A movie, freed from the shackles of auteurism, has a life of its own. It exists as a text of its own, influencing the lives of others in ways the original author may not have intended, or even imagined. We would never know the original meaning, the truth, of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece, The Shining—Kubrick is no longer with us (not that he would’ve cared to share his intentions)—so it is left to us mere mortals to find meaning in a film littered with symbolism that is just slightly out of reach of the casual viewers. The drops of small details that could mean something is as appealing and captivating as the actual horror thrills that keep the audience on the edge of their seats. You will watch it for the horror, but you will stay for the mystery.
Some have stayed for a long time. Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 features five of these “analysts” (Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan and Jay Weidner) whose obsession prompted them to stay perhaps too long. Very much a film about the obsessive fandom as it is about Kubrick’s masterpiece, Ascher’s seemingly orthodox video essay-like documentary cleverly weaves through its own narrative of details and immersive viewing as to replicate the very method its five subjects are attempting to perform on their favourite film.
Those looking for an insightful interpretation of the film may be disappointed. It is not to say that all the arguments put forth by the analysts are unrestrained conspiracy theories based on over-analysis and far-fetched extra-textual connections—some such as the discussion on the (impossible) filmic space is (partially) adequate enough to be considered a good textual analysis. Yet once the film delves into highly questionable theories (most notably the moon landing conspiracy), the audience is bound to question the validity of these analysts. It throws off the audience maybe because the film begins by adopting an essayist form, that the commentators are there to provide deeper insights to casual viewers, clearly imposing some sort of intellectual hierarchy. The deviation may seem jarring to some. Others may find it hilarious.
Room 237 is as much as a parody of these commentators as it is a medium to put forth their ideas… The film’s strength comes not in the way it speaks, but the way it listens and observes.
Most of the film is a carefully edited and assembled collage of Kubrick’s films, not only the scenes from The Shining, but also from a wide variety of sources such as Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sometimes they directly refer to what the commentators are speaking about or cleverly infer certain kinds of feelings or emotions that may or may not be congruent with the commentators’ arguments. Ascher’s direction shines in this endless stream of re-arranged footage, where he freely listens, comments and intervenes visually without saying a single word. The film’s strength comes not in the way it speaks, but the way it listens and observes.
When each commentator introduces him/herself, Ascher refuses to give faces to their voices. Indeed, we never actually see the faces of these five people, only hear their voices. It is not to say they are without their bodily form, however; one commentator is represented in the form of Tom Cruise from Eyes Wide Shut, perhaps alluding to Ascher’s own perception of him without disclosing it explicitly. The facelessness begins to destabilize the very reliability of these commentators, and the voices speak through hollow apparition that fails to ground itself to the real world.
Ascher excels in playing around with these unreliable subjects, creating audio-visual dissonance that frequently questions and perhaps objectifies their obsession enough to the point they become the true object of its study. Early in the film, one of the commentators reminisces his first experience of the film, that he “grabbed [his] belt buckle with [his] left hand”; Ascher, however, in a dramatized reenactment, refuses to show this and instead shows the man’s right hand grabbing the seat. Or, in another case, one commentator claims there is a face of Stanley Kubrick painted in the clouds in a certain shot, and Ascher, while showing the exact shot, clearly showcases it is not visible (Ascher clearly points out the details in discussion throughout the film). The director may not be commenting directly, but it is a form of authorial intervention that Ascher smartly inserts to comment on his subjects’ analyses.
It is an odd way of directing what is seemingly a very expository topic, yet it pays off. By questioning the reliability of his subjects, Ascher forces the audience to view Room 237 in an active way—much like how the five commentators watch The Shining. The film does not simply tell a story about The Shining, the theories surrounding The Shining, or the people who are obsessed with and creates theories about The Shining, but engages the viewers to dissect its own text (and The Shining) to a micro-scale, simulating the obsessive culture that captivated its subjects for so long. In that sense, it fuses three levels of its topic in a formal harmony and moves fluently from one level to another. It is an interesting companion to The Shining, but certainly a worthy documentary in its own right.