Three lessons in Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher), a 2012 documentary about people who see secret codes, hidden messages, and unusual conspiracies encrypted in Stanley Kubrick’s 1981 film The Shining:
1. People need to believe in extreme and bizarre narratives that prove the real world is merely a shadow of a more sinister and dark reality. Not coincidentally, their ability to identify and explain this hidden dimension that others do not see proves their special intelligence.
2. Artists, certain types of artists, have access to special forms of knowledge, and subtle means of burying that knowledge in their art so that only the most capable and intelligent can find it. The artist cited in this film as similar to Kubrick is James Joyce whose book Finnegans Wake (1939) they find to be noteworthy, mainly because almost no one can read it. Again, like Kubrick’s film, it is a work of art whose meaning and value is accessible only to those smart enough to decipher it. One of the people interviewed for the documentary believes that every flaw and inconsistency in The Shining is an intentional act by Kubrick. He makes much of the fact that in one scene the main character’s typewriter is gray and in another it is blue. If anything, this film makes me wonder whether continuity is a problem in Kubrick films, and whether he was more careless and capricious in the use of props and setting than he should have been.
3. There are limits to what interpretation can do (cf. Umberto Eco on the over-interpretation of texts). Conversely, there are limits to the messages and themes artists can place within their artistic works. We encounter in Room 237 some highly unusual theories that people claim to see worked out in The Shining. One commentator thinks that it is an allegorical narrative of Kubrick’s experience when he worked with NASA in the late 1960s to create the videos that were shown as proof that the US landed on the moon. (The commentator actually believes the moon landing occurred, but that (for some reason) the moon landing videos were faked). A woman believes images of minotaurs are hidden in the film. A man believes that the film is about Kubrick’s obsession with the Holocaust. Another believes the film is about the genocide against Native Americans (there’s more to this theory than the others). All of these ideas are based on “evidence” in the film, and on biographical evidence from Kubrick’s life and his other films. But most of them do not make sense--they’re illogical, they misconstrue the evidence, they stretch and distort, all for the purpose of making the film fit and support a pet theory. The film in effect becomes about their theories rather than about what it really is about. Any random assortment of data can be made into meaning.
Room 237 is amusing throughout. It uses clips from The Shining as well as other Kubrick films and from films that have nothing to do with Kubrick.