Here's what the five interviewees in Rodney Ascher's Room 237 have come up with about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining: One believes that it's an allegory about the genocide of Native Americans, another that it's about the Holocaust. Yet another that it's Kubrick's coded confession to faking the moon landing. Ascher's subjects aren't garden-variety kooks: Native American genocide theorist Bill Blakemore is a veteran journalist, while Geoffrey Cocks, who sees the Holocaust in the Overlook Hotel, is a history professor. Director Ascher adopts a radically non-judgmental approach, allowing the viewer to be seduced — or not — by his subjects' ideas. The theorists are heard but never seen; most of the images come from The Shining itself.
Even if the theories don't persuade you, the film fascinates. It's revelatory about the nature of spectatorship in an era when technology allows audiences to watch films frame by frame. When much of the American public believes that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim, Room 237 evokes the appeal of conspiracy theories while refusing to endorse or completely disavow them. And without ever referring explicitly to academic theory, it engages with some of the grand ideas that have preoccupied it over the past fifty years. And it's fun.
Much of it plays out like this. In The Shining, Danny, the boy, is shown wearing a T-shirt with the number 42 on it: Cocks argues that this must be a reference to the year 1942, a key point in time for the Shoah. Jack Nicholson's character uses a German-made typewriter, a detail so tiny that Kubrick couldn't have expected most viewers to catch it but one that Cocks seizes. He sees the typewriter as a symbol of Nazi bureaucracy and even does some numerology, arguing that numbers glimpsed throughout the film add up to that "42."
The postmodern notion of the "death of the author" is both exemplified by the interpretations in Room 237 and disavowed by its subjects. The versions of The Shining devised by Blakemore, Cocks and company are their own invention, but the theorists insist that Kubrick was a genius puzzle master who micromanaged the smallest details in his films. As critic Michael Sicinski has pointed out, the weirder their interpretations get, the more wedded they become to the idea that Kubrick was responsible for every detail — even the mistakes. In their versions of The Shining, there's no such thing as a continuity error.
If the death of the author began in the '60s, the empowerment of the reader (or viewer) started to happen via home video technology. The subjects of Room 237 are products of it, although the film seems fiercely ambivalent about the ways the VCR and DVD players have changed spectatorship. On one hand, home video has enabled filmmakers to make essay-films as powerful as Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema and Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself. They've also made room for people to study The Shining frame by frame a dozen times and conclude that Kubrick faked the moon landing. This leads to new, more poetic forms of viewing and criticism, such as a screening (re-created in the documentary) where The Shining is projected simultaneously forward and backward. It also paves the way for dangerous levels of obsession and a nerdy disconnection from reality.
Room 237 's refusal of judgment enables its spectators to get lost in a delirium of interpretation. Rodney Ascher isn't celebrating or endorsing any of the views he presents, but he suggests that there's something to be gained from understanding people's eagerness to embrace them.