There are few cultural artifacts outside of a text by Rene Descartes that have been subject to as much unrelenting scrutiny as Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Generally misunderstood upon its release and reviled by author Stephen King in turn, “The Shining” has revealed itself over time to be one of Kubrick’s most rewarding pictures, and also one of his most opaque and challenging. Ostensibly a bone-chilling tale of murder and psychological degradation that sees a spiteful writer turn against his wife and young son with homicidal zeal, Kubrick’s 1980 masterwork has also been studied endlessly for alleged perceived meanings that relate to Native American genocide, the Apollo 11 moon landing and much, much more. Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary “Room 237” was devoted to picking apart these theories, and now we have yet another look at “The Shining”’s labyrinth of dense themes.
The 32-minute documentary examines Kubrick’s picture in the context of the staying power it has accrued since its release. Indeed, the film – which seemed baffling and off-putting to many audiences at the time – has grown in stature over the years, and what once seemed, perhaps, to be a botched genre exercise has matured into another one of Kubrick’s signature parables about obsession, violence and… well, a lot, if you listen to the narrator of the documentary below.
Many of the theories from “Room 237” are repeated here, although there are a few notable exceptions. The narrator, for example, believes that the story’s two main characters – that would be Jack Nicholson’s irate scribe Jack Torrance and his troubled son Danny – are the warring sides of Kubrick himself: the practical, fiercely committed artist versus the reckless young man prone to strange visions and alarming proclamations. It’s a persuasive bit of pop culture propaganda, presented seamlessly and with a healthy amount of visual evidence from Kubrick’s film to support the claim. The narrator also re-iterates the notion from Ascher’s documentary that the interior of the film’s famed Overlook Hotel is a twisted simulacra of mid-century America: oblivious white folks trampling over Indian tapestry obviously being a metaphor for imperialism, that sort of thing. Special attention is paid to the Apollo 11 moon landing theory — which, if nothing else, may explain the presence of that sexually aggressive giant bear in the hallway towards the film’s hysterical climax.
It’s certainly a curious, watchable bit of Kubrick trivia, but it’s also hard not to feel as though some amateur theorists are conflating disparate details from the narrative of “The Shining” to form their own sort of long-winded conjecture about all the film’s possible meanings. Given Kubrick’s unsparing attention to detail, the curiosity is far from unwarranted. But sometimes, as Sigmund Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. And yet there’s a reason “The Shining” has kept people guessing, hypothesizing and wondering all these years: it’s a beautifully twisted piece of work, both in its thematic obsessions and in its execution. Indeed, Kubrick did take the pulpy exoskeleton of a best-selling horror novel and used it as a launching pad of sorts to make what some say is his most personal film. However you feel about “The Shining” and the public speculation that has ensued in its wake, the video is worth a watch, as it brings up some unmistakably compelling questions.
What do you think? Is the video creating a mountain out of a molehill and inventing cockamamie theories where none exist? Are the film’s sinister visual motifs portents of some greater thematic undercurrent? Is it possible to simply enjoy the film on a visceral level without dissecting it like a student thesis? Do you miss Scatman Cruthers? Watch and discuss below. [35MM]