Obsession, defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling.” One of the more benign things people can get obsessed with is a movie, watching and re-watching it, memorizing it, poring over its details – unless, of course, you’re John Hinkley Jr. and the movie is “Taxi Driver.”
The documentary “Room 237” is an ostensibly thoughtful deep reading, a deconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s film of Stephen King’s 1980 novel “The Shining.” What it really is, is a bunch of obsessives obsessing about an obsessive movie-maker’s obsessive movie.
The “experts” here are never seen on camera. Under-identified as a way of hiding their “credentials,” they talk over footage of the film, other Kubrick films such as “Eyes Wide Shut,” and snippets from random other films whose footage helps “tell” their stories and give us their theories on what this horror film is “really” about. The result is a film that’s disquieting, summoning up hints of the dread that hung over Kubrick’s movie from the moment the credits came up.
Some of them – the ABC News reporter Bill Blakemore comes off reasonably well – are convincingly onto something. And some are plainly barking mad. Even Blakemore sounds so certain of his “interpretations” that he can seem a tad unbalanced by it all.
They have all watched “The Shining” – many times. They have done floor plans to the hotel that is its setting. They have examined the film, frame by frame, parsing its images like a cinematic “Da Vinci Code.” And the reason they can do this is that Kubrick was just as obsessed as they are.
That chair that appears and disappears behind Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) as the frustrated writer sits at the typewriter, stuck in a mothballed mountaintop hotel with his family, his personal demons and whatever haunts the hotel, in some shots? Probably not your typical movie continuity error.
Jack’s typewriter, which changes color at various times in the movie? The TV set that has no power cord on it? Kubrick wanted those things there.
And when you think about the various “impossible things” that turn up, the impossible geography, architecture, the blood-red production design flourishes, you can see it, as they do, as “a masterpiece, but not for the reasons most people think.”
Is it about the destruction of American Indians, the Holocaust, the Apollo Moon landings, or Kubrick’s favorite bugaboo, sexuality?
Some wild notions make more sense than others.
But seeing Rodney Ascher’s film, another more plausible and just as entertaining notion takes hold. Kubrick was messing with us – keeping the viewer off balance, enriching every frame with the sort of puzzles that unsettle us, much the way that Ascher does, teasing us along, making the incredible credible, and then undercutting this witness or that theory by letting them talk until their obsession gets the better of them. And us.