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Review: 'Room 237' is open to obsession with Kubrick's 'Shining'

The documentary 'Room 237' hears out people (including ABC's Bill Blakemore) with surprising theories about secret meanings in Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining.'

December 06, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • A still from the movie "Room 237."
A still from the movie "Room 237." (IFC Films )

We love movies, those of us who do, because of how deeply they burrow into our psyches, of how they seem to be speaking to us and us alone in a very particular way. But, as the intriguing documentary "Room 237" illustrates, when it comes to some films, and some viewers, that conversation can be downright unnerving.

As the film's title indicates, the film in question here is Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," the director's version of the scary Stephen King novel starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and a very large and very empty hotel whose Room 237 is definitely not the place to check into.

Opinions continue to vary as to how successful that 1980 film was as simple entertainment, but to the five people interviewed at length in "Room 237," any simple questions couldn't be more beside the point.

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Each of these individuals feels, with unnerving passion, that they have discovered secrets in "The Shining" that not another living soul has seen. When one of their number says, "you have to be a complete fanatic like I am to find this," and another adds later on, "the casual viewer is not going to see so many things," they are speaking nothing but the truth.

While these five souls are identified by name, director Rodney Ascher has shrewdly chosen not to show them on camera. Though this has the downside of making it difficult to figure out which of the five is speaking at any given moment, the advantages outweigh the shortcomings.

For one thing, it enables Ascher to put on screen nonstop footage from "The Shining" that speaks precisely to the images the speakers are referring to, even utilizing small white arrows to point to precisely what is being talking about.

But more than that, the elimination of individuality leads to the making of a particular point. As ideas blend into other ideas, as signs and meanings sprout everywhere, "Room 237" becomes not a film about "The Shining" or even a film about film. Rather, it is an examination of the nature of obsession, about how we are capable of convincing ourselves — and possibly others — that just about anything might be true.

The first two speakers have the most comprehensive views of what "The Shining" is all about, though even their ideas are more fascinating that convincing.

Journalist Bill Blakemore, in his day job a longtime correspondent for ABC News, talks of how he came to believe that what Kubrick was presenting to the world was an allegory about the fate of the American Indian.

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Blakemore is convinced that the evidence is overwhelming that "The Shining" depicts "the genocidal armies of the white men with their axes," and one of the images he points to is a stack of Calumet Baking Powder cans in the hotel's kitchen storeroom that is replete with Native American imagery.

Similarly convinced but moving the theme to Europe is college professor Geoffrey Cocks, who believes "The Shining" is Kubrick's take on the Holocaust. For evidence, among other things, he points to the fact that a German typewriter factors in the story and notices that the number 42 appears a lot in the film. That refers, Cocks is convinced, to 1942, the year in which the Nazis put the Final Solution into practice.

Also numerically inclined is author Jay Weidner, who says Room 237 is a cryptic reference to the roughly 237,000 miles from Earth to the moon, leading him to believe that "The Shining" touches on Kubrick's role in the alleged faking of Apollo footage of men landing on the moon. You heard it here first.

The other two speakers, playwright Juli Kearns and musician John Fell Ryan, also have unexpected things to say, with Ryan revealing that he has hosted a screening of "The Shining" where the film was simultaneously run forward and backward, a bit of which we get to see.

These individuals end up being so gripped by their theories that, claiming that author intent is only part of the story, they don't necessarily care if Kubrick would have agreed with them or not.

"There's a lot of stuff there nobody has seen," one speaker says. "People should keep watching."

As if they haven't done enough of that already.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Room 237'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: In limited release

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