Few films have provoked audiences to a degree of obsessive debate as much as Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic The Shining, and in the new documentary Room 237, director Rodney Ascher examines the iconic film and the seemingly infinite possibilities as to its true meaning.
With the participation of 5 interviewees including a veteran ABC news correspondent, a professor of history and a playwright, Ascher carefully dissects every component of the narrative, offering numerous speculations as to the thematic bonds holding the story together including commentary on Native Americans, genocide, numerology, fairy tales, NASA Conspiracies and World War II.
Ascher had been transfixed by the film ever since sneaking into a screening of it as a kid, and finally in January 2011 began reaching out to fellow professionals and fans, hoping to shed light on a work that has both baffled and inspired a generation of people in equal measure. Ascher says, “As interesting as it might have been to talk about the genesis of the film with some of Kubrick’s collaborators, our feeling from the beginning was to restrict ourselves to the reactions of the audience and the way they put the pieces together.”
One of the more compelling theories comes from artist John Fell Ryan, who runs a theater for experimental cinema in San Francisco. After reading a blog post that suggested The Shining is a film meant to be viewed forwards and backwards, Ryan staged a screening of the film running this way simultaneously, and the result is quite startling.
The film itself becomes a specter, gliding, ghost-like images dissolving in and out of each other, figures melting through rooms and the blood-soaked bodies of the infamous slain twin girls staining the eyes and cheeks of Jack Torrance as he speaks to Delbert Grady in the bathroom of the gold room. Every sequence appears to be a perfect thematic representation of the other, an exercise in cinematic origami where every fold and layer transforms the work into something more intricate and exciting.
There’s also the theory by Professor of History at Albion College Geoffrey Cocks, who believes the film is an allegory to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II. Cocks points out the reoccurrence of the number 42 throughout the film, which was the year the Third Reich began the genocide on the Jewish population; even the numbers of room 237 when multiplied together equal 42.
This was a subject certainly of interest to Kubrick. In 1976, he began adapting Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, retitling it The Aryan Papers about a boy and his aunt hiding out from the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. Eventually abandoning the project after the release of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, it has also been said by those close to Kubrick that the depressive nature of the subject matter eventually became too overwhelming for him, and that in his view, trying to make an accurate representation of the Holocaust through cinema was nearly impossible.
When The Shining was first released, Toronto’s The Globe and Mail said of it, “Kubrick certainly doesn’t fail small. One could fast forget The Shining as an overreaching, multi-leveled botch were it not for Jack Nicholson.”
As Ascher displays impressively though, the film is by no means a forgettable botch, and instead stands as one of the great puzzles of modern art, an endless mystery that will continue to divide viewers for years to come.
Room 237 is now playing at the Sundance Sunset in West Hollywood, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and South Coast Village in Costa Mesa.