I’m old enough — barely — to have seen Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece “The Shining” when it opened in the theaters back in 1980. My strongest memory of this tale of writer’s block meets cabin-fever insanity is that my girlfriend’s drink wound up in my lap the first time the twins appeared. People in the audience screamed; it was a terrifying flick back when the boundaries of horror were still wide open for exploration.
But aside from a rather enigmatic ending — much more so than the Stephen King novel from which it was adapted — “The Shining” seemed like just another scary movie, albeit one with an absolute mastery of technique. I watched it a few more times simply to explore Kubrick’s methods; there is much to learn here about the use of camera angles and sound to build tension.
Little did I know that there is a group of people out there who have watched “The Shining” way more than a few times — and taken away rather more. With his new documentary “Room 237,” director Rodney Ascher explores the way Kubrick’s film has become an absolute obsession for a certain type of cinephile.
“Room 237,” named for the hotel room where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has an unsettling liaison, interviews five people: a journalist, a professor, a playwright, a Kubrick blogger and a “hermetic scholar.” Each has pored over “The Shining” frame by frame, and each has a separate theory as to what the film is really about, whether that’s an allegory for the Holocaust, or Kubrick’s secret apology for cooperating with the illuminati in faking the Apollo Moon-landing footage.
You laugh, perhaps, but then “Room 237” will take you into one of the most iconic scenes from “The Shining,” with 5-year-old Danny playing by himself on the carpet as a ball comes rolling toward him from off screen. He looks up, and what is he wearing? A hand-knit sweater with a rocket and the words “Apollo 11” on it. How deep does this rabbit hole go?
In an interview with The Japan Times, Ascher admits that he was “amazed to discover a whole subculture of people who were looking at the film at a level of detail I’d never seen people apply to any movie.” When asked if he found any of their theories a bit far-fetched, Ascher replies, “Not at all; the deeper they got, the more I liked it.”
This critic could actually think of a movie that people watched over and over with the same intensity: the Zapruder footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And the way people analyze “The Shining” in “Room 237” veers very close to conspiracy theory: There’s the tendency to view coincidence as evidence of deliberate action, and a search for proof to support a pre-existing hypothesis.
A typewriter on a table, for example, is not just a typewriter, but a cleverly placed clue sporting a Nazi-looking imperial eagle above the keys. Similarly, a chair that is behind Shelley Duvall in one shot and gone in the next is not simply a continuity error, but something of profound significance — if, that is, you believe that Kubrick never made a mistake.
Ascher says he can make the argument either way, but that interviewee “professor Geoffrey Cocks says something like, ‘If it was an accident during the production, Kubrick would’ve undoubtedly noticed it during the editing, so his choice to leave it in is significant.’ From there, you’re pretty free to speculate on why — whether the takes were selected for performance, continuity be damned; if there was something symbolic about it; or if there was an idea of hitting off-notes on purpose (characters exiting from ‘wrong’ doors, Danny rotating 180 degrees on the carpet in different shots, etc), as a sort of visual dissonance to further the uncanny aspects of the hotel.”
Perhaps the biggest hole in some of the theories is that if Kubrick had wanted to make a film about the Holocaust or the genocide of American Indians, he certainly could have; he had tackled tough topics with films such as “Lolita” and “A Clockwork Orange,” while “Full Metal Jacket” remains one of the strongest anti-war films ever made. Surely he wouldn’t have needed to secretly insert such themes into a horror film?
“You’re right, he was pretty unafraid of controversy,” notes Ascher. “But I’d also say there have been clearly symbolic elements in most all of his films, all the way back to ‘Fear and Desire,’ in which he had the same actors playing American and German soldiers in World War II. To quote Stanley Kubrick himself: ‘There’s something in the human personality which resents things that are clear, and conversely, something which is attracted to puzzles, enigmas, and allegories.’ ”
In a sense, “Room 237” is less about “The Shining” per se — indeed, Kubrick’s personal assistant Leon Vitali was quoted in the New York Times calling some of these theories “total balderdash” — and more an entertaining proof of postmodern theories of art. “I think it began as the first and slowly turned into the second,” says Ascher. “The idea was to focus not on the filmmakers but on the audience, and what they do to a film after it’s left the creators’ hands.”
“Room 237” does wind up as a bit of a cautionary tale for film buffs, a movie about people going a bit insane watching a movie about a guy going insane. Indeed, when one interviewee explains, with a stoner’s snicker, that “once you start studying synchronicity and symbolism, things start popping up that you weren’t previously aware of. … My life has actually become ‘The Shining,’ ” his remarks start to border on a textbook definition of paranoid schizophrenia.
Or maybe, he’s right after all: As I type the final line of this article, the clock at the top of my tablet screen clicks to exactly 2:37 p.m.