The documentary Room 237 sounds like film-buff catnip, and it looks that way for a while. Subtitled "Being an inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts," this big film-festival hit from last year is a portrait of five elaborate fan theories about Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic.
I was excited to see it, but have watched it twice now and both times I've steadily lost interest. The theories range from relatively mundane to wild: It's about the genocide of Native Americans. It's about the Holocaust. It's an interpretation of the Greek myth of Theseus. It's an apologia from Kubrick for his role in faking the Apollo moon landing. (No, really.) If you play it forward and backward at the same time and super-impose the two images onto each other ... like, wow, man. And they're all sort of ridiculous in different ways: Notions spun off of overinterpreted wall portraits and the placement of background objects. Ideas rooted in preexisting obsessions. Every continuity error invested with authorial intent.
"Kubrick is thinking about the implications of everything that exists," one subject enthuses. Another insists that the placement of a folder on a desk in one scene is meant to represent an erection when an actor stands up. "It's a joke. But a very serious one," he says.
Because the attempts at film criticism seem so half-baked, Room 237 is less about Kubrick's film than about the urge to theorize, to analyze, to make sense of things. This is a worthy subject in of itself, but the ultimate failure of Room 237 is that director Rodney Ascher doesn't seem quite up to the task of making this particular film.
Room 237 has the precise but playful look and loopy hook of an Errol Morris film, suggesting such oddball Morris portraits as Tabloid or Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. Visually, it's up to snuff: Ascher uses copious footage from Kubrick's film as well as other Kubrick material (particularly from Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon), file footage, and subtle recreations. The only narration comes from his five subjects, who are otherwise kept off-camera. But the film is probably too deferential toward its subjects — too invested in their half-cocked ideas and not interested enough in them as subjects. As a result, instead of a thoughtful or even sardonic glimpse into what drives these kinds of fan theories, we're mostly left with listening to them drone on, like being trapped in an endless session of pretentious bar talk.
But Room 237 does look great and may inspire you back to the source itself: To appreciate Kubrick's precise images and structures rather than to test-drive these five theories. After an Indie Memphis-sponsored screening at Studio on the Square earlier this year, Room 237 gets a second stand-alone Memphis screening this week at the Brooks Museum of Art.
Brooks Museum of Art
Sunday, June 9th
2 p.m., $8 or $6 for members