The Answer is 42: A Review of Rodney Ascher's Room 237

Greetings friends,

Here is the first of hopefully many R&R's (random reviews) to come, beginning with the wonderful Room 237.

To fully enjoy this film, I'd say it's a prerequisite that you watch Stanley Kubrick's The Shining at least three times. Seriously. This is because the symbolism in the movie is so heavily layered and complex, that many things won't register on first or second viewing. I know this isn't something any sane person would want to do in the course of a day, but if you're feeling particularly studious and enjoy getting creeped out in the process, it could be a fun activity to stretch across a week or two. I'm a Kubrick fan, so of course I have seen The Shining a bunch of times, and even I had to go back to the film once or twice after watching Room 237. It's a film analysis blast.


Those of you in NY and beyond in the states can check out screenings starting March 29. Check out Indiewire's take on it, and if you click on the film's title, it'll take you to a fun range of comments and "grades" given by reviewers and viewers who loved, eh'd, or hated the film.

Now, turn off the light. Hug your cat. Ignore the shifting shadows in the corner of your eye, and get comfy. Let's start with the trailer. Punch it:

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The rundown: At face value, The Shining is just a horror movie.

The film is definitely a tough watch as a horror movie alone; the dialogue sometimes sucks, and the scary sequences are scary. But everyone seems to get something of the film "stuck" in their minds, and the iconic images and sequences are iconic for good reason. Kubrick's surgically deliberate approach to every aspect of his films, from subtexts to contexts, colors to shot angles, are elements not to be taken lightly in order to understand the full scope of the film.

But diving into a beast like The Shining is no easy task.

So here comes Rodney Ascher's Room 237, brave and clever, with its five interviewees: Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, Jay Weidner, Geoffrey Cocks, and John Fell Ryan, who basically become the "narrators" of sorts, guiding us through their interpretations of the film. We never see them. One of the most wonderful things about Room 237 is the use of other, unrelated film clips and commercial clips in addition to scenes from The Shining that support both the narrative and demonstrative elements while we listen to the interpretations. This easily could have been one of those interview-clip-interview-clip kind of analysis documentaries, but Ascher really drove home the power of visual storytelling and the absorbing of ethereal ideas through pure image alone.

The interpretations: One of the first things I heard about this film was that it was full of people rattling on about weird theories and the documentary was basically for fanatics with too much time on their hands. Not so. All of the interpretations of the film are quite astute. I have written this post as a fan and defender of the film's intellectual merit.

Room 237, or actually, Room 237: Being an inquiry into The Shining in 9 parts as its full title goes, is divided into sections that are supposed to break down greater themes or elements in The Shining. It doesn't always do this though, and ends up overlapping from time to time. I don't want to blowout ALL the analyses but here are some of the hits, which really show how deep Kubrick's rabbit hole goes:

"The Interviewees" - Here we meet our interpreters. Bill Bakemore is the first to make the link to one of the subtexts of the film, of it being about the genocide of Native Americans during the years of American expansion. He does this by talking about the can of Calumet brand baking powder in the stock room early in the film. The can's placement directly behind Dick Halloran's head with the full label showing was to demonstrate how Halloran's character personified the definition of calumet (peace pipe) in his direct communication (shining) with Danny. The can's label is obscured when it appears behind an imprisoned Jack as he is talking through the locked door to Grady, showing how the communication between the two is insincere and sinister.

Geoffrey Cocks introduces the subtext of the film being about the Holocaust, via the film's incredible incorporation of the number 42 (sometimes expressed as 21 or 24, though these numbers also have their own meanings). The number has long been associated with the Nazis, and Cocks ties them to the film with Jack's typewriter. The outright extermination of the Jews began in 1942, in an "industrial, mechanical, and bureaucratic way" as shown by the old-fashioned typewriter bearing the brand Adler and its eagle logo. Adler means "eagle" in German, and the image of the eagle was a strong tie to the SS.

"Boiling Down" - Here we expand more into the Holocaust symbolism, like the shot of tourists fading into a section of the screen that contains suitcases, referring to the heaps of discarded suitcases representing the many who were exterminated. We also learn that Kubrick studied and worked with advertisers who were experts in subliminal messages, and incorporated many of their methods into the film. An example of this is shown early in the film when Jack comes in for his interview. The manager happens to be standing in front of something that makes it look like he has a huge "hard on" for Jack when they shake hands.

"Elevator to the Graveyard" - This is my favorite segment, where we get into Freudian themes and start to deconstruct the meaning of the famous blood shot. Cocks (or Blakemore) mentions the book The Uses of Enchantment, and the conscious and subconscious importance of fairy tales, tying these nicely to the repeated references to "Hansel and Gretel" in The Shining, which connects to the cooking of children -- or -- the people who died in ovens in the Holocaust.

