What’s with all the Native American décor in the Overlook?
Why does Jack’s typewriter change color?
Which of the Seven Dwarves is the most prominent sticker seen on Danny Torrance’s bedroom door?
And, perhaps most importantly…why is Danny wearing an Apollo 11 sweater?
Mr. Kubrick—or, as Brian Atene might say, Staaaaaanleeeeey!: What are you trying to tell us?
What is in Room 237?
I caught the much-talked about documentary Room 237, the film about a few of the possible hidden meanings to be located in Stanley Kubrick‘s adaptation of the Stephen King novel The Shining, at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival. Not only has it aroused some controversy over “fair use” (the legal loophole justifying the employment of film clips without first securing the proper license to do so), it’s also been attacked by some critics as a work that “destroys” film criticism.
The rap on the documentary is that, by including the “ridiculous” theories about what Kubrick’s movie is “about” along with the reasonably plausible ones, Room 237 does a disservice to serious criticism by not challenging or commenting unfavorably upon some of the more radical notions of the subtext some have found in the picture.
One of the gigantic pleasures of this movie—which is in my opinion one of the most valuable documentaries about both filmmaking and film criticism in years—is the river flow of extraordinary, and insightful as often as absurd, observations about the most minute of gestures decided upon by Kubrick and his production team. What the careful viewer should come away with, just on the surface, is how much purposeful work was done to create the supremely detailed world of his film.
Whether or not you buy into the larger intentions suggested by the various analysts interviewed for Room 237, it’s abundantly clear that Kubrick intricately layered (or littered, depending on your general outlook on the filmmaker) his horror opus with meticulously realized choices of color, composition, dialogue, set, costume, and prop placement.
Now, do those whose analyses appear in the film make any serious case that The Shining is “really” about:
–the treatment of Native Americans?
–Kubrick’s confession that he helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landing?
The answer is more than just “yes” or “no,” if you comprehend anything at all about making movies. (Don’t misunderstand me, though. Sometimes, to the basic form of those questions, the answer is very plain.) That there are signifiers of these and many other buried themes in the film isn’t arguable; the “things” are really there. The Playgirl magazine is there; the typewriter indeed changes colors; Danny is wearing the Apollo 11 sweater; the television has no cord; a chair disappears in mid-scene; people walk backwards and forwards; the hallway is red; Danny’s Big Wheel rides have a unique geography; if you physically map out the floorplan of the Overlook Hotel based solely on the actions seen in the film, you get some unusual results.
It’s the why that will forever remain elusive, and this is where some folks can get into trouble deciding they, and only they, possess the key to unlocking Kubrick’s true intentions.
Of particular interest, for example, is the section of the film dealing with the significance of the room number. One helpful theorist informs us that by performing a simple calculation with 237–
–we arrive at the number 42, which we may now clearly connect to the year 1942: a pivotal year on the Nazi calendar. The simple difficulty with this practice of numerical divination (one hesitates to call it a “line of reasoning”) is: who told you to multiply the numbers? Why not add them? Or subtract? Or divide? The answer, naturally, is that none of those other operations would lead you to the number 42, and thus, the cleaner ability to connect The Shining to the Shoah.
Additionally, we’re shown later that another Kubrick movie contains a door designated with the number 242. We’re told, a-ha, see, there it is, again, the number 42! Putting aside that most of us more easily “see” the number two hundred-and-forty-two, why are we to focus in this way: 242–
–rather than: 242, or on the individual numbers 2, 4, and 2? Why not see 24 twice, as a palindrome? Why not multiply these numbers, and arrive at a quest to figure out Kubrick’s obsession with the number 16? These meanderings bring to mind the Nostradamus interpreters, changing “Hister” to “Hitler” to connect his prophecies to real events that occurred long after his writings were set down. Who invented this system of substituting letters or numbers to conform those visions with reality? Nostradamus set out no such instructions. To paraphrase the creepy twins of Kubrick’s film, it’s the sort of thing that can go on forever, and ever, and ever.
One participant in the documentary remarks that, whether Kubrick intended these hidden meanings or not, they are there, because we see them. This is a bold—and correct, as far as it goes—statement about how art, and not just a movie, works.
Unfortunately, as goes the “moon hoax confession” theory, what Room 237 most effectively dramatizes is just how blurry the lines between fact and interpretation have become; the film shows us that, these days, any nutzoid conspiracy theory can be well assembled by a manipulation of some granular facts on hand.
A persuasive, larger narrative with little in the ways of hard truth can be realized for many otherwise intelligent people, as long as it has been seeded with a few references everyone can agree upon. The effective con artist flips the burden of proof then onto those who disbelieve the extraordinary claims offered, rather than accepting what would rightly be their own obligation to provide—as Marcello Truzzi (or Carl Sagan, take your pick) asserted necessary—the extraordinary evidence.
This, for me, is what Room 237 is really “about” (how’s that for you “meta” fans out there?), and it is a legitimate challenge in today’s society.
There are multitudes in The Shining. What do they mean? The greatness of that film (not to mention most others by Kubrick) is that he labored harder than most to make not only entertaining movies, but deeply mysterious works of art.
Like Shakespeare, Kubrick continues to survive many an eccentric interpretation.