Room 237 and The Shining #pff21

2012 Philadelphia Film Festival, Film Criticism, Film Festivals

Watching the documentary, Room 237, followed by its subject, The Shining, was a brilliant experience. I had seen The Shining before, probably when it first came out on VHS. Even though I am a fan of many of Stanley Kubrick’s films and I recall liking The Shining, I never found myself wanting to revisit it. But when the opportunity to see it on the big screen came along, I figured this was the time to see it again, and I am very glad I did.

Room 237, directed by Rodney Ascher, is an excellent documentary not only about The Shining but also about how we watch movies and glean meaning from visual information. The film interlaces nine various interpretations of The Shining, ranging from how it’s Kubrick’s admission that he helped stage the moon landing to it being a cathartic means of coming to terms with the Native American genocide. At first blush, some of these readings seem a little wacky but the evidence presented gets one thinking even if the explanations aren’t entirely convincing. Given Kubrick’s notoriously meticulous nature and the inherent artificiality of set designs and costumes, the appearance of anything on screen cannot be arbitrary. The appearance of a particular picture on a wall or the use of a unique piece of clothing are chosen for a reason, perhaps not the reasons explored in Room 237, but given the enigmatic nature of The Shining, it’s not unreasonable to start asking questions. Some of the film’s oddities (e.g. a chair that seems to disappear from one shot to the next) could be written off as continuity errors; however, Kubrick’s perfectionism makes this explanation unlikely.

One of the more compelling discussions involves allusions to Native American symbols and iconography. An early discussion about how the appearance of a Calumet baking powder can, decorated with an Indian Head, references the United States’ treatment of Native Americans seems like a stretch at first, but additional exploration begins to give this idea credibility. Early in The Shining, someone explains how the Overlook Hotel was built on a Native American burial ground. Unlike Poltergeist a couple of years later which uses a similar conceit in a very broad and obvious way, this concept is never mentioned again. It’s the gun which appears in act one that never goes off in act three, unless you take into account that there’s something more subtle taking shape during the course of The Shining.

Room 237 provides numerous clips from The Shining to help clarify the points being made. It playfully uses scenes from Kubrick’s body of films and other films in general to comment on these diverse observations. This technique gives life to what could have been a rather dry documentary in other hands.

It was fascinating to then watch The Shining with all of this buzzing in my head. I had had a discussion earlier in the day wondering if it would be better to watch the documentary before or after the film itself. After the experience, I can confirm that watching Room 237 first is the way to go.

I won’t say much about The Shining since it’s a decades old famous film, but one thing that struck me was how enigmatic it really is. Because Kubrick uses many tropes of horror films, it’s easy to see it as not much more than a film, with some supernatural undercurrents, about how a man goes stir crazy and tries to kill his wife and son, but the film raises so many unanswered questions that it’s not surprising that people go digging for deeper explanations. Even though I was not totally convinced by all of the theories presented in Room 237, it did get me to realize what a mysterious and slippery film The Shining is.

Using the festival’s scoring system, I rank both Room 237 and The Shining as Very Good or 4 out of a possible 5.

Check out all my 2012 Philadelphia Film Festival Posts!