Did you know director Chris Columbus’ seemingly inane 1990 hit Home Alone is actually a sophisticated pre-9/11 send-up of American infatuation with national security?

Ever stop to consider that the famous sewerage pipe escape scene in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is both a visual and visceral commentary on the underlining rottenness of institutionalised “justice” and the one available path to escape it: to revel in the foul produce of the very system itself?

OK, so those are world-first off-the-cuff interpretations, though nothing a couple of hours, some coffee and a bottle of Chivas couldn’t knock out.

Far more commonly, Soylent Green (1973) is about the ghastly logical extremities of mass commerce. The sled in Citizen Kane (1941) is representative of the protagonist’s lost childhood. The Dark Knight (2008) is about George W Bush’s war on terror. Top Gun (1986) is about repressed homosexuality.

Coining inventive film interpretations is good intellectual cricket, like crack for quizzical cinephiles, a trough of subjective catnip to shove ya snout into. But where does one draw the line? What separates a genius film reader from a rambling quack pointing at weird pictures and freeze-framing images of clouds?

These are the sort of questions raised, perhaps unintentionally, by Room 237, a new documentary entirely comprised of crazy-in-the-coconut readings of Stanley Kubrick’s wintry horror masterpiece The Shining (1980).

Prepare to learn the significance of the “all work and no play” typewriter Jack Nicholson’s character furiously bangs away on. It was, according to one academic (though from what school of thought, literal of otherwise, this fellow has swam out of, is not made clear…) intentionally inserted to cryptically link the film to the Holocaust.

Another ambitious chap picks up on use of mirrors in The Shining — one scene famously depicts “red rum” reflected as “murder” — and does what any logically minded person would, um, do: plays a superimposed version of the film, going backwards, over the original, ensuring an already trippy film just got a whole lot weirder.

There are some interesting morsels of ‘evidence’ to support his circular theory. Conversation about murder and mayhem at the start of the film, for example, is matched with the mayhem and murder actualised at the end. Like the Wizard of Oz / Dark Side of the Moon thang, it’s either a case of complete coincidence or unfathomably intricate masterwork, and almost definitely the former.

By providing a non-condescending platform for these quizzical Shining virtuosos, director Rodney Ascher inadvertently makes the point that good film interpretation isn’t about hypothesis but the sequencing of evidence to support it, and the imagination required to sort the hyper-textual chaff from the grain.

The most interesting and best “proven” theory in Room 237 is articulated by a man who believes Kubrick helped fake the moon landing and used The Shining as a kind of cryptic personal confessionary. He launches his argument in a technical context, involving front and back lit projection, linking landing footage with “test” scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), then scours The Shining for subtextual support and finds red herrings in obscure places.

The pattern of carpet in some sequences in the film, you see, has the same broad pattern of NASA’s bases, which is obvious once you look at a map. He needed something to get him over the line and found a doozie: a jumper Danny, the haunted young child in film, son of Johnny, the axe-wielding psycho, wears is — gasp! — Apollo 11 merchandise.

“People are watching me,” the “expert” says, or something close to it, during one of several moments in the film when we crave for visional information about the interviewee. What inferences might we draw from their appearances: clothes, faces, expression, furrowed brows…? Instead Room 237 is face-less, visually entirely comprised of footage from The Shining and, weirdly, other Kubrick films, which does its amateurish production values no favours.

Ascher is cautiously celebratory about espousing the glories of criticism as interpretation and vice versa. Room 237 not only revels, but is entirely based on, imaginative readings, but the film also shows us the potty plains such a mindset can lead to, the thought patterns of bob-loose time-endowed bedlamites whose doors of perceptions don’t so much open as swoosh and twirl like a merry-go-round.

The culmination of aesthetics and textual elements in cinema create pools of meaning for film freaks to splash about in, should they be bothered. Combining the ‘visions’ of a cinematographer, writer, editor, actor, director, etcetera inevitably entails the creation of meaning that can be steered rather than controlled, suggested rather than defined. An art form out of control and definition, kept spinning by the vagaries of the viewer’s mind.

Good or bad, “right” or “wrong” don’t apply in the 70s carpet-lathered hallways of the Overlook Hotel and the interpretative wilderness they represent. A salient point is made during Room 237 by one interviewee about author intent; that despite its obvious value, it only accounts for so much in a collaborative platform. The heft of the film around it — built so extensively on pie eyed theory — seems to breathe a sigh of relief.

Room 237 screens as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey