2015 Documentary Watch Project: Room 237

Usually for my documentary watch project I choose flicks based on social, environmental or artistic impact. This time I just reeeaally wanted to see Room 237. Well, I guess this 2013 film falls in the artistic impact category. It’s basically an hour and half or so of commentary on Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, interspersed with clips, stills, and frame by frame analysis. It was directed by Rodney Ascher, whose upcoming documentary The Nightmare actually interests me more than Room 237, because it’s about sleep paralysis and I’m obsessed with (and often plagued by) that phenomenon.

After two decades of consideration, I’ve decided that The Shining is not only my favorite Stephen King book, but the best he’s written. It works on so many levels – as a terrifying ghost story, a powerful character study of a family destroyed by alcoholism, and a chilling portrait of an innocent boy’s supernatural powers. But – that’s the novel. Stanley Kubrick’s film version is quite different. Usually no matter what, a book is better than its film adaptation. The Shining works for me as movie and novel – I think of them as separate entities. The book haunted me, most particularly because of young Danny’s precognitive visions – so frustratingly muddled and misunderstood because of his age and his inexperience. The movie frightened me – I mean eeeggghhhh – the creepy woman in the tub!!

I’m not a big Kubrick fan, but I don’t think anybody else could have filmed The Shining (or 2001: A Space Odyssey, for that matter) quite so…unnervingly. Seeing The Shining dissected in this documentary confirmed that – for a horror movie junkie like me – it’s always fun to watch slow-mo clips and look (okay, sometimes dig) for symbolism and subliminal images. There’s lots of excited jabbering about the designs in the hotel carpets, numerology digressions (42!!), and some intriguing maps of the (sometimes physically impossible) hotel set.  I kind of agree that a major underlying theme in Kubrick’s film is that of genocide – particularly of Native Americans and Jews, with the main character serving as the archetype of white male insanity and weakness/dominance. In the novel, I felt much more sympathy for Jack Torrance as a human being – abusive and abused, used up and washed out, redeemed in the end. In the movie, we’ve got Jack Nicholson and his crazyballs acting, which in part makes the film so different from the book. There’s a great clip in Room 237 of Nicholson getting into character for the infamous “Heeeeere’s Johnny!!” scene – he’s rampaging around the set grunting and practice-swinging his axe, almost knocking down one of the crew.

I do think that some of the commentators (I don’t know who any of them are and I’m not really interested in knowing – we never see them, we only hear them) went WAY overboard with some pretty laughable semiotics, attributing too much to what I think were simple continuity errors (sure, Kubrick = Genius but that chair wasn’t in the second shot because somebody forgot to put it back, period). I had a good time jumping off the deep end (a poster of a downhill skier somehow looks like a minotaur….i.e. from the hedge maze…okaayyyy); and then I had a good laugh at the wacko discussion of how Kubrick helped fake the Apollo moon landing footage. Whatever!

I enjoyed Room 237 mainly because it’s brimming with examples of patterns and creative symbolism, and pattern recognition is hardwired into my human brain – whether it’s beneficial (survival, creativity) or silly-but-striking (conspiracy theories, superstition – like my fascination with sleep paralysis, known cross-culturally by many names, such as The Old Hag). A nifty illustration of pattern recognition is this clip from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, showing the relationship between the Heike crab, Samurai warriors, and artificial selection – and also a fun opportunity to hear Sagan pronounce the word humans…yooouuumans. Oh, Carl.


“Stanley in Snow” by Sgerbic – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons  

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