One of the great movies about movies, “Room 237” takes permanent residence in the icy labyrinth that is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” — and in the mind of anyone compelled to see pop art as worthy of obsession. Tailor-made for the era of YouTube (and of intellectual property debate), Rodney Ascher’s clip-laden docu is film criticism by mouse click, lingering over the visual details of Kubrick’s horror classic in the company of five haunted cineastes heard in voiceover. That these fans’ revelations run the gamut from ingenious to inane does nothing to diminish the pic’s aptly Kubrickian study of human flailing.
Among other things, Ascher’s playfully inquisitive docu contemplates the relationships between the late Kubrick’s 1980 provocation and the Holocaust, the televised depiction of the Apollo moon landing, the genocide of Native Americans, and, uh, numerology. But the greatest mystery here may be whether Ascher’s analytical assemblage of studio-film clips — not just from Warners’ “The Shining,” but from the bulk of Kubrick’s oeuvre, as well as everything from “Schindler’s List” to “Jesus Christ Superstar” — can earn Stateside theatrical release within U.S. fair-use law. Befitting its inspiration from online file-sharing, “Room 237” could well end up circulating primarily through illicit download.
Cueing the “Shining” Blu-ray disc as needed, Ascher runs scenes from the film forward and (literally) backward in order to annotate the alternately incisive and screwy theories of his fixated subjects — journalist, professor, musician, playwright and so-called “conspiracy hunter.” If nothing else, “Room 237” illustrates the benefits of digital video to film scholarship and the appropriateness of Kubrick’s work to remote-control jiggering, as the legendarily fastidious auteur left virtually nothing to chance while designing films that invariably demand and reward multiple viewings.
First to speak is journalist Bill Blakemore, who recalls being struck by early “Shining” posters in Britain touting the “wave of terror that swept across America,” even though the film hadn’t yet opened Stateside. Surmising that the referenced wave is something even more horrific, Blakemore explicates Kubrick’s unfaithful adaptation of Stephen King’s novel as an allegory of the slaughter of American Indians. Evidence includes the fact that the film’s Overlook Hotel is said to have been built on Indian burial grounds, and that its subtle use of Native images is symbolic.
Professor Geoffrey Cocks, author of “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust,” identifies the typewriter of Jack Nicholson’s murderously crazed Jack Torrance as a German model and notes the prevalence in the film of the number 42, asserting that Kubrick used it as a reference to the year in which the Nazis implemented the Final Solution.
Playwright and author Juli Kearns pores over the Overlook’s architecture as revealed through Kubrick’s elaborate Steadicam shots, constructing detailed maps and concluding not only that certain aspects of the hotel’s space simply couldn’t exist in real life, but that the genius director intended it that way in order to give the movie a subliminally supernatural charge.
Musician and blogger John Fell Ryan offers that he once hosted a dual-projection screening of “The Shining” in which a reverse-running version of the pic was superimposed on the proper one. Ascher repeats the trick as Ryan points out variously spooky bits of inverse symmetry, such as the way in which Kubrick’s opening helicopter shot resembles a twisted postcard when wedded to the film’s concluding image of Torrance circa 1921.
If the docu’s most convincing commentary is Ryan’s, including his acknowledgement that an all-work-and-no-play addiction to “The Shining” has made him a dull boy, author Jay Weidner’s rambling ruminations on the Overlook’s Room 237 are the most enjoyably farfetched. For Weidner, “237” corresponds to the soundstage where Kubrick supposedly shot bogus moon footage in 1969 on orders from NASA.
With Ascher’s brilliant editing subtly teasing the participants for their sillier comments, there’s a sense in which “Room 237” mirrors Kubrick’s film as a work of genre satire. Certainly the docu, like “The Shining” itself, has much to do with the past’s power to haunt those in the present and future.
Handsomely produced and never less than hugely entertaining, Ascher’s film is catnip for Kubrickians and critics both professional and otherwise. Additionally, in the spirit of documaker Mark Rappaport’s pioneering plays with old Hollywood clips (“Rock Hudson’s Home Movies”), it’s a low-budget but priceless articulation of the virtues of fair use.
As it appears onscreen, the film’s full, “Barry Lyndon”-esque title is “Room 237: Being an Inquiry Into ‘The Shining’ in 9 Parts.”