Review: ‘Room 237’ is ‘The Shining’ According to Fans

By  · Published on March 27th, 2013

In 2006, during the initial years of YouTube’s expanding popularity, this mash-up of The Shining went viral. By recasting the tone of Stanley Kubrick’s canonized 1980 horror film as a romantic comedy, complete with a Peter Gabriel song, the video’s act of both subverting and highlighting genre conventions made an incredibly effective case for how audiences can actively rework, rethink, or even contradict some of Hollywood’s most sacred texts.

It’s this particular web 2.0-enabled democratic approach – not only to The Shining, but to movies in general – that lays the groundwork for Rodney Asher’s Room 237, a “subjective documentary” that investigates theories around the most notorious adaptation of any of Stephen King’s novels.

Room 237 lends a microphone to five select uber-fans of The Shining. We never see these fans, and we only peripherally come to understand a bit about them (one is a history professor, another a father who sees his relationship with his son as similar to the one shared between Jack and Danny (!)). Instead, Room 237 devotes its entire running time to letting these individuals expound on their diverse theories about The Shining, while the film’s visual portion exercises these theories through visiting, revisiting, slowing down, and reversing clips from The Shining and Kubrick’s other works, filling out the gaps with clips from other films, both famous and obscure.

In tandem with Christian Marclay’s now-notorious installation The Clock or DJ Spooky’s critical “remixing” of D.W. Griffith with his Rebirth of a Nation, Room 237 adopts the aesthetic approach that simultaneously belongs to the avant-garde, DJs, and YouTube, and utilizes it to investigate a subculture of obsessive media fandom.

The end result is quite uneven in its relationship to the audio track. On the one hand, the filmmakers’ skill at montage gives a sleek degree of weight to the fans’ theories. While this can enable some pretty thorough engagement with their ideas (a shot of Danny in the bathroom revisited and dissected I-don’t-know-how-many-times effectively puts the audience into the subjective space of obsessive fandom), at other times it undermines their interpretations. Clearly, many of these fans are speaking from their memory as well as their resonant emotional engagement with The Shining, while Room 237 (paradoxically) works visually through meticulous textual investigation.

Regardless of the audio-visual means by which they’re assembled, these theories are varied in their ability to convince. Several ideas – like a hidden minotaur-related theme, or one fan who doesn’t waste time before going full-on moon-landing conspiracy – come across as absurd extremes of wishful thinking, while other approaches – like potential allegories related to the genocide of Native Americans and/or Jews during the Holocaust – fluctuate in their ability to convince. All theories are entertaining, even if only by the palpable devotion of the person peddling them. For my money, Room 237’s most interesting ideas have to do with the impossible geography of the Overlook Hotel, with one fan going so far as to make a blueprint for the hotel’s contradictory interior architecture.

Despite my instincts to parse some of these theories, it’s best to watch Room 237 as the depiction of a process of engagement rather than a long-form collective analysis that results in a coherent, in-depth reading of the film. Rarely do these fans’ observations lead to useful conclusions about how it all fits together, what Kubrick was attempting to accomplish, or what greater meaning The Shining acquires as a result. Anyone who goes into this film thinking that any mysteries about The Shining will be assembled together may leave Room 237 more puzzled than when entering.

Room 237 doesn’t so much test theories as it does record exceptional acts of engagement. In this respect, the voices we don’t hear are as significant as the voices we do hear. Roy Walker, The Shining’s production designer, is alive and could, I assume, be asked to weigh in on the Overlook’s geography or the film’s seeming architectural continuity errors. And there are more than a few academics and film historians who could weigh their expertise with or against the fans’ theories about the film and Kubrick himself.

But Room 237 isn’t about them, nor is it about “expertise” in any institutional or formal sense. It’s not about the history of the film’s production, nor even the historical Kubrick’s intentions. Room 237 is about bringing a text to life through an active, prolonged, playful, or even tortured relationship to it. It’s a document of immersive obsession.

By never showing its participants, Room 237 pulls an interesting maneuver: it avoids the potential assumptions we might take away by seeing these people and evaluating their expertise visually. Instead, the film attempts to let their ideas speak for themselves, and puts these ideas to the test with visual information.

Room 237 is ostensibly “about” The Shining. But this is misleading. Room 237 is richer and more interesting as an unprejudiced investigation of The Shining’s devoted fan base. In this respect, the film says volumes about Kubrick’s superhuman legacy, the evolving role of movies in our personal and emotional lives, and what it means for a filmic text to truly belong to the viewer rather than its creator, even when its creator happens to be Stanley Kubrick.

The Upside: Room 237 is an entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking dive into the minds of The Shining’s uber-fans, and a compelling chronicle of the subjective life of fandom at large.

The Downside: As a movie “about” The Shining, it leaves a great deal wanting, so it’s better to see it as a quilt of fans’ diverse, colorful, and harried engagements with the film.

On the Side: Room 237 has been reviewed twice before on FSR, and this illustrates the diverse reactions with which many will likely come away from this film.

On the Other Side: Whoever has seen The Shining forwards and backwards should let me know when the middle point is. I’m intrigued.

Room 237 opens in limited release from IFC Midnight on Friday.