A “Room” full of unanswerable questions

room 237

Room 237

dir. Rodney Ascher

Release Date: Apr 05, 13

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Watching Room 237 is a lot like the days you spent looking at clouds as a kid, trying to make the shapes of the sky into recognizable figures. The game wasn’t about the clouds themselves, but what you could see in them as you tried to make meaning out of nothingness. Likewise, Room 237 is less about The Shining than our attempts to decode it and look for answers when none may exist. The film interviews five Shining conspiracy theorists and scholars about their relationship with the film, and I can’t say I share the fascination. It’s a masterpiece in its genre and a great yarn, but one I’ve never been metaphysically interested in.

However, I do share the fascination with the art of looking itself. The master of depth of field in his camerawork, Shining director Stanley Kubrick notoriously layered his films with images, hidden meanings and clues, hinting at a larger interpretation of the film. Long after the film’s release and initial mixed reception, the cult of interpretation has taken on another life, as viewers ascribe metaphors to the film that may have never been intended. Is the film an apologia for Kubrick’s involvement in faking the Apollo 11 landing? How about a parable for the Holocaust? Or perhaps it’s about the Native American genocides?

Each of these interpretations is totally bonkers, yet equally compelling. Listening to these people discuss their explanations of what Kubrick “meant” to say with this enigmatic film is a lot like listening to the old man at the bus stop. You know he’s out of his mind, but you can’t stop listening. It’s not about reality; it’s about how we frame it. In Room 237, we learn to see the world through others’ eyes, even if that perspective may be completely beyond the realm of our own imaginations. You learn to embrace the mystery.

The connections and parallels in Room 237 might be as outrageous as Jim Carrey’s fascination with the number 23 in the film of the same name, yet the film (in its twisted way) reveals the amount of fakery in Kubrick’s cinematic labyrinth. The film points out that the fact that Kubrick’s set makes no sense; the architecture is filled with dead ends, rooms that lead to nowhere, impossible windows and hallways that fold back on themselves. We are watching a movie that contradicts itself and the existence of reality. In The Shining, the characters watch a television without a cord. Where does its projective power come from? The answer is us.

For any lover of film, Room 237 isn’t just a love letter to the conspiracy theory, but our own power as an audience to rewrite the film and decode it. By the end, it becomes clear that Kubrick probably did not intend on a monolithic meaning of The Shining, and that the interpretations are yet another fake in the film’s ersatz puzzle. It’s not meant to be solved. The puzzle might not fit together one way, and through agents of its post-modern deconstruction, we participate as co-authors of its meaning. Room 237 looks at a world where the author is literally dead.

We, as viewers, cannot speak to power, so we speak to ourselves, creating communities of interpretation. This is a film for the message board era of analysis, the era where we can pause films, play them frame-by-frame or rewind them. One interpretation suggests that the film should be watched both forward and backward, whether separately or simultaneously. What does this tell us? Nothing, but the image of nothingness is haunting and riveting.

The brilliance of the film (and what makes it one of the best of its kind) is the way watching Room 237 parallels The Shining itself. The film imitates Kubrick’s slow zooms and long takes, takes us into the maze of his artistic mind, one that we can’t escape from. Although Danny is offered a simple escape through the maze, Room 237 allows no easy exist or answers. When we get to the elusive Room, which claims to reveal the film’s secret, we get no sense of closure; we feel no closer to understanding The Truth.

Room 237’s mimesis emerges as the finest possible tribute to Kubrick’s genius, an imitation that tells you nothing and everything about a movie that’s about nothing and everything. In Room 237, the F isn’t for fake. It’s for flattery.