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Edelstein: Room 237 Is a Cine-Nerd’s Vindication and Humiliation

The documentary Room 237 is a cine-nerd’s vindication and humiliation. In a series of interviews abetted by film clips, director Rodney Ascher demonstrates that, on one hand, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is packed with symbols, with epic themes that transcend its nominal horror-genre content, and, on the other, that some of those symbols and themes are likely the projections of wackjobs. He makes few distinctions; he just tosses it all in — the brilliant, the nutty — and lets us and God sort it out. He vindicates close textual analysis. He burlesques close textual analysis.

The film elicits a complex series of responses, pushing buttons, fellow cineaste, that you might not have known you had. It’s all so, like, mind-blowing. Ascher opens with a man (His subjects have names but are otherwise just voices) who’s sure that The Shining is the story of the U.S. extermination of Native Americans. This is less discerning than it first seems. The massive lodge in which Jack Nicholson and his family are cooped up for the winter was built, we’re told, on an “Indian burial ground,” a trope that has become so familiar that it’s now routinely parodied. Native American motifs abound — they’re part of the lodge’s kitschy interior. The “shining” that connects the boy and the African American employee predictably enrages the impotent white patriarch. In other words, there’s nothing especially novel about a horror picture that roots the supernatural in historical injustice (against people who have “strange” powers) and shows a patriarch driven mad by loss of authority.

Odder is the notion that Kubrick intended The Shining as a coded examination of Nazi-ism, the evidence for which is that a) he had been interested in making a Nazi film and had read up on the subject, b) the protagonist uses a German typewriter, and c) there are several instances in which the number 42 (for the year in which the Final Solution began) appears—the film Summer of ’42 on a TV screen, six cases of 7 Up in a corridor, etc.

Here, I throw up my hands. Kubrick’s mise-en-scene (pardon my French) was among cinema’s most rigorous: He was infamous for making actors do scores of takes and designed frames within an inch of their life (often sucking the life out of them). Though his subjects varied enormously, his cinematic vocabulary was remarkably consistent from film to film. The temptation is there — at least for people with too much time on their hands — to regard the smallest details (as well as the continuity errors) as slyly purposeful. To which I say: Maybe. And: Why does this matter so much outside Cinema Studies classes that keep so many professors gainfully employed? Does it truly help us understand The Shining?

Elsewhere, Ascher gives a microphone to people who could come straight out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, like the fellow convinced that Kubrick made The Shining to atone (in part to Mrs. Kubrick) for having staged the Apollo moon landing. The key that reads, “Room No.” is significant here, as is the fact that the moon is supposedly 237,000 miles from Earth. Here — as in his interviews with a man who regards a desktop file holder between Nicholson and Barry Nelson as an erection, a woman who finds evidence of a Minotaur on a skiing poster, and a guy convinced that the only way to understand The Shining is to superimpose the film going backwards and forwards simultaneously — Ascher illustrates the theories with selective footage and jokey inserts. A lot of critics seem to have found this stuff hilarious. I did for awhile before the tedium set in.

But is Room 237 meant as a study of the insanity of its subjects? Ascher has it both ways. As to whether Kubrick had all the motives ascribed to him, a subject says, “We all know from postmodern film criticism that author intent is only part of the story of any work of art.” Then the director ends by airing the conceit that, like Nicholson lost in the labyrinth in The Shining, so these Shining heads are lost in the labyrinth of The Shining. Sure. But as amusing as the movie is, I think in the end that Ascher misses the labyrinth for the trees.

Photo: Room 237