TIFF 2012 Review: ROOM 237 Axes Film Theory, Blows Minds

James Marsh, Asian Editor

Few films have the power to truly haunt their audience in a way Stanley Kubrick's The Shining does, and continues to do, 30 years after its initial release. Like many of Kubrick's films, it received a relatively lukewarm reception upon initial release (Kubrick even received a Razzie nomination for Worst Director), with Variety and Roger Ebert both initially giving the film negative reviews.

Many fans of the Stephen King novel, upon which the film is based, were upset with Kubrick's fairly loose adaptation, while the film's languid pacing and relatively low body count ran contrary to the slasher flicks that were popular in 1980. The years have been kind to Kubrick's film, however, and it is now widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time, sitting comfortably among the director's most beloved works.

There are some fans of the film, however, who appreciate more than its startling imagery, blood-curdling atmosphere and the deranged powerhouse performance by Jack Nicholson at the film's centre. Some believe that The Shining is riddled with hidden messages and deeper meanings that go way beyond its surface tale of isolation, obsession and even alcoholism. And this is where Rodney Ascher's delightfully bizarre documentary Room 237 comes in. A series of extended interviews with experts and obsessives of The Shining, the film, in some cases, pieces together fascinating arguements about symbolism clearly inherent in the film's make-up, while at other times appears to be indulging the absurd rantings of ridiculous obsessives willing to see meaning in almost anything.

The strength of Ascher's film is in its presentation, and its refusal to take sides with or against these closeted conspiracy theorists. Instead, the film simply unfolds with them imparting their knowledge, ideas and paranoid musings, intercut with the relevant moments from the film or footage from other films in Kubrick's oeuvre, used as illustrations or even reenactments when necessary. We are given little information about who each of Ascher's five "experts" are, rather allowing their testimonies to speak for themselves, and the results are by turns hilarious, revelatory and utterly bewildering - but always totally enthralling.

The theories themselves run the gamut from pointing out small details in the film's mise-en-scene to incredibly broad and sweeping gestures about Kubrick's past, the state of his marriage, and even his loyalty to his country. I'm reluctant to reveal the different accusations levelled at The Shining in any great detail, as half the fun of the film is not knowing where it is going to take you. However, in order to highlight the extremes to which Ascher goes - or allows his speakers to take us - I will reveal that at different stages in Room 237 Jack Torrance's (Jack Nicholson) sexuality is called into question along with that of hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), new importance is given to the tiny role of Barry Dennen's Bill Watson, and at one moment we are even asked to believe that Kubrick's own face actually appears in the cloud formations above the Overlook Hotel.

However, these moments are merely examples of late-night musings by bored stoners compared to the larger themes explored in Room 237. Most memorable, and probably the most believable of which is that Kubrick weaves a strong subtext into The Shining condemning the poor treatment of Native Americans by the first pilgrim settlers. Everything from a tin of baking soda to a poster adorning the rec room wall takes on new meaning in the hands of Ascher's conspiracy theorists, and knowing Kubrick's obsessive nature and attention to detail, it soon becomes impossible to dismiss this theory as merely a string of coincidences. The film's coup de grace however is best left unrevealed, suffice to say it ties together Danny's sweater, the patterns in the carpet, and Kubrick's previous collaborations with Douglas Trumbull into a jaw-dropping revelation that purports The Shining to be a single grand confession to his wife about a secret he was never able to reveal. Exactly what that secret is is best left for the film itself to expose.

Regardless of what you think of the theories and imagery being constantly pointed out in Ascher's film, there is no denying that the whole affair is extraordinarily entertaining - and the better you know Kubrick's film, the more you will get from the whole experience. It appears that many festivals are screening Ascher's film back to back with The Shining, and really this is the ideal way to watch it, as the minute Room 237 is over, you will be compelled to re-watch Kubrick's film, whether to marvel at "the impossible window" or realise for yourself the true importance of "Room No. 237". The result is a hilarious, mind-blowing, one-of-a-kind experience that is also one of the year's very best films.


(Review originally published during the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) in July 2012. The film will screen at TIFF today, and also on Saturday and Sunday. )

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  • Jimi LaMort

    I agree with WiredRacing, i thought it was some lazy film making too. Having seen Jay Weidner's smart film about The Shining already, i thought ROOM 237 was just trying to write his ideas off as crazy by putting his theory besides some people with very questionable theories. Then again they focused on some of the nuttier ideas from Weidner so perhaps they did the same with the "experts". I expected a smart incisive film on film theory and all i got was a film focused on making The Shining film experts look insane. It is a documentary that tries to make us laugh instead of seeking out the ideas presented by the narrators.

  • WiredRacing

    Yeeeaaaaaahhhh. This was very disappointing. I thought it was some damned lazy documentary filmmaking to boot. While I think some theories are obvious (the thread about native indians) because the movie basically makes that link, some are just coincidental and random. The fact they spend time hypothesizing over "interesting" images created when the movie running backward is super imposed over the movie running forwards is just ridiculous and most defiantly not planned or staged. Yeah wow, those two things do sort of line up... BECAUSE THEY'RE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE F#$@ING FRAME. I would have preferred a much more indepth analysis of the movie. I mean there's no explanation about the bear costume, no one voices a theory on it short of something convoluted about the cold war and the bear being a Russian symbol. While I do find some ideas suggested about Apollo 11/Moon Landing interesting, I think they're probably just that. There COULD be something there but not to the extent the quacks seem to think it is. Kubrick took 40+ weeks to shoot that movie to grind everyone down. Continuity problems are just that. The director argued it would be harder to screw up the continuity than to do it right. Dood, 40+ weeks. I don't care how many Polaroids they have of the scene. An audience member mentioned his own "finding" when watching the movie the previous night. A piece of paper taken out of the typewriter is not replaced but there it is in the next shot. Look the explanation is very easy for this one, maybe, just maybe... they edited that footage out. What do you think? They shot the movie one way and then edited some extraneous crap out. Or you know, maybe Kubrick chose an earlier take, before items were added to a scene and decided those performances were better and wasn't worried about a chair missing in the background. The movie was made by obsessive film geeks for obsessive film geeks, that does not make it "good" and I don't even think it made it fascinating. Like I'm supposed to be awed there are people with far too much time on their hands? I'm sad to say, of the 12 I saw this year, this was probably the most disappointing. It could have been so much more and it's just voices rambling about things, a la "The Number 23". pththththth...

  • Wilson Huff

    Really looking forward to seeing this. Out of curiosity how in-depth is the "Shining as a Holocaust film" theory covered? That's the only one I really know of.

  • Jimi LaMort

    None of the theories were covered in depth, instead it seemed like the film makers were poking fun at these commentators.

  • chuck

    I hope that Rob Ager is one of the people involved in this. He has some really good talking points for this film and I highly recommend watching his video analysis of The Shinning. Maybe he is since you mention the Native American symbolism...

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