A Review of Room 237

By Rod Munday




Rodney Ascher's film Room 237 is a very entertaining exploration of the critical exegesis that has grown up around Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining, marrying audio interviews with visuals from Kubrick films as well as well-chosen archive footage.

As the webmaster of many Kubrick websites, including 'The Shining FAQ,' I am familiar with many of the outré theories surrounding this film. And as Room 237 amply illustrates, The Shining can be read as a parable about almost anything, from the genocide of American Indians, to the Nazi holocaust, to the power of subliminal advertising. My favourite theory in the film though has to be Jay Wiedner's claim that Kubrick,'faked the making of a Stephen King novel' as a kind of mea culpa, 'for what he went through in order to fake the Apollo moon landings.' That was apparently why Stephen King was so angry about the film when it was first released. For King knew the real reason Kubrick had changed things in the book! As one of the film's other contributor's remarked, 'you'd have to be a fanatic to find these things!'

Many of the theories have a particular flavour, the same tone of obsessive interpretative zealousness that you typically find in conspiracy theories--be they about the Kennedy assassination, the 911 attacks or indeed the faking the footage of the moon landings (which as we now know was perpetrated by Kubrick himself).

I think an interesting parallel can be drawn here. Conspiracy theories although they ostensibly treat faceless government agencies as the enemy, in fact pay ironic homage to the total efficiency and authority of big government. I find the arguments of conspiracy theorist always have a particular oedipal structure, they invariably contain a claim that goes something along the lines of, 'surely the government with their resources and power could keep such and such a secret all these years?' However, this image of an all powerful and totally inerrant government seems to be at odds with the image of, say, the Cameron/Clegg coalition presented in the nightly news, where climb downs and cock ups seem to be very much the norm rather than the exception.

Room 237 shows that there is a similar process at work in the interpretation of Kubrick's films. The arguments propounded by his more fervent interpreters typically assert something along the lines of, 'surely someone as obsessive and brilliant as Kubrick would not have accidentally included…', and then they go on to cite whatever subtle detail they have chosen as the lynch-pin of their theory. It is as if the image of Kubrick, the perfectionist with the super human IQ is a necessary component to anchor these theories. For if Kubrick were fallible and (dare I say it) human, or if his creative decisions were sometimes arbitrary or spontaneous, then the whole enterprise would fall apart and we would be left with just a collection of largely unfounded speculations.

This is where for me the parallels with conspiracy theories get interesting. The German cultural theorist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas spoke of a legitimation crisis created by the lack of any incontestable truth to anchor human discourse. This is a similar idea to Yeat's line in his poem The Second Coming, 'Things fall apart the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.' It seems to me that just as the almost fanatic interpretations of Kubrick films need the mythical figure of Kubrick himself as the infallible perfectionist to act as their centre, just as conspiracy theories also need the oedipal image of an infallible big government to anchor them. Both therefore belong to the same kind of impulse. I would argue the real subtext of Room 237 then is that The Shining is a representation of nothing other than the fantastic mythos that has grown up around a great director. I could speculate and say that that the creation of this mythos was a deliberate marketing ploy by the director himself, but then I would be starting a conspiracy theory of my own.

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