A couple of weeks ago, I screened a copy of Room 237 for myself and a couple dozen friends. When I talk about Room 237 I call it a “documentary” in quotes, because it’s one of those narratives that is technically nonfiction but realistically not quite rooted in reality. These are, admittedly, sometimes my favorite form of documentary. Not only are they entertaining, but they offer endless opportunity to sharpen critical thinking skills.
In the loosest possible sense, Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, but really it is a sort of ode to overinvestment. It was assembled by Rodney Ascher, whose feelings on The Shining aren’t made visible in the film, and it documents the critical theories of five people for whom The Shining is a large part of their life — one of them makes maps of the layouts in the film, and another has written at least one book about it. Some of them believe that the film is an allegory for genocides such as the slaughter of Native Americans or the Holocaust; one, memorably, believes that Kubrick has distilled all of history into the story and made a film about “pastness”. My favorite is the man who believes that The Shining was made to tell the story of Kubrick’s personal experiences during his faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (He’s careful to say that he thinks the moon landing happened, just that the film footage we saw is fake.)
It is evident, much of the time, that these people are desperately projecting their own wants and feelings onto the film. A ski poster turns into a minotaur; a can of baking powder indicates the broken treaties European colonists made with Native Americans. A dissolve where a handful of tourists become a pile of luggage references the death-camp train deportations of the Holocaust. What appear as continuity errors to the rest of us — a suddenly-missing chair, a set missing some of its dressing, or a bathroom that seems to co-occupy space with a ballroom — appear to the subjects of the film as precise and specific choices meant to indicate their theories are correct.
It’s not that these things can’t be true — but it’s not terribly likely. A friend of mine pointed out that while Kubrick was indeed a control freak who micromanaged every aspect of the film, he also often changed the script from day to day, meaning that the cast and crew frequently had little clue what was going on. Continuity, as with many films, was not necessarily top priority. (Kubrick was also spending much of his time terrorizing Shelley Duvall.)
The further the film runs, the more you see that these people have spent a lot of time studying and analyzing the film. It’s hard to come down on them for that; we do the same in fandom with our favorite media. It also becomes evident that perhaps they have spent a little too much time on it. One of them, whose young son is sometimes heard yelling or crying in the background of his voice-over, admits with a giggle that he thinks his life is becoming The Shining. Run far, run fast.
The interpretations offered by these people derive from what I call the Bonkers School of Criticism, where the personal desire of the critic combines with the interpretive nature of all media to create a deeply bonkers theory of the media’s deeper meaning. There’s nothing wrong with in-depth analysis. There’s nothing wrong with deliberately misreading a text, either. Sometimes it’s fun to think what things could mean, even when you know the creator probably won’t go there and never intended to hint they would. But when the desire to see a specific reading overtakes the desire to accurately represent the work — when you believe the bullshit you came up with to entertain yourself with — you get the Bonkers School.
One of the saner participants in the film seems like she potentially has some really interesting things to say about Kubrick’s use of a hedge maze in the film, a setting that wasn’t present in the original novel. The association of the narrative with the concept of the labyrinth — a maze with a monster at the center — is an intriguing aspect of the film to explore, and was almost certainly something Kubrick intended, particularly since he put the climax of the film in the maze. That’s the tragedy of the Bonkers School — you fly right past “relevant” on the road to “pet theory”.
Erotomania is the delusion that some stalkers suffer, in which they believe the focus of their obsession is sending them secret messages in the way they dress, talk, and behave — even in the way they interact with their stalkers on the rare occasions they may encounter them. It’s not that any of these people think that Kubrick was aiming the message specifically at them, but they do think Kubrick was aiming a message at people like them — people who are, it’s implied, smart and special enough to understand his true, hidden meaning.
I’m a big proponent of trying not to let ego interfere with the work, when one is creating — but until I stopped to think about Room 237 for a while, I didn’t consider the idea that ego can interfere with the act of experiencing creation as well. It’s easy to say that people who attend the Bonkers School need a reality check — but perhaps more truthful to say that the best remedy would be an ego check.