There Ain’t Nothin’ In Room 237…Or Is There?

Room 237: A documentary directed by Rodney Ascher Why is Jack Torrance reading Playgirl magazine?

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?

–the Holocaust?

–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–

2 x 3 x 7

–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.

  • Wayne P.

    Thanks, George…for your long awaited piece on the one and only Stanley Kubrick.  While I must confess to wanting a more direct take on one of his actual movies instead of a most accurate critique of a documentary on The Shining, its all well and good!  It just goes to show the SK extrapolators (really admiring critics) are ‘out there’ in more ways than one…much like the ‘truth’ in the X-Files intro..:).

    Open ended questions, youve got them and so do we all who enjoy his great films…theyre all so different as to almost defy explanation, but folks just keep trying, dont they?  Its like you said, how do you interpret Shakespeare?   Talent is a gift best left unjustified…we can experience it, in this case, by viewing his work on cinema…what more do we need?  Love ‘em or hate ‘em; there seems not to be much middle ground with Mr. Kubrick as his list of films in MU Fanfare not so long ago got the fewest favorite votes in any poll since Ive been blogging here in almost a year!  

    However, his fans are legion and am glad to apparently count you as a fellow traveler in our, and SK’s, love for space exploration as evidenced by your inclusion of the Carl Sagan and Moon landing hoax clips.  When first seen on Fox years ago, the first “Moon Landing Was A Hoax” show, narrated by Mitch Pileggi (the boss of Mulder and Scully on one of my fave Sci-Fi TV shows of all time: X-Files), which postulated that the whole Apollo 11 surface trip was filmed in a studio set using front-camera projection seemed almost believeable…meaning, how could any spacecraft even get past the Van Allen Radiation Belt without disintegrating into fiery pieces…after all, this possibility was even explored in Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks, right?

    That SK couldve been a part of this NASA conspiracy theory seems so much like him too!  His creative genius seemed to know no bounds and was only limited by his film imagination.  I would love to do an article myself one day on 2001…but, alas, am now a creationist having ‘evolved’ into supporting intelligent design theory as opposed to the classic Kubrick/Clarke evolutionary tale for the ages.  Like you say, his work is entertainment, and story-telling too, at its finest which has survived the test of time…the true measure of a classic work of art, however one tries to define it.  Best of all, his filmography can still defy rational explanation; not bad for a master artist and craftsman!

    • GeorgeDAllen

      A creationist’s reaction/interpretation to “2001″ would certainly be an interesting thing, inasmuch as s/he could look at Kubrick’s images & ideas and argue with or respond to what they take as their various meanings (the jumpcut of the bone to the ship being a good example)…

      I’m guessing your reference to the moon landing “hoax clips” was an accident? Those are clips of the for-real, yes, actual moon landing. I didn’t see the Fox thing but yes, I’ve been exposed to most if not all of the moon hoax material. The front projection theory is pretty easy to debunk once you are acquainted with front projection technology. Click on “the answer is very plain” link to get the explanation for why it’s a load of hooey.

      And like Sagan, I do find the introduction of religious ideas into science to be a wrong-headed intrusion–and unnecessary, really; those disciplines can serve their purposes well enough without the attempts to blur the lines between them. I like to think of the continuum between each, if you picture it as a line to travel from one to the other, being cushioned by philosophy–a way of thinking useful to both practices.

      All that being said, this I really appreciated: “Best of all, his filmography can still defy rational explanation; not bad for a master artist and craftsman!” I like your connecting (I assume it was intentional) the idea of contemplating the existence of a conscious creator to contemplating the work of Kubrick. Well played :)


      • Wayne P.

        Yes, thats it exactly!  The hoax clips are just that, a proven fraud, but nonetheless interesting, and therefore entertaining by definition.  You and I might also agree that SK saw movies or any creative work of art as just that, entertainment plain and simple.  Being a relativist, he mightve also seen truth in that light, but thats where I draw the line.  Believing in one Creator God means drawing on ones religious faith for a connection to science and not as a compartmentalized separate entity, no?.  After all, most early scientists were practicing Christians (Catholic mostly but later also Protestants after the Reformation) and included Galileo and Newton, among others.  As to looking at  2001 from a creation science angle…it could be supported by viewing the Monolith as symbolic of a Monotheistic God instead of having alien origins since the words have the same root- Mono or one…but then again, so do create and cretin!  ;)

        Finally, back to Kubrick…I thought the front camera projected light on the rocks in the Dawn of Man sequence was brilliant film making and not a flaw at all…it brought the human element of non-perfection into play and gave SK’s take on Arthur C. Clarkes short story “The Sentinel” the visual medium it demanded since it was such an original idea…always a Kubrick masterstroke.