Killtoberfest 4 – #8: Room 237

In All, Movies by Kyu

“And I suddenly said to my friends, ‘That movie was about the genocide of the American Indians.’ And they said, ‘What are you talking about?'”

Room 237 is careful to note that the opinions of the people it interviews do not represent the opinions of Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros, or anyone who participated in the making of The Shining–the lengthy disclaimer is even cleverly integrated into the poster. It’s an unusual thing to see at the start of a documentary, even a documentary about film criticism. But it reflects the uneasy territory the movie is about to explore. It’s a film consisting entirely of video clips set to audio recordings of five… I don’t even know what to call them. Self-appointed experts, I guess, in The Shining. Each interviewee describes their history with the film and their unique understanding of its secrets, and Room 237 assembles images and video to illustrate and make the best possible case for each of their theories, the way a lawyer must zealously defend their client’s preferred theory of the crime. By stepping back and letting the interview subjects speak without interruption or commentary, the documentary allows us to draw our own conclusions. The result is a fascinating dive into a labyrinth of film criticism, conspiracy theories, and rampant speculation. In my review of The Shining, to which this is a companion piece, I describe the Overlook Hotel as a “maze of mirrors,” a place that is “all things to all people,” which lures its guests by tapping into their deepest desires and fears before trapping them forever. Room 237 is a movie about five real people who are now trapped there, too.

The documentary participants are:

  • Bill Blakemore, who believes that The Shining is really a metaphor for the American genocide of the American Indians, citing details of the production design, including specific cans of Calumet Baking Soda found in the background of some of the kitchen scenes, as well as a few minor lines about the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground;
  • Juli Kearns, who discusses the significance of posters hanging on the walls of the play room where Danny first encounters the two little girls, and who has made detailed maps of the Overlook’s floor plan and layout to prove the “impossible window” and other geographical oddities;
  • Jay Weidner, who believes that Stanley Kubrick secretly assisted the US government in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing footage, and that The Shining is meant to be Kubrick’s confession and a metaphor for how the filmmaker felt about having done it, citing details surrounding room 237, including Danny’s sweater in one scene;
  • Geoffrey Cocks, who believes that The Shining is really a metaphor for the Holocaust, a theory he first came to after noticing that Jack Torrance writes on a German model typewriter;
  • and John Fell Ryan, whose close study of the film reveals a number of continuity errors and coincidences which may or may not be significant.

Is all of this totally bullshit? Not necessarily. There is a lot of interesting material and observations here, and I worked a number of them into my own Shining review. But I think many of these theories go too far, rest on shaky assumptions, and are in general outside the realm of quality film criticism and analysis.

Weidner and his moon landing are the low hanging fruit here, so let’s talk first about Blakemore and Cocks, who put forth competing but very similar notions about the film as a metaphor for genocide–they just disagree on which genocide, exactly. Here’s Blakemore:

“I thought afterwards, how come I saw this and a lot of other people didn’t? And I’ve thought about it. It’s a combination of factors. First, I grew up in Chicago, and therefore just north of the Calumet Harbor, and spent summers up in the sand dunes of Michigan, ’round on the other side of Lake Michigan. My father took me and my sister out to collect little bits of Indian pottery.”

And here’s Cocks:

“And so I kept watching the film again, and again, and again, and since I’m trained as an historian and my special expertise in the history of Germany, and Nazi Germany in particular, that I became more and more convinced that there is in this film a deeply laid subtext that takes on the Holocaust.”

King talks in his horror exegesis Danse Macabre about how, although classically the Gothic novel is about sex and the fear of sex, the new Gothic–a genre into which I would put his The Shining–is about the self and the fear of self, how it’s all mirrors. The Overlook Hotel is its own mirror to Wendy, Jack, and Danny, and Kubrick’s film, so powerfully unsettling for reasons not immediately clear, presents its own mirror to those who watch it. Clearly Blakemore and Cocks saw themselves in it, and and their theories about the film probably reveal more about them than it does the film.

But there is a kernel of truth there. Do I think the movie is really about the Holocaust, or the Indians? The two men argue convincingly that these ideas may have been on Kubrick’s mind–the filmmaker attempted to develop a Holocaust movie for a long time before giving up after Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and the sheer number of references, props, and set design elements relating to Native Americans in The Shining is undeniable. But I think what both theories tap into isn’t as simple as a one-t0-one metaphor where Jack’s victims represent the Jews or the Indians; instead, both recognize a general theme in the story of past, repressed violence coming to the surface, and then interpret that in light of their own personal experiences and interests. The Indian references in particular suggest to me that Kubrick intended them as a kind of tertiary level of symbolism, but the notion that The Shining, or almost any movie, exists as a kind of hidden allegory, that the surface level on which most people experience the film has no meaning, is just a way to hide the film’s true subject, is anathema to me. The Shining might be about a lot of things, but it is first and foremost the story of a troubled family in a haunted place.

Or, hey, maybe it could be the moon landing thing. As Jay Weidner puts it, “I’m not saying we didn’t go to the moon. I’m just saying that what we saw was faked, and it was faked by Stanley Kubrick.” That’s very reasonable of him.

