Though the work of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has been criticized on many grounds, it's doubtful that a lack of subtlety is among them. From "The Killing" (1956) through "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), his work was brilliant, but from "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) on, it was not only brilliant but also complex and ambiguous in ways that almost demand analysis.
Rodney Ascher's "Room 237" focuses in on one Kubrick film, "The Shining" (1980), which in recent years has surpassed "2001" as the center of Kubrick analysis.
It should be noted that upon its release, "The Shining" was not particularly beloved. Its biggest selling point was neither Kubrick nor Jack Nicholson, but rather new literary star Stephen King, upon whose 1977 novel the film was based. I saw the film opening day in Westwood, and the end was booed by a good percentage of the audience. Much of the negative reaction was based on expectations of the director and the novelist — or even of the horror genre in general.
"Room 237" presents five fans, who, speaking in voiceover, explain their readings of the film, accompanied by a montage of clips primarily from "The Shining," but also from all of Kubrick's other films and a number of non-Kubrick titles. They each have a different pet theory, none of which precludes the others, except perhaps when you get to issues of "intentionality" (a concept that isn't mentioned until the very end of the film). That is: Artists are not necessarily aware of all that lurks in their work; there are patterns that assert themselves on the screen (or easel or whatever) without conscious intent. In interviews, many filmmakers respond to analytical observations with a comment along the lines of, "Wow. I never noticed that before. But, sure, that's valid."
It's possible to find ample evidence, as one of the participants claims, of the importance of the number 42. The examples are pretty amazing, in ways that almost certainly had to be deliberate. But another of our guides sees references to the Holocaust throughout; his argument is unconvincing and probably has more to do with his psyche than Kubrick's. Of course, everybody's reaction reflects something about themselves: The viewer is, in a sense, the final collaborator in the creative process.
Another of the narrators sees a symbolic intention in every visual inconsistency. Even though Kubrick was Hitchcock's rival when it came to controlling every minor element, a number still seem to be nothing more continuity errors. Some, however, can't be explained away that way: Jack's typewriter changes color from scene to scene; it's inconceivable that this was either unconscious or simply sloppy.
I'm reluctant to mock even the wildest readings — or, if you like, over-readings — because I've been mocked myself for suggesting that when you look really closely, the happy ending of "Hannah and Her Sisters" isn't at all happy; that Jimmy Stewart is sitting in the mental hospital imagining the final third of "Vertigo"; and that Martin Scorsese's "Casino" is some sort of New Testament allegory.
The one interpretation in "Room 237" that sounds totally wacky is based on the utterly unsupported claim that Kubrick had secretly directed the images that were presented to the public as "the moon landing"; and that "The Shining" is rife with references — a sort of hidden apology for being involved in deluding the public. (The guy who forwards this notion doesn't deny we went to the moon; he suggests merely that what we saw on TV wasn't genuine.) The back story is hard to swallow: Even though Kubrick had just made the most convincing space movie ever, there's no way that some NASA/NSA fakery team would hire someone as meticulous and uncontrollable. They would have rightfully gone with a solid, competent nonentity — a hack, if you will.
The same guy looks at a key tag that says, "ROOM No. 237" and asserts that this must be the "Moon Room," because those are the only two words that can anagrammed from the capitalized letters. Well, no, they're not. There's a more obvious and perfect anagram that uses each letter only once — "MORON." I'll bite my tongue and move along.
At some points, the interpreters respond to a pattern or correlation they've noticed by saying, "It must mean [Holocaust/42/Apollo 11]. Why else would Stanley have done that?" Well, for a start, don't underestimate the contribution of the subconscious. Secondly, even assuming intent, he may have found it aesthetically pleasing. And finally, don't rule out the notion that he was just spinning patterns to intrigue future generations of grad students and fans, like the people in "Room 247" — possibly with tongue in cheek or a grin just beneath his standard unsmiling expression.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).