Deciphering the symbolism of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"
[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of Room 237.]
People are good at creating meaning out of coincidence and patterns. Sometimes this knack for pattern recognition and meaning making goes too far. If you've read really bad art or cultural criticism, you know what I mean: the writers make ridiculous stretches to force the work to confirm an opinion or represent a school of thought. If the author's dead, the chic critical argument goes, then you can basically pick at the bones of a given work and reassemble them any way you want. (This is why I intentionally misread Roland Barthes.)
In Room 237, we see this knack for meaning making and pattern recognition taken to extremes. Different people read what want into Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. Some of the interpretations are more substantive than others -- allusions to genocide, for instance. Others are coincidental but still fascinating, like the film's eerie forward-and-backward correspondences.
And then there's one interpretation that's so out there it's incredible. It involves Kubrick and NASA. This idea is from the real star of Room 237's five interview subjects: conspiracy theorist Jay Weidner.
I already knew about Weidner going into Room 237 thanks to the novelist Stephen Wright. (Not to be confused with the stand-up comedian Steven Wright.) I don't want to reveal the full extent of Weidner's theories on Kubrick because they're such fun to hear for the first time. All I'll say is that Weidner's ideas revolve around the moon landing, and how each film following 2001: A Space Odyssey contains Kubrick's veiled confessions and admissions of guilt. Weidner explored this in his own self-produced documentary, Kubrick's Odyssey, which is worth checking out if you're into conspiracy theories and heroic acts of pareidolia.
Pareidolia, if you're not familiar with the word, refers to the ability for people to find significance in insignificant stimuli. Finding patterns in passing cloud is an example, or seeing the face of the Virgin Mary in your toast. Room 237 is saturated in this. Journalist Bill Blakemore's theory about The Shining involves the genocide of Native Americans during westward expansion. The Overlook Hotel is built on an Indian burial ground, which lends the idea some credence. But it wasn't that detail that triggered his interpretation of the film. Instead, it hinged on with the placement of a baking powder tin in the background of a shot. Suddenly there it was -- an entire film full of references to the genocide of America's indigenous people.
When a mind is looking for patterns or significance, nothing is accidental or incidental. Geoffrey Cocks, who's written a lot about the Third Reich, seems hardwired to see the film in term of the Holocaust. This game of connect the dots can be fun to watch, especially when the person sincerely believes in those connections. A poster of a skier transforms into something entirely different. A window in an office becomes a clue about the impossible architecture of the Overlook Hotel. Sometimes a paper tray is not just a paper tray. Numbers pop up everywhere but refer to other numbers, words are really just anagrams for other words. Even supposed continuity mistakes are intentional acts. To hear everyone share their thoughts is fascinating because even if I don't agree with the analysis, the people are so passionate. The fact that small details can get blown up into major ideas tickles my brain.
Ascher's approach to the subject is admirable and it's pretty cool in theory. Rather than just going with talking heads, he avoids them entirely. We just have the disembodied voices of the interviewees over clips of The Shining and other films. We open with Blakemore recounting the first time he saw The Shining, and it's recreated through clips from Eyes Wide Shut. Other Kubrick movies pop up as well, like 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Paths of Glory. During a spiel on labyrinths from playwright Juli Kearns, Ascher gets clever with a select clip from Kubrick's Killer's Kiss. Non-Kubrick works show up as well, like The Legend of Hell House, An American Werewolf in London, and Capricorn One, so there's a name-that-clip quality to some of Room 237's construction.
While it's an interesting formal choice, it has its limitations. It's was sometimes hard to follow the interviewees since they sometimes dovetail into each other. The names of the speakers aren't always flashed when they're talking, so occasionally I wouldn't know if Blakemore or Cocks was speaking since they have similar voices. Even Weidner got lost in the fray a few times until he'd say something so off-the-wall (yet brilliantly so) that I'd know it was him. The clips can get repetitive as well as we keep cycling over similar material from person to person. I think back to a work like Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, and while the subject matter is different from Room 237, the Morris film managed to weave the interviews and imagery together in a way that felt fresh the entire time.
There's also an issue I had with John Fell Ryan, one of the interview subjects. Like the four other people, what Ryan contributes to the film is fascinating. The problem is his delivery. While the other interviewees sounded crisp and clean, Ryan's voice over sounds like it was taken from a Skpe conversation. There's an interruption during one of his voice overs that was sort of funny but also a little grating because it interrupted the flow of the film's stream of ideas. The main issue was that Ryan kept saying "like" too much. I can only take so many doses of "like, you know, like, um" before I get annoyed. Ryan would sometimes clip his sentences, mumble through an idea, pause mid-thought for a long time, or just trail off. It's as if his conviction for his analysis wasn't as strong as everyone else's, and that threw me.
There are a couple of missed opportunities in Room 237. No one in the film talked about the above scene. That's right: somehow, there was absolutely no mention of the person in the creepy bear suit who was probably going down on he guy in the tuxedo. How could no one comment on such an absurd, frightening moment of the film? This is the stuff of nightmares. While there's talk about clandestine mythology and different levels of consciousness on the different floors of the hotel, for some reason this sledgehammer visual triggered no comment. It's such a jarring image, and one of the moments in The Shining that's as memorable for me as Jack Nicholson's face snarling through a busted door or the waves of blood coming out the elevators.
More than that, there's a sense of each interviewee being in a vacuum. None of them comment on another person's interpretation, and none of them feel like they're in an active conversation about meaning with anyone else. It's all disparate monologues about the same thing, which might be why sections of Room 237 feel redundant. Ascher mostly keeps his hands off the material without creating his own overarching thesis, which might have helped avoid some of the redundancy in the film. Just some ghost of a dialogue or hint of a larger conversation would have been nice to have, even if it was created in Ascher's assembly of the material.
I guess what I wanted was Ascher to engage in some more pattern recognition and meaning making in the words of his interview subjects and the images he chose. There's a way to take the voices in isolation and construct them so that the opinions can play off each other. There's probably some thesis, even an implicit one, that could have been built into the movie. The implicit idea in the film seems to be, "Well, how amusing." As it is now, Room 237 feels like five separate short documentaries on the symbolism of The Shining that have been jammed together. The film doesn't quite cohere even if it is undeniably interesting. The dots overlap more than they connect.
Alec Kubas-Meyer: Before going into Room 237, I didn't know that there were any conspiracy theories about The Shining's themes and ideas. I've read enough Cracked articles to know that Kubrick was a control freak and a maniac, especially during the filming of The Shining, but I didn't see it as something with ulterior motives. Room 237 does little to change my mind, and I don't think it ever intended to. The film acts as an outlet for five people (who are never shown, only heard) to present crazy ideas, but it doesn't really give them much credibility. Following a particularly ridiculous theory, for example, the film cuts to a clip of a character saying something to the effect of, "That's crazy!" And yes, it was crazy, but I wish there was some objectivity on the part of the filmmakers. Still, the ridiculousness of the ideas was enjoyable in and of itself. It's always fascinating to see where conspiracy theorists get their ideas from, and although I missed the sex-charged messages about the American-Indian and/or Nazi genocides that are evidence for Kubrick having faked the moon landing, I had fun laughing at the people who saw them and have obsessed over the ever since. If nothing else, it made me want to re-watch The Shining and see what I missed the first time around. Who knows, maybe I'll come up with my own conspiracy theories, and someone will make a documentary about me. That'd be pretty cool, wouldn't it? Yeah it would. 68 - Decent.