[Note: to experience the maximum potential of this review, it should be read whilst listening to this. Ok, proceed].
So Stanley Kubrick help faked the Apollo 11 moon landing. It’s all in The Shining. Danny’s sweater, the tessellated carpet. It’s all there. The movie also laments the tragedies of the Holocaust. See the typewriters. The repetition of the number 42. Not only that, Kubrick’s also bemoaning the slaughter of Native American people. It’s all in there. Pretty obvious, really. At least, these are some of the theories proffered by the interview subjects of Room 237.
Director, Rodney Ascher, originally thought that probing the minds of film obsessives–particularly those who live enraptured by a Kubrickian spell–would make a cool concept for a collection of shorts, a web series maybe. However, after starting to trek through the hedge maze of theories about The Shining, Ascher found that it was hard to get out. There was more than enough material for a feature.
This screening of Room 237 was presented by Speakeasy Cinema at (recent addition to Melbourne’s laneway bar menagerie) Shebeen. This was my first Speakeasy visit. Tight design aesthetics, a 30-minute long pre-feature program of short films, fancy alcoholic beverages in reaching distance: not bad conditions for movie watching. Conversely, there was many a well-coiffed head in the audience, meaning some neck craning was necessary if you wanted to see the whole screen, but that’s neither here nor there.
Before the doco begins, a message proclaims in terse, white capitals that, “NEITHER THIS FILM, NOR ANY VIEW OR OPINION EXPRESSED IN IT…IS APPROVED OR ENDORSED BY, OR IS IN ANY WAY ASSOCIATED WITH, THE KUBRICK 1981 TRUST”. This lingers on the screen for quite some time. Just so we know where we all stand.
A throbbing synth, plus the delicate addition of various wind instruments and distorted monk-like chanting, provides a soundtrack that Dario Argento would be proud of. Slowly, it pulls you by the cuff link into the strange realm of cinematic obsession.
Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut briefly becomes a surrogate protagonist, as an interviewee details his first encounter of The Shining. The majority of Room 237 is comprised of footage from The Shining itself and other films in the Kubrick canon. The standard interviewee-addressing-camera device is gleefully eschewed. Instead, the theorists narrate over the lifted footage. One fears that, in other hands, this technique could have seemed overwrought, or visually tiresome. But, Ascher–who teaches a class in editing at the New York Film Academy–ensures the splicing is tight and the pacing is deft, meaning Room 237 is almost as visually interesting as a Kubrick film.
A small proportion of the doco is comprised of behind-the-scenes footage and images from Kubrick sets. The best of these clips shows an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson continuing to frenziedly axe-wield even after cut has been called. He almost topples a sound guy.
Divided into nine separate chapters, Room 237 steadily mines the heat of filmic obsession. There are floor plans; there are highly detailed maps. One interviewee claims to have watched the film “hundreds of times”; each viewing, he claims, provides more latent meaning.
What becomes apparent throughout the doco is that the people proposing these theories are not necessarily garden-variety, muttering-to-themselves-on-the-street type of crazies. They seem to be highly intelligent people. One is a history professor, another a veteran news correspondent.
At some points you may even find yourself nodding along with points that are put forth. But then, it seems, something slightly unhinged is uttered, and your willingness to believe comes toppling down.
Watching Room 237 inevitably brings to mind another documentary, the made-for-TV, Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes. The film peeks inside a vast storage bunker. It is as close to walking throughout the mental cavities of Stanley Kubrick as is possible. The doco plays like an episode of Hoarders, if the subject had neatly packed and stacked all their possessions (ancient files, hastily scrawled notes, photographs), into equal-sized cardboard boxes and left it in a storage facility slightly north of London. The interview subjects in this doco detail Kubrick’s meticulousness; his exhaustive approach to a film’s staging and cinematography. As one of Room 237’s interviewees says, “he is a master of depth of field, everything in the shot is in focus”; none of the detail is to be wasted.
It seems by many accounts, Kubrick was somewhat of a genius; the reverence that is fanned on him by film nerds is not unfounded. There is certainly enough in his filmic legacy to suggest that the elaborate design of his films was not mere accident. But did he intend to leave infinite tapestried codes and construct latent conspiracies? Maybe not. Did he want people to pour over floor plans and theorise about allusions to Nazi Germany? Unlikely, but it probably would have made him smile.
You can view the full Speakeasy Cinema program here. Currently screening is the doco, The Sheik and I. For our previous Documentalist article, click here. If you’re digging ReelGood, sign up to our mailing list for exclusive content, early reviews and chances to win big!