Does Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” make people crazy? Or are batty people naturally drawn to his moody, mesmerizing 1980 chiller?
On the surface, the Stephen King adaptation concerns an alcoholic writer (Jack Nicholson), his feckless wife (Shelley Duvall), their telepathic son (Danny Lloyd) suffering ultimate cabin fever in a haunted resort hotel. But some viewers argue that the famously intellectual and fastidious Kubrick deliberately packed the film with jarring continuity errors and arcane symbols.
Acolytes have obsessed over the film’s “hidden themes” for more than 30 years. Beneath its story of a man who tries to kill his family they have detected subliminal references to historical injustices, sexual abuse and the Minotaur myth. The film has inspired scores of websites devoted to unraveling its secrets (real or perceived.)
Rodney Ascher’s odd, witty, engaging documentary “Room 237” (playing this week at St, Anthony Main) combines clips from the movie with interpretations from five deep-digging commentators who have watched it scores, even hundreds of times. Some offer plausible hypotheses, others have tumbled down theoretical rabbit holes. Commentator Jay Weidner is convinced that “The Shining” is Kubrick’s coded confession that he colluded with NASA to fake the video broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I recently spoke with Ascher about his encounters with the “Shining” cult.
Q: Why do you think “the Shining” has drawn such passionate interest?
A: Kubrick’s films are the perfect intersection of art and entertainment. His movies are thought out and beautifully executed and packed with really provocative metaphors. More often than not they’re entertaining genre pictures on their surface, highly elevated ones. He started out back in the 50s and made a couple of amazing, suspenseful film noirs. He moved on to war films and science fiction, comedy, a sword-and-sandal film, costume drama and an erotic thriller. There’s nothing medicinal or didactic that people who are resistant to subtitles might take as an obstacle. They’re wildly entertaining but they’re also meticulously crafted. He was able to perfect films from wildly different genres time after time, and in “The Shining” he did it with horror.
Q: Your five commenters all look deeply at “The Shining” and offer wildly contradictory explanations of “what it really means.” Isn’t it rather like the parable of the blind men describing the elephant? It’s like a rope, it’s like a tree, it’s like a boulder.
A: But the fact is, they’re all right.
Q: Is that the hallmark of a work of art that is truly great? That when you look at it from different angles you see different realities? Or is it just that people can over-analyze things and follow a pet theory to ridiculous lengths? I’m pretty sure that we did land men on the moon, for example.
A: So is Jay [Weidner.] He just says it’s the footage that’s not authentic.
Q: The first theory we hear comes from ABC international correspondent Bill Blakemore as he talks about being stationed in Europe and encountering a “Shining” poster before seeing the film. How did that provide him a clue to the movie’s alleged hidden theme of deep-seated guilt about native American genocide?
A: The poster for the film’s European release said, "The tide of terror that swept across America IS HERE!” Bill is a guy who is incredibly articulate so he started to parse the language, wondering if the “tide of terror” it’s referring to is not even necessarily “The Shining,” but part of American history. Bill is an incredibly heavy guy. He wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica article about Pope John Paul. He travels the world reporting for ABC.
Q: Which of the contributors impressed you most with a grasp on the film that made you consider it in a new way?
A: Juli Kearns’ maps [3D schematics charting the Overlook Hotel set’s “impossible” configurations] were things of beauty and wonder and I was delighted we were able to get them into the film. Every one of the people we spoke to changed the way I looked at the movie. If I had to arbitrarily choose one, I would pick John Fell Ryan’s analysis of Kubrick’s use of dissolves to call into question the reliability of what we see and what we hear.
Q: Is your documentary arguing that “The Shining” contains all those meanings, or is it more about the way we comprehend the world, each of us using our own toolkit and reaching our own individual conclusions? Is it a documentary about a movie or epistemology?
A: Can I have my cake and eat it too? It started as a film about “The Shining.” Then at a certain point we became equally interested in the way “The Shining” could be used as a case study of the way people make sense of all sorts of puzzles. Whether it be art or the world around them.
I was more excited when I found theories coming together than being mutually exclusive. You hear a theory coming together and you hear supporting points and you start to feel it’s very persuasive. There were these very interesting moments when one person’s idea would shed light on another. Bill Blakemore and Jay Weidner are both coming from very different places but by the end of the movie they’re both seeing very sexual images in the frame. Bill sees it in the design of the carpet pattern. Jay sees it in the placement of a paper tray in the [hotel manager’s] office.
Q: Did you get the sense that the film was functioning as a Rorschach test for viewers, or do you believe that there is intent to create multiple hidden themes?
A: I’m not sure we can answer that definitively. A Rorschach test is created to be as random as possible. “The Shining” is a lot of things but it’s not a random object. It’s something designed very carefully by, mostly, a singular voice. Our commentators have provocative thoughts about “2001” or “Eyes Wide Shut” or “Full Metal Jacket” as well. But you get more of this discussion about “the Shining” than any other film. It’s really the perfect storm for this kind of stuff.
Q: The film images are almost entirely collaged from Kubrick’s body of work and other feature films. Did you ever worry about copyright issues and getting legal clearance to distribute the film?
A: We were hopeful because there were precedents from things like 90-minute “Star Wars” reviews that a lot of people had succeeded in getting films out that were made from existing source material. The project was done at an expense of much more time than money. So if we only played once or twice and that became a collectible DVD-R or something that existed on YouTube, that would have been perfectly fine. Nobody wrote a check for a million dollars to make this movie who would have been mad if they had to eat that.