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?
The Shining has evolved into something like the egghead Rocky Horror Picture Show.
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.
From there, it’s easy to see a pile of suitcases in the Overlook lobby taken for a reference to Auschwitz while a slowed-down lap dissolve reveals several frames in which, Kubrick seemingly contrived to have what looks like a Hitlerian smudge superimposed under Nicholson’s nose—a more subtle variation on the skull fleetingly superimposed on Anthony Perkins’ face at the end of Psycho. I’m less convinced that Nicholson would quote the wolf in The Three Little Pigs because the original Disney cartoon contained a rabidly anti-Semitic stereotype or by the fact that 2 x 3 x 7 = 42. (Numerology is big in Room 237. It’s pointed out that, by some calculations, the distance from the Earth to the Moon is 237,000 miles.)
But there are more compelling reasons to assume that Cocks is on to something. As a doctor’s son from an assimilated family, raised in the tonier precincts of the Bronx during a period when the borough was over 40 percent Jewish, Kubrick would have been deeply impressed by the rise of Nazism that coincided with his childhood and the extermination of Europe’s Jews that occurred during his safe and secure Grand Concourse adolescence. (Cocks, the author of numerous scholarly works on the Nazi regime, including Psychotherapy in the Third Reich, has even devoted a book to Kubrick and the Holocaust.) Kubrick made three movies—Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket—that overtly concern state-sanctioned murder, while 2001 and A Clockwork Orange take an extremely dim view of human nature. He also had a more direct connection to Nazi Germany, having married the niece of Goebbels’ favorite filmmaker, Veit Harlan. (For more on Kubrick’s life and fascination with the Holocaust, see “Kubrick’s Lost Holocaust Film,” by Abby Margulies, in today’s Tablet Magazine.)
It’s known that Kubrick did actively contemplate a movie on the Holocaust, studying The Destruction of the European Jews by Raul Hilberg, and sending his brother-in-law Jan Harlan to New York in 1976 to persuade Isaac Bashevis Singer to write a screenplay on the subject. Singer demurred, but in 1991, Kubrick acquired the rights to Louis Begley’s autobiographical novella Wartime Lies, which concerns a Jewish boy passing for Catholic to survive the war in Nazi-occupied Poland. The project, titled Aryan Papers, was announced for 1993 and then shut down, perhaps not coincidentally, around the time Steven Spielberg began working on Schindler’s List. (The latter is a movie Kubrick famously disparaged, telling Frederic Raphael, his writing partner on Eyes Wide Shut, that it was about “success” rather than genocide. “The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”)
Whether or not The Shining is widely intelligible as a movie about the Holocaust, Room 237 makes it amply apparent that Kubrick was attempting to infuse King’s novel—which might otherwise be construed as a supernatural tale of domestic violence—with the full horror of history (“the blood on which nations are built” in one exegete’s phrase). I’d argue that in order to make the scariest film ever, Kubrick attempted to address the viewer’s unconscious mind. As a Freudian, he stocked The Shining with subtle dislocations to render the hotel “home” increasingly uncanny and, as a Jungian, he deployed symbols—both gross and subliminal, obvious and arcane—that struck him as archetypal. Of course, to recognize this method of creation transforms Kubrick’s enterprise into something of a meta-movie that serves as a natural spur to interpretation rather than one that, as he hoped, simply “raises the hair on your neck.”
In a recent piece on Room 237, New York reporter Mark Jacobson hilariously describes his Freudian journey into Kubrick’s past, excavating key sites of the filmmaker’s Bronx boyhood in search of The Shining’s meaning only to be informed by his own grown daughter, who finds him obsessively revisiting the movie, that its obvious subject was “child abuse.” Both, of course, are right: The Shining is the return of Stanley Kubrick’s repressed.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.