Director: Rodney Ascher
Cast: Jack Nicholson
Watch Room 237 online in the UK: Amazon Prime / BFI Player+ / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
There’s nothing like watching a weird film with someone and concocting wild theories about what it all means. Is that film criticism? Is it mindless drivel? Whatever it is, it can be very entertaining – and says a lot about cinema’s power to bring audiences back to re-watch a story several times.
Room 237 is one of those films, full of crazy conjecture about The Shining. But while it purports to be investigating the idea that – deep breath – Stanley Kubrick helped fake the moon landings and then confessed it to the world secretly in his adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal horror, the documentary is actually about something even more shocking. “Oh yes, Roland Barthes’ theory of the death of the author,” you might say. No. If you look at it closely, Room 237 is, in fact, an incredibly subtle advert for Pepsi.
Director Rodney Aschner is a smart guy, clever enough to use these crazy conspiracy theories to hide his own messages in his film. At least 10 minutes of Room 237 is spent analysing the carpets in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. Repeated ad nauseam throughout the building, the hexagonal/spike symbols represent, we are told, male and female genitalia. It may sound far-fetched, but there’s a simple reason Ascher includes them: you guessed it, Pepsi. Everyone remembers those controversial “Cool Can” designs the company introduced, which discreetly spelt “SEX” down the side. Kubrick, our humble narrator reminds us, visited Madison Avenue to learn how to subliminally insert such codes into his film. In researching his documentary, Ascher did the same thing – and with a nod and a wink, uses those same techniques to promote his favourite soft drink.
“Look at the clouds in the introduction to The Shining and you can see Kubrick’s face,” claims one of the film’s disembodied contributors (they are heard and never seen). Ascher freezes the film’s frame so we can confirm: there’s not a beard in sight. “This is nonsense,” you might cry. But again, there’s a logical explanation. This meteorological madness is merely a way to distract us from Room 237’s own opening titles. Look again at the director’s name: Rodney Ascher. Keep looking. It’s a clue. Rodney’s moniker is an anagram of “Harry Encodes”. And Harry refers, of course, to Harry L. Crisp, who founded Pepsi in 1935. Pepsi is ‘encoded’ in Room 237. That’s what Rodney is playfully hinting at right from the start.
Crisp, as you probably know, passed away in 1975. “1975?” you ask. “That doesn’t have anything to do with The Shining! That was filmed in 1980.” But consider again, dear reader. There are five letters in Harry. 1980 minus 5? 1975. That’s maths. Why would anyone look to find hidden messages in The Shining as opposed to the more enigmatic 2001: A Space Odyssey? Ascher picked Kubrick’s horror masterpiece because it was the only film that matches up with Pepsi’s landmark date.
Still not convinced? Let’s look at Room 237’s boldest claim: that Kubrick faked the moon landing. At one point, the boy in The Shining wears an Apollo 11 jumper – a clear nod to the iconic space rocket. And then there’s the tag on the key to door Room 237, which reads “Room No”. After Rodney Ascher’s name, that’s an easy anagram to spot. “Room” + “No” is obviously an anagram of “Moon”. That’s not a coincidence. That’s fact, just like the way it also spells out “Moron”. This is the Moon Room, Kubrick is telling us.
But wait a minute. Rockets? Room 237? Who hasn’t used a bottle of Pepsi to make a rocket at some point when they were a kid? And Room 237? 237ml in a bottle of Pepsi? This is mind-blowing, intricate stuff.
For most people, of course, the words “Pepsi” and “conspiracy” refer to something else entirely. Have you ever seen Pepsi backwards? PEPSI = ISDED. That coupled with the round red, white and blue logo led many to believe that the soft drink’s redesigned packaging was actually a warning – or a threat – to Barack Obama. Now that’s just stupid, garbled balderdash – a perfect example of when a conspiracy theory’s credibility flies out of the window. After all, PEPSI backwards is clearly ISPEP.
Inevitably, this patchwork of theories flirts with such moments. How many of these subliminal messages did Kubrick really intend? How much have Ascher’s subjects wildly invented? Is Room 237 a perfect demonstration of how all art finds its meaning with an audience? A bonkers yet fascinating exercise in film criticism? All we know is that after watching this compelling, immersive film, we can’t wait to see The Shining again. And we really want a Pepsi.
Room 237 is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on BFI Player+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.
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