There are a lot of entertaining and intriguing theories buffeted about in Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, a documentary about the putative “hidden meanings” of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror movie of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. Some of them seem more plausible than others - I have a difficult time seeing Kubrick’s face superimposed in the clouds in the opening scene - but the correctness of the hypotheses advanced hardly seems the point. What’s delightful about the film is hearing the enthusiasm in the voices of the close readers Ascher interviews as they make their case for their various takes on Kubrick’s “masterpiece.” (Full disclosure: I consider The Shining minor Kubrick, though Room 237 has me itching to watch it again on Blu-ray.)
Though it’s not quite made clear in the film, the five obsessives who provide the narration for the film aren’t the sort of garden variety kooks you sometimes associate with film decoders. Bill Blakemore is an ABC news reporter who has covered the Vatican and global warming; Geoffrey Cocks is a distinguished professor of European history at Albion College who has written several books, including two on how Kubrick’s work was influenced by the Holocaust; Juli Kearns is a playwright turned novelist; Jay Weidner is an author and filmmaker who specializes in esoteric conspiracy theories (“The only people who call conspiracies ‘theories’ are the conspirators,” is a telling quote from his website); and John Fell Ryan is an artist who has staged screenings of The Shining “forwards and backwards, simultaneously, superimposed.” All of them come across as interesting people instead of wide-eyed ranters, and even if they fail to convince you that Kubrick was consciously working with symbols and codes, you can’t help but wonder what the guy was subconsciously working out in The Shining.
Blakemore holds that The Shining is a critique of the genocide of the American Indian, pointing out the strategic positioning of Calumet Baking Powder cans in the Overlook Hotel’s pantry as well as a multitude of other images in and about the hotel as well as the story that the hotel was built upon an old Indian burial ground and that Indian raids were repelled during its building. Cocks picks up the fact that the typewriter Jack Nicholson’s character uses to not write his novel is a German make (an Alder, which means “eagle,” which in the film becomes a recurring symbol for National Socialism) and arrives at the conclusion that The Shining is Kubrick’s Holocaust movie.
Kearns has mapped the interior of the hotel and found it architecturally impossible, with a window that cannot exist in the manager’s office.Ryan - who bills himself as the “world’s greatest palindromist” - finds so much wonderful synchronicity in the interplay of superimposed images that he contends Kubrick intended his movie to be read backward as well as forward.
And Weidner offers the most far-fetched and spectacular claim - he argues that The Shining is Kubrick’s coded apology for his part in producing staged Apollo 11 lunar landing footage. (Weidner does not dispute that we went to the moon, he only argues that the TV broadcast originated from a sound stage.)
Much of what these deep readers of Kubrick’s film say is indeed interesting, and given the careful approach Kubrick took to filmmaking it’s probably safe to assume that most of the continuity “mistakes” in the film were actually quite intentional. What’s harder to determine is the why - and whether Kubrick was consciously employing Freudian imagery to a specific end, or whether he just enjoyed embedding jokes in his film. And while you might not be convinced when Kearns discovers a minotaur in a ski poster hanging on a wall, there are plenty of other baffling images and moments in the movie.
(On the other hand, Kubrick did graft a labyrinth onto King’s original story; and the hotel manager makes a point of telling Nicholson’s character there’s no skiing in the area - so why a skiing poster? Besides, Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss was produced by Minotaur Productions!)
What really makes Room 237 is Ascher’s decision to use a montage of Kubrick films - clips from Eyes Wide Shut, Lolita, The Killing, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, etc. - augmented by brief clips from other period films to illustrate the off-camera narration. At times, The Shining is treated to frame-by-frame analysis, a process that sometimes augments the narrators’ assertions (as when we notice the patterns on a carpet in a pivotal scene have been reversed) and sometimes reveals the wishfulness of the analysis. (As when one of them detects a “Hitler mustache” on a photograph of Nicholson’s character during a slow dissolve.)
While the various narrators have various degrees of reliability - I’m sure Kubrick at least thought about some of the Indian imagery, and maybe even the Nazi stuff - some of the claims made are risible, and a lot of what seems inscrutable can be explained as simply playfulness on behalf of someone (probably, but not necessarily, Kubrick). He probably did use a red VW to signal Stephen King he had seized the author’s story. But for my money, The Shining is still a story about madness and the deterioration of a family, with intimations of a ghost story.
That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to deconstruct the movie; in a way, Room 237 is all about the work of criticism - finding fresh avenues of delight.
Room 237 88 Cast: Documentary with the voices of theorists Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, Jay Weidner, Geoffrey Cocks, John Fell Ryan Director: Rodney Ascher Rating: Unrated Running time: 102 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 05/03/2013
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