopiness) is that it shows how works of art become encrusted with their reception. It’s a process that has only been accelerated by the Internet, where millions of loony and lovely interpretations bloom.
The interviewees in “Room 237” are, of course, just fans of an especially zealous stripe. Yet, in their accumulation of signs, clues and messages, they are also creating an archive of sorts — call it the Kubrick Files — that, however fanciful or paranoid, now exists as an adjunct or even alternative to those of official critical discourse. It’s the revenge of the nerds ad infinitum.