When Stanley Kubrick’s horror film “The Shining” came out in 1980, one of the major criticisms it received — besides the fact that it deviated so much from the original Stephen King novel — is that it felt like an underwhelming exercise from the aging filmmaker.
Kubrick had made such challenging and bold pictures as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange” — what was he doing making a horror movie about a family that goes to look after a hotel for the winter that turns out to be haunted?
In other words, people wanted more from Kubrick.
As with most Kubrick films, “The Shining” eventually went on to be regarded as a classic. The reason why it’s so great is because it can be watched and appreciated on two levels. It can be enjoyed on a skin-deep, entertainment level: The story and characters are compelling and contain Kubrick’s usual directorial flair (tracking shots, the uses of classical music, etc.). In addition, the movie is incredibly effective as a horror film because — like all great horror films — Kubrick doesn’t rely on empty “gotcha!” scares or a large amount of blood and gore. Instead, he simply presents a terrifying image (two ghostly girls or a tidal wave of blood flowing out of an elevator), and then through craft (cinematography or a music queue played at just the right moment), he lets the scary image speak for itself.
At the same time, there are puzzles and ambiguities all over “The Shining.” Kubrick asks a number of questions but doesn’t necessarily answer all of them — instead, letting the audience members draw their own conclusions.
This is different from the novel. King’s 1977 book is a good, pulp-horror read, but once it’s done, it’s done. There’s really no reason to go back to it; whereas, there is plenty to go back to and look at in Kubrick’s film.
In Rodney Ascher’s documentary “Room 237,” all of the supposed hidden meanings and subtexts of “The Shining” are explored. The film — which played at the 2012 Cannes International Film Festival — is admittedly trivial, but it is an awful lot of fun to watch and highlights the pleasures in analyzing (and perhaps overanalyzing) a movie.
Ascher brings together film historians, journalists, film archivists and filmmakers who are all convinced they’ve unlocked the secret meaning buried within Kubrick’s film. We never see their faces; we only hear their voices as they walk us through scenes from the movie, pointing out the various clues. It’s sort of like a video essay. The first theory comes from ABC reporter Bill Blakemore, who thinks that the entire movie is a metaphor for the genocide of the Native Americans. He points out such clues as the Calumet brand of baking powder in the background of a couple scenes, the Native American decorations all over the hotel lobby and the fact that the hotel was buried atop an Indian burial ground.
The second theory comes from film historian Geoffrey Cocks, who thinks the movie reflects Kubrick’s concerns with the Holocaust. At one time, Kubrick was planning to make a Holocaust movie, but when Steven Spielberg started making “Schindler’s List,” he thought the two projects were too similar and stopped. Cocks thinks that since Kubrick could never directly address the Holocaust, he did it indirectly, as he sees Holocaust references all throughout Kubrick’s body of work.
The third theory is the probably the most “wacko” of the theories — all I’ll say about it is that it links “The Shining” to the famous Apollo 11 moon-landing footage (and the supposed artificiality of it).
The organization of the movie can be a little clunky: Ascher jumps from one theory to another and back again, although I suppose he partly does that to show where the different theories overlap with each other.
A few of the smaller theories (one involving a Dopey sticker on Danny’s bedroom door) feel too far-fetched, but the theorists support their wild claims with evidence from the movie.
You also need to remember that Kubrick was incredibly intelligent, a great chess player and known to be a perfectionist when it came to shots and compositions in scenes. Blakemore even mentions seeing a picture of Kubrick stacking cans and boxes of food in the pantry part of the hotel set where the Calumet cans are.
Kubrick liked to make challenging films, and so it’s very possible that he had one, or maybe more, of these themes in mind while making it and put in these subtle clues for the viewer.
Whether any of these theories are right or wrong, “Room 237” reminds us of one of the great things about cinema and art, in general: We all have a different perspective and interpretation of a movie or work of art, influenced by our backgrounds, interests and our overall outlook on the world. Even though these theorists are watching the same movie, they all took different meanings out of it.
Kubrick may not have intended any of those underlying themes, but it’s those underlying themes that have kept the movie alive. It’s more than 30 years later, and people are still talking about “The Shining,” still analyzing it and still enjoying it. That’s why it deserves to be among the great films in history.
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