One of my least favorite moments in college was sitting in an intense English class and concentrating on maintaining a straight face while a classmate explained his theory of how the scene from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Morgue” in which a gorilla stuffs a victim up a chimney somehow, in his mind, represented a return-to-the-womb motif. I have no idea how he thought that related to the rest of the story at all. After the few first few sentences my mind turned to white noise in self-defense.
This evening I had flashbacks to that moment while watching Rodney Ascher’s thought-provoking new documentary Room 237, an examination of hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. Whether you hated or loved either or both, few would accuse Kubrick of taking a slapdash approach to the project, regardless of the lengthy list of differences between it and the book. Room 237 is narrated by five Shining enthusiasts: ABC News war correspondent Bill Blakemore; playwright/novelist Juli Kearns; author/conspiracy theorist Jay Weidner; history professor Geoffrey Cocks; and Excepter frontman John Fell Ryan. Each one has their own interpretation of the recurring motifs and subliminal imagery buried in the mix, all adding up to a grand design on Kubrick’s part in their minds. The nature of that grand design, though, varies wildly by viewer…very wildly, in this case.
If you’ve ever been at the mercy of a friend, enemy, or passing hobo delivering an emphatic soliloquy about something important to them but nonsensical to you, their level of dedication can be impressive, even if you disagree with them 100%. Thus do the narrators take turns explicating their findings and presenting their evidence as the movie adjusts itself to accommodate — sometimes downshifting to super-slo-mo; sometimes in extended freeze-frame and let’s-enhance! mode; sometimes while excerpts spool backwards; and even, for one ludicrous sequence, with two reels overlaid but playing simultaneously in opposite directions, one forward and one backward, for value-added juxtapositional super-meaning.
It’s far from a standard making-of-the-movie puff piece in which participants are cheerfully interviewed about what a pleasure it was to work with all the other participants. Casual viewers indulging these hardcore viewers are asked to consider different hypotheses, allegedly including but not limited to:
* The recurring Native American background props point to an allegory for nineteenth-century American genocide
* Use of numbers with ‘7’ or ’42’ in them are pointers to a Holocaust parable
* Kubrick crafted shots to include sexual imagery that would require a magnifying glass and ten minutes of staring to catch
* Simple continuity errors (e.g., props that come and go, or, in the case of Jack Torrance’s typewriter, demonstrably change color between scenes) were no amateurish accident (thus setting a precedent for other future filmmakers to defend their own gaffes by declaring that those all happened because Meaning)
* The hallucination sequences weren’t just using dreams as a wellspring of repressed fears, but as a complex meditation on the concept of “pastness”.
* The labyrinth motif pops up in more ways than you think, not just in the scenes with the actual outdoor labyrinth
* Li’l Danny Torrance’s tracking-shot Big Wheel rides do more than just show off the hotel setting — they also contain clues
* The entire film is Kubrick’s thickly veiled confession that, while the 1969 moon landing itself was real, the world-famous TV footage was pure fakery, all his doing at the government’s request
* A crushed red VW beetle symbolizes Kubrick’s dismissive attitude toward the novel in general and King in particular
They can’t all possibly be right. The entire film posits so many exhaustive levels of ostensible machinations on Kubrick’s part, in order for everyone to win at second-guessing Kubrick…well, I imagine his workspace would’ve been denser, more cluttered, and scarier-looking than the wall-to-wall newspaper collection from A Beautiful Mind. As one narrator exclaims, “Kubrick is thinking about the implication of everything that exists!” If nothing else, that would make The Shining the haughtiest Stephen King adaptation of all time, beating The Green Mile by a fair margin.
On the visual side, Room 237 is largely about studiously combing through footage from the original film. For those long stretches between revelations and epiphanies, Ascher weaves in clips from Kubrick’s other films. At times he uses clips from other, unrelated movies that contain moments resembling the words being spoken at a given moment. That’s not my favorite documentary device. Patience is also tested when we’re asked to examine and reexamine the same scenes from The Shining again and again and again and again. I haven’t watched it since sometime in the ’90s, but I’m already sick of the opening-credits aerial tracking shot, the pantry scene, the scene with Jack Nicholson leering at Joe Turkel from Blade Runner, and panicky knife-wielding Shelley Duvall. (Miraculously, the iconic “Heeeere’s Johnny!” scene never appears once. I guess Earth is unanimously done with that one.)
As long as I was willing to lend an ear to the lectures no matter how my disbelief grew by the minute, I found Room 237 an engaging example of listening to geeks geekier than me getting their geek on, even if they don’t consider themselves geeks. Their fascination was fascinating, if occasionally alien to me. Considering Kubrick’s legendary perfectionism and obsession with detail, I’ll agree that The Shining was intended to be no ordinary horror film. How many different things he did make it is anyone’s guess.
I’m reminded here of a quote from Alan Moore, from an interview in Amazing Heroes magazine circa 1985, when asked about all the literary devices and subtext he and Dave Gibbons packed into Watchmen: “Everything means something, although not everything means very much.” If Kubrick aimed higher than that, we may never know for certain.
Fun postscript, regarding Juli Kearns’ list of labyrinths in the film: my wife would like to add that Barry Nelson, who played hotel manager Stuart Ullman, once starred in a Twilight Zone episode called “Stopover in a Quiet Town”, in which his hapless character is lost and trapped in a town he can’t leave.
Coincidence…or something more?
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And to answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the end credits per se, but I couldn’t help noticing the following items:
* A title card for Highland Park Films using the style and soundclip from the old Warner Bros. Pictures title card of the era. Blatant homage, no coincidence.
* Copyright notices for the entire Kubrick oeuvre, from Fear and Desire on up, clips from all of which are used as visual stimuli, especially 2001: a Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut. In a few cases, repeated motifs and tenuous connections are noted between them and The Shining.
* A list of the musicians who played on the sometimes eerie, sometimes annoying soundtrack. I recognized the name of their clavinet player: Bear McCreary, composer for TV series such as Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles and The Walking Dead, both of which are about the end of the world, and both of which see main characters sometimes turning on a dime and trying to kill each other. Coincidence…or something more?
According to Box Office Mojo, Room 237 is now playing at eleven (11) screens nationwide. If you’re in or near an American city larger or more culturally advantaged than Indianapolis, you can check the movie’s official site for a list of upcoming screenings. Some cable and satellite providers also have it available On Demand, which was my delivery system of choice.
(Content warning: though it’s officially unrated, much of the R-rated material from The Shining is revisited here, including but not limited to the flowing rivers of hallway blood…which, of course, totally represent something.)