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Truth is in the eye of the interpreter: a review of "Room 237"
Why Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" is about the Holocaust, the genocide of the American Indians, Freud, and Minotaurs
"The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it's simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves."
Around the two-hour mark of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) drives to the Overlook Hotel after receiving a telepathic message that trouble is brewing. On the way, he comes across a red Volkswagen bug crushed under a semi, off to the side of the road.
In the Stephen King novel upon which Kubrick's movie was based, the Torrances had a red VW bug, but in Kubrick's re-telling the family Volkswagen is yellow. The totaled red bug is Kubrick's artistic license, his prerogative to adapt the source text as he pleases, a reminder that the shape a story takes is out of the creator's hands once it's released to the public.
The documentary "Room 237," which gives five people who've watched "The Shining" too many times to count 102 minutes to offer their interpretations, takes this idea so far that it begins with a disclaimer:
"NEITHER THIS FILM, NOR ANY VIEW OR OPINION EXPRESSED IN IT, NOR THE CONTEXT IN WHICH FILM FOOTAGE AND IMAGES ARE USED, IS APPROVED OR ENDORSED BY, OR IS IN ANY WAY ASSOCIATED WITH, THE KUBRICK 1981 TRUST, STANLEY KUBRICK’S FAMILY, WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., OR ANYONE ELSE CONNECTED WITH THE MAKING OF THE MOTION PICTURE THE SHINING (“THE SHINING FILMMAKERS”). THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS DOCUMENTARY FILM ARE SOLELY THOSE OF THE COMMENTATORS IN IT AND DO NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS OF STANLEY KUBRICK OR THE SHINING FILMMAKERS."
(Click on photo to enlarge)
"Room 237" doesn't provide an explanation of the plot or the characters of "The Shining." Director Rodney Ascher assumes that viewers are familiar enough with Kubrick's movie to understand the context of the various perspectives. (*Reader beware: this spoiler-laden review works from the same premise.)
Kubrick's keen eye for detail and fascination with puzzles reflected a very deliberate nature which finds expression in the complicated and ambiguous structure of "The Shining." On the surface, "The Shining" is a horror movie about a writer who gets cabin fever and commits murder, but Kubrick being Kubrick, most horror movie conventions are bypassed in favor of a multi-layered mindfuck full of symbols and undercurrents which suggest that there is much more here than meets the eye. In essence, "Room 237" is five film fanatics' attempts to pick Kubrick's capacious brain.
The opening speaker is ABC news correspondent Bill Blakemore, who relates the reconnaissance that got "The Shining" off the ground. As he'd done for his previous movies, Kubrick conducted extensive research prior to shooting (which is one reason his releases were infrequent by industry standards). Once Kubrick had chosen a hotel for the movie's outdoor shots, he sent out a research team who spent two to three months studying Colorado history and photographing the hotel from every possible angle.
Blakemore believes that "The Shining" is about America's slaughter of the
American Indians. In the scene in which Halloran first communicates with Danny Torrance through "the shine,"a can of Calumet baking soda (in the lower left of the adjacent image) appears. Quietly, as Blakemore explains his theory, a drum beat starts up with organ accompaniment, establishing the rhythm of "Room 237," which rotates among five interpreters whom the audience never sees.
Blakemore also discusses the two scenes where Danny talks to his imaginary friend Tony in the bathroom, before the Torrances journey to the Overlook Hotel. In the first scene, as the camera moves through a hall toward the bathroom, the last image along the left side of the wall is a cluster of stickers, ending with a decal of Dopey (of the seven dwarfs). In the second scene, after Danny has had a premonition of the terrors to come at the Overlook, the camera again moves past the stickers, but Dopey is gone, signifying that Danny is no longer dopey, no longer oblivious to the dangers ahead.
The theories range from playful to substantial to seemingly ridiculous. Playwright Juli Kearns has mapped out the Overlook Hotel's interior. She points out that Mr. Ullman's office (where Jack Torrance [Jack Nicholson] chats with the hotel manager) couldn't have a window, based on its location, and that the light streaming through the window is preternaturally bright, indicating that something is off. This cognitive dissonance continues through much of the front end of the movie, which is generally shot with soft colors, even as we sense something ominous.
Kearns postulates that Jack Torrance is a stand-in for a Minotaur, a scary monster from Greek mythology with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The Minotaur was slain in a maze, just as Jack Torrance dies in a hedge maze that Kubrick created for his movie (Stephen King's book had a topiary, but no maze). Kearns also cites a figure in the print on the wall (which resembles a skier, but has a Minotaur-like upper body) behind the mysterious twins that Torrance's son Danny sees while he plays darts.
