How ironic that a film set around a hotel named Overlook could be subjected to such rigorous, full, almost forensic analysis over thirty years after its general release. Ironic, still, that the continuity errors that fuel such speculation have come from the hands of Stanley Kubrick, a director so notoriously meticulous he insisted on over a hundred and twenty retakes for a simple swing of a bat.
That scene, and that film, is of course The Shining, Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel; in which a writer(Jack Torrance) and his family (wife Wendy and son Danny) accept caretaker duties of a remote hotel, only for boredom, paranoia and a smattering of the supernatural to creep like ivy inside their minds. Such is the film’s magnetism, its mix of slow-burn and scare-chords, and indeed, the mystery surrounding what really lies inside Room 237, that many fans have felt obliged to reach their own conclusions. That the documentary begins with a disclaimer, effectively distancing both Kubrick’s estate and The Shining’s production crew from the following opinions, seems a gentle reminder for the audience to expect entertainment over elucidation. Fortunately, for the most part, the results are, appropriately, enlightening.
Foreign correspondent Bill Blakemore recalls how his first viewing of The Shining left him literally paralysed in his cinema seat; gripping onto the armrests while crying out for an usher to release him. Although the film may pride itself on eliciting such a divine reaction, it became something approaching a celluloid Lourdes after Blakemore experienced his very own epiphany. Suddenly gifted with greater vision, he could now see the film for what it really was: an allegory for the genocide of the Native Americans. The hotel itself is built upon an Indian burial ground, a point its manager makes merely in passing, and while its corridors may or may not host several (almost subliminal) images of tribal chiefs, horses and buffalo, Blakemore believes the answer lies in the baking powder. The inclusion, and indeed position, of these tins (specifically, the Calumet brand; taking its name from a peace pipe and depicting an Indian chief as its mascot), is allegedly integral to understanding the film’s hidden message. And there’s slim chance anyone will forget the axe in a hurry. But, with his reading becoming unstuck as the film unfolds, Blakemore must surely concede that sometimes a tin is just a tin.
But a typewriter is never just a typewriter, argues historian Geoffrey Cocks, drawing reference to the fact that Jack’s beloved Adler (German for ‘eagle’), coupled with the film’s apparent preoccupation with the number forty-two, indicate the unmistakable shadow of the Holocaust; yet the significance of the continuity error that switches the device from grey to white remains to be confirmed. Stretching credulity further, playwright Juli Kearns suggests that the hotel maze, the topiary animals and Danny’s retracing his steps in the snow all point towards a retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur. And while musician John Fell Ryan takes a more experimental path, simultaneously playing the film both backwards and forwards to illustrate its spooky symmetry, his argument relies solely on coincidence- although the image of Jack as a clown, his make-up ‘provided’ by the blood-spattered twins dissolving across his face, is truly terrifying. Somewhat inevitably, the film’s most ludicrous analysis comes from self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist Jay Weidner, who believes that Kubrick made The Shining as a coded confession for his cooperation in faking the Apollo moon landings. After utilising the front screen projection found in 2001: A Space Odyssey to fool the world, the director apparently saw fit to pepper his work with clues to his involvement. The reason the room number changed from 217 in the book to 237 in the film, Weidner explains, is simply because the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth. And so when Jack argues with Wendy, his lines, overladen with guilt and secrecy, are to be seen as portentously mirroring Kubrick’s own mea culpa. Further, the stuffed bears inside the hotel are, of course, a sly jab at the Soviet Union and the shot of Danny standing to reveal he is wearing an Apollo 11 sweater practically gives the game away. Weidner seems the most impassioned of those interviewed; understandable given his frantic conjecture, spilling from the murky corners of web fora to widespread furore, has placed him, allegedly, under covert NASA surveillance.
So it may come as some relief for Weidner that he need never show his face. In fact, all interviewees appear onscreen only in voiceover; a device which the audience must accustom itself to, even if, ultimately, it becomes a challenge to associate the theory with the theorist. Separating the film from the ‘talking head’ documentary (with narration typically strung together by interchangeable soundbites), presents the rather academic prospect of placing unparalleled weight on the ideas themselves, substance before style. Yet it would be intriguing to see just whether the sage who claims to detect Kubrick’s face hidden in the clouds in the title sequence is chuckling to himself, now that thousands of (re)visitors to The Shining will surely strain to see if he’s right (answer: he isn’t.) Without any input from anyone directly involved in the film, each statement is rendered to pure speculation. But this makes it no less interesting; the clashing conspiracies and opposing perspectives create an almost Barthesian treatise on authorship: The Shining as Rorschach test. There’s clearly something inside The Shining that appeals to the inquisitive; the contents of Room 237 posing something of a puzzle (a Kubrick’s cube?), a compulsion that, in the absence of any substantial answers, seeks to find its own amongst the rubble of repeated viewings. For Kearns, this requires spreading out the hotel’s blueprints in order to identify its architectural flaws: from the ‘impossible window’ situated in a central office yet somehow showing outside foliage to trailing Danny as he circumnavigates each floor on his tricycle, highlighting the split-second when he switches from second- to third-floor corridors. While her particular reading of the film may differ, she shares the belief between her fellow interviewees that there is no such thing as a continuity error- only a clue.
Ascher himself remains impartial throughout, yet conveys a mischievous sense of humour in editing the picture from myriad film clips; whether rooting through Kubrick’s back catalogue (predominantly 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut) or pithily recycling footage of King raging against a TV set in Creepshow to highlight the increasingly strained relations between director and writer. Although initially disorientating, pitting Tom Cruise as a protagonist of sorts, the clips fit comfortably around the statements- sometimes so neatly as to suggest concealed similarities, a stylistic symmetry, coursing through all of the director’s work. Although that’s perhaps best left for another film. For in heralding a new breed of film criticism: part fan-art and part essay, the prospect of re-evaluating every film that leaves its audience scratching, searching and stumbling for solutions seems just too enticing.
© D.Wakefield, 2012