This notion is not Weidner’s invention, but an existing conspiracy theory inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film so advanced in creating a convincing lunar landscape that a year later the Apollo astronauts said their experience was just like the movie. (My favorite treatment of this theory is the satirical proposition that Kubrick did fake the moon landing, but that the director’s exacting nature required the government to build him a production studio on the moon in order to get the gravity right.) But the theory has been debunked, obviously, and Weidner’s most compelling evidence is this sweater:

Could this be a sly nod on Kubrick’s part to the conspiracy theory? Hey, sure, maybe. But Weidner insists it’s a confession, and gives a really off-the-wall reading of the whole film. He asserts that the secrets Jack hides from Wendy represent Kubrick hiding his role in the moon landing footage from Kubrick’s own wife, that Halloran represents some unknown individual killed to protect the secret, and so on. Another key clue for Jay? That Kubrick changed the number of room 237 from the novel (where it was 217) because, says Weidner, the moon is 237,000 miles away from the Earth. I was reminded of the moment in Darren Aronofsky’s paranoia thriller Pi where the protagonist’s mentor warns him, “As soon as you discard scientific rigor, you’re no longer a mathematician, you’re a numerologist.” Weidner’s not even doing film criticism anymore; he’s just spouting nonsense, and seizing on any detail, no matter how innocuous, to support his story. (After all, the distance from the Earth to the Moon is 238,900 miles! Maybe Kubrick knew Room 238.9 was a bad title for a documentary.)

Moving on, Julie Kearns has some good points to make, but they’re often founded on what I would consider suspect evidence. She understands the way Jack’s role in the final act of the film is as the minotaur to the Overlook’s labyrinth, both figuratively and more literally in the hedge maze, but one of her clues that this was intended by Kubrick involves a poster briefly glimpsed on the wall in one scene. Julie says that even the poster seems to be a picture of a skier, we know from the interview scene that there’s no skiing at the hotel; furthermore, the picture looks to her like a minotaur. I simply don’t see it. There’s another point in the documentary where one of these theorists argues that one of the clouds over the hotel looks like Kubrick’s face, and that was equally invisible to me. These and other aspects of the documentary suggest to me that a lot of what’s happening here is really pareidolia–the mental illusion in which people perceive patterns, particularly human faces, where none exist. The cloud is just a cloud, the poster is just a poster. It only looks like there’s something in the mirror because it’s reflecting you.

John Fell Ryan is perhaps the most well-adjusted of this group of obsessives; he’s more interested in ascribing a general significance to various continuity discrepancies than in tying them into some grandiose theory about Kubrick’s secret intentions. When he describes a time when he screened The Shining both backwards and forwards at the same time superimposed, he doesn’t pretend there are intended messages to be found there, Satanic or otherwise, but simply calls it a fun artistic experiment that results in some entertaining coincidences. At times he’s more interested in just how interesting and complex some of the shots are, like the way the extras are coordinated in the lobby scene of the Closing Day segment. But like all the others, he’s fascinated by details that seem completely irrelevant to the movie–like the third man who sits through Jack’s interview and says almost nothing. Who is he? They all have a theory, of course.

In a way the entire mystery of The Shining doesn’t even rest on the story’s ambiguities but on potentially unjustified, even contradictory ideas about who Kubrick was. The speakers here make reference to various facts and stories about Kubrick: that he had a genius-level IQ, that he read constantly and put what he read about into his films, that he was so controlling and exacting that he would arrange props personally before filming. Yet at one point in Room 237 someone mentions that Kubrick was exceptionally open to improvisation, even in dialogue, from his actors! It seems true that the great filmmaker was a genius, in the classical sense of someone who makes intellectual leaps beyond the existing system–he spent most of his career advancing or reinventing one genre after another, perhaps none more so than horror with The Shining–and there are plenty of stories about his idiosyncratic attention to detail, like the tale that Kubrick called an American theater from London to complain about the quality of the projection. But film is a collaborative art, with thousands or millions of moving parts; in the end much of what ends up on screen is a matter of chaos and chance. Do I believe Kubrick may have personally rearranged the food in the Overlook’s kitchen? Sure–but I’ll bet he did it to balance out the colors in the frame, not to construct some kind of code or puzzle with baking soda cans.

At one point one of the theorists mentions the “death of the author” school of literary criticism, which says that we should interpret art on its own merits, whether the meanings we find there are intended by the author or not. But every theory in Room 237 relies upon the idea that Kubrick did it all on purpose, that he set out not to tell a story but to enact a scheme, to hide metaphors and allusions where only the most dedicated could find them. I don’t want to insult or deride these people; obviously, I respect how much they care about the close study of a key work in our popular culture. But there’s something self-serving, isn’t there, about believing that you are one of the rare few smart enough or special enough to see through to meanings this deeply hidden in a work? Moreover, many of the ideas discussed require intense amounts of rewatching and image control to even be found. Given that the film was not available on home video until 1986 (and even then, in a pan and scan version), it’s hard to imagine Kubrick conceiving of inserting details meant to be discovered this way. It’s simply more believable that those subtleties that may have been intentional were supposed to be subliminal, meant to add to the effect of the narrative.

Ultimately Room 237 is fascinating, engaging, hypnotically watchable, but also maddening. I believe that meaningful film analysis is about discovering a work’s intentions and analyzing its effects; that you have to have convincing evidence beyond coincidence and minutiae; that, although we shouldn’t take an author at their word as to the meaning of their art, we can logically discard readings which are unreasonable, unsupported, or extremely unlikely. These theorists often strike at fascinating ideas underlying The Shining, from its cultural influences and thematic interest in repressed violence to the subtle techniques of production design and editing which generate the movie’s disturbing and unsettling atmosphere, but too often these are only expressed as a means of supporting a broader reading it cannot hope to hold up. I certainly don’t think the documentary is ignorant of all of this; it’s interested in using the words of its subjects to explore the nature of cultural obsession. The Shining‘s strangeness and ambiguities and emotional impact attract these five people and many others to try to discover its secrets. But great art is holistic, not schematic, and try as you might, Kubrick’s film is in the end irreducible. You can’t solve a puzzle that isn’t there. Nobody can. But it sure is fun to watch them try.

Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because every movie can be the Zapruder film if you really want it to. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.