The Shining Is About What?
Room 237 uses Talmudic exegesis to uncover whether Kubrick’s film is about Indians, the Holocaust, or bears
Even people who haven’t seen it know that The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, is the scarific tale of a stir-crazy caretaker—Jack Nicholson, no less—driven mad by the ghosts haunting an isolated, off-season hotel to murder his wife, played by Shelley Duvall, and their small son, who happens to be psychic. But, was this contribution to the horror cycle of the late Carter era also Kubrick’s meditation on the Holocaust?
That’s one theory advanced in the new essay-film Room 237 by Rodney Ascher, an engaging survey of the various exegeses that have attached themselves to Kubrick’s horror film in the 30-odd years since its original release (and especially since the introduction of DVDs and development of the Internet). Other, not necessarily related, takes: The Shining, as revealed by Kubrick’s co-scenarist Diane Johnson, literalizes Freud’s notion of the unheimlich [uncanny] in making the familiar strange; the movie is a coded admission that, at the behest of the federal government, Kubrick faked the Moon landing photos; The Shining is an updated version of Theseus and the Minotaur, or an exercise in subliminal advertising techniques, or an exposé of what film historian David A. Cook termed “the murderous system of economic exploitation which has sustained the country since, like the Overlook Hotel, it was built upon an Indian burial ground.”
Room 237 revels in all of the above interpretations and lets them ricochet off each other at crazy angles. One theory never bruited is Kubrick’s own bland disclaimer that “a story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analyzed too closely.” As Warner Bros. was telling reporters back in November 1978, “Stanley’s trying to make a movie that will really scare people,” to which Diane Johnson added, “Stanley wants to make the best horror film ever made.” That’s one reason why, 18 months, two endings, and many trailers later, The Shining was seen as an anticlimax when press-previewed only days before its May 1980 opening.
I well remember the disappointed WTF response among critics who were mainly impressed by the movie’s fluid SteadiCam and swooping helicopter shots. (Pauline Kael began her review by noting that if The Shining “was about anything that you can be sure of, it’s tracking.”) People were amused by Nicholson’s over-the-top performance as well as Shelley Duvall’s not-unjustified hysteria, but even New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who liked the movie, had to admit that the panoply of ghosts, ghouls, and guys in bear suits uncorked, along with a gore-gushing elevator, for the grand finale were “preposterous,” if not risible. The Shining was panned by many reviewers (and received not a single Oscar nomination), although audiences made it a hit—the biggest, by some accounts, of Kubrick’s career.
More conventionally entertaining than the movie it parses and certainly the recipient of far better notices, Room 237—which is named for the Overlook’s most sinister suite—embeds scenes from The Shining in a humorous montage that encompasses everything from F.W. Murnau’s Faust to the 1940 Thief of Bagdad to Hitchcock’s Spellbound to a late-night-TV favorite like The Brain From Planet Arous (an alien-possession flick from 1957) while cross-referencing the Kubrick oeuvre, thus commenting on the comments made by a quartet of exegetes.
Do the Kabbalist readings or wild free associations that Room 237 celebrates improve The Shining? Let’s say that they create a parallel text: Lost in the Overlook, in search of the overlooked. (After sitting through 100 minutes of reasonable and outlandish analyses, I found myself inclined to agree with Nicholson when he tells the phantom bartender with whom he’s been schmoozing in the Overlook’s elaborately haunted ballroom, “Anything you say, Lloyd. Anything you say.”) Room 237 raises questions beyond The Shining and even Kubrick’s intent: Are movies meant to be solved like crossword puzzles or decoded like ancient hieroglyphs?
Put another way: Is this sort of over-interpretation intrinsic to movies in general or was Kubrick practicing a radically different sort of filmmaking that would make it intrinsic to his work in particular? The Surrealists delighted in the ultra-subjective, if not paranoid, elaboration of their favorite movies, calling the practice of imagining material beyond or hidden within the film “irrational enlargement.” It’s the main factor in the making of a cult film—something that only an audience can do, seizing upon and emphasizing aspects of a movie that, intentional or not, transcend the narrative framework. The truism that no one quite sees the same movie is here made literal.
The Shining, Room 237 makes clear, has evolved into something like the egghead Rocky Horror Picture Show. The movie is stocked with suggestive “overlooked” details, ranging from wall decorations to carpet designs to the carefully placed cans of Calumet brand baking soda (“calumet” being a Native American word for “peace pipe”). But is that poster of a skier in the background of one scene really a Minotaur? Even if it is, ours not to wonder why. “We are dealing with a guy who had a 200 IQ,” one fan explains. The Shining was “made by a bored genius” perhaps to amuse himself. As proof, just dig the filmmaker’s self-portrait glaring out of the clouds right after his credit in the movie’s celebrated opening helicopter shot.
It is in the realm of semiotic allusion that Geoffrey Cocks finds “a deeply laid subtext that takes on the Holocaust.” His basic clues are Nicholson’s German-made typewriter and the persistent use of the number 42—as in 1942, or The Summer of ’42, which is shown on TV—signifying the Nazi bureaucratic mass murder that was organized in 1942.
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