In Rodney Ascher’s offbeat and engrossing documentary project “Room 237”, the voices of five unseen fans of the work of director Stanley Kubrick -- in particular, of his icily effective horror film “The Shining”, which starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall -- are heard explaining their individually elaborate, highly detailed, obsessively researched (and thoroughly incompatible) theories about what this incredible film, released in 1980, was really all about. Each one elaborates what they have deciphered to be its true encrypted meaning, exposing the methods by which that meaning has intentionally been concealed behind a thick veil of hidden, often complex codes, cryptic references and subliminal images allegedly deliberately placed there by Kubrick himself and preserved deep inside the filmic amber of this highly idiosyncratic adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel, until these meticulous researchers came along to reveal all. Ascher, meanwhile, weaves a dreamlike montage of edited images around their increasingly obsessive-sounding words and theories, some of them extracted from across the full career-spanning body of Kubrick’s feature-length work, others from a plethora of disparate sources, including Lamberto Bava’s two “Demons” films. The result is a quirky, eerie meditation on the creation of meaning in cinema; an effective examination of film analysis and perhaps some of its pitfalls; and the posing of an implicit series of questions about how we might legitimately go about interpreting a work of art. Are there even any rules at all? Or has postmodernist film theory forced us to accept that everything is just opinion and that any view (no matter how bizarre and poorly reasoned it may seem to us) is as good as any other, so long as somebody somewhere is willing to accept it?
Although I’ve known some people in the past who couldn’t even begin to understand why anyone would want to watch the same film more than once, let alone why they would then spend one iota of their time actively thinking about it and what it might signify; and even though it’s also still quite common to hear what is often termed ‘over-analysis’ being derided for its pretentiousness, or for supposedly sucking the enjoyment out of the simple pleasure of enjoying a good story, I’d guess that most of the people reading this review like to ponder and interpret the films they view to some extent, and particularly their favourite ones, if only in some haphazard and unsystematic fashion. Furthermore, most of us probably also intuitively think that those who don’t ever make time for any idea that might lie beyond an appreciation of the surface narrative of the movies they watch are missing out on a large part of the enjoyment of the process of viewership by electing to remain ignorant of other considerations, such as the aesthetics of composition and production design, or of the play of subtext and signification, etc.. While there are certainly some films that might indeed seem to be rather superficial and not worthy of major consideration, others appear positively designed to elicit an interpretive response from the viewer. Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” for example, is a film which actively appears to court and to require that a theory of meaning be brought to it by its audience, and, what’s more, seems capable of sustaining multiple readings without requiring we settle for any particular one above all others. One of the ways in which it achieves this feat is by deliberately leaving out a lot of the usual kinds of information that we generally expect to be given in a film of its kind, resulting in an extra suggestive opaqueness being brought to material which otherwise might’ve seemed to belong to a straightforward kind of disaster narrative. We’re forced to work much harder for narrative resolution, and so symbolic meaning seems to gather around images we might’ve simply accepted without comment in any other more conventionally designed work. With a certain kind of film, the more it resists being understood in simple terms, the more we feel compelled to look for an explanation; we come to think perhaps that there’s a special key that will unlock it, and open it up like the blue box in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”? Hitchcock during that period of his career between the mid ‘50s and the mid- ‘60s was a master at creating a certain kind of romantic thriller that was very good at appearing to add up to being much more than just the sum of its parts. This skill is partly what keeps “Vertigo” near the top of most lists of the best films ever made even to this day, although at the time of release it was considered rather a dull and lugubrious misfire.
That’s another point. Some works seem to change their meanings across time, or even actually to gain in additional meanings. But how can this be. Surely this just proves that the whole process of critical analysis is just illusory shadow chasing? Here we might pause to entertain a bracing dose of postmodernism, which reminds us that any complex system of signification such as a text or a film will inevitably come to be over-determined with many possible alternative meanings consequently able to be brought into play. So many signs and signifiers tend to pile up in any particular work that an author is never in full control of his/her own creation and cannot dismiss the many other unintended interpretations that might be imposed upon it by those who consume it as readers or as viewers, etc. The author is not working in an artistic vacuum either, but is the subject of a mass of prejudices, tendencies and influences which impinge upon him/her to inform much of what they do artistically without their necessarily being aware of them. Often it takes the distance of time to see how the politics, accepted social norms and culture of the day have fed into a work -- which is one reason why movies in particular can change radically in how they’re viewed across the decades. Hitchcock in particular seemed to intuitively grasp such ideas; or at least his films seem particularly open to multiple readings as a result of them.
Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is a movie that is clearly a particularly ripe subject for analysis and film criticism. Much like the best work of Alfred Hitchcock, the comparatively simple plotline of the film seems to resonate with extra layers of symbolic significances that are indicated in everything from the way the camera moves to the manner in which scenes are composed. Just as Hitchcock routinely did when preparing many of his chosen projects, Kubrick took the core of his material from another source – in this case a popular novel – and remoulded it entirety from scratch in keeping with his usual methods, to reflect his own interests – retaining the basic premise but ejecting much of the detail of King’s story and bringing in many more extra elements that were not even part of the original novel at all, such as the awe-inspiring labyrinth in the grounds of the Overlook Hotel. The role of Labyrinths, mazes, mirror imagery and the Native American, Colorado context in which the story takes place, are all obvious places to start when embarking on any interpretation of this film, and bringing history and psychology in as support for such an endeavour appears to be a perfectly legitimate, even a rather obvious, way to go about it. Indeed, several of the theories profiled in this documentary start by doing just that, exploring ideas, often very perceptively, relating to the film’s use of fairy tales and legends which have to do with labyrinths, or examining the use of imagery particularly relevant to Native American heritage as it occurs throughout the film. But, here’s the caveat: there’s a big difference, it seems to me, in what most of the five theorists whose ideas are presented here are actually attempting to do with their analyses in comparison to the aims and methods of most film scholars in general. It's a difference that places their work largely outside boundaries which mark out what we might consider to be ‘acceptable’ film criticism, and which relegates them to the realm of the pathological.
Strangely, the one quality the participants in this documentary each seem to share, despite differing wildly in their theoretical conclusions, is a complete disregard, even almost a sort of contempt for, the film itself. At root, this attitude seems to boil down to each of them harbouring an extreme reverence for the mythic artistic genius of Stanley Kubrick as an accomplished director, combined with an unspoken snobbery regarding the status of the horror genre in popular culture. Indeed, a few express their disappointment with the film upon first seeing it -- and one even goes so far as to admit that he didn’t even like it. The presumption in each case seems to be that someone of Stanley Kubrick’s intellect and filmmaking stature couldn’t possibly have been interested in simply making a lowly horror film for its own sake -- he must have had another agenda as well, which has remained hidden beneath the surface until now, and which can only be revealed through special analytical means complicated enough to have been of interest to a chess-playing super-brain the like of Stanley Kubrick. Thus, all of these theories tend to offer not an interpretation of “The Shining” as a self-contained work of art in its own right, but instead present the film as though it were merely the trivial wrapping for a much deeper, much more profound meaning, usually relating to some other subject completely, which also usually just happens to be an area of particular interest to the theoriser in question.
It’s not enough for instance, that the Native American imagery -- which occurs in relation to the internal décor and ornamentation that forms part of the production design of the Overlook Hotel -- and all it appears to suggests about America’s genocidal past, can be seen merely as a means of adding context and realism to the setting, or of adding further sub-textual weight to the film’s overarching theme of how the violence and trauma of the past can be kept alive in the present; instead, according to one of the theories presented here, the film is in reality entirely ‘about’ the history of America’s treatment of the American Indian, but in an elaborately coded form. So elaborate in fact, that the precise placing, in relation to each-other, of a stack of tins of baking soda in the Overlook’s storeroom can be interpreted as revealing the status of various peace treaties signed with settlers in the 19th century, simply because the tins happen to be named after the Native American word for ‘peace pipe’ and have a picture of a Red Indian on the label! Need more evidence? Well, apparently there is a behind-the-scenes picture of Kubrick personally arranging those very cans for one of the shots in the scene in question. Similarly, according to one of the other speakers heard here, if a chair suddenly disappears from the back of shot halfway into a particular scene, then there has to be a specific reason why it does so. This brings us to the other shared feature of the otherwise vastly divergent ‘theories’ presented here: they each assume Kubrick to be a chess-playing, ultra-high intellect, exacting, meticulously thorough genius of such infallible means that absolutely nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, that appears on screen in one of his films should ever be considered not to have been placed there with a specific planned purpose in mind. Continuity errors are never really errors – if Jack Nicholson’s typewriter changes colour halfway through the film, then it does so because Kubrick wanted it that way, and if Kubrick wanted it that way then it must mean something in particular!
