Here's the kind of theory that the five interviewees in Rodney Ascher's Room 237 have come up with about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining: One believes it's an allegory about the genocide of Native Americans. Another insists it's instead about the Holocaust. Or it's Kubrick's coded confession that he faked the moon landing. Ascher's subjects aren't garden-variety kooks: Native American genocide-theorist Bill Blakemore is a veteran journalist, and Geoffrey Cocks, who sees the Holocaust in the Overlook Hotel, is a history professor. Director Ascher adopts a radically nonjudgmental approach, allowing the viewer to be seduced — or not — by his subjects' ideas. The theorists are heard but never seen; most of the images come from The Shining itself (the copyright negotiations could probably make the subject of a whole other film).
Even if the theories don't persuade you, the film fascinates. It's revelatory about the nature of spectatorship in an era when technology allows audiences to watch films frame by frame. When much of the American public believes that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim, Room 237 evokes the appeal of conspiracy theories while refusing to endorse or completely disavow them. And without ever referring explicitly to academic theory, the film engages with some of the grand ideas that have preoccupied the discourse over the past 50 years. And it's fun.
Much of it plays out like this: In The Shining, Danny, the boy, is shown wearing a T-shirt with the number 42 on it. Cocks argues this must be a reference to the year 1942, a key point in time for the Shoah. Jack Nicholson's character uses a German-made typewriter, a detail so tiny that Kubrick couldn't have expected most viewers to catch but one that Cocks seizes. He sees the typewriter as a symbol of Nazi bureaucracy and even does some numerology, arguing that numbers glimpsed throughout the film add up to 42.
The methods of Room 237's theorists are less like the work of film critics than those found on a conspiracy theory site like vigilantcitizen.com, which argues that Lil Wayne videos glorify CIA mind-control programs. When Vigilant Citizen turns to film reviews, it offers thuddingly literal takes on The Cabin in the Woods's antiwar allegory and Videodrome's cautionary tale about the power of television. Blakemore and Cocks insist they're exposing something of great importance by connecting The Shining to the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans, but they're really quite distant from present-day politics.
The postmodern notion of the "death of the author" is both exemplified by the interpretations in Room 237 and disavowed by its subjects. The versions of The Shining devised by Blakemore, Cocks, and company are their own invention, but the theorists insist Kubrick was a genius puzzle-master who micromanaged the smallest details in his films. As critic Michael Sicinski has pointed out, the weirder their interpretations get, the more wedded they become to the idea that Kubrick was responsible for every detail — even the mistakes. In their versions of The Shining, there's no such thing as a continuity error.
If the death of the author began in the '60s, the empowerment of the reader (or viewer) started via home video technology. The subjects of Room 237 are products of it, though the film seems fiercely ambivalent about the ways the VCR and DVD players have changed spectatorship. On one hand, home video has enabled filmmakers to make essay-films as powerful as Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema and Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself. They've also made room for people to study The Shining frame by frame a dozen times and conclude that Kubrick faked the moon landing. This leads to new, more poetic forms of viewing and criticism, such as a screening (re-created in the documentary) where The Shining is projected simultaneously forward and backward. It also paves the way for dangerous levels of obsession and a nerdy disconnection from reality.
Room 237's lack of judgment enables its spectators to get lost in a delirium of interpretation. Rodney Ascher isn't celebrating or endorsing any of the views he presents — to my mind, the Native American genocide allegory is the only one that contains any substance — but he suggests there's something to be gained from understanding people's eagerness to embrace them. Just imagine the same movie, but made about birthers or truthers, and you'll have some idea of the philosophical stakes with which Ascher is playing. Though it might not match the aesthetic heights of Gravity's Rainbow or Out 1, Room 237 picks up where Thomas Pynchon's and Jacques Rivette's expertly imagined conspiracies left off, cleverly making use of the visual material his subjects riff on and plunging us down a wormhole of theorizing, enabled by the echo chamber of the Internet and Blu-Ray spins.