Can Movies Be 'Solved?'

The new documentary Room 237 spotlights some strange fan theories about The Shining—but are they stranger than any given "eureka" theory about a film's meaning?

Warner Bros.

I've heard it called the "eureka moment," which seems as good a description as any. It will sometimes come to you after the film has ended, as you're wandering into the lobby; it might come during a discussion, as you and those you saw it with tear into the picture for hours after, playing devil's advocate while consuming your fries or pie or drinks. Sometimes it comes days afterwards, after the inscrutable movie has knocked around in your head, finally settling at something resembling a thesis. But the best ones come as you're watching the film, a little hint or indication on the edge of the frame knocking all the tumblers into place, and suddenly you can only see the film through your newly acquired lens. Aha, you think to yourself. That's what they're up to.

Rodney Ascher's terrific documentary Room 237 is, among other things, an ode to that "eureka moment." It is a feature-length video essay that looks at five rather outlandish theories of what Stanley Kubrick was really creating with his 1980 film The Shining—since, obviously, he couldn't have just been making a genre movie or a pop-lit adaptation. No, according to his five experts, Kubrick's film is either:

a) an apology for the government's "genocide of the Native Americans"
b) a "deeply laid subtext that takes on the Holocaust"
c) a dizzying ode to displacement
d) a film meant to be seen both forwards and backwards
e) Kubrick's personal dramatization of how he helped fake the Apollo moon landings.

Director/editor Ascher does not show his interview subjects—he only uses their voices, narrating a steady stream of clips from The Shining and other films (mostly Kubrick's, but not exclusively). He does so, it seems, to focus purely on the words of those disembodied voices, and what's most fascinating about them is the confidence with which they're spoken. They'll sneak in with casual language, phrases like "I've always taken that as...," "I do have this idea that...," "I've always thought he sort of represents...," or "Now, if you'll allow me to make a link here..." But once those initial ideas are approached and established, their verbiage gets more concrete. "I became convinced that in this film, there is a deeply laid subtext," says one. "It is a great film, it is a masterpiece, but not for the reasons people think," says another. "There's many levels to this film, this is like three-dimensional chess." "You begin to understand this deeper story." "When people start to figure out what it's about." And so on.

It's all about confidence when you're floating a wildly implausible theory. Because these fans and philosophers are so certain that they're right, that they hold the magic key to Kubrick's mind, they don't even hear how silly the words they're saying get. "The subtext of the story—besides the other subtexts of the story" is the kind of thing that sounds less like analysis than digging oneself into a hole, though it's no goofier than something as expansive as "Kubrick is thinking about the implications of everything that exists." Occasionally one of the speakers will yield a bit ("I admit that perhaps I'm grasping at straws there, but..."), but not for long. A misplaced chair is, we're assured, "certainly not accidental... Continuity error? I don't think so."

So what's going on here, really? Kubrick made The Shining after the commercial (and, to some degree, critical) failure of his handsomely mounted but frightfully dull Barry Lyndon, and his motivations seem fairly clear: He was looking to make something with a bit more of a marketable appeal, i.e., an adaptation of a bestseller, and a genre film to boot. But because Kubrick is a filmmaker who so often seemed bent on confounding us, there had to be more to it than that—there must be an explanation for why he stooped to a project some saw as beneath his talents. And for why the film was (as several of the pundits admit) so initially unsatisfying. And while we're at it, there must be some reason for its many inexplicable moments, like the aforementioned disappearing chair, or Jack Torrance's casual reading of a Playgirl magazine in the lobby of his new employers.

And thus, these five found their own "eureka moments." Trouble is, they can't all be right; Kubrick was, presumably, not making a film that simultaneously indicted the government for genocide and media manipulation while also working through his own feelings on World War II. But what's interesting about The Shining as an analytical object is that all of these theories seem both utterly ridiculous and entirely plausible. It's such a big, strange, shambling film that just about any interpretation is possible. And it might not matter anyway—as one of the subjects of Room 237 notes, "author intent is only part of the story with any work of art."

But why do we want to perform those close-readings? Why are we so obsessed with "figuring out" the movies—with approaching motion pictures as a puzzle to be solved, rather than as entertainment, or diversion, or (yes) art? There's a reason a filmmaker as frequently oblique as Kubrick attracts this kind of fanatic speculation. Some viewers like getting bound up in his spider webs, being taken on his trips and left to wrestle with the experience, getting lost in his giant hedge mazes. But some want more than that—whether they're willing to admit it or not, they're unsettled by his narrative sleights of hand and disturbed by his ambiguities. If they can get into his head, if they can figure out what he's actually secretly up to, then they've won. They've bested the master at his own game.

"Just go see the movie!" one of Room 237's theorists insists. "I figured all this out from just seeing the movie!" But the more you listen to their wild conjectures, their nutty hypotheses, their pinpointing of "really stunning synchronicity," the more stock you put in a line spoken by Scatman Crothers in The Shining, which Ascher excerpts. "Nothin'," Crothers's Dick Holloran says. "There ain't nothin' in Room 237."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that we treat films as puzzles. After all, arguably the greatest film ever made hinged on a "eureka moment": the whispering of the word "Rosebud," its meaning presumably unlocking the key to the strange and complicated existence of Charles Foster Kane. Of course, it didn't; Rosebud was a symbol of lost innocence, but that loss only goes so far to explain who he was and who he became. (And, as many have pointed out, the entire construct may well be false, since it's uncertain who was actually in the room to hear him say that fateful final word.) No, "rosebud" filled the same function for Kane as the "eureka moment" has for countless viewers since: as an organizing principle, a way into a film (or a book, or a painting, or a life) that is about much more than just that moment.