When I was in college, Bill Blakemore published his article about The Shining, and I enjoyed it so much that I made a photocopy of it that I still have to this day. It wasn’t that I believed what he was saying — that the movie was about the genocide of the American Indians. What impressed me was his seriousness and the care he had taken to prove his case, a case that rested, absurdly enough, on a few cans of Calumet baking powder.
I might as well admit it: I love a good conspiracy theory.
Until Room 237, however, I had no idea that Blakemore’s article had spawned a small industry. The movie presents five interpretations of the film, including Blakemore’s (which, I was pleased to note, had pride of place, being the one that opens the film). None are as cogent as Blakemore’s (he simply has more to work with since the film, which is set in a Colorado hotel, is full of Native American imagery), but all are fascinating. In the novel, Stephen King makes much of an incident involving his hapless protagonist, Jack Torrance, when he was coaching the debate team at the high school where he worked. And the lure of all these theories is that that they are like positions in a debate, albeit positions on the losing side. The suspense (and, indeed, the humor) hinges on our own interpretation — of how well the debater makes his or her case.
I won’t mince words. In fact, I’ll use Vincent Bugliosi’s words in referring to the majority of theories cherished by JFK assassination critics: they’re “as kooky as a three-dollar bill.”
It isn’t long into the movie before Juli Kearns opines that a Monarch skiing poster on one hotel wall depicts not a skier but a minotaur. We have the “suggestion,” she says, of a ski pole, but it isn’t really there. Personally, I’d “suggest” that she consult an ophthalmologist.
And then there’s Jay Weidner’s theory that The Shining is Kubrick’s confession to having faked the footage of the moon landings. I like this one, because it widens the conspiracy to include the government. Weidner wisely sidesteps the actual landings: he doesn’t say that we didn’t land on the moon, just that the footage of said landings was faked. What he doesn’t say, and what I learned only after seeing the film, is that he believes the fakery was necessary in order to “hide the advanced U.S. saucer technology from the Soviet Union.”
But again, these are (one hopes) serious people with earnest opinions. Director Rodney Ascher lets them tell their stories in their own words, filling the screen with images from The Shining or complimentary scenes from other sources. He doesn’t judge and he certainly doesn’t ridicule. He leaves that to us.
And theory aside, some of the information presented is both fun and interesting. I admit that I never noticed, for instance, that after the mysterious ball rolls to little Danny, playing with his toy cars in a hotel corridor, Danny stands up — facing the opposite direction. We can tell because the pattern on the carpet is reversed from one shot to the next. Other examples of odd continuity similarly passed me by. As did the fact that the hotel itself appears to be, architecturally speaking, an impossibility.
I can buy this, the idea that Kubrick intentionally included these elements rather than that they are merely errors of continuity. But if he did, I don’t think he did it for any other reason than simply to disquiet the audience on a subliminal level. Ascher points out — he shows us quite clearly — that in the opening helicopter shots of the VW winding up the mountain road that the shadow of the helicopter is visible. No one seems to have a theory about why Kubrick allowed this in the film. Which tells me that there’s general agreement that it’s a “mistake.” So, yeah, maybe Kubrick added in some of these things on purpose, and then again maybe he didn’t. Obviously, he wasn’t perfect.
I grew up hearing that “you can prove anything from statistics.” Well, let me tell you: statistics ain’t got nothin on art. Back in high school a friend and I contemplated writing an essay about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and how it was really all about Nazi Germany. I have no doubt that we could have “proved” it, too, but we chickened out at the last minute. (Our teacher, when we told her about it, was disappointed that we hadn’t followed through.) Subjectivity is the mother of interpretation. That’s why we can have Marxist analyses and feminist analyses and Freudian analyses of the same work.
And just as these various theories are all valid (at least, shall we say, in theory), so, too, on one level, are the viewpoints expressed in Room 237. I thought an art dealer in one episode of Columbo captured the essence of art very well. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “You look at a piece of art and it either does something for your or it doesn’t.” For the interviewees in this film, The Shining clearly did something. And while I may think what it did was encourage a certain brand of lunacy, I still respect the effort that is so glaringly on display.