Room 237: Deconstructing Stanley

A mesmerizing documentary explores some fantastic theories about Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic 'The Shining'

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Photo by Rodney Ascher. Courtesy IFC Midnight.

Famed film director Stanley Kubrick used The Shining as a way of issuing a public apology for his role in staging the moon landing. He filled the film with references to the Holocaust. Or the genocide of Native Americans. Also, he really hoped we would find a way to watch it backwards and forwards simultaneously. These fascinating and/or foolish theories about The Shining, cooked up since its 1980 release, are ostensibly the subject of a new documentary, Room 237. My happy spin (there’s another) on Room 237  is that it’s a love story about movies and their meanings, a more mainstream, cinematic version of Geoff Dyer’s Zona, a book about Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker, which is really about that movie’s place in his life.

Kubrick died in 1999. His obituaries were liberally spotted with words like perfectionist and recluse, and descriptions of his films tended to include cold, chilly and icy, suggesting that filming at a physical remove is almost always interpreted as creating an emotional distance as well. Watching Room 237 is to see how that supposed chilliness of Kubrick’s can actually heat people up.  Or, since director Rodney Ascher chooses not to feature talking heads, just a cacophony of audio interviews with five people who have, for the most part, very different interpretations of The Shining, to feel rather than see them heating up.

(SEE: That time Stanley Kubrick landed a nude Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman on the cover of TIME)

For anyone still reading who hasn’t seen The Shining, you’ll want to fix that, fast. At 33, the movie still feels as fresh, crisp and strangely exciting as a new dollar bill. Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) decides to winter at the Overlook, a remote Colorado hotel, with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), ignoring reports that the isolation drove at least one previous off-season caretaker to homicide. Ascher’s title comes from the hotel’s Room 237, where some very creepy stuff goes down. It’s an item of particular interest to the subtext seekers because in the original Stephen King novel, the bad place was Room 217. Elegant, haunting and minimalist, The Shining is a horror movie for people who don’t like horror. Or, who don’t think they like it.

It was on his second viewing of The Shining that Geoffrey Cocks, a history professor at Albion College in Michigan, became convinced it was about the Holocaust. (His initial impression was less than enthusiasitic — as he tells Ascher, “frankly, I didn’t think that much of it.”) But acting on a hunch he’d missed something, he went back. That’s when he noticed that Jack Torrance uses a German typewriter, and that Danny wears a shirt with the number 42 on the sleeve, and that Wendy watches The Summer of ’42 on television. “For a German historian, if you put the number 42 and a German typewriter together,” Cocks says in Room 237, “You get the Holocaust.”

That seemed like a stretch to me, but not nearly as much of a stretch as Jay Weidner’s belief that Kubrick, after the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was talked into faking the footage of the moon landing. Kubrick’s regrets for the deception, Weidner believes, are writ large across The Shining. Clues include Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater and a rug with a pattern than looks something like an overhead view of NASA’s launchpad facilities. The perception of Bill Blakemore, a veteran journalist with ABC News, that the subtext of The Shining is all about the genocide of Native Americans seems rational in comparison, even though much of it hinges on the placement of cans of Calumet baking powder in the Overlook’s pantry. I shudder to think of the possible subtext that could be read in my kitchen cupboards.

At first, I tried to take note of which articulate weirdo had which theory, but that was too literal an approach.Ascher wants all this chatter to flow over us, while he’s showing us Kubrick’s images, precisely to show how these differing viewpoints blend together. One of the interviewees has a nervous laugh. It’s the titter of an obsessive who is hoping that you get his viewpoint but, at the very least, pleased to have your ear. That disembodied titter cast me back to my days of covering city councils, where there was always someone with a binder full of their “findings,” desperate to share, making it my task, as a reporter, to figure out who was unhinged and who might be useful as a source. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, and I’d say that all of the viewpoints presented in Room 237, even the unhinged ones, are useful as well.

(READ: About the coming sequel to The Shining)

The documentary peaked for me around the time Ascher shows us The Shining playing backwards and forward on the same screen, which is so crazy cool as to suggest that the symmetry was intended (if this were an installation in a museum, people would stay all day). Before that scene, my facile take on Room 237 was that there was some serious overthinking going on and that maybe all these nattering, needy voices were just demonstrations of a Kubrick quote from his famous 1968 Playboy interview about 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.” Which makes us all sound like sad little hamsters on the wheel, trying to spin some greater purpose out of our revolutions. Who should maybe get a life and in so doing, stop trying so hard to get a life.

Of course, Kubrick, being a man, also created his own meaning, within his medium, which was moviemaking. So why not go looking for those meanings? The business with the number 42—maybe it has nothing to do with the Holocaust. But, then: Why that shirt? Why that movie on the TV? And 2 times 3 times 7 does equal 42. Coincidence? Or an invitation? During that same interview, Kubrick said something about 2001 that can be applied to The Shining as well, that a viewer was “free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning.” All of these speculating people, and the obsessives who love The Shining who weren’t interviewed, they’re carrying on a conversation with Kubrick, a filmmaker they revere, and by extension, the others who revere him. Maybe they’re all right. Or wrong. It can’t be settled. What matters is that people are still crazy about the beauty of a beautiful movie about going crazy.