All in the mind
FOR THE uninitiated, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a 1980 horror film in which leading man Jack Nicholson goes crazy and tries to chop up his wife and son.
As if. The Shining is actually a Holocaust movie. It’s Stanley Kubrick’s coded apology for helping Nasa stage the moon landing in 1969. It’s all about the genocide of Native Americans. It’s the director’s reworking of Theseus and the labyrinth. It’s the White Man’s Burden. It’s America.
These are just some of the readings collected in Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, a fascinating documentary snapshot of the subculture that has grown up around Kubrick’s intriguing ghost story. “Room 237 is very much the story of what happens in the mind of an audience when a film leaves the filmmaker,” says Ascher. “What happens when the audience attempts to solve the mysteries they encounter in a film.”
We meet Ascher just hours ahead of Room 237’s premiere at the London Film Festival. The editor-director had initially envisioned making a short film along the lines of The S From Hell, his nine-minute folk history of the Screen Gems logo. In the end, he had trouble keeping the runtime under two hours. Kubrick fans may already be familiar with Liverpudlian film artist Rob Ager’s video maps of The Shining and the masses of Shining-related data collected by online theorist Kevin McLeod, aka “mstrmnd,” Ascher’s film posits five major theories but that, he says, is only the tip of the iceberg.
“Almost immediately, we found that this is a gigantic world that lots of people are writing and contributing to,” he says. “It’s not just something that’s confined to the darker corners of the internet.”
Commendably, the film is never seen to judge when contributors talk of Kubrick’s face appearing in the clouds, or trace the Apollo launch pad in the hexagonal design of the Overlook Hotel’s gaudy carpets. Was there anything that proved too outlandish to make the final cut, we wonder?
“Absolutely,” he nods. “There were theories I found that I couldn’t quite understand. Or they just would have required too much time and trouble to explain. There were theories about what happened when you turn the frame sideways and connect the dots. And I found all kinds of disturbing things that didn’t make the final cut for a variety of reasons. There was one man – who made me pause – who found that at various times an offscreen voice would say ‘shown’, and that it indicates that some kind of shining is present. And I thought ‘Yeah, I guess I can kind of hear that’. But I had an eerie feeling that he realised this by staring at the movie so intently that he could have made that anomaly manifest itself. Then months later, another interviewee discovered a voice doing the exact same thing.”
In 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was released to scathing reviews and two Razzie nominations. The caveats kept on coming. Stephen King, the author of the source novel, was displeased by the number of deviations from the original text. Horror fans were dismayed by the film’s stately pace. Writing in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael dismissed the film as a retrograde step back from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where the earlier picture posited a utopian view of technology and mankind’s progression, The Shining sees an ape with a stick.
More than three decades on and the same film has inspired a devout cult following. The Shining’s many riddles, doppelgangers and mirrored shots currently attract more intellectual traffic than Kubrick’s betterreceived, open-ended sci-fi epic.
“There’s just so much ambiguity in the plot,” says Ascher. “Even before you’ve started thinking about the symbolic layers, you’re puzzling with the movie on a literal level. What happened to Danny in Room 237? What is the implication of the black-and-white photo? Was Jack always in the photo? I’ve spent time trying to look at that photo in other shots and I still can’t say. We could do an entire follow-up movie just about that photo. There are a lot of films that can produce allegorical readings and keep you guessing, but they’re not as much fun as this one.”
The church of The Shining first bubbled above ground in 1987 when ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore’s Washington Post article outlined Kubrick’s use of Navaho motifs. For Blakemore, one of Room 237’s more prominent interviewees, the hotel’s site on an Indian burial ground is the key to understanding the director’s true intent. Blakemore’s profile is typical of Ascher’s interviewees. Geoffrey Cocks, who sees the film as a Holocaust parable obscured by numbers, is a professor of history. All of the contributors generate coherent, articulate hypotheses, even if the links are as tenuous as Jay Weidner’s attachment to the Apollo 11 emblazoned jumper.
“For Jay, it’s much bigger than that,” says Ascher. “He has made his own set of DVDs on the issue and he’s written a lot online about it. It goes deeper than we can cover in our film. He thinks that if Jack represents Kubrick’s collaboration with the Apollo mission, then Grady is the previous administration. And he had twin daughters, so that’s Gemini. He ties it into the fact that when Kubrick was filming Barry Lyndon, he borrowed these lenses from Nasa. They were extraordinarily sensitive to light so that Kubrick could shoot candlelight.”
When in doubt, the conspiracy theorists can always turn to Kubrick himself. In the unlikely event that The Shining’s many weird anomalies came about through continuity errors, the perfectionist Kubrick would, it is said, have caught them on the bounce in the editing room. Other “errors” – notably the reversal of the carpet pattern as Danny plays with toy cars – are simply too elaborate to have happened on their own.
“He had more control than probably any of his other peers and took advantage of that luxury,” says Ascher. “2001 was slightly re-edited after its original release, which I think was pretty unheard of back then. He kept tabs on what theatres his films were playing in, he knew how big the advertisements were, he knew what was the quality of the projection in each site. He wanted people to enjoy the experience exactly as he created it.”
Ascher, who teaches an editing class at the New York Film Academy, admits that some of the film’s odder dissolves and jump-cuts break all known rules of continuity. What should we make of that three-way shining sequence featuring the dread chamber of the title? Never mind that decaying woman: what’s going on at the level of the shot?
“That’s a scene I was especially interested in because it has so much going on,” says Ascher. “Were intercutting between Jack, Danny and Hallorann. The simplest explanation – and its not simple at all – is that Hallorann is receiving a message that Danny is broadcasting through Jack’s eyes. So there are already three simultaneous points of view and then comes a moment when they slip completely out of time. There are jump-cuts to a woman rising out of a bathtub which seem like they are fragments from an entirely different encounter. Are those Danny’s memories or Hallorann’s? Just that simple cut is one of the most frightening sequences in cinema because it completely messes with your sense of perception.”
Inevitably, Room 237, like the film that inspired it, is a gift that keeps on giving. On the back of successful runs at Cannes and Sundance, the documentary has secured international distribution and is inspiring a whole new generation of Shiningologists. Ascher’s current favourite theory – from the film’s Facebook page – pitches Jack as a cosmic bandleader. In the final shot, he’s holding a piece of paper, possibly a request, and has his arms twisted to resemble the Tarot’s magician. Our own longtime favourite suggests that the film’s mysterious man-bear-dog figure is played by Shelley Duvall.
“You are the second person to say that to me,” says Ascher. “And even second time around, it’s the most beautifully disturbing thing I’ve ever thought about The Shining. Well done. I’m freaked out by The Shining all over again.
* Room 237 is out now