Is “The Shining” just a horror movie about a guy who goes berserk in a hotel, or is it subversively about the history of American genocide? Why did Stanley Kubrick use cans of Calumet and Tang in the hotel’s storeroom? Were these just random products, or were they each chosen and framed in the camera with a specific intent? And what’s the deal with the Bill Watson? If you think you know “The Shining,” guess again, as Rodney Ascher‘s outstanding “Room 237” goes down the rabbit hole of the meanings and interpretations of the horror classic, from the plausible to the outlandish.
In what surely pushes the limits of fair use, “Room 237” cuts together not only footage from “The Shining,” but from every Kubrick film along with countless other works (ranging from Mario Bava to Alfred Hitchock to classic Disney cartoons), strings it all together, and pairs it with audio from interviews with various obsessives who have formulated their own opinions on what the movie really means. And whether or not you buy into the notions, you will undoubtedly be fascinated by the outcome, which is one of the best movies about movies we’ve seen in quite some time.
Seasoned veteran journalist Bill Blakemore and professor/author Geoffrey Cocks serve up the most compelling views on Kubrick’s film. The former asserts “The Shining” is a metaphor for the genocide of the American Indian, and builds a convincing case to that end. Kubrick is reported to have sent a small team of researchers to the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, where they did months of digging, not just about the hotel, but also on the history of the state as a whole, including their troubled history with Native peoples. Citing imagery from throughout the hotel, and the fact that the Outlook is said early in the film to have been built on an old Indian burial ground, the question is posed: Is the blood that pours out of the elevator doors that of a lost people?
Meanwhile, Cocks believes “The Shining” is a stirring allegory for the Holocaust. He points to the use of the number 42 (the year in which the extermination of the Jews started on a grand scale), variations on the number 7, the fact that Jack Torrance uses a German typewriter (an Adler, which means eagle, of the central Nazi symbols), and the almost over-the-top amount of luggage the Torrances bring with them to the Overlook as evidence. And as most Kubrick fans know, the director had been interested in making a Holocaust film for years (before abandoning the idea in the wake of “Schindler’s List“). Did he use “The Shining” as a testing ground for some of those themes?
It’s intriguing to contemplate, given that Kubrick was such an exacting perfectionist and pretty much a genius (it’s noted early on he had an IQ of 200), and that makes some of thematic subtext here within the realm of possibility. But of course, not all the theories fall into this category. Playwright Juli Kearns‘ thoughts are mostly absurd when they’re not incomprehensible. Her fixation on the window in Ullman’s office is somewhat arcane and her attempt to tie in a random anecdote about her young son and the random dude with his head split down the middle, holding a drink, is pretty ridiculous. Another example of minutiae, blown out of proportion, is the random moment where Jack Torrance meets Ullman and puts down the Playgirl magazine he was reading. If you look up the issue, there is an article about incest inside — is this a sly suggestion that Danny is being sexually abused as well? We won’t even get into the added symbolism some see when the movie is played forwards and backwards, with the images overlaid on each other. But all you have to do is look up the website of Mstrmnd, to see just how intense interpretations of “The Shining” can get.
Nevertheless, all of these theories and questions will be bouncing around your brain once you finish watching “Room 237,” which ultimately is a celebration of Kubrick’s work and the obsession that great works of art can instill in those who come into contact with it. There is no grand answer delivered in the documentary, but instead a strong suggestion that there is much more than meets the eye in “The Shining.” Unique and at times profound, it’s a reminder of how much Kubrick left for us to appreciate in his work, and how the greatest films always leave something more to be discovered with each viewing. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the Cannes Film Festival.