When I went to art school for a year, I was tasked to partner up with someone and make a short documentary about her. Armed with no knowledge of how to make a film and a time window of just one fortnight, I got to work on my first real film. After shooting, I sat down to edit approximately 12 hours before the short was due. I had an acute dearth of footage and no direction for the project. In a panic, I hastily stole a deluge of movie clips to mask my ineptitude. Because my subject talked about certain movies, I thought it would be okay to show arbitrary clips of those movies. This comprised an easy 60% of the short. The documentary was horrible, and I squeaked by with a pity A-.
Room 237 is a feature-length version of my terrible project. A barebones YouTube video stretched out to an excruciating 103 minutes, Room 237 compiles extensive interpretations of Kubrick’s The Shining. It features lengthy voiceovers from Shining “scholars” who have studied the film ad nauseum and who offer wildly varying readings of the film, which range from the Holocaust to the moon landing. None of these subjects is ever shown, and the visuals consist of clips from The Shining, several other of Kubrick’s films, and a seemingly arbitrary hodgepodge of other films.
It cannot be overstated how unpolished Room 237 is. Because the visuals are all clips from other movies, a massive emphasis is placed on the voiceovers. While this is an intentional decision, it is one that becomes problematic when the quality of the audio is so low, from both a qualitative and technical standpoint. Large pauses are left in when the subjects stumble through their theories, leaving in every “um” and “uh” and turning each potential revelation into a slow, frustrating odyssey to the end of a sentence.
One of the scholars narrates via a Skype call (accompanied by all of the lovely, watery auditory artifacts that come with a Skype call) with his crying son audible throughout his speech. At some point, he leaves to go attend to his son and this is inexplicably left in the final product. It takes a good ten seconds for him to return to the call, so in this window of time the film turns into silent footage of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead of asking the man to begin his explanation again, director Rodney Ascher leaves this intact for truly inscrutable reasons.
As for the interpretations, they exist on the fringes of some spectacular logical acrobatics. Some, like one involving the rape and plunder of Native American land by Europeans and another that invokes the Holocaust, are mildly compelling, but most of these border on self-parody. One scholar sings praises to NASA before diving into a wild theory about how Kubrick directed the moon landing; another engages in some curiously misguided pareidolia, claiming that he found Kubrick’s face in the clouds of the opening shots of the film.
The scene involving this pareidolia might be the film’s nadir. Ascher’s frenetic, YouTube video-style editing displays how little faith he has in his audience. When a commentator describes specific objects in a scene of The Shining, Ascher will actually point to the objects with an arrow. When it comes time for Ascher to find Kubrick’s face in the clouds, however, it appears he can’t do it to save his life. After a painfully slow frame-by-frame display of the opening shots, Ascher simply cuts to the next scene without even suggesting that the face is present. By doing this, Ascher actually displays that he disagrees with his theorist’s voiceover and puts the visuals at odds with the audio.
A full documentary of this would have been fascinating. The reason this scene is the film’s lowest point instead, however, is because there is no other instance in which Ascher attempts to show self-awareness. When his voice of God is discussing, with full sincerity, his belief that footage of the moon landing was fake and that The Shining is an elaborate confession of such deception, Ascher does not make any attempt to do anything remotely clever with this or to speak to how nonsensical some might perceive this theory. The indifference with which this sequence (and the entire film, really) is edited suggests no contest from Ascher, as if he eagerly agrees with each proposed theory. This becomes a colossal issue when some of the theories travel into truly asinine territory in the last third of the film.
This is Room 237’s most notable shortcoming. The insanity in which some of these theorists indulge cannot be replicated here, but Ascher approaches it all with such a straight face. His theorists are blurting out borderline gibberish, trying to piece together incoherent screeds that, by the end of the film, devolve into observations without thesis. Ascher could have compiled a compelling commentary about the quasi-religious fervor with which some cinephiles approach films, bending logic in unfathomable shapes to make sense of ideas they desperately want to understand. He has fantastic audio of someone trying to interpret a room key as an admission that Kubrick faked the moon landing, and yet he does nothing with it. He shows footage of the room key and moves on without comment. It is unspeakably depressing.
It is unclear, then, what purpose Ascher’s film serves. All of these theories have been in existence for some time, and I knew about all of them before I watched the film since they’re all online. Despite serving up some tier one lunacy, there is nothing revelatory about the film; it all feels woefully pedestrian. With barely any original content and absolutely no editorializing, Room 237 feels like a subpar YouTube video stretched out to feature length, like something a bored Shining enthusiast would throw together in a week and put online for free. The difference here, though, is that this costs real money and I am now four precious dollars in the red. In shockingly unfocused fashion, Room 237 takes inherently enthralling subject matter, kills it with its bare hands, and presents the cold corpse back to the audience.