The new documentary “Room 237” is a very entertaining look at the borderline madness that has gripped obsessive fans of the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film “The Shining.”
A movie that many of us remember as a really slow and really badly acted horror movie somehow became a touchstone for people who have watched it repeatedly on video playback devices.
Director Rodney Ascher draws us into the fans’ mania with well-chosen clips from the Kubrick movie that seem to endorse some of what they are saying about the hidden messages.
Anyone who loves movies — and that group seems to include most of the population of the world — can fixate on favorite movies. I’ve long since lost track of how many times I’ve watched the first two “Godfather” pictures and “Three Days of the Condor” and “All the President’s Men” and other well-written, well-acted movies I’ve loved most of my life.
But I savor movies for their plots and characters and dialogue and cinematic style. I don’t sit there looking for messages in the decor of Bob Woodward’s apartment in “All the President’s Men” or the lay-out of the Upper East Side CIA townhouse in “Condor.”
The people who are interviewed off-camera in “Room 237” have moved far past simple enjoyment of the craft of moviemaking — they study “The Shining” for themes and secrets they believe Kubrick buried in his glacially paced adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller.
One man sees the film as Kubrick’s confession that he helped to fake the 1969 moon walk with techniques he learned making “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Another fan cites pieces of set decoration — such as a can of Calumet baking soda in a hotel pantry — as a clue Kubrick planted to indicate that “The Shining” is really about the extermination of the Native American population by European explorers.
Kubrick was famously obsessive — taking years to prepare and shoot films — but as the months of shooting passed even he might have missed continuity errors that the fans in “Room 237” see as intentional mistakes. In the pre-VCR/DVD era most movies were seen once or twice and then went into our memory banks.
The cultists don’t seem to be able to imagine that the director might have been too busy putting poor, miscast Shelley Duvall through dozens of takes to notice the placement of other objects within the frame.
After all, this is the same director who didn’t think there was anything wrong with having a second unit shoot the American motel odyssey in “Lolita” rather than return to his native land himself. Like Hitchcock, Kubrick hated to go on location and he had the clout for extravagant production demands like constructing the huge interior spaces of the “Shining” hotel in a British studio rather than film in the real thing.
Many of Kubrick’s “artistic” choices were the result of his refusal to leave England even for stories set in Vietnam (“Full Metal Jacket”) and New York City. Is the bizarrely wrong Greenwich Village of “Eyes Wide Shut” just unfortunately fake backlot shooting or a series of intentionally unrealistic cityscapes? (Who cares?)
Rodney Ascher has pulled off a pretty amazing feat in his documentary. converting Kubrick’s 1980 dud into a mesmerizing essay on movie love.