The Shining was released in 1980 to mixed reviews and mediocre box office. At the time, many moviegoers regarded it as an unlikely, unwieldy meeting of highbrow director Stanley Kubrick and lowbrow writer Stephen King.
But that odd, unsettling horror film has taken on a unique afterlife, becoming the object of endless, obsessive and wonderfully eccentric analysis. Room 237, a new documentary showing at Cinematheque, explores the human drive to explain away fear and uncertainty.
(Cinematheque is also offering a double bill of The Shining and Room 237 on Friday, June 28 and Saturday, June 29. If you're a cinephile, you'll want to go for the total immersive Overlook Hotel experience.)
Director Rodney Ascher has constructed a kaleidoscopic collage of zany interpretations of The Shining
. Ostensibly, Kubrick's film is about an unemployed writer (played by Jack Nicholson) who takes a job as winter caretaker of a vast, isolated hotel and proceeds to go crazy (or crazier), eventually turning on his wife (Shelley Duvall) and child.
That's the short version, but for Ascher's obsessives the film is secretly, stealthily about mythology and fairy tales, about the genocide of the American Indians, about the Holocaust. Or, my personal fave, The Shining
is Kubrick's coded confession that he helped stage the Apollo moon landing.
We never see the interview subjects. We hear their voices as Ascher counterpoints their talk with film footage, sometimes of Kubrick's other works but mostly of The Shining
itself. (Oh, that elevator of blood.)
Kubrick was famously meticulous, and these film nerds' detail-oriented approaches--they're given to constructing elaborate maps and timelines--make for some astute explanations of the way Kubrick makes us feel spatially disoriented and psychologically uneasy.
But the numerological compulsions (21 cars in the parking lot! Room 237 is 2x3x7 = 42!) and Da Vinci Code
symbol-spotting often end up crashing into each other. A scene in which Scatman Crothers stands in front of shelves of food is taken by one analyst as a clear pointer to American Indians (look at the Calumet baking powder!), even as another analyst triumphantly claims a link to astronauts (Tang!).
Ascher doesn't explicitly editorialize, but it seems clear that he's demonstrating how new technologies have led to new ways of experiencing film. The Room 237
analysts all rely on repeated viewings (and we mean really repeated viewings), high-def frame-by-frame scrutiny, and time-code minutiae.
The official academic interpretations of The Shining
tend to emphasize Kubrick's sense of the denial and suppression of past violence, both at the micro level (in the spectacular breakdown of the nuclear family) and at the macro level (with suggestions that the luxury hotel is built on a heritage of American conquest, oppression and elitism). These analyses tend to be multileveled and open-ended--and they tend not to wrap things right up.
The fanboys tend to treat the film as a kind of cinematic Sudoku puzzle, often stumbling past big themes on the way to their highly specific "hidden" meanings. But the reason Kubrick is a great artist is because his work can't be reduced to this kind of x=y certainty.
There's something funny and touching and revealing and completely compelling about watching people try, however, which is why Room 237
works. At its worst, the kind of compulsive theorizing the film highlights resembles the cherry-picking, data-skewing conspiracy thinking that leads down the dark, irrational road to 9/11 trutherism.
At its best, it demonstrates the wonderfully human ways we construct patterns, decode messages and search for satisfying meaning.
Room 237 screens at Cinematheque June 26-30.