[2 October 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We critics face this dilemma every day. We walk into a screening, not knowing what to expect, and come out convinced we’ve seen a work of brilliance…or something worth shoving down a sinkhole. In between lies the real issue, however. Sometimes, a movie makes us, well, think. It makes us wonder. It challenges our perceptions as well as what we believe, or anticipate, a film will forward. It becomes a question mark, a challenge to revisit at a later date. Such is the case with most of Stanley Kubrick’s creative canon.
From his initial mainstream movies to his later, auteur work, the genius behind such memorable motion pictures as A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Dr. Strangelove, and of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey loved to play with form and meaning. Take the starchild from the end of said 1968 sci-fi masterpiece. From the moment astronaut Dave Bowman entered the monolith to the sequence where he shape-shifts, evolving along alien-influenced lines, viewers were more than puzzled. When the giant floating fetus took position over the planet Earth for the stunning final shot, more than a couple of film fans were scratching their heads in a collection “huh?”
So it makes sense that his interpretation of Stephen King’s best seller The Shining would produce an equal amount of speculation. Deviating wildly from the literary horror maestro’s text and taking into consideration material and motivations outside the novel’s known elements, it’s either a flawless fright film, or a serious sign of aesthetic disrespect. It’s also begat a kind of cult of obsessive analysis. Again, this is natural. If Kubrick didn’t like what King had to say (basically, isolation and personal demons mixed with a haunted hotel equals a bad time for the snowbound caretaker and his family), then what, exactly did he want to say? And if he was such a meticulous filmmaker, often spending days on a single scene or shot, why are there so many obvious continuity and spatial errors present?
These are the puzzle pieces, snippets of possible truth just waiting for someone to come along and stitch them all together. Thus we have Room 237, a documentary (now available on DVD and Blu-ray from IFC Films) where several of the more sensational theories about Kubrick’s moviemaking motives are explained. Talking with the people who’ve developed these ideas (with one conspicuously MIA - more on this in a moment) and illustrating their points with examples and additional evidence, the film makes a compelling case for this director as a devious trickster. But when words like “genocide” and concepts like The Holocaust are thrown out there for discussion, the whole enterprise turns suspect, and kind of silly.
It’s all home video’s fault. Before the advent of the Betamax and the VCR, film fanatics had to attend specialized screenings at colleges and/or museums to muse on their favorite titles. There wasn’t a fount of available review material, meaning that you couldn’t just sit back, in the comfort of you lair, and revisit a film over and over and over again. Today, this is the norm. You can decipher all the philosophical clues the Wachowskis inserted in The Matrix trilogy until your Neo is your Nietzsche. You can fast forward and freeze frame, picking up all the little hints that an otherwise overworked filmmaker secretly inserted into their effort. It’s like The Beatles and the whole “Paul is Dead” thing transported over to celluloid, but instead of records and album covers, we have scenes and visuals and veiled references.
In Room 237, there are at least five main theories. They include the idea that Stanley Kubrick was hired by the US government to fake the footage from the moon landing (oh—we landed on the moon, but the images we all saw were not actually from the planet’s surface. They were faked in a Hollywood studio—studio 237) and that The Shining was his admission and mea culpa. Then there’s the bow to white majority influx into the west and the destruction of the American Indian. Yes, someone does link the horror film to The Final Solution, arguing that it was Kubrick’s way of explaining such an inhuman atrocity to the naive viewer, and there’s even mention of Greek mythology and the Minotaur. Along the way, everything from the patterns of the various carpets to the purpose behind Bill Watson (hotel manager Stuart Ullman’s assistant) are parsed.
It’s all a perfect storm of fetishism. Kubrick was, by his very nature, an ambiguous and open ended filmmaker. Many of his movies fall into the category of telling tabula rasa, meaning you can see what is present and read anything you want into them. Scholars of the auteur argue that this is the only way to understand the man, since when he wanted to be specific, he was very specific (see The War Room in Dr. Strangelove) and, indeed, when faced with an enigma like 2001, the pitch of “a film about alien first contact” just doesn’t cut it. But The Shining has an initial purpose—to horrify. It is Kubrick making macabre. Why all the other meanings?
The answer, of course, is inherent in the material. Even to a die-hard Stan Fan, The Shining is a bit of a disappointing riddle. King devotees continuously rip the end result (though the writer didn’t do much better with his literal TV mini-series take on the tome) while others admire its technique while lamenting its lack of scares. Sure, you can see shadows in the corners, or run the film both forwards and backwards and watch as the double exposures create clever little “insights” into the experience. But just like taking out your copy of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and syncing it up to The Wizard of Oz, much of this is haphazard explanation. The clues are coincidental conclusions, one’s reachable by accidents, not actual design.
In fact, the individual missing from the original film, a blogger by the name of Kevin McLeod who goes by the online moniker of “MSTRMND,” arrives as part of the comprehensive commentary track and sets a new standard for understanding the film. Originally, he was unsure of the project and so he declined to participate. Having seen what director Rodney Ascher accomplished (i.e., a non-judgmental collection of competing interpretations), he decided to add his voice, and it’s a good one…perhaps the best of them all. Referencing obvious and implied ancient civilizations and symbolism, as well as link to science and other known sources, he comes up with a compelling case for his version of the film, far more intriguing than some of the straws grasped at otherwise.
Which raises the final question, to wit: which is it? Is it a Holocaust allegory? An apology for lying about the space race? A meditation on the Native American massacre at the hands of the white man, or is it really a mere experiment in temporal and logistical displacement and disorientation. It can’t be all, since no one, not even Stanley Kubrick, is intelligent enough to turn a story by Stephen King centering on an isolated family in crisis into a Nazi fever dream where Cherokees are killed off while astronauts flaunt their rear projection realities, all on a set where hallways go nowhere and office windows highlight impossible spaces. So which one is right - and why? Why that conclusion? Of course, we will never really know…perhaps because it’s just a horror movie.
Still, this is the power of repeated viewings. It’s also the excesses of overexposure. Room 237 offers up some intriguing possibilities. What The Shining really means - if anything, and beyond the obvious - will always remains a mystery. Besides, this film failed to feature one of the best and most reasonable and straightforward theories out there: that we never really see Jack Torrence as he really is. In his ‘human’ form. Jack Nicholson and his iconic facade is merely the “ghost” possessing the man. That’s why his image is in the group photo from 1921. Think about it. Someone else did. A lot.