Room 237 (2012): Kubrick’s Hall of Mirrors


Directed by Rodney Ascher

Tagline: Some movies stay with you forever . . . and ever . . . and ever

Trivia: Leon Vitali, Stanley Kubrick’s longtime assistant, dismissed Room 237 as gibberish.

A wacky exegesis of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, Room 237 tip toes a fine line between overbearing geekery and film theory.  The documentary suggests Kubrick inserted hundreds of secret messages into his movies. You name it, everything from fake moon landings to the history of genocide exists in the subtext (including being the actual drummer on the Beatles records, shooting the Zabruder film, inventing the hula hoop, exposing the Illuminati, the true author of The Catcher in the Rye (and possibly the real Thomas Pynchon), devising the New Coke ad campaign, catching the baseball Bobby Thompson hit in the shot heard round the world, building a time machine, and personally prevented the U.S. from converting to the metric system- not really, but you get the idea).

Kubrick’s films continue to influence cinema and culture. His 1964 dark comedy Dr. Strangelove raised public awareness of the Cold War’s irrational logic. In 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey expanded the possibilities of the film as a medium.  A Clockwork Orange imagined a future of corrupt governments and crime riddled cities. Those three films alone comprised a trilogy for the ages.

The War Room in Dr. Strangelove (1963)
The Star Gate in 2001 (1968)
“Ultraviolence” in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s historical epic from 1975, failed at the Box Office despite its innovative visual style. So his decision to adapt a Stephen King novel seemed the way to reach a mass audience.

The novel follows struggling writer Jack Torrance. After losing his teaching job,  Jack accepts a care taking position at the luxurious Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Already dealing with a drinking problem and a shaky marriage, things go from bad to worse for Jack and his family at the Overlook.

Kubrick and c0-screenwriter Diane Johnson used King’s novel as a launching point to explore Gothic themes familiar to the horror genre such haunted houses, hidden history, family conflicts, and Freudian subtext.

I’m going to skip the nonsense of Kubrick being employed by the government to stage moon landings (the commentator’s smug and assured tone about their being staged moon landings gets annoying).

Kubrick loved history and at various points in his career planned to make films on Napoleon, the Civil War, and the Holocaust. Before deciding to proceed with his last movie Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick began pre-production on a holocaust story entitled The Aryan Papers (he abandoned the project to due to the depressing subject matter).

Images and motifs in The Shining do at least appear to reference the Nazi Genocide and the displacement of Native Americans (hotel built on an Indian burial ground).

Native American imagery appears frequently throughout The Shining.

Room 237 also makes light of Kubrick’s fascination with subliminal advertising.

At best, the documentary works as an entertaining essay in Pop Culture Studies; at worst an obsessed fan’s incoherent diatribe.  Remember the case of A.J. Weberman, obsessed with every word in Bob Dylan’s lyrics as the key to a hidden universe. Room 237 verges upon such territory. Footnotes pile upon footnotes.

The use of clips and images from other Kubrick films as a running commentary gets tedious, a tired technique in modern documentaries.

Let me contradict myself a bit. If movies are a window into the spirit of an age, Room 237 accepts that premise with no apologies, so in that respect it’s a groundbreaking documentary.  A bridge between film scholarship and fandom (and a must see for Kubrick fanatics).




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