I am always skeptical of the narrative about the great genius who has created a beautiful artistic work that simultaneously functions as a puzzle with deliberately made pieces that can be objectively identified, precisely delineated and put together in one correct way. Some see the puzzles as being just as real a physical jigsaw puzzle you buy at a toy store. Nobody is ever really be able to solve the art puzzles, though countless scholars will claim to. But many still insist the puzzles exist. If the work has enough staying power, academics centuries removed from the author and the world he lived in will claim that they, at last, are the first person to understand what he was really up to. How fortunate that previous generations have preserved the work and passed down because they loved it without ever understanding it.
There are a few reasons I don’t accept this story. Most importantly, I just do not believe in many stories at all. Religion, conspiracy theories, proud national histories, aliens, even the story of myself… you name it, and I don’t believe it. And these accounts of puzzle making artists have many of the elements of other stories I don’t believe in. A patriarchal figure who has abilities that are orders of magnitude beyond what any other ape of his species possesses. Confirmation bias. There are no coincidences. The self-granted privilege of being among the few who know what is really going on. Unsurprisingly, one interpretation is that The Shining is Kubrick’s veiled confession of having helped fake the moon landing footage. The guy makes about as good a case as is possible.
I also see the creation of false or at least exaggerated hierarchy, with Kubrick and his work towering above the world of mortals. In the pursuit of confirmation, these people have identified a great number of interesting and deliberate choices that Kubrick made. We know that Kubrick was very smart and that he carefully considered many of the details of his films. It is a matter of fact that he thoroughly researched the state history of Colorado and of the hotel for this film. I think he did mean to be very evocative.
But I would point to the film’s assertion that the hotel is built on an Indian burial ground. It is an old horror trope it is in dozens of similar books and movies. And though the Indian burial ground has become the stuff of pulp and even kind of a running joke, it is a notion that strikes a chord with us. It touches many of the themes that are discussed by the people in Room 237, like denial of the past, particularly with regard to atrocities. I’m sure that many a paper has been written on the Indian burial ground in horror movies and why it resonates with us.
I agree that Kubrick pushes evocations further by lacing the film with Indian imagery and inserting phrases like “white man’s burden” into the dialogue. And that this, in turn, adds meaning to the horror imagery, like the waves of blood breaking through the containment of the elevator door. And all of this is ingenious. It is still based on the idea of a haunted Indian burial ground, though. For some reason when it comes to the arts, it’s not enough to say that a guy built a Ferrari. We have to claim that there was no such thing as a car when he started, that he invented the automobile out of thin air and that he single handedly went directly from the horse and carriage to a Ferrari.
Even though I don’t believe in much of these stories, I find them fascinating, much as I do conspiracy theories. The obsession is interesting. The stories people invent and their internal consistency is interesting. What are the mechanisms behind their belief? How authentic is the belief? These are astute people who make many sharp and accurate observations, like Michael Ruppert, the peak oil theorist in Collapse. Not all of them are staunch about their being a particular hidden meaning to the film. Much of what they share about the film is factual, many of their interpretations have credibility and one gains a much greater appreciation of The Shining by watching Room 237.
Room 237 is also a sophisticated film. It layers all of these interrelations and observations with each other and with imagery from The Shining and other films to create a collage. There is kind of a hall of mirrors because of the way the stories that people project onto the film and even on to the real lives of people behind the film relate to the filmmaking process itself.
I even considered making a diagram of it but I’m afraid/certain that I would look stupid. However if you have a couple puffs off your peace pipe and think of our minds as kind of projecting stories onto a bunch of endlessly complicated, sprawling crap that happens in reality, this film will be engrossing. Stephen King lives his life and watches the world imposing normal stories on it like we all do and finally makes up a fictional story, a more pure, outward projection. And then Kubrick is out there doing things and decides to project a story on top of King’s story, and to project it all over elements of history. And now the subjects of this film make up stories on top of Kubrick’s and King’s stories, and make up more stories about Kubrick and King making up their stories. That’s kind of embarrassing now that I read it over, but there you go.
The main reason I wanted to write this review is to post these stills. One of the film’s subjects came up with the idea of a showing of The Shining in which backwards and forwards projections of the film were shown overlapping. Not only are these images pretty much the coolest thing I have ever seen, I think they exemplify the reality of the subject. It is pretty, pretty hard to imagine that Kubrick planned all of this out, hoping one day someone would project the film running backward and forward simultaneously, but the results are still interesting and evocative. Some of it is obvious, but still cool: the end is the beginning and beginning is the end. Some of it is more surprising. I don’t think you would get such interesting results if you did the same thing with Transformers. You get this result from powerful, well constructed, evocative images in a rich context. For example, if the film didn’t have a theme about the cycle of violence, the beginning and end overlapping wouldn’t seem significant.
I’ll try to make the last point without sounding like a tool, but it’s probably impossible. The art-puzzle crowd might be people who just aren’t very creative or, at least, not possessing much originality. I have a creative bone in my body. Just one. I’m not Kubrick. I’m not trying to brag, because I think it is pretty common to have some measure of creative ability. So, I mentioned puffing on a peace pipe a while back. That was a little joke, because one of the alleged keys to the film is an Indian word for peace pipe, which is printed on cans of baking soda in a couple of background shots. The first time you see it, the word is presented clearly as Danny talks to Dick Hallorann. Later, in one of Jack’s scenes, we see the word in the background again, fractured. I think that was probably intentional. It is cool. It’s clever. I’m not sure it is that big a deal though.
I’m pretty sure that I could make a movie that would have lots of little jokes and double meanings in it. Sometimes you write something and then you go back and look at it and see a secondary implication and either forget about it or try to emphasize it more so it seems intentional. So, I could do that kind of stuff if I were allowed to direct a movie. What I could not do would probably best be put under the heading of “every other aspect of directing a movie.” To me, those are the areas where a Kubrick really separates himself from the pack.
Not to say I don’t care about the clever shit. I love it. And Room 237 is helpful because the clever shit is much harder to notice than general quality, and all of these fine people have watched The Shining 100 times and noticed every detail for you. And I agree those things can accumulate and make the main thrust of the film more convincing, perhaps even by working on a subconscious level. Kubrick did, in fact, study subliminal advertising and maybe it works a little. But you still need a great movie, or book or painting to put those things in. That’s the hard part. Anyway, here are a few more pictures.