The James Clayton Column: Room 237, The Shining secrets and hidden movie meanings
As the documentary Room 237 unpicks hidden symbols in The Shining, James begins to ponder the messages lurking in other films...
Why make a movie about a movie? Well, if moviemakers are producing non-fiction feature films about penguins and fast food and viewers enjoy those movies, you may as well make a documentary about a film. There’s a high chance that a particular film may prove to be more interesting and entertaining an artefact to contemplate than a Big Mac or a penguin.
It depends which penguin, of course. They’re lovable little critters, but they might not be able to compete with cinematic classics when it comes to the crunch. Penguins are beautiful creatures and fine specimens capable of