Movies: Room 237

In this documentary, various narrators theorize over hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The viewer never sees the faces of these speakers; instead, visual interest is added by using not only clips from The Shining (to illustrate the points being made) but also other Kubrick films and even old newsreels and cartoons as well.

As someone with a degree in radio-television-film and cultural communication, I always get a kick out of reading/hearing/seeing someone deconstruct something. I like being given these kinds of things to think about. I like having these kinds of things to discuss with others. That's my idea of a fun night (sad but true): a group of people at a dinner table, hashing out a book or movie or whatever. So Room 237 is a home version of this, and on that score I enjoyed watching it.

Of course, I do have to wonder why some people (people not in the industry or academia, you know, just the average person) feel compelled to take something like The Shining apart. But then, I suppose I'm not the only person in the world who finds it amusing to do so. And yet, after being forced to do it for so many years, I seldom take the initiative to break down a film so thoroughly as these people do The Shining. I have other things to do; maybe they don't. They've clearly watched the film repeatedly, whereas I've only managed to sit through it once.

Honestly, I'm no big fan of Kubrick, though I can admire and concede his talent. I found The Shining incredibly boring, but if what these narrators say is true, I should have been paying better attention. The theorists, however, come off as a bit obsessive. They all appear to be fans not only of The Shining but of Kubrick in general, and one has to then view their hypotheses through that bias. They are not passive observers; they have something to prove, whether it be that their specific theories are "correct" and somehow provable, or that Kubrick was a genius and worthy of all the admiration they've bestowed on him, or that repeated viewings of The Shining are not a waste of time and there really is something to be drawn out of the text.

One narrator discusses The Shining as an allegory for Colonization and the mass murder of the Native Americans. Another sees the film as being about the Holocaust. Yet another is fixated on the spacial relations in the house (she's made a map of the hotel as represented in the film); there's also discussion of the labyrinth. And of course there's a whole sex subtext—though if you've seen The Shining, you know a lot of the sex stuff isn't all that subtle. But the really amazing idea, I have to say, is the one that Kubrick hid clues throughout the film to let people know he helped the government fake the moon landing. Wow.

Here's the thing. I absolutely believe that Kubrick was the kind of guy to hide clues in his films. He was a very deliberate kind of filmmaker. He had a strong belief in cinema as a message, and he put those little messages in his work, like a children's book with hidden pictures. Kubrick was interested in the way the mind works: subliminal messages, dreams, conscious versus subconscious. What is seen and not seen, what is seen but doesn't register . . . Maybe that alone is a good reason to watch his films a few times over (if you can stand to, which I cannot).

But then we get into "author intent." We get into "encoding" and "decoding" of text. Is it really in there? Did he really mean that? And does it matter if he did? What people take away from a book or a movie or even a song . . . That is the bottom line. That is all that matters. If a writer or director wants to get a very specific point across, he had best be clear about it. Otherwise, if he relies on the audience to decode something very subtle, he may fail in getting his message to them at all. A few may "get it," but more may not.

This isn't to say one should beat one's viewer or reader over the head with something. But themes, if important to the creator, should be clear so that those engaging with the text can find them.

Unless, of course, Kubrick only put these things in to satisfy himself. Or to test his audiences.

I'd say he may not have realized it at all, that it may all have been subconscious on his part, but I believe Kubrick was a careful enough filmmaker not to have had that happen (much). For me, as a writer, I often don't realize my themes or through lines until after I've finished something; even then, sometimes someone has to point them out to me and ask, "Did you mean . . .?" But unlike Kubrick, I'm also not trying to be Freudian about anything. I just like playing with characters, setting them up and seeing what they do in different situations.

I'm getting off topic here, but you surely get the gist. At any rate, Room 237 is an interesting documentary, if only to show how deep down the rabbit hole one can go if one is willing to take that plunge. And yet . . . There's the sense, too, that some of these narrators are really reaching, striving to prove their points. I won't say any of the arguments are invalid—it's all subjective and who am I to judge?—but some at least seem to sit on firmer ground than others.

Still, Room 237 is a great potential starting point for longer, deeper discussions. Turn it into a home game with some friends: Pick a movie and then "Room 237" it by having everyone come up with some crazy theory. (Note: You may have to give everyone a week or so to research and/or re-view the film in question. Kind of like a book club. But it would be a "Room 237" film deconstruction club. Hey . . . Did I just make a "thing"? Cool.)

Ah, but did Kubrick diss Stephen King by showing that red Volkswagen crushed by a semi? Discuss!

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