The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"ROOM 237"

Room 237

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is about as polarizing as a horror movie can be. There is a contingent of people who think it's one of the scariest films of all time. These folks are capable of watching it over and over, without ever getting tired of it. There's another contingent of folks – and author Stephen King is one of them – who find The Shining to be cold, emotionless, and not entirely satisfying. If I had to put myself in one category or the other, I'd hesitantly place myself in the latter. While I remember watching the film once or twice growing up, I've never felt any real connection with it. Certain parts of the film struck me as creepy, but for whatever reason it never really frightened me the way, say, Alien did. Having seen Rodney Ascher's Room 237, a documentary about possible hidden meanings in Kubrick's adaptation, I admit being compelled to give the thing a rewatch.

Named for a key location in the story, Room 237 is a most unusual documentary. Different participants spell out their theories about subliminal or covert ideas contained within The Shining, but we never see any of their faces; we only hear their voices. The entire doc is comprised of them talking over footage from Kubrick's movie, which is often played in slow motion, with occasional graphics superimposed to highlight a “clue” somewhere on screen. Individual moments are rewound or paused so we can examine them more closely. At one point, a computer-generated map is shown to us, to illustrate the bizarre physical layout of the Overlook Hotel, the place where Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) slowly loses his grip on sanity.

The theories presented range from the possible to the preposterous. There is a guy who claims Kubrick was using a horror story to dramatize the plight of Native Americans. His evidence? A can of Calumet baking powder with its label visible in the background of one shot (a calumet is a peace pipe historically used by indigenous peoples) and a reference to the hotel having been built on ancient burial grounds. Another interviewee reads The Shining as a Holocaust tale, pointing to the odd onscreen appearance of a specific German typewriter and a recurring use of the number 42 (as in 1942). Perhaps the quirkiest reading comes from a theorist who believes Kubrick helped fake the moon landing and used The Shining as his secret confession. Background props, continuity errors, throwaway lines of dialogue, and even the pattern on a carpet are offered up as evidence to support these theories, as well as a few others.

It's easy to laugh off some of this stuff, but other things make you stop and wonder. There is a particularly noticeable continuity error regarding a large sticker on the door of little Danny Torrance's room. That sticker is there in one shot but not in another. Certainly a perfectionist like Kubrick would have noticed this, right? And if he did deliberately place or remove the sticker, what was he trying to say in doing so? These are the kinds of questions Room 237 forces to lodge in your brain. No matter how outlandish the theory, there are things within The Shining that would seem to support it. For film buffs who love to debate cinematic subtext, this makes the documentary both exciting and riveting.

It's also just plain fun. When I was a kid, rock bands used to put backwards messages onto their albums, and you had to spin the record in reverse to figure out what they were saying. More often than not, it was just nonsense, but the idea of a hidden message was enticing. Room 237 captures that same feeling of forbidden discovery. Even if you don't fully buy any of the theories, it's pleasurable to merely contemplate them, to fantasize about how a famed director like Kubrick may have been toying with us for his own twisted amusement. Then again, as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

( 1/2 out of four)

Room 237 is unrated but contains scenes of violence. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

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