We tend to project ourselves onto art. We take a story as a reflection of our own experiences, or we interject our own theories about what an artist really means. Every English teacher does it, grafting his or her own meanings onto works to the point that personal analyses emerge not as interpretation but as curriculum.
Movie nerds aren't immune, and Rodney Ascher's Room 237 stands as a monument to overthinking an artist's work. For whatever reason, the theorists in this documentary were deeply affected by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Some view it as a masterpiece full of historic metaphors. Others see it as an intentionally flawed work by a master of detail seeking to use even his "mistakes" to toy with minds. No one involved, though, sees it as simply a mammoth horror film by a true master. This isn't cinema. It's obsession.
At no point do we see the five interviewees whose theories deconstruct what The Shining means. Instead, the film comprises voice-over interviews atop footage from The Shining and other Kubrick films. There's a trancelike effect to listening to these theories, which range from basic interpretations about the film's use of ancient Greek imagery to wild conspiracy theories about the film functioning as a confessional for Kubrick to atone for faking the Apollo 11 moon landing.
That may seem like listening to a bunch of particularly well-informed drunks pontificating at a bar, but the film amps up the intensity of the arguments by allowing the speakers to lay out, uninterrupted, every facet of their theories in exhaustive detail. At one point, the film presents multiple maps of the fictional Overlook Hotel and its impossible architecture, suggesting the hotel itself serves as a map of the human psyche. Other sequences focus on tiny details in the background of the set.
Of course, much of it comes off as either total bullshit, regurgitation of the obvious, or both. One commenter offers a theory that the film serves as an allegory for the genocide of Native American tribes. Thing is, that's actually addressed explicitly in the film's opening scenes. The moon-landing theory teems with the kind of conspiracy-theorist ballyhoo normally reserved for those who think 9/11 was an inside job. But in allowing its subjects to talk, Room 237 emerges as a triumphantly objective examination not only of The Shining but of the human need to identify with art, even if it evolves into obsession.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: Room 237 opens Friday at Cinema 21.