Upon watching as a kid Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth and his analysis of various aspects of Star Wars, I realized then something that I could hold over many a clever and cryptic (read: genius?) director: A filmmaker can take credit for the brilliant connections other people make about his or her work. Had enigmatic, notoriously private director Stanley Kubrick cared enough to listen to what other people thought of his work he may have been amused by the connections made within Room 237, a fascinating and utterly enjoyable documentary about several different interpretations of, arguably, Kubrick's most puzzling work, The Shining.
Outlandish interpretations of Kubrick's movies, in particular The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey, are nothing new and I would imagine that the interpretations found within Room 237 will sound pretty outrageous to most. But what's interesting about the three main interpretations in Room 237 are their historical connections. Based not on freewheeling, off-the-cuff conclusions, but rather, on passionately studied empirical visual evidence, each of the three main interpretations is downright engrossing as they're presented with the rigor of a compelling thesis statement. Now, to be accurate, there are five interviewees expounding on all the different meanings, symbolism and incongruencies within The Shining. But only three of them have a clear grasp of what they're seeing, that is, a certitude that there is a deliberate message embedded by Kubrick to be deciphered like hieroglyphics on a pyramid. The other two are mostly noticing a lot of odd and complex things, making interesting connections about things that, as one of them puts it, "litter the movie."
Part of the fun of watching Room 237 is the eventual realization of these interpretations. So it'd be a disservice to an audience to come right out and tell. But just as neat is the incorporation of so many wildly disparate film clips used as visual aids along the way. These are movie clips from neither The Shining nor from Kubrick's filmography, but from a broader assortment of films, each one with the potential of being viewed as emblematic of both genre (horror, war film, science fiction, historical drama, etc.) and different popular movements in cinema (silent films, '50s Technicolor films, '60s sword and sandal films, '70s political films, '80s Eurotrash, etc.). Clips that seem baffling and jarring at first (All the President's Men??) eventually become part of a cinematic tapestry that's as arresting as the discussion of The Shining itself. It's as though through the curious curation of clips from such diverse titles as Demons, Apocalypto, Looker, All Quiet on the Western Front, etc., etc., director Rodney Ascher is evoking Kubrick's own cinematic inclinations while simultaneously laying out a fractured history of cinema. It's a subconscious trip for the viewer that's no doubt brought about by financial restraints--which clips are the cheapest? Which clips are free? And that's assuming he's got permission to use them--but a trip just the same that runs parallel to the bigger odyssey the viewer is taking.
Not only do these clips serve to depict what's being said, they take the place of the weather-beaten talking head method of presenting information. There's not one single talking head shown, in fact, which was both a liberating and a maddening experience since I was free to focus on the interviewees' theories and match their words with the images, but deep down inside wished I could also match each incredible theory with what my imagination was sure was an equally incredible face. Now, I don't know anything about what Mr. Ascher's financial situation was when making Room 237, but I'd like to think that at some point early on he consciously made the decision to go full guerrilla and interview without shooting video, only using an audio recorder when meeting with his subjects and then later pilfering cinema to match images with words. That would be a big middle finger to pomposity and propriety, two of many of Kubrick's pet peeves. I also hope that the inclusion of audio where one of the interviewees has to get up in the middle of the interview to calm his yelling child in the background and then comes back to finish his thought was also done as a "F - U!" to cinematic convention. I think it would have made Kubrick smile.