One of the saddest things about the death of a favorite filmmaker is realizing that you'll probably never see any new movie from him ever again. When popular musicians die, they always leave material lying around that their estates can spruce up and put out for the fans. (Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, and he's still releasing albums.) But when Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999, he had essentially finished his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and his many fans knew that that there would never be another Kubrick movie ever again. You could watch his existing movies over and over again, but there would never be another chance to get enraptured and surprised by a new Kubrick work. Fourteen years after his death, I still miss the guy–and I really miss that excitement for a new Kubrick movie.
Maybe that's in part why I love Room 237 so much. Directed by Rodney Ascher, the documentary (which opens on Friday in New York and will be available on-demand) compiles some of the most popular theories about the hidden meanings within Kubrick's 1980 horror movie The Shining, based on Stephen King's book. Ascher and his interview subjects haven't uncovered a new Kubrick film, but they've done the next best thing: They've given his fans a chance to revisit a classic with fresh eyes. It's a decent consolation prize.
The people who speak in Room 237 have been sounding off about their alternate readings of The Shining for more than two decades, so Kubrick obsessives won't necessarily be surprised by the theories collected in the documentary. But by bringing these individuals together in one film–and offering little indication of which theories he personally finds more or less persuasive–Ascher has created a rich tapestry of ideas that, collectively, recalibrate your thinking about a movie that you've probably seen several times over your life. I don't necessarily buy that Kubrick intended any of these alternate readings, but the passion these people bring to their theories is such that you're at least willing to meet them halfway. In the process, the brilliance of The Shining reemerges, shaking off your familiarity with the movie.
I don't want to discuss what theories are mentioned in the movie; you should discover them yourself. (They're easy to find online, if you're curious.) But I will say that they encompass everything from mass genocide to government coverups to spatial inconsistencies within the Overlook Hotel, where most of The Shining is set. It's not as if these theorists are all kooks and weirdos: Bill Blakemore, who's been writing about his interpretation of The Shining since the '80s, has been an ABC News reporter for over 35 years. But Ascher's stroke of genius was to not show any of his subjects throughout the documentary. Instead, we get a title card that introduces each of the six people; we merely hear their voices as they explain in a calm, measured fashion why, for instance, the cans of food in the Overlook Hotel are much, much more significant than the rest of us could have possible realized.
Ascher complements his subjects' theories with scenes they're describing–or, for variety, a scene from another Kubrick movie that also ties in. So rather than looking at these people, we're looking at The Shining: sometimes slowed-down, sometimes looped, sometimes in reverse. We're looking and looking and looking at the movie. And no matter how far-fetched the theories become, the sheer conviction of the speakers matched with the arresting images start to take on their own sort of truth. (Also great is Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson's foreboding score with its through-the-looking-glass spookiness and urgency.)
Room 237 is really just the latest example of remix culture, one artist building off the work of another to create something that readjusts how we feel about the original work. In popular culture, that happens most noticeably in viral mashups–think Trent Reznor and Carly Rae Jepsen smashed together or the Toy Story 3: Inception trailer–that are clever but also sort of disposable. (You think about them for a second, and then you click on another "Harlem Shake" video.) There have, however, been larger, more ambitious film projects along these same lines, such as Rebirth of a Nation (where DJ Spooky "remixed" Birth of a Nation) and The Clock (Christian Marclay's engrossing video that consists of existing movie and TV scenes that take place chronologically over a 24-hour period). Beyond simply being clever, these projects force you to look at older work in a new light. In The Clock, for instance, you're constantly aware how time is always a factor when telling a story, and how you yourself are spending time when you watch a film. By comparison, Room 237 is something of a happy middle ground between the silly, shallow pleasures of viral mashups and the more intellectual pursuits of The Clock, which you can only see at a museum and only at certain times. Room 237 is a documentary that cuts open and examines a horror favorite, but along the way it asks lots of thoughtful questions about how we interpret movies and how a director's intention and an audience's takeaway can be very, very different.
Room 237 is also just really fun. For all its obsessive talk and odd theories, it's really about a deep love for The Shining and and its filmmaker. And in the end, that's what I respond to the most. I've seen it twice now, and both time it's made me want to watch The Shining immediately. That's weird because, really, I'd been watching it for the 100 minutes or so that the documentary was on. But Room 237 draws you in and screws with your head so much that, when it's over, you feel like you need to see the original source again to make sure that what you thought the movie was about really is accurate. (I've also seen it as a dark satire on the traditional American family.) In its own way, the documentary is as frightening as the movie it's analyzing. You get lost in Room 237, and although it can be really funny–some of the theories are just plain nuts–you start to get disoriented, with only these disembodied voices leading you through the Overlook. There will never be another Stanley Kubrick film, but Room 237 so expertly rewires your feelings about The Shining that a 33-year-old movie suddenly feels brand new.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
GIF by Jim Cooke.