In Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s spellbinding and brilliantly edited new essay-film, a handful of writers, historians, and armchair critics offer up spirited, though sometimes baffling, interpretations of The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic. The theories range from the conspiratorial to the ideological. One interviewee believes that Kubrick was hired by NASA to shoot fake footage of the Apollo moon landing, covert references to which are embedded within the film. Others argue that the source of the film’s horrors lie in the repressed genocides on which Western civilization is founded. Another viewer of the film confesses to spending hours watching and re-watching the film in search of those small visual details, often related to Kubrick’s use of objects and on-screen space, that don’t make sense (what we might call, invoking Derrida, deconstructive moments); after attempting quite literally to map the film, she decides with a kind of amused astonishment that it ultimately defies coherence.
Unsuspecting viewers of Room 237 may find themselves equally confused, though probably less pleased, by the theoretical questions it raises. Where in a text do we look for meaning? Can multiple, even conflicting, interpretations co-exist simultaneously? Those going into the film with the attitude that The Shining is “only a movie” will likely respond to Room 237 with frustration, head-scratching, or laughter; being an academic, I find it to be a superb visual illustration of what Roland Barthes famously called the pleasures of the text—the notion that any cultural object is laden with boundless meaning, and that such meaning rewards our critical investigation.
Room 237 is probably the most exciting film that’s ever likely to be made about textual analysis. Some of its subjects’ interpretations are more convincing than others; as with any interpretive argument, the better the textual evidence, the stronger the case is likely to be. While the moon landing theory feels somewhat far-fetched, it’s more difficult to deny that The Shining engages with what one of the interviewees calls “the impingement of the past on the present,” which is to say the ways in which past traumas, whether national or familial, continually come back to haunt us. But one of the most delightful and surprising things about Room 237 is that even the more absurd readings of the film occasionally open onto moments of fascinating insight: a telltale pattern in a carpet, a piece of clothing, a misplaced chair. The readings also overlap and coincide in strange and subtle ways, as the interviewees arrive at similar conclusions despite having taken alternate routes, or produce radically different readings of the same images.
If nothing else, Room 237 convinces us of the dazzling richness of Kubrick’s film, and of the strange power it continues to hold over viewers. With its mazes and mirrors, The Shining is the quintessential “over-determined” text. Remarkably, considering that it was somewhat coolly received upon its initial release, The Shining has become an object of cinephilic obsession rivaled only perhaps by Citizen Kane or Hitchcock’s films. Borges famously called Citizen Kane “a labyrinth without a center,” and Room 237 invites us to wonder whether we might say the same about The Shining. Ascher wisely does not end up privileging any of his interviewees’ theories, nor does he advance any argument of his own, other than to insist on the pleasures of playing in that labyrinth…for ever and ever and ever.