Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Rodney Ascher
Producer: Tim Kirk
Stars: Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, Jay Weidner, Geoffrey Cocks, John Fell Ryan
Five theorists offer interpretations of hidden meanings they perceive in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”
In college, I took an English course titled “Writing About Film.” The film up for discussion one particular week was James L. Brooks’ “Broadcast News” from 1987. The instructor was fairly passionate about the movie, and dismayed when he posed a question asking why a specific scene was shot in the rain that elicited no response from the class. Flustered that no one had a contribution, he called on me in desperation. I was silent. He asked again, “why do you think Brooks chose to film that scene in the rain?” I offered the equivalent of a shrug by still not having an answer.
At this point, the instructor sarcastically added, “do you think it just happened to be raining when that scene was scheduled to shoot and Brooks just went ahead anyway?” I mulled over the possibility for a moment and through a nod and an upturned palm said, “why not?” As a former actor, the instructor broke into a part-real/part-faux tirade of, “no, no, no! The director is in control of every single detail on a film! Nothing happens or appears onscreen unless the director specifically wants it to be that way!”
That gross generalization may be partially or even completely true for celebrated cinema icons such as Spielberg, Scorsese, and of course, Kubrick. Although in the modern era of audio commentary accompanying home video releases, audiences are learning more and more that some of the most memorable movie lines were spontaneous ad-libs. Gorgeous shots of water cascading in a reflection or serendipitous rainbow appearances were “happy accidents.” Films are, after all, a commercial as well as artistic product. They have budgets and schedules just like any other consumer brand manufactured to make a profit. When a movie scene is staged in the rain, sometimes there really is no other reason than the weather just happened to be lousy that day.
That said, Kubrick went to his grave with a reputation like no other for Napoleonic-style control over the artistry of every frame in his films. Specifically, “The Shining” was in front of production cameras for over a full year. Abounding theories about obsessive details regarding this movie are well warranted, even if the lack of substantive proof puts these notions in the classification of crackpot.
“Room 237,” Rodney Ascher’s provocative examination of themes that may or may not be part of the inner machinations of Kubrick’s “The Shining,” opens the floor for five of these theorists to have their say. And what they have to say ranges from mildly plausible to curiously interesting to entertainingly knee slapping.
Despite the varying range of credibility that can be assigned to each theme, even the most speciously reasoned ideas are founded on at least a shred of merit. Interestingly, Ascher chooses to never show the five interviewees whose voices carry the film. This is a film about the ideas, not the people originating them. Still, Ascher decides to leave in a voice-over interrupted by the noisy child of one participant because even these faceless voices are to be viewed as human. These are not “Grassy Knoll” conspiracists, but people who have spent (too much?) time weaving contemplative thoughts around a passionate subject.
Buying into the interpretations presented is not a requirement for enjoyment. Those of us who are hardened skeptics can still have fun playing along at home. “Room 237” can be like a frustrating Magic Eye picture as one struggles to see the supposedly hidden imagery.
No doubt the wildest idea is that Stanley Kubrick not only helped fake NASA’s footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but “The Shining” is his secret admission of complicity in the hoax as well as an apology to his wife for doing so. Among the “evidence” is the inclusion of Tang on a shelf in the kitchen, as astronauts famously drank the powdered beverage. So did millions of average people who had never been to space, but let’s not spoil the fun with facts just yet.
Additional proof can be found in the number assigned to the sinister room that marks this film’s title. One theorist poses that Room 217, as it was identified in the novel, was not in fact changed to Room 237 at the request of the Timberline Lodge. Rather, Kubrick deliberately made the change as a nod to the distance between the Earth and the moon, cited as 237,000 miles.
This is almost interesting until considering that, being an orbiting body, the moon’s distance is not fixed and fluctuates between 221k to 252k miles. The average distance is closer to 239,000 miles. And this says nothing of the fact that Kubrick lived in the United Kingdom at the time, which is also where most of “The Shining” was filmed. It would have made more sense for the director to make length distinctions in kilometers instead of miles.
Other tidbits include the key ring that reads, “ROOM No 237.” The “N” is deliberate so that the letters can be rearranged to spell “MOON.” This is about as compelling as concluding that Elvis faked his own death because his name rearranged spells, “LIVES.”
Some of the conclusions drawn rely on mild fact distortion. Admittedly, the number 42 does appear in several places throughout “The Shining.” This supposedly alludes to WWII parallels, as 1942 is the year that the Nazis enacted the Final Solution. Or maybe Kubrick was just a fan of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” radio play. Indeed, “42” appears on Danny’s clothing, on a license plate, and is also the result when two, three, and seven are multiplied together. Someone also counts 42 vehicles in The Overlook’s parking lot. Except arriving at 42 requires waiting until part of the lot goes out of frame and then adding the semi-truck cab as a vehicle but not the snow tractor. Convenient.
Not every reveal points to a hidden message, though. Some notes are very clever observations. Why is Jack reading a Playgirl magazine in the hotel lobby as he waits to meet with management? Why does the hotel even have a Playgirl magazine in its lobby? Details such as this are amusing, but in reality they are likely no more than sly jokes or unusual coincidences.
More than one interviewee mentions that in the scene where Danny plays with his toy trucks as a ball rolls into frame, the orientation of the carpet changes. This is apparently indicative of a launch pad map, and represents open and closed access to the site. Strangely, no one notes any ulterior motives with the other inconsistencies in that scene, including the positioning of Danny’s toys and the urn on one side.
Believing that any number of disappearing or reappearing setpieces indicates an intentional or even unintentional meaning requires belief that Stanley Kubrick was somehow above continuity errors. When remembering that “The Shining” was a 144-minute movie shot over the course of an entire year, it is no wonder that details like a sticker on a door were overlooked.
If everything posited in “Room 237” were taken at face value, then the question could be asked of what does it all add up to? Is it a testament to Kubrick being an artistic genius or an unhinged kook? Even if only some of the theories are on target, then at best, Kubrick was obsessive compulsive. At worst, he was insane.
“Room 237” is a documentary told in nine segments. The content tapers as each chapter concludes, and the interest level in each is related to the attention span for the different ideas. The final value of what the film puts forward will correspond with the viewer’s willingness to share the individual beliefs. Whether these theories are believable or not, “Room 237” is still a fascinating exploration of how films and art can be meticulously examined, even if there is a tinge of delusion to the motivation.
Review Score: 80