Continuity errors or intentionally coded signs? Coincidences or precisely placed symbols? Is Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining a meticulously engineered examination of Native American genocide, the Holocaust and the "nightmare of history," a sly confession that Kubrick himself helped fake the American moon landing footage and a subconscious meditation on minotaurs, all wrapped up in one giant horror-box? Or is it just a loosely controlled ghost story of creeping dread and possession and nothing more?
Director Rodney Ascher doesn't know. But he knows people who think they know. And this documentary allows all of them their "inquiry into The Shining" -- via voice-over, you never see their nerd-faces, so the opinions and fantasies and conspiracy theories all weigh exactly the same -- and they all get their moment to "shine," explaining what all of it really means. With the help of cleverly juxtaposed imagery from The Shining, other Kubrick films and archival footage, some superimposed onto other images, frozen, flipped or slowed down to a frame-by-frame crawl, we get the wild unspooling of culty mania, a brain-scrambling series of densely packed digressions. Wouldn't it be cool if all of it were true?
Any of it could be. Or none of it. But the most possible, compelling idea advanced is that Kubrick made the period piece Barry Lyndon and had hit a kind of cement wall of boredom. As a way through it, he freely adapted Stephen King's novel and turned it into a visual puzzle box, one that could be attacked and investigated on any side, nearly solvable in many ways without giving up all its secrets, a kind of multi-layered trick played on audiences for generations to come. And why not? The man took years to make films, after all, was known to be obsessed with detail himself, so practically anything is possible.
Ascher previously directed an extremely funny, idiosyncratic short film called The S from Hell (you can watch it on YouTube), a nine-minute exploration of irrational childhood fears all stemming from an admittedly strange old musical Screen Gems logo that used to bumper vintage TV shows like Bewitched and The Flintstones and unintentionally terrified scores of sensitive Gen X children. What's awesome about The S from Hell is its effective communication of the dread those kids felt as they ran from the living room in the nick of time to avoid bedtime confrontation with the thing that gave them their first media-based nightmares.
Room 237, through its dislocated, faceless and often untrustworthy narration, clips of blood-soaked hotel halls, Jack Nicholson's dead-eyed stares and Shelley Duvall's otherworldly screams, builds a similar sense of the eerie and inevitable, as though the longer you listen to these people (who may or not be completely sane; one of them is really into numerology and another, late in the film, expresses genuine paranoia about being watched by the government) the more you'll be tempted to believe in them in spite of yourself. Its momentum and crazed energy is intoxicating, entertaining and excellently weird.
Another possibility: Ascher is pranking his own subjects, letting them reduce a piece of cinema to a game of Clue, spin uneducated responses to a film that can't possibly be as bursting with secrets as they claim, giving them all just enough crazy-rope to hang themselves. One of the narrators even decides to look for information by running The Shining both backwards and forwards at the same time as though it were a Led Zeppelin record. I watched a Baptist minister do that once at the height of the '80s "satanic panic" trend. It was during an overnight event for my church youth group. He was looking for the devil encoded into the vinyl. And it was enough demonstration of silliness for me to want to quote Nicholson talking to his favorite Shining ghost-bartender, "Anything you say, Lloyd. Anything you say."