Do Not Disturb: Decoding Kubrick's THE SHINING In ROOM 237
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, which doesn’t stick very closely to the source novel, has more than its fair share of detractors (King himself among them). But those who like it like it a lot, and some of those who like it have taken it several steps further than the rest of us—reading a variety of coded messages in Kubrick’s detail-packed production design and carefully composed shots. Five such fans, and their various interpretations of the movie’s deeper meanings, are our guides through the new documentary Room 237. These individuals have become lost in the maze of the Overlook Hotel, so to speak, and their obsessive quest to determine the true significance behind every single shot of the film makes for fascinating, if at times laughable, viewing.
The five unseen narrators—mostly writers and indie filmmakers—walk us through their own readings of what they each believe The Shining is really about. One narrator claims that the movie is a subtle indictment of the genocide of Native Americans, pointing to the mention of the Overlook being built on an Indian burial ground, as well as the various Native American artwork and designs throughout the hotel (he ascribes particular significance to a well-placed can of Calumet baking soda, featuring the silhouette of an Indian chief, in the pantry). Another insists that the movie’s famous hedge maze alludes to larger mythological underpinnings, even going so far as to insist that a backlit portrait of a skier in the Overlook's game room is meant to suggest the form of a minotaur (it’s a bit of a stretch, to say the least). Another still is convinced that the film is a commentary on the Holocaust, taking care to point out multiple appearances of the number 42 (the year Hitler implemented his “Final Solution”) and the German-made typewriter used by Jack Torrance. Most absurdly, one narrator, filmmaker Jay Weidner, is absolutely certain that Kubrick used The Shining to admit his compliance in helping NASA fake the moon landing on a sound stage. Details like Danny Torrance’s “Apollo 11” sweater, Weidner insists, are impossible-to-miss signposts of the director’s compliance in the conspiracy. Weidner, who documented the alleged fakery in his 2011 film Kubrick’s Odyssey, concludes that Kubrick was so torn up with guilt over what he’d done that he inserted hidden messages admitting his involvement in the film’s design and, more overtly, within Jack and Wendy’s marital strife (Weidner says that Kubrick scripted these scenes as a way of dealing with his inability to come clean with his own wife over what he’d done). Kubrick, who died in 1999, is conveniently not around to confirm or deny any of the claims made by Room 237's narrators.
Most of these theories are pretty ridiculous, and are clearly the result of watching the movie far too many times. That’s not to say that all of the ideas espoused in Room 237 are completely half-baked, though. Some of the observations are thought-provoking, namely the ones that suggest Kubrick’s narrative is concerned about dealing with our inability to cope with past trauma and societal guilt over unthinkable atrocities. This may or may not actually have been Kubrick’s intent, but it’s an interesting way of looking at his work. Another section deals with alternative methods of viewing The Shining, walking us through a one-time theatrical screening where the film was projected over itself in reverse—playing forwards and backwards at the same time. A number of strange visuals result when watching the movie in this fashion, like Jack Torrance’s face appearing over the two murdered little girls (the combination of visual elements gives Jack a weirdly clownlike visage). Again, there’s no way Kubrick could have anticipated such results, but it’s kind of cool nonetheless. However, for every thought-provoking aside in Room 237, there’s another snicker-inducing observation from the narrating fans, like the aforementioned minotaur, or the massive erection Weidner insists appears onscreen in the form of desk clutter when the Overlook’s manager, Mr. Ullman, meets Jack Torrance in his office for the first time.
Directed by Rodney Ascher, Room 237 could have easily become a dry treatise on film study, and does threaten to do so on a few occasions (such as some of the play-by-play sequences where the audience is invited to watch a super-slowed-down scene from the film, all in the hopes of catching a tiny detail that isn’t really there to begin with). But the film is kept visually interesting through the use of clips from Kubrick’s other work (Eyes Wide Shut and 2001: A Space Odyssey turn up a lot), as well as some other, less-obvious, non-Kubrick choices (like An American Werewolf In London and the 1985 giallo flick Demons). A synthesizer score by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes keeps the mood appropriately cerebral, with a hint of the macabre. Many of the theories touted by Shining superfans in Room 237 may be as rail-thin as Shelley Duvall, but the documentary gives you a new appreciation for The Shining itself—a fascinating, maddening puzzle-box of a movie that has as many possible interpretations as the Overlook Hotel has rooms.
Lifelong genre enthusiast. I made the comics SCENESTER and SLAM-A-RAMA (both available at tucocomics.blogspot.com and slamaramacomic.com), I write comic and movie reviews for NerdSpan (nerdspan.com), and I'm sure I do other stuff that I'm not remembering right now.