Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 ghost story “The Shining” has had a restless afterlife. The famously meticulous director turned novelist Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel into a haunted house built of mazes, mirrors, psychology and symbolism. The story centers on a telepathic 6-year-old, his ineffectual mother and tyrannical father, whose winter job as caretaker of an inaccessible mountain resort traps the family in a bedlam of madness.
Coolly received initially, its reputation has grown in the decades since. So has the fan base of viewers who claim to have discovered keys to the film’s eerie background noise of sub-narratives, codes and half-hidden iconography. It’s a condemnation of genocide (Nazi and/or American). It’s a catalog of subliminal visual tricks. It’s Kubrick’s apology for faking NASA’s moon-landing footage.
Those theories and more provide the framework for Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237,” a playful inquiry onto the hothouse world of “Shining” scholarship. Five pundits comment via faceless voice-overs while film footage illustrates their interpretive flights.
ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, for example. sees the film as an indictment of American Indian extermination — a theory that has entered the mainstream.
Ascher keeps his commentators at arm’s length, neither endorsing nor debunking their ideas. Astute theories gradually give way to the ludicrous, and “Room 237” evolves from an ode to movie love at its most delirious to a wry examination of the crackpot mind at work.
There’s musician John Fell Ryan, who views “The Shining” as a work of mirror-image duality that reveals secrets when one superimposes the film on itself, running forward and backward simultaneously. Why would Kubrick make the film so complicated? “Why did James Joyce write ‘Finnegan’s Wake’?” Ryan responds.
Jay Weidner sees a can of Tang as evidence that Kubrick conspired with the government to fake the Apollo 11 mission broadcasts, and expects his taxes to be audited in reprisal for uncovering the conspiracy.
Ascher’s documentary is great fun for movie geeks, cleverly borrowing vignettes from Kubrick’s work and elsewhere to illustrate its theories. While you feel that theaters screening the film should pass out tinfoil hats at the door, “Room 237” does plug into “The Shining’s” mesmerizing power. Thirty-three years on, we are haunted by a film without a tidy beginning, middle and end, one that refuses to offer answers but bedevils us with anxious, terrible questions.