This type of paranoid reasoning, where chance or mishap is never a consideration, is justified here on the basis that Kubrick’s attention to detail is well documented, and by reminding us that he would often spend months filming endless variations of the same scene over and over and over again. In the mind of these theorists, this means that Kubrick must have designed and planned absolutely every single aspect of his films to the letter … and why would he do such a thing if there were not some over-arching plan involved that goes beyond the apparent surface subject matter of the films themselves? Of course, it could just be that he liked to retain every possible option when it came to editing his films, and to be able to decide the emotional rhythm of his cast’s performances by filming as many different ways of playing the same scene as possible; and it could be that he was in fact willing to put up with a few minor continuity errors for the sake of this, since the longer you spend on the same scene, the bigger likelihood there inevitably is that unnoticed continuity errors will in fact creep in no matter how careful you are. And certainly, Kubrick’s films do seem to be just as replete with such errors as anybody else’s, from extras and camera crew appearing in shot to objects changing position or disappearing entirely within a scene … It’s just a thought.
But that’s not an idea that is ever likely to hold much water with the chap in the documentary who has watched the entire film one frame at a time looking for subliminal sexual messages in apparently random alignments and juxtapositions of objects, though. When hotel manager Stuart Ullman greets Jack Torrance in his office during the interview for the caretaker’s position near the start of the film, you might not notice anything untoward about the scene, but view it frame by frame and, for a few seconds, the crotch area of actor Barry Nelson momentarily aligns with the edge of a paper-tray on his desk to make it look as though he has a massive hard-on! (at least, it does if you have no sense of depth perception, that is.) And if you didn’t spot the incest theme that’s buried in the movie, that might be because you failed to pay sufficient attention to the copy of Playboy Jack is seen browsing while he waits in reception at one point (whaddya mean you didn’t even know he was reading a copy of Playboy?!) … or rather, you weren’t thorough enough to have sought out a copy of that exact same issue in order for you to be able to learn that one of the articles it carried was about incest! The fact that Kubrick selected that issue must mean that Danny is a sex abuse victim!
All too often, the feverish quest for meaning displayed by the theorists in this documentary takes on the character of the conspiracy theory nut or the religious fanatic. One fan claims to have spotted Kubrick’s face airbrushed into the clouds during the opening helicopter shots, elsewhere numerology raises its paranoid head in the theory of a fan who believes that the entire film is really about the Holocaust, which was officially sanctioned by the Nazi regime in 1942. How else to explain how often the number forty-two crops up all the way through the movie, be it in car number plates or on T-shirts? (Not to mention the fact that the digits of the titular room 237 when multiplied together come to 42!) The Nazi symbol of the eagle is recurrent during the movie and Jack Nicholson even has one on his T-shirt. And, the clincher if you will -- when you run a second copy of the film backwards and superimpose it on top of the movie when running forwards, two different sized images of Nicholson’s face line-up so that the actor’s hairline in one of them becomes superimposed across his upper lip in a close-up that makes him look like Hitler!
The same casual disregard for the proper use of statistics one routinely finds in the argumentation of conspiracy theorists occurs throughout the theories given here, and the same confirmation bias and pattern finding techniques are employed to make off-the-wall connections and erroneous leaps of logic. This type of thinking reaches its crescendo in the most outlandish (and also the most banal) theory of the five which is that the film is really a coded apology for Kubrick’s involvement in the faking of the film footage that shows the Apollo 11 moon landing (yawn!), which he accomplished using the methods developed for the film “2001: A Space Odyssey!. Why would anyone possibly think that, I hear you asking? Well, remember room 237, the place of shameful secrets, and a place where everything has to be kept hidden? … Look at the key ring in the door: ROOM No 237 – the capital letters can be used to make the words MOON and ROOM … I shit you not, that is the level of reasoning that is being employed here often. And if you’re still not convinced, well look at Danny’s jumper … case closed, surly!