John Fell Ryan analyzes the visual exposition and mounting suspense in the three viscerally thrilling Steadicam scenes of Danny riding his Big Wheel through the hotel and talks about the synchronicities when "The Shining" is played backward and forward simultaneously.
Jay Weidner thought movies were a "substandard" art form until he saw "2001: A Space Odyssey," after which he was the last person sitting in the theater and had to be removed by the usher. He was disappointed with "The Shining" the first time he saw it, but something about the movie brought him back for repeated viewings. Weidner says that Kubrick had read "Subliminal Seduction; Ad Media's Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America" in the years between "Barry Lyndon" (1975) and "The Shining" (1980), which informed his heavy use of shadow themes in the latter.
Weidner's novel contribution to "Room 237" is his belief that certain details in "The Shining" are Kubrick's tacit admission of involvement in the fake footage of the Apollo moon landing.
In Weidner's telling, Kubrick, under secret contract with the U.S. government, used front screen projection to fabricate images of the moon landing, and we know this because Danny Torrance wears an Apollo 11 sweater in the movie. And the pattern in the carpet (in Danny's Big Wheel photo above) matches the Apollo's launching pad. And the mean distance between the moon and the earth is 237,000 miles. Just as the government covered up its fake footage of Apollo 11, Jack Torrance "covers up" his interaction with the phantom woman he meets in Room 237, which is also covered up - no one is to know what's in there.
Another interviewee who didn't like "The Shining" at first was Geoffrey Cocks, a professor at Albion College who wrote "The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust." Cocks says that despite his initial impression, he watched The Shining" every few years on television and eventually was drawn in. Cocks' theory is that "The Shining" is about the Holocaust. Kubrick was a voracious reader, and during World War II, when he was in his teens, he devoured numerous books and films about the Nazis. Late in his life he began work on a Holocaust movie ("The Aryan Papers") which he eventually abandoned, to his relief, as he felt the magnitude of the Holocaust couldn't be captured in a two-hour movie.
In Cocks' mind, "The Shining" was Kubrick's indirect platform for wrestling with the
Holocaust, since he didn't want to address the subject directly. As evidence, Cocks mentions that Jack Torrance uses a German typewriter (such as was used by the Nazis with cold, bureaucratic efficiency to compile lists of people to be rounded up) with an eagle insignia - the symbol of Nazi Germany - at the top of its face. And according to Cocks, the Holocaust went into high gear in 1942 and forty-two - a symbol for malevolence - appears many times in "The Shining." Danny wears a sweatshirt with 42 on it as he talks to Tony in the bathroom. There are 42 vehicles in the parking lot when Stuart Ullman walks the Torrances around the grounds of the Overlook. Later on, Danny and his mother watch "The Summer of '42." The digits "42" also are on Halloran's license plate.
Forty-two is divisible by seven, and the number or its multiples show up frequently. Delbert Grady's brutal murder of his family, which appears to haunt the Overlook, occurred in 1970. The hotel was built in 1907, and the ballroom party in which Jack Torrance is pictured at the end of the movie took place in 1921, the same year that the road leading up to the hotel was finished. And in that final ballroom photo, as the camera eye dissolves from a group shot to a close-up of Jack Torrance, a Hitler mustache appears on his face for a split second.
The date on the ballroom photo is July 4, 1921, which bolsters Bill Blakemore's view that "The Shining" is about the genocide of the American Indians. In this formulation, the imposing Overlook Hotel, which is built on an Indian burial ground, is representative of the United States and its imperial glory; as Stuart Ullman walks the Torrances around the grounds, he mentions that Native Americans were fought off in the construction of the Overlook.
Inside the Overlook are stained glass windows and wall art with Native American motifs, and as Ullman tells the Torrances of the royalty who've stayed at the hotel, they pass a portrait of an Indian chief. Later, Jack Torrance uses the phrase "the white man's burden" when talking to Lloyd, his bartender. The famous image of blood gushing out of the elevator represents the blood of the Indians (the elevator shaft presumably burrows deep into the burial ground) and the closed elevator doors are Americans' denial of their country's ugly past. Kubrick is expanding on the traditional ghost plot, where individual spirits wreak havoc, to dramatize the horrors of history.
Ultimately, it's hard to know how far to follow these perspectives, which is what makes
"Room 237" fun. If everything was tied up in a bow, there would be no doubt, no mystery, no reason to see "The Shining" more than once.
Even as I question many of the claims made, I know my next viewing (and the one after that) will be all the richer.
Perhaps that's what Kubrick intended.
**this review originally appeared at "Truth and Beauty"