Judge Clark Douglas knows what The Shining is really about: The environmental consequences of Taft's presidency.
Many ways in, no way out.
Few films have inspired as much fervent analysis as Stanley Kubrick's unsettling adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining. Taken at face value, the movie is a cautionary tale about the madness lurking within each of us, a feverish saga of a man who loses his sanity during a long stay at the Overlook Hotel. However, the combination of the film's surreal, enigmatic imagery and Kubrick's reputation as an obsessive, extremely detail-oriented filmmaker has led many movie buffs to speculate that the film is about something much deeper…but what, exactly? That's precisely what the documentary Room 237 sets out to explore.
Director Rodney Ascher has gathered a handful of erudite, impassioned fans of The Shining who happen to have a variety of conspiracy theories about what the movie is really up to. The resulting documentary is a 102-minute trip down the rabbit hole of critical over-analysis, and the ridiculousness of the whole affair is matched by the amount of ridiculous fun the film offers its viewers. On one level, the film is about the joy of searching for secrets within the work of ambitious filmmakers (it's no wonder the film received rave reviews, because this flick is practically catnip for film critics), but it also serves as a clever cautionary tale for eager scholars seeking to illuminate the "real" meaning of a work of art. Every now and then, a cigar is just a cigar.
The first person we hear from has a theory that The Shining is really about the slaughter of Native Americans. You see, there's Native American imagery littered all throughout the film—pay close attention to those cans featuring images of Native Americans in the background of a couple of scenes, because the direction they're turned in each scene is very symbolic! Another scholar is convinced that the film is really about Nazi Germany, using Nicholson's German typewriter as a launching point for his argument. Or maybe it's actually about Kubrick's involvement in faking the moon landing. Or maybe it's really a re-telling of an ancient tale from Greek mythology. Or…well, you get the idea.
Listening to each and every one of these individuals is fascinating, because they're all smart, engaging people who just so happen to subscribe to cinematic conspiracy theories that seem positively insane. You hear almost no doubt or uncertainty of any sort from these folks; they're all convinced they have absolutely unlocked the secret of what Stanley Kubrick was up to when he made The Shining. It's a kick to hear one breathless guy describe a frame in which one character stands next to a paper tray that causes the character to look as if he has a giant erection. Likely a coincidence, but even if it was intentional, is it as significant a thematic discovery as the man seems to think it is? Ascher never speaks, but his editing choices suggests that he's both amused and engaged by what his subjects have to say. Cleverly inserted clips of an exasperated Tom Cruise (in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shot) punctuate thoughtful monologues, and a terribly urgent score by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes that occasionally flirts with self-parody. I had a blast, and if you've ever spent hours on end debating a film's true intentions, odds are you'll dig it.
Room 237 (Blu-ray) has received a decent 1080p/1.78:1 transfer that relies far more heavily on archival film clips than it does on new footage. As such, the movie often only looks as good as the material being spotlighted (copious clips from The Shining are included, and most look stellar). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is decent as well, spotlighting the fine score and the comments from the film's participants without any prominent distortion, hiss, etc. Again, the archival audio sources are hit and miss. Supplements include a fascinating audio commentary from esteemed blogger Kevin McLeod (who offers a take on The Shining that is a good deal more believable than the theories presented by people in the film), a 50-minute panel discussion on The Shining featuring Ascher, conspiracy theorist Jay Weidner, director Mick Garris and Kubrick associate Leon Vitali, some deleted scenes, two very brief featurettes ("The Making of the Music" and "Mondo Poster Design Discussion with Artist Aled Lewis") and some trailers. It's a strong package that greatly enhances the film it accompanies.
Room 237 may not reveal much about what The Shining is actually all about, but it does indeed have a great deal to say about film analysis in the modern era and the lasting power of one of Kubrick's finest efforts. Recommended.
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