There’s much more along these lines, including fairly laborious speculations about the exact layout of the hotel in plans that one researcher has had specially drawn up to show how they don’t match up with the set layout seen during Danny’s trike rides around the hotel, which leads to the creation of an ‘impossible window’ in Ullman’s office, etc., but what of our postmodern thesis, mentioned earlier? Surely, each of these theories is as legitimate as any other, so long as somebody finds something to appreciate in them? And even if Kubrick didn’t consciously or unconsciously intend these messages to be present in his film after all, well, that doesn’t matter surly, because, as we’ve seen, the author’s intentions aren’t necessarily relevant to any interpretation of his or her work that viewers might want to read into it .. and who gets to decide what the rules of logic should be when we watch and interpret films? Surely it’s up to each of us individually to take what we like from our own viewing experience?
In many ways, I’d still argue that that is indeed the case, even for the madder ideas featured in this documentary, although in those instances, the number of converts to the cause is liable to be fairly limited. If you insist on using crackpot methods and bad reasoning to create your theory, it’s likely to be only you who winds up actually being interested in it. After all, most people still require a few standards when it comes to analysis and discussion, etc. Each one of these theories might appeal to a small niche audience of people who like Kubrick but don’t like horror films, and who would prefer to believe “The Shining” was really about something they personally find a bit more intellectually edifying or that just appeals to them more, but they would still have to be willing to sanction some incredibly ropey thinking and, in some cases, some flat out misreadings of what is in front of their eyes (for instance, the woman who insists that there is a poster of a minotaur on the wall in the kitchen when the twins first appear to Danny is just plain wrong in that claim!) Of course, there are rather critical problems with all of the theories, not least the fact that every single one of them only takes into account the American cut of the movie, which runs a full half-hour longer than the British cut and removes several scenes which several theorists hinge quite a lot of their arguments on. And if that backwards-forwards synchronisation experiment (which in fact makes for quite an interesting art installation idea, and creates many eerie images) is really meant to reveal alignments that Kubrick intended to be there all along, then why did the he specifically insist that a different, shorter cut of the movie be released in the UK that necessarily completely buggers them all up? Since it was Kubrick’s idea to release this shorter version in the first place (which most believe is superior to the U.S. one that all these fans have been using to devise their outlandish theories) you’d think that it would figure more in their ideas, but instead it’s barely mentioned.
But that’s neither here nor there in the final analysis: at the conclusion of the film, one of the theorists does indeed essay this postmodern ‘death of the author’ argument in order to claim some legitimacy for his point of view, but I find it rather odd that he should do so, since in every single case, all the way through the whole of the film, it has been the theory-mongers who have been constantly at pains to emphasise the centrality of Kubrick to their various ideas about the film, justifying their obsessions by endlessly calling attention to the director’s chess mind and love of puzzles as well as his famed attention to detail. The problem with the group of ideas presented in this film is that, actually, they’re not postmodern enough; they insist on there being a fixed grand narrative at work behind the scenes of the movie, entirely controlled and engineered in secret by Stanley Kubrick, the genius filmmaker who sees and controls everything at all times. They routinely make extravagant claims about what his intentions were, based on the flimsiest possible reasoning, and they repeatedly insist that the laws of probability rule out there being any error on their part, only to pull the ‘everything is acceptable’ line as soon as their pet theory runs into problems.
Ascher’s film meanwhile, might well seek to accurately illustrate the main points in the ideas of each of the participants, but he never really tries to support any of them. Indeed, the mere fact that five hopelessly irreconcilable theories, each purporting to reveal what Stanley Kubrick was really trying to say with the film, but each one offering an entirely different account of what exactly that message is, rather serves as a neat way of showing just how ineffective this kind of obsessional thinking actually is. It’s not lost on the filmmaker either that much of that thinking seems to reflect exactly the kind of monomaniacal, single-minded and deranged kind that governs Jack Torrance in the film itself – a workaholic pursuing a mad project that means nothing to anyone but himself through spiralling labyrinths of his own scattered mind to the increasing detriment of his family. The irony is that Ascher sets out to encode this documentary about people who see patterns of significance where there are probably none, with exactly the same kinds of subliminal cues, edited juxtapositions and associative leaps as his subjects believe they see throughout Kubrick’s work. The documentary is hypnotic, drawing us into the obsessional mind-set and revealing the attractions and the price paid for such borderline insanity. It’s an entertaining, bewildering trip through a confusing set of maze-like corridors that offer you unusual, strange views of a familiar landscape, but ultimately takes you nowhere in particular that you’d want to stay for very long.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!