Duality, blood, mirrors, the Holocaust and American genocide against the Native Americans are all things hidden somewhere inside Stanley Kubrick's famous creep show The Shining. And now you can hear just about every single amazing Shining theory and idea in one documentary, Room 237.
Room 237 is a compilation of every argument you've ever had about what Kubrick was really doing, complete with scholarly voice overs and frame-by-frame breakdowns. We sat with the documentary's director, Rodney Ascher, to discuss what really happened in the Overlook Hotel.
How many times have you watched The Shining now?
Rodney Ascher: 16 or 17 times, if you don't count watching it a frame at a time, forwards and backwards for a year and a half through the course of this film.
This isn't really a movie, it's more like the equivalent of getting stoned in your college dorm with a bunch of lit majors all dissecting pop culture. Was that your intention?
I'm going to take that as a compliment, because I used to love to do that. And yeah as you move on into your adult life, I miss the intensity of those kinds of conversations. Where it's 4 or 5 in the morning and you couldn't leave, even though you had a class in a couple hours. You couldn't stop because the ideas were coming to you quicker than you could say them out loud.
Why do you think everyone describes their first viewing of The Shining as "off." Not scared, not haunted, but "off." Why do you think that's a common emotion?
I think part of it is that you don't leave the theater understanding… I can't imagine someone leaving the theater having seen The Shining once and saying, "oh I totally understood that." The black and white photo at the end is in some ways presented as like a eureka moment. [Whereas] at the end of Citizen Kane there's the "Rosebud was the sled," or Shutter Island, "oh this whole thing was a charade he's crazy." No, if anything you ended that movie with an entirely new puzzle. Which troubled a lot of folks, but at the end of the day you're realizing that what you're watching is a horror movie. And leaving it a little off-balanced and confused and upset, makes a lot more sense. That feeling where you understand everything, you don't need to revisit it anymore. Mission accomplished. The Shining doesn't let you go that easily.
But where do you draw the line between symbolic interpretation and continuity errors. The typewriter changes color, the car almost hits Jack but is cut out in the next shot? A lot of those things can easily be explained away?
What's funny is, not one particular [thing] can be indefinitely explained away. [Film historian] Geoffrey Cocks talks about this when he's discussing the chair, something that might have been a mistake on set would almost certainly have been something he noticed in edit, but he decided to leave it in anyway. If you look at something like that typewriter [changing color] or Danny's position on the carpet, those are things that are harder to get wrong, often, than to get right.
The toys would have had to have been picked up and rearranged and rebuilt in exactly the same order in a different part of the room. Someone either had to bring in a different typewriter, or they painted this typewriter after it had already been shot. So the fact that it would look different couldn't possibly be a surprise to them. The typewriter itself is very interesting and we barely touched upon it except to highlight the weirdness of it [Edit Note: for example the typewriter is a German model which could represent the systematic and mechanical genocide that happened during the Holocaust]. But if can spring off in a couple different ways. Cocks talks more about the implications of the changing colors of the typewriter in his book The Wolf at the Door [and in the documentary]. The Shining is full of twins and doubles. Even the typewriter has a double.
The cans of Calumet is featured in the poster for Room 237 and it's one of the first real theories you discuss, why was that featured so prominently?
I think what's important about that can — in many ways Bill Blakemore The Shining theorist wrote his article about the Native Americans back in 1987 and that was reprinted in newspapers and republished online. For a lot of people, his idea was kind of a symbolic theory of The Shining of record. And the can was the trigger that sent him down the path [Edit Note: For example Blakemore hypothesized that the cans, which mean ceremonial pipe, stood for various peace treaties being reinforced or broken with the hotel over their various appearances in the film] Other people had similar ones. Juli Kearns talks about the skiing poster, Geoffrey Cocks was the typewriter a lot of people have found singular elements of the movie that work almost as decoder rings. They're the first step on a path to making a new discovery about that film.
Which theory about the themes in The Shining resonates the deepest with you?
It's hard to pick one, but one thing I got really excited about was when John Fell Ryan was talking about looking through film archives and watching old newsreel films and beginning to develop a skepticism about the relationship between what you see and what you hear. And I think quite logically, we can make the jump that Kubrick as a kid growing up in the 30s and 40s who was always haunting movie theaters would likely have seen, if not these same films, the same type of films. And because a lot of us feel a connection to what Kubrick was trying to do, maybe he made the same connection. I thought it was kind of eerie that Geoffrey Cocks also talks about himself growing up on a diet of these news reel films. When their ideas start to cross pollinate. And Jay Weidner was talking about how Kubrick making similar discoveries while researching advertising. The way that they would use sexuality and hype in order to create connections to their audience. As these ideas started coming together, I found that very exciting.
What object are people most obsessed with in The Shining that surprised you the most? I was pretty surprised with the amount of attention paid to Ullman's impossible office window. And now I feel like a dummy for not noticing it earlier!
I must say Bill Watson, the summer caretaker, who seems like a very bright character but hardly has any lines. He's sort of prominent in a weird way, even how he's framed symmetrically to mirror Jack in that one shot. People had ideas about the connections to him in the movie. I don't think his role ever gets called out in the film, but he has a relationship with Jack in a way that is similar to Grady's relationship.
What's the least persuasive argument you've heard thus far?
Well, that The Shining is just a horror movie about a family trapped in a hotel.
To hear even more theories check out Room 237 which opens theatrically on March 29th, and will also be available on VOD,SundanceNOW