Rodney Ascher’s new documentary Room 237 is an enjoyable journey to one of the many peculiar fringes of cinematic preoccupation. It’s an investigation of sorts into Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, one of the emblematic works for which the whole somehow seems to amount to much more than the sum of the parts. Ascher builds his film around five unseen commentators, all after years of reflection and multiple close viewings proposing different paths into the film. One detects references to the treatment of native Americans; another to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust; another sees it as Kubrick’s hidden acknowledgment of his role in faking the footage of the Apollo 11 movie landings.
Filming The Shining
Kubrick’s film, you’ll likely recall, was based on Stephen King’s novel about a troubled man, Jack Torrance, who takes a job as a winter janitor in a remote Colorado resort hotel, bringing along his wife and young son, who has telepathic powers; under the hotel’s malign influence (emanating in particular from the supernatural imprint of a predecessor janitor who went mad and murdered his family), Torrance loses his bearings completely. I haven’t seen the film in a few years, and I haven’t read the book for decades, but I remember having mixed feelings when I first saw it – as many others did – about Kubrick’s dumping of much of King’s backstory, barely allowing us any time with the pre-crisis Torrance (the coarsening of Jack Nicholson’s image seems to date from his performance here). King himself disliked the movie, and later wrote and produced his own more faithful version for TV.
I now imagine that Kubrick assessed the source material as being essentially somewhat silly, and understood that normal concepts of “causality” and “motivation” and suchlike rapidly become absurd in such contexts; at the same time of course, suspending or short-circuiting these concepts allows huge potential creative flexibility and evocative power. One of the (I think) most prescient comments in Room 237 posits that The Shining works as a kind of dream in which elements of a fraught past circulate, and in which the film’s present represents an attempt to grapple with it (Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut seems to have flowed from a similar intention). To the extent it only encompasses the specific traumas of the hotel, this “waking dream” theory might seem largely obvious, but Room 237 is intermittently quite persuasive in arguing that Kubrick broadened the effect by implanting or knowingly allowing some or all of the historical events I mentioned to echo through the film, and it’s very informative on how aspects of design and artfully broken continuity contribute to this.
Even more than most films, little in The Shining is accidental. The sets were constructed entirely in England, somewhat based on, but in no way scrupulously faithful to, an actual hotel in Colorado; everything the commentators latch onto, whether the labels on cans of food, or the lettering of a room key, reflects some kind of deliberate decision of design or procurement (by someone anyway, if not necessarily by Kubrick). Because The Shining is so concentrated, and is so visually precise and uncluttered, and because of Kubrick’s immense attention to light and design, and his facility with startling swerves of behaviour and expression, his images carry immense weight; watching them before video and DVD, it’s no surprise if audiences carried the constant sense of something escaping them.
But does this in any way constitute a kind of “code” that demands to be broken? Girish Shambu argues, not unfairly, that Room 237 is essentially a “representation of the practice of film criticism,” and as such sees two problems in the film: that the practice “often comes across as outré, freakish or crackpot” and that “film criticism here is a largely apolitical, hermetic activity that moves inwards, carving out a self-enclosed space, the space of a cognitive puzzle, a puzzle to be solved based on clues well hidden by a genius filmmaker.” He goes on: “Spotting hidden references to the Holocaust or to the genocide of Native Americans is not in itself a critically or politically reflective activity. The Shining (while being a wonderful film, for many reasons) simply does not engage with these weighty historical traumas. It is not ‘about’ them in any meaningful way. And neither does it have to be in order to be a great film. But when Room 237 represents film analysis in a manner that treats it as little more than a clever puzzle-solving exercise, it gives no hint as to the social value and political/aesthetic worth of this public activity. It never intuits what is truly at stake in the activity of paying close, analytical attention to films.”
I think those are entirely fair comments, if you accept the initial premise that Room 237 is in some sense about film criticism. But I don’t think that’s really the case. For one thing, film criticism is always inevitably a function of the critic’s own ideology, sensibility and so forth as much as of the film itself. But Ascher goes out of his way to withhold this element from Room 237 – we never see the commentators, and pick up only stray bits of biographical detail about them (at one point, one of them interrupts himself to go and deal with a crying child, a rather curious editing decision which at least confirms we’re not listening solely to a series of friendless loons). He could plainly have tried to adjudicate some of this, by bringing in people who worked on the film (Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s assistant of the time, has said he “was falling about laughing most of the time,” while watching Room 237, adding: “There are ideas espoused in the movie that I know to be total balderdash”) or appealing to more distanced commentators for perspective. Absent any of this, the film becomes more of an abstracted reverie (I doubt many viewers will keep all of the commentators separate in their minds – certainly I couldn’t) on engagement and possibility and, whether they’d acknowledge it or not, play. Shambu’s absolutely right: Ascher never says to them, basically, well even if you’re right, so what? - what do we now know about (say) the Holocaust that we didn’t before? But in this context you can see that as an act of benevolence rather than omission.
Frankly, as filmic obsessions go, we’re dealing in a fairly elevated neighbourhood here. I’m sure the majority of obsessive multiple viewing in the world is directed towards things like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars series, an exercise which truly has no purpose other than to remove you from real concerns and to cement your identity as a hapless tool of calculated corporatism. The commentators in Room 237 may not be spending all their time as productively as they could, but at least they’re in an extended conversation of sorts with a work of art, which is more than most people ever manage to sustain.