The blood is representative of many things, but I think the strongest linkage is to the genocide of the Native Americans. The layout of the hotel is displayed in a model, showing how the elevator shaft would essentially descend straight into the bodies of the Native Americans, since we're told in the beginning of The Shining by the hotel manager that the Overlook Hotel was built on a Native American burial ground. This would basically be the source of the blood.

There are many intriguing explorations into the number 42 and where it occurs in the film, including things like there being 42 cars/trucks in the parking lot of the hotel, how July 4, 1921 = 24, "The Summer of '42" playing on the TV that Danny and Wendy are watching, etc.

My take: There are three things I picked up on/perhaps discovered/was struck by during Room 237. 

1) There's a great part where (I believe it's) Bill Blakemore talking about Danny's character development in relationship to the blood, and he centers in on a sticker on Danny's door that shows his pre-blood personality, which later disappears post-blood. I noticed another item of portent on Danny's door:

Remember when Danny is running from Jack in the labyrinth, he retraces his steps and covers some of them up in the snow, and then crawls over to another side of the hedge wall?

Check out the shape of the blue sticker, and the positioning of the white clouds, which reminded me of snow. It looks like Danny in the snow, on all fours. The sticker is present on the door pre- and post-blood. This is something that just jumped out at me while looking at the other sticker Blakemore was talking about.

2) Subliminal creepiness: Again, I don't know if this has been discussed or not, but this gave me the creeps. They don't talk about it in the film. Right before Grady spills the drink on Jack in the Gold Room, a woman passes by them in a lovely 20's gown. We never see her face. However, what we do see as she passes is something that looks like a bright red hand print, right around where her privates would be when sitting. A crude joke about menstruation? An expansion on the evil creatures sexually attracted to humans, as discussed in the "Boiling Down" segment? A reference to the beautiful woman in 237 who becomes a rotting, laughing corpse?

3) Probably the most synchronous and engaging things I caught was Bill Blakemore's (or Geoffrey Cocks') interpretation of the sounds played during the opening credits of the movie. He was talking about how the high-pitched, whispering, screechy noises during the helicopter shot following the car were scary to him. This was because they seemed to represent a presence or force "following" the car to the hotel, warning us the of danger and horror to ensue. Given that he'd just argued a point about how the film encompassed so much of the horrors of human history, and the human mind's denial of these, he said that the screechy voices were like "the clouds of witness," and attributed this line to the title of a Dorothy Sayers book. He also later drove the point home about how important it was, in the language of the film, for humanity to understand its terrible patterns and learn from history -- retrace its steps as Danny showed in the labyrinth -- in order to break out and effect real change. Humanity had to learn from the past but also accept that the past doesn't actually EXIST, it's only alive in human memory, and in the present moment it is not real. Like "pictures in a book," as Halloran says to Danny.

I loved the sound of "clouds of witness," and when looking it up on Google I saw that it's not just a Dorothy Sayer's book. It comes from a passage in the Bible, ironically enough from the book of Hebrews, and seems to speak directly to the point Cocks (or Blakemore) was making:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)

The "race marked out" in this case would be the one where we as humans evolve further into creatures of compassion and positive growth under the grace of God.

The pros and cons: Cons: It's hard not to shake your head at some of the things the interviewees talk about, but this is only in the beginning before they've firmly connected the film to the points they're arguing. Some of the connections remain pretty weak, and I myself would boil them down to Kubrick yanking our proverbial chains. Some of the theories are also a bit obsessive, and while The Shining definitely merits a handful of viewings it's not something that's very "healthy" to watch over and over and over and over again. Sometimes, the sound quality in the film wasn't great when the interviewees were speaking, like they moved away from the mic or something at times, or there were interruptions and noise that were not edited out. I do wish they had shown the interviewees names every time they spoke so I could keep better track of who was saying what (with the exception of Juli Kearns obviously).

Pros: Room 237 is a fantastic, imaginative doc. I learned a lot more about analysis, learned about many book titles I can't wait to start reading, and saw clips of a few films I haven't had the pleasure to see yet which I now know I will greatly enjoy. It's spooky and atmospheric at times, but not so much as to push you away with fear. I was actually a bit concerned that the music was doing something subliminal to me after a while, because it is very "sticky." I suggest listening to something you like after watching the film to rinse out the tunes. Not everything discussed in the film is "news" in terms of theories and so on, but it gives a new life to so many of these ideas that have been around for some time since The Shining's release.

Recommended reading:

If you want to get really, REALLY hardcore about analysis and give the people in Room 237 a run for their money, check out Jonnys53's M A S S I V E 2007 post, "What You May (or may not) Have Seen Hidden in the Shining" (a screenshot of which is actually shown in Room 237). The green-on-black text is an eyeball killer, but I recommend doing what you can to read it.

Of all the twisted theories and all the crazy takes on the message behind the great film The Shining, I invite you to check out the sickest of them all.

See you in the gold room!

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