Criticism — From the June 2013 issue

The Shining Path

Room 237 and the Kubrick cult

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In Barcelona I have a car waiting to take me to Sitges, a half-hour drive down the Catalan coast. I’m two days ahead of my cousin Tim, who arranged for the car, or who arranged for the person who arranged for the car, and who was still in Hamburg for a screening of his documentary, Room 237. The film is an investigation into the multiple, cryptic, and somewhat ludicrous meanings that a number of obsessives claim Stanley Kubrick planted in his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, a novel that has no similar allegations — that is, that it’s about something other than what it is obviously about: a possessed hotel and its deranged winter caretaker. Sitges was the next stop on Tim’s tour of international film festivals.

Among the theories held by the fans interviewed in Room 237: (1) The Shining is really a veiled confession by Kubrick that he conspired with NASA to fake the footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing; (2) it’s really about the genocide of the Native Americans; (3) it’s a commentary on the Holocaust; (4) it’s not a horror story at all but actually a very slick vehicle for pulling off a series of seemingly pointless subliminal erotic gags. When I first saw Tim’s documentary, it was hard not to feel that my cousin had at last found the right pulpit for addressing the subject of belief — something from which we had both more or less extricated ourselves, not without gore, as the elder sons of sibling pastors from the Midwest.

I didn’t know Rodney Ascher, the director, but it seemed clear Tim had found his cosmic twin. The two had met up after discovering that they’d both made short films spoofing the evangelical comic-book tracts of a man named Jack Chick. Rodney adapted one about a kid who overdoses on speed and goes to hell. Tim’s was about the perils of Ouija boards. They put together an anthology of these Christian cautionary vignettes and called it Hot Chicks. One day Tim showed Rodney a website that outlined the Kubrick-staged-the-moon-landing theory. They decided to make a short film, maybe something to put on YouTube.

But then they started digging up all these other equally intriguing theories and realized there was more than enough for a full-length film. (Interpretations of the design in the Overlook Hotel’s carpets alone — a match for Apollo 11’s launchpad, a simplified depiction of the act of intercourse, a symbol of the whole course of our genetic history — was probably enough for a TED talk.) They submitted the finished film to Sundance, where it picked up a distribution deal with IFC. Variety called Room 237 “one of the great movies about movies”; LA Weekly said it was a “brilliant work of alternative film criticism”; and Alec Baldwin tweeted from the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes: “Saw Room 237 tonight. Bee-fucking-zarre . . . ” Soon De Niro and Madonna were asking for screeners.

In an article in the New York Times (“Cracking the Code in ‘Heeere’s Johnny!’ ”), one of Tim’s subjects was quoted as saying that the imagery in The Shining was “as good a visual metonym for the horror of the 20th century [as] has ever been filmed.” One could likewise argue that Room 237 creates a perfect “visual metonym” for the age of the remix. While the Web is hectic with the labor of vidders and mash-up artists and other pirate cineastes, no work in this genre has ever been released as a feature-length movie, let alone made such usufructuary hay of the fair-use doctrine. Hours of interviews with Kubrick’s devoted conspiracy theorists were recorded for Room 237, but the visuals from start to finish are a montage — there are clips from The Shining, of course, but also from Schindler’s List, Scooby-Doo, Fellini’s Satyricon, All the President’s Men, Dr. Dolittle, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Brain from Planet Arous, and about forty other films.

Despite the rave in Variety, I did not think Room 237 was a “movie about movies.” It was a movie about fans — a special kind of fanatic who is haunted not by what a work of art says but by what it doesn’t. The Shining can assimilate any new interpretation you might be inclined to impose on it. It’s welcoming that way, like a hotel with infinite accommodations.

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is the author, most recently, of Kingdom Under Glass (Picador). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Fool at War,” appeared in the October 2005 issue.

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  • focuser

    Jay

    Your piece on Tim and Rodney’s film was terrifically uninformed. I’ve discovered through Room 237 that writers specifically cannot see the informational possibilities in visual syntax (even coupled/contrasted with phonological/musical syntax). Remember that “belief” and “truth” are the highest computational possibilities of the human mind (as in you believe “X” is the best writer, I believe “Y” is…who is “wrong”?). If you look past whether or not you share a belief with any one of the interviewees, you’ll spot Kubrick’s daring visual syntax evolving out of the linear sequences we’re so inured to in western storytelling. Kubrick has basically rewritten our rules of sequential intake, opening up previously unknown cognitive possibilities.

    Had you dug deeper, you might have found out how the film relates holistically to a wide range of fields. Instead you chose a local belief from which to examine other local beliefs (even Kubrick’s; employing the artist against his science). Clever, but rather futile and perhaps even adolescent. This is a case of mediums (the magazine article/the film) in conflict over semantic not syntax. A fight over meaning, a rather barbarian use of our limited time here on earth, no?

    You may not comprehend why, but Room 237 has just opened the door to the next stages, both how films are viewed and how they are made.

  • Ray

    It’s the opinion of this reader that both the above article and the previous comment are didactic and totally bonkers.

    • focuser

      What’s even more bonkers is that a university press is publishing a book of mine about non-linear sequencing. Return to observing, not responding.

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