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Seen in Pittsburgh: Room 237 (2012)


Soon after I started using the internet on a consistent basis, I stumbled upon and began exploring IMDb. If I enjoyed a film, I found myself spending time on its page. What were all these little categories off to the left side of the screen? Company credits? Trivia? Technical specs? When I clicked on “Goofs,” I found a listing on various errors in a film: historical inaccuracies, continuity errors, moments when cameras or mics were visible. My initial thought (after, “Man, The Omen (1976) has a lot of mistakes!”) was, “How do people see all this stuff?” If the interviewees in Room 237 (2012) are any indication, they only see it upon obsessive watching, re-watching, reflection, and (sometimes) diagramming.

While The Shining (1980)-obsessed subjects of Room 237 aren’t merely looking for goofs, much of their approach seems to consist of taking what the average IMDb user would consider a goof and turning it into a marker of hidden meaning. So a chair that appears in the background one moment and is absent from the same background in the next doesn’t indicate lazy filmmaking; it indicates Kubrick’s acknowledgment of mass murder. A window that shows up where it’s architecturally impossible for there to be a window doesn’t indicate a set-dresser’s gaffe; it indicates that Kubrick is taking us into an insane character’s state of mind.[1]

So what is the point of taking mistakes and turning them into moments that reveal the deepest layers of a film’s meaning? Part of the answer should be obvious from the above: this kind of thinking redeems Kubrick. If Stanley Kubrick is the man who made Paths of Glory (1957) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and had a genius IQ, then he could not possibly have made a mistake.[2] The guy knew how to make movies so well that he became bored with it, one of the interviewees argues, and this is why he used The Shining as an opportunity to hide all sorts of clues for the more observant viewer to find and understand.[3]

But another reason for un-mistaking The Shining’s mistakes has to do with the process of making sense out of images that should not. For if Room 237 reveals anything about The Shining, it’s that the film should make no sense to anyone. A chair that disappears? A shape that turns upside down from one shot to the next? A copy of Playgirl freely available for perusal in a hotel lobby? Distractingly large quantities of Tang and Calumet-brand baking powder? It is appropriate that, for Room 237, the filmmakers apply the process of making sense out of what doesn’t make sense to The Shining, a film that even on its surface leaves a good deal unexplained: the reasons for Jack’s madness, Danny’s invisible companion, Shelley Duvall’s encounter with the furries. The primary material under examination, the film The Shining itself, is so fascinating, in fact, that I found myself far more interested in the clips from The Shining (played and re-played in Room 237’s 102 minutes) than in the gymnastics of logic necessary to turn them into veiled confessions about faked moon landings.

If most of the theories espoused by the discussants in Room 237 are either batshit or boring (and if it’s the images themselves that are far more mysterious and interesting than the ideas behind what they mean), what are the alternatives? Is there a way to make sense of the cinematically nonsensical in a compelling way? Or would it be better to leave it the other way, to take a film that seems to make sense and show the ways in which it is illogical, piecemeal, discontinuous? (For me, a humble cinephile who has only seen The Shining once, Room 237 does both: it reveals illogic, then attempts to turn it logical once more.)

Following the film, a friend told me that certain academics have also argued for many of the theories under discussion in Room 237, which, if it’s true, suggests that we can’t make Room 237 into a document of the difference between conspiracy theorist fanboys and their more intelligent academic counterparts who have learned the right lessons about how to critique a film object from the proper intellectual distance. If anything, it’s a film that suggests the two camps are eerily close.

Perhaps, different camps of critics aside, I should simply applaud any film willing to argue that there’s something more to a movie than its conventional entertainment value and that it’s important to look at images closely. But the closer I look at the images, the more I find myself longing for both an eye to see in a film its derelict seams (a talent that the interviewees in Room 237 clearly possess) and also the means with which I can turn these seams into something substantial, something worthwhile, something that communicates the disruption and mystery and affective resonance in a sequence of moving images. If Room 237 is a noble attempt at the latter, it can’t hold up against the richness of the images from The Shining that it insistently displays.

[1] These may or may not be what the interviewees actually use these errors (of sorts) to demonstrate: I’m just attempting to model the kind of thinking used in the film.

[2] As if Kubrick had full control over every aspect of the film.

[3] It’s not until near the end of the film that one of the subjects suggests that Kubrick himself could not have been fully aware of all the meanings hidden in the film.