Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013

Room 237

Toys in the Overlook attic?

By David Luhrssen
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 The word “fan” is derived from fanatic, and a fanatic is someone holding to extreme beliefs. Those dark roots of fandom are all over Room 237, a documentary on the elaborate, convoluted, mad interpretations some fans have spun around Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

The amateur ruminations recorded by Rodney Ascher’s documentary aren’t different in form from the professional reflections of film critics, but their content sometimes represents the danger of over interpretation—of seeing patterns where none exist. No doubt the fans of Room 237 are attentive watchers; The Shining is a text they have read closely and repeatedly. Some of their observations are sound and have passed by most viewers. Example: the typewriter Jack labors at changes color in the course of The Shining. For a filmmaker as detail-attentive as Kubrick, dismissing this and similar quirks as mere continuity errors seems to underestimate the care he brought to crafting his vision.

However, just because something can be interpreted doesn’t mean every interpretation is plausible. And just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it’s true. The cans of Calumet baking powder with the red chief logo, seen in the storeroom of the Overlook, triggered one fanatic to explain The Shining as an exploration of genocide against the American Indians. To be sure, The Shining is about the ghosts of the past impinging on the present; one of Room 237’s commentators aptly connects the labyrinthine Overlook to a T.S. Elliot line Kubrick likely knew: “History has many cunning passages.” But to stir baking powder into the Native American motifs of a hotel in the West and cook up the meaning for such a multi-layered film is straining. Of course, some professionals in the press and (especially) academia are guilty of similarly losing themselves in their own hall of mirrors rather than opening windows onto the artist or artifact under discussion.

Interpretation goes bonkers with the fanatic convinced that Kubrick shot the Apollo 11 moon landing on a Hollywood sound stage in one giant leap for filmmaking—and that The Shining encodes the hints of his deception (much as The Beatles were said to have planted clues of Paul’s death on The White Album). Why did Kubrick focus so much attention on the Overlook’s Room 237? Elementary, it’s because the Moon is 237,000 miles from the Earth. And why does little Danny wear an Apollo 11 sweater, the fanatic demands?

My interpretation? It was Kubrick playing a joke on the conspiracy theorists.

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