Room 237 Indulges The Shining's Conspiracy Authorities

Here's the kind of theory that the five interviewees in Rodney Ascher's Room 237 have come up with about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining: One believes that it's an allegory about the genocide of Native Americans. Another that it's instead about the Holocaust. Or that it's Kubrick's coded confession that he faked the moon landing. Ascher's subjects aren't garden-variety kooks: Native American–genocide-theorist Bill Blakemore is a veteran journalist, while Geoffrey Cocks, who sees the Holocaust in the Overlook Hotel, is a history professor. Director Ascher adopts a radically nonjudgmental approach, allowing the viewer to be seduced—or not—by his subjects' ideas. The theorists are heard but never seen; most of the images come from The Shining itself (the copyright negotiations probably could make the subject of a whole other film).

Even if the theories don't persuade you, the film fascinates. It's revelatory about the nature of spectatorship in an era when technology allows audiences to watch films frame by frame. When much of the American public believes that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim, Room 237 evokes the appeal of conspiracy theories while refusing to endorse or completely disavow them. And without ever referring explicitly to academic theory, the film engages with some of the grand ideas that have preoccupied it over the past 50 years. And it's fun.

Much of it plays out like this. In The Shining, Danny, the boy, is shown wearing a T-shirt with the number 42 on it: Cocks argues that this must be a reference to the year 1942, a key point in time for the Shoah. Jack Nicholson's character uses a German-made typewriter, a detail so tiny that Kubrick couldn't have expected most viewers to catch but one that Cocks seizes. He sees the typewriter as a symbol of Nazi bureaucracy and even does some numerology, arguing that numbers glimpsed throughout the film add up to that "42."


Room 237
Directed by Rodney Ascher
IFC Midnight
Opens March 29 at the IFC Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center

Read More: Here Are Five Awesome/Crazy Theories About The Shining from Room 237

The methods of Room 237's theorists are less like the work of film critics than those found on a conspiracy theory site like, which argues that Lil Wayne videos glorify CIA mind-control programs. When Vigilant Citizen turns to film reviews, it offers thuddingly literal takes on The Cabin in the Woods's anti-war allegory and Videodrome's cautionary tale about the power of TV. Blakemore and Cocks insist they're exposing something of great importance by connecting The Shining to the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans, but they're really quite distant from present-day politics.

The postmodern notion of the "death of the author" is both exemplified bythe interpretations in Room 237 anddisavowed by its subjects. The versionsof The Shining devised by Blakemore, Cocks, and company are their owninventions, but the theorists insist that Kubrick was a genius puzzle master who micromanaged the smallest details in his films. As critic Michael Sicinski has pointed out, the weirder their interpretations get, the more wedded they become to the idea that Kubrick was responsible for every detail—even the mistakes. In their versions of The Shining, there's no such thing as a continuity error.

If the death of the author began in the '60s, the empowerment of the reader (or viewer) started to happen via home video technology. The subjects of Room 237 are products of it, although the film seems fiercely ambivalent about the ways the VCR and DVD players have changed spectatorship. On one hand, home video has enabled filmmakers to make essay-films as powerful as Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema and Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself. Video technology has also made room for people to study The Shining frame by frame a dozen times and conclude that Kubrick faked the moon landing. This leads to new, more poetic forms of viewing and criticism, such as a screening (re-created in the documentary) where The Shining is projected simultaneously forward and backward. It also paves the way for dangerous levels of obsession and a nerdy disconnection from reality.

Room 237's lack of judgment enables its spectators to get lost in a delirium of interpretation. Rodney Ascher isn't celebrating or endorsing any of the views he presents—to my mind, the Native American genocide allegory is the only one that contains any substance—but he suggests there's something to be gained from understanding people's eagerness to embrace them. Just imagine the same movie, but made about birthers or truthers, and you'll have some idea of the philosophical stakes Ascher is playing with. While it may not match the aesthetic heights of Gravity's Rainbow or Out 1, Room 237 picks up where Thomas Pynchon's and Jacques Rivette's expertly imagined conspiracies left off, cleverly making use of the visual material his subjects riff on, and plunging us down a wormhole of theorizing, enabled by the echo chamber of the Internet and Blu-ray spins.

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Surely the esteemed writers of such articles as this, are not opposed to, and would not make light of, art lovers analyzing artistic works at multiple levels?. The 'Room 237' film even mentions this obvious point- that these hidden subtexts, meanings and "clues" very well might not even be the intent of the artist. Methinks some critics and writers, might be quite ignorant about the subject of art analyses and appreciation in general. Take for example, Bob Dylan's 'Visions of Johanna.' This song can be interpreted on any number of levels. It's not even a matter of "my analysis is correct, and yours wrong." it simply lends itself to myriad interpretations and various meanings. This comes to mind as well- James Joyce is on record as making the following statement regarding his novel Ulysses - "This should keep intellectuals busy for the next two hundred years." Indeed it has. This is part of the fun and enjoyment of art, and would anyone disagree with this obvious fact? However, if such analyses are framed in such a way as "I've cracked the Da Vinci Code" then yes, that borders on ridiculous.

If any director is worthy of scholarly, detailed analysis, it is Kubrick. This Bronx-born, high school drop-out, self-taught/autodidact, with an IQ of 190, did the near impossible during the span of his career- He created films with mass audience and commercial appeal, and yet of the level and artistic significance of a Bergman, Fellini, or Antonioni film- Auteur directors much less accessible to the American movie going public and the causal moviegoer's palate. It's no wonder at all, that many of his fans would read deeper meanings into his films, than what might appear at the surface, and certainly it would be hard to argue that this type of mental exercise and detailed analysis would be a negative thing. History may prove me wrong, but I doubt there will ever be another Stanley Kubrick.


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