We are nothing without our obsessions, and Rodney Ascher's "This American Life"-ish documentary "Room 237" intertwines the obsessive, often risible theories of five very big fans of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."
Take it one of two ways. One: It's a cautionary tale about what happens when you're so into a movie and its elliptical images and perceived meanings, you get sucked into its wormhole and you end up sounding like a lunatic. Two: It's a movie about movie love and not believing in any limitations on that love.
Perhaps you recall "The Shining," which Kubrick adapted freely from the novel by Stephen King. Released in 1980, it was met with fascinatingly divided response. The mainstream audience expected conventional shocks and thrills; Kubrick and his cast (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as winter caretakers of an isolated resort) delivered something rather different.
People remember the elevator doors unable to hold back all those gallons of blood: the film's signature and still amazing image. But what's the meaning, for example, of the cans of Calumet baking powder seen in the background in the hotel kitchen sequences? You know that brand, the one with the American Indian on it? Is that just, you know, a can of baking powder? Or, as one "Shining" theorist believes, is that can one of a series of deliberate clues as to Kubrick's subtext — the genocidal slaughter of the American Indians?
That's the belief of ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, one of Ascher's chosen five. Another, Geoffrey Cocks, a Michigan history professor, believes something else, based on details in Kubrick's film including the German make (Adler, meaning "eagle," meaning a Nazi symbol) of the Nicholson character's portable typewriter. The movie, Cocks posits, is Kubrick's response to the Holocaust.
A third unseen theorist, filmmaker and conspiracy guru Jay Weidner, takes off in an opposite direction, arguing that various details in "The Shining" indicate, slyly, Kubrick's involvement in faking the alleged news footage of the Apollo moon landings. (Sez he.) And on it goes. Ascher offers generous samples of footage from Kubrick's film, as well as additives and visual commentary by way of Kubrick's entire canon.
Ascher's stance throughout is one of wry appreciation, although the cumulative effect is on the snide side. For better or worse, "Room 237" is merrily democratic in treating one reading, or set of readings, of "The Shining" as no less valid as another. So what if they amount to nutty allegorical reaches? That's the power and the mystery of a controversial film. More than once, we hear one of the theorists say: "Now, I admit perhaps I'm grasping at straws here ... " I found most of what's actually put forth in the film interpretively ridiculous. But I'm just one theorist among millions, and the film worked for me anyway.
'Room 237' -- 3 stars
No MPAA rating (violence, nudity)
Running time: 1:42
Opens: Friday; also available on demand.