Screens at CIFF: 10/19 & 10/20
World premiere: 23 January, 2012, Sundance Film Festival

Stanley Kubrick was an obsessive, precise director, brought up from the world of still photography and thus prone to filling each and every frame in his movies with exactingly specific detail. This is beyond doubt.

In the modern world, we have a certain subset of film culture, encouraged by the growth of the internet, but predating it, which clings to films like fetish objects, over-analysing every moment and trying to come up with every possible interpretation of every detail, generally losing sight of the movie in the process, but coming up with a healthy array of small but often very fun observations. This is not beyond doubt, but I would recommend visiting the "trivia" page on IMDb for any genre movie generally, if stereotypically, regarded as having a large fanbase made up primarily of males in their late teens or early twenties for proof that the way certain movies are received by their fans is less like a work of art and more like a puzzle box, and also that certain stereotypes about late-adolescent males are truer than other stereotypes.

Put these notions together, along with the tendency of Kubrick's films to reside comfortably in those same teen male-skewing genres, and we have Room 237, a video collage and documentary about Kubrick's 1980 horror film The Shining; or more to the point, about people who love The Shining, and who use Kubrick's noted and characteristic tendency for precision, in concert with the level of obsessive contemplation that has been with us for some time, but in a post-Nolan universe is somehow the proof that one is a better film fan than somebody else, as justification to read into The Shining some extremely specific, singularly dubious theories about the film's Ultimate Meaning, all residing on the unspoken but quintessentially fanboyish idea that obviously Kubrick is a genius who would have made the movie hard to figure out.

We're introduced, in voice-over, to five people: Bill Blakemore, Judi Kearns, Jay Weidner, Geoffrey Cocks, and John Fell Ryan. And to their five readings of The Shining: it is a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans, it is a game about impossible architecture, it's an apologia for Kubrick's role in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing footage, it is condemnation of the Holocaust, and it's a film about Kubrick's feeling that he has run out of things to say with cinema. I think I've matched everybody up to the right theory; one of the biggest problems with the film is that director Rodney Ascher structures it all so casually that there's no good way to keep track of which white male voice is which, and it becomes awfully clear, awfully early, that Ascher himself doesn't especially think it's worth bothering.

Ascher's relationship to the material he's presenting is a grand unanswered question, far more troubling than any of the mysteries of The Shining itself. The impression I get, at least, is that he's at once trying to stay coolly "above" the theories being analysed, but at the same time so impressed by how cool and innovative they are (and, perhaps, unwilling to insult the people willing to put themselves on the line, intellectually, for his project) that he never can bring himself to mock the theories, poke holes in them, or even to discuss them in any meaningful way. Instead, they just get presented, and illustrated with shots from the movie that demonstrate whatever it is that the speakers are talking about.

Or shots that demonstrate other things, or nothing. Room 237 is, in the grand tradition of Histoire(s) du cinΓ©ma but with nothing resembling its intellectual rigor, a film made up almost in its entirety of clips from movies, and if The Shining is the most obviously justified of them, Ascher included footage from every single Kubrick film (Eyes Wide Shut being far and away the most prominent), and from movies that have nothing to do with Kubrick whatsoever, and whose presence raises questions that Ascher either doesn't find interesting or doesn't realise he's asked (Murnau's 1926 Faust is a particularly glaring example of a movie included, seemingly, just because). Frequently, the use of footage is there for seemingly no reason other than entertainment, or to score an easy joke (after one of the theorists defends what's pretty obviously a run-of-the-mill continuity error as one of the keys to unlocking the whole film, Ascher cuts to a shot of Jack Nicholson sarcastically affirming, "anything you say" - the closest the director ever comes to actually discussing the intellectual merit of his subject), and it's at this point that I might as well admit that, for all its shallowness as a work of cultural criticism, Room 237 is an awful lot of fun to watch.

Not in an incredibly honorable way: much of it is just listening in disbelief to Kearns pridefully outlining a complicated theory about the geography of the film without apparently noticing that she has not actually drawn any conclusions about what that geography means beyond being a puzzle to solve, or Weidner's (I think) observation that "ROOM No." can be re-arranged to spell one and only one word, "moon". By my count, it also spells "moron".

Room 237 is fun in the way that listening to an enthusiastic drunk friend is fun, then: spectacularly messy and overbearing, but full of conviction, and watching the dots get connected in unnecessarily convoluted ways is delightful; and certainly, it's darned easy to feel pretty good about oneself in listening to these undeniably smart, observant people, getting so caught up in myopic tunnel vision that they absorb only the data that serves their theory, and flat-out ignore anything that doesn't; in particular, a lot of the speakers put a lot of energy into trying to figure out what certain uncanny things happen in the movie, and end up at, "it's a metaphor for Jews being carted to camps", rather than noticing that The Shining is, after all, a horror movie, and horror movies do, after all, thrive on the uncanny and inexplicable.

If Ascher is trying to sell a message about how easy to get tangled up in this kind of tunnel vision, it's not clear to me how he's doing it; and by failing to engage with the ideas or discriminate between them, he runs into the danger of equating things that don't deserve it. Not all crackpot theories are created equal, and there's a world of difference between somebody who sees Kubrick's confession about the moon landing, and somebody who sees the film as a Holocaust metaphor (the latter is more than a little defensible, especially when its defender retrenches to "a commentary on the general human impulse to do violence"), and that somebody whose reading of the film starts with, "because Barry Lyndon is a long boring movie, duh", is not as strong a witness as he might be.

There's no weighing of any of this in the movie; just a reduction of all theories and theorists to the same level, and that level is neither "hey, isn't this cool?" nor "hey, isn't this hilariously stupid?" Room 237, if it claims anything, claims only, "the things these people say are amusing", no more no less, and- well, yeah. They're amusing. It's an amusing movie. But more of a curio than a substantive, rigorous documentary about a film that more than deserves one.

6/10