Film Review – Room 237
Few things are more fun than sitting back and debating films with friends. One of the most obsessed-over films has been Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the new documentary Room 237, the filmmakers hope to shed some light on what makes the film a beloved treasure for cinephiles around the world, and explore some of the wild and outlandish theories about the movie.
I have two separate trains of thought when it comes to film criticism. I love learning more about films, and appreciating the nuance that is involved with the production. There is definitely a wide spectrum of skill among film directors, and it is amazing to see the level of detail that the great ones achieve. The alternative mindset is that, at a certain point, film criticism ceases to be enlightening and begins to become excessive. Part of the joy of film is letting your imagination run with the material, so when everything you believe is shredded, it removes the fun from watching a film and begins to make it feel like a chore.
There are a lot of intriguing concepts explored about The Shining in Room 237. It discusses ideas from Kubrick’s supposed intent on referencing everything from the Holocaust and the genocide of the Native Americans to Kubrick’s alleged involvement with a fabrication of the moon landing. The theories, while outlandish, do have some fascinating supporting evidence. The “expert” subjects do a great job of dissecting selected scenes for exploration of these ideas, noting small details that Kubrick selected that could easily forgotten. It is abundantly clear that Kubrick is one of those directors—much like folks such as Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson today—who had such an acute eye for detail that there is nothing within the frame that wasn’t put there explicitly. In addition to the fantastic work in breaking down the composition of frames in Kubrick’s film, I found the most fun part to be the examination of the layout of the Overlook Hotel and the implications of impossible floorplans. While there is no question that movie magic exists in creating these fiction locations, the manipulation of the space by Kubrick was far from accidental.
One of the unique aspects of Room 237 is that while it uses clips from The Shining to extract information, the rest of the “story” is told from clips of other movies (many of which are other Kubrick movies), so that instead of individuals telling their story on camera, they only narrate over clips that reflect certain emotions or experiences. This is a unique approach to documentary filmmaking, and is certainly a step up from re-enactments, but can be very distracting at times when you are trying to figure out which films are being used for references and the context of the clip. Additionally, this approach ends up feeling a little sterile, and while we’re given title cards for the people giving their commentary, I have some trouble feeling like they are really “experts” without ever actually seeing them on screen. Sure, this isn’t a problem when their theories feel plausible, but when it feels like they are stretching (and there are certainly a fair number of ideas in the movie that are debatable) it adds credibility to the dissension against them—as if they aren’t willing to truly stand behind their theories.
The biggest problem, though, is what is missing. With a movie as rich in content as The Shining, perhaps it would be impossible to address everything without making the documentary three hours long, or a series, but some of the most signature moments are left unanswered. For instance, it never discusses the scene with the butler and bear at the end of movie—one of the most unforgettable images. But it spends a minute or two discussing the theory that the sign for “ROOM No 237” is Kubrick’s nod to working on faking the moon landing, because as a sort of anagram it could be a reference to the “Moon Room” where that was supposedly filmed, and because those are the only words formed from the capitalized letters. Even stranger, though, frankly, is that the discussion of Room 237 actually feels a little lacking; besides a quick scene at the end, it is largely glossed over. There is no question that the subjects interviewed in the movie are extremely knowledgeable about The Shining, but it feels that they are so fixated at times that they miss the forest for the trees, as the expression goes.
It isn’t often you run into documentaries that suffer from information overload, but Room 237 feels like one. There are so many ideas presented that it feels like you are speeding through them, and unfortunately most of them aren’t given the attention they deserve. Much like the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, I think the film would have been better served focusing on the narrative instead of including everything and the kitchen sink.
Final Grade: B-