Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Inside Room 237

with 5 comments

Room 237

I’d say a day rarely goes by when I don’t think about Stanley Kubrick, but recently, he’s been on my mind even more than usual, thanks to the appearance in my life of two wonderful pieces of Kubrickiana. The first is the gorgeous Taschen study of Napoleon, the film Kubrick modestly hoped would be “the greatest movie ever made,” including the director’s own notes, voluminous research materials, reference photographs, and his original script. The other is Room 237, the fascinating if somewhat shapeless new documentary that details five elaborate interpretations of The Shining, with its interviewees convinced that the movie is really a veiled allegory, among other things, for the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, or the role Kubrick played in faking the Apollo moon landing. And although the two works might not seem to have much in common, aside from the figure at the center, they cast a surprising amount of light, both separately and together, on the artist who seemed more committed than any other director to advancing the entire medium.

Room 237 deliberately leaves its viewers with more questions than answers, and there are times when we’d like a little more information about some of the passionate, articulate, slightly unhinged voices on the soundtrack, but it’s still a huge pleasure to watch. If nothing else, it’s a welcome excuse to revisit The Shiningone of the richest of all American movies, as the documentary picks it apart with the obsessiveness of a conspiracy theorist rewinding the Zapruder film. It gives us freeze frames, enlargements, diagrams, and entire scenes played in slow motion or reverse, until the film starts to resemble one of those visual puzzles that Nabokov evokes at the end of Speak, Memory: Find What the Sailor Has Hidden. The guiding principle of these readings is that nothing is a mistake, and that even seemingly innocent continuity errors can convey a secret meaning. Even I’d never noticed that the color of Jack’s typewriter changes over the course of the movie, that the pattern on the carpet beneath Danny’s feet reverses itself between two shots, or that Stuart Ullman’s office includes an impossible window.

Danny Lloyd in The Shining

And it’s worth asking why Kubrick, and The Shining in particular, has encouraged such diverse—and occasionally insane—interpretations. For one possible answer, we can turn to Taschen’s Napoleon, which convincingly documents that Kubrick really was as obsessive as he seemed: even before the project had been officially approved by any studio, he had an army of assistants and researchers compiling visual references, combing through archives, and assembling a card catalog that documented what every character was doing on every day of Napoleon’s life. When one of the interviewees in Room 237 claims that Kubrick deployed a team to spend months researching every aspect of Colorado history, we aren’t given much supporting evidence, but it’s certainly plausible. The interviewees argue, not without reason, that Kubrick was a perfectionist who shot miles of film, did countless takes, and wanted to control every aspect of a movie’s production, so that even the fact that a chair in the background disappears from one shot to the next can be taken as a deliberate choice.

But I think there’s a deeper point to be made here about the nature of Kubrick’s process, and of artistic endeavor in general, beyond what particular significance we read into The Shining. (For what it’s worth, I think there’s a good case to be made that the film deliberately incorporates symbolism from American history, although less for the sake of a clear message than as a way of enhancing its richness and texture, and I’m not sure how seriously to take that can of Calumet baking powder.) Kubrick understood that the point of meticulous control, paradoxically, is to make a movie that can strike up its own reality in the inner life of the viewer, independent of the artist’s intentions. The Shining retains its fascination, after so many other films have been forgotten, because the intricacy of its construction, far from limiting its possible readings, creates a sort of playground—or labyrinth—that rewards endless exploration. The real impossible window is one that the work opens up because the rest of it has been so deliberately constructed. And while I’m not sure what Kubrick would have made of the elaborate games of Room 237, I think he’d be the first to grant that only a very dull movie is all work and no play.

Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2013 at 9:09 am

5 Responses

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  1. You shouldn’t take the Calumet powder seriously at all. I read an interview with SK’s long-time assistant (I think) where he debunked many of the things in the doc. The baking powder was “cast” because all the research they’d done into hotel kitchens showed that every hotel had that brand of powder in their pantries. Occam’s razor strikes again.

    le cul en rows

    April 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm

  2. I was actually interested in checking Room 237 out. I have a love for Kubrick movies…especially the Shining. I love the pace, the acting, the story, and all the hidden symbols within it.


    April 8, 2013 at 3:54 pm

  3. @le cul en rows: That’s more or less what I figured. Oh well.

    @lwpatricks: In that case, you’re going to love this movie.


    April 8, 2013 at 9:49 pm

  4. Interesting that you mentioned conspiracy theorists and the zappruder film. I always thought the room was equivalent to frame 237 in the zaprudder slides. The moment when Kennedy’s future changes forever. (He is reacting to the first shot). Same for Jack Torrence, once he walks into that room it’s just a matter of time before his life is over.


    November 7, 2014 at 11:48 am

  5. You definitely win points for suggesting an interpretation I hadn’t heard before, and I thought I’d heard them all!


    November 9, 2014 at 7:46 pm

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