They Might Be Ghosts
Stanley Kubrick's films were experiences unto themselves already, but home video gave the proverbial floodgates a serious nudging. The advent of DVD and especially high-def Blu-ray revealed Kubrick's trickster nature even more, allowing fans to spot signs of "encoded" messages that may or may not have been intentional. But lest you think this applies only to heavy, smarty-pants works like 2001 or Eyes Wide Shut, Rodney Ascher's Room 237 extends the rabbit hole to include 1980's The Shining. Ascher's documentary doesn't condone any of the theories its participants share about Kubrick and how they say the famous thriller was meant to be seen. But it makes the excellent case that what several saw as a cinema master slumming it in horror may be one of his grandest labyrinths ever.
Upon its release, The Shining encountered a mixed reception. Some took it at face value as a fright flick, some viewed it as below a director of Kubrick's capabilities, and Stephen King fumed that so much of his best-selling novel was altered. But for Room 237's five interviewees, a film about Jack Nicholson going bonkers at a hotel struck much deeper chords than they ever imagined it would. How did journalist Bill Blakemore interpret the picture as an allegory for the genocide of American Indians? What led college professor Geoffrey Cocks to pick up on supposed undertones of Nazism? You can agree with their claims or laugh them off, but through movie clips, re-enactments, and animated diagrams, Ascher shows that for his subjects, The Shining is no mere ghost story.
It goes without saying that I didn't read into The Shining as deeply as the talking heads in Room 237. There's no question that it's an ambiguous piece of work, in that you're never quite sure if Jack Nicholson's character is acting out his own delusions or if there really is a malevolent force exploiting his inner demons for their gain. On the other hand, Kubrick sure liked to mess with his audience, so it's entirely plausible that he inserted a variety of visual clues and subliminal messages to set viewers on a cinematic treasure hunt. Ascher's master stroke in Room 237 isn't that he puts stock in any one or all of the commentators' opinions but that he supports the possibility of them being true. Kubrick probably didn't use The Shining to admit that he faked the Apollo 11 moon landing or craft the story into a modern-day Greek myth...but given his reputation, who knows for sure?
In an addictive, late-night, YouTube-surfing tradition, Room 237 does a brilliant job of snapping viewers to attention. Initially, Ascher baits you with the subjects and their wild claims before unveiling one new layer of discussion after another. The participants point out all the so-called continuity errors that just couldn't be under Kubrick's perfectionist watch, planting the seeds of doubt that will have even the most stalwart of cynics second-guessing The Shining. The original soundtrack is an ideally unsettling companion not only to Kubrick's original film but also to the creepy connections that Ascher presents. Believe the documentary or not, the impression that you're being told some pretty DNA-altering information comes through, and the appetite to know how deeply these interpretations go only increases as the movie continues.
Many will laugh and scoff at Room 237 for even giving publicity to the rantings compiled within it. Again, I personally think that much of what the interviewees got out of the flick requires a big stretch, but that doesn't mean I wasn't intrigued by their conclusions and how they arrived at them. Room 237's intent was to show how easily one of the greatest filmmakers of all time could drive folks up the wall, and in its 102 compelling minutes, that's exactly what it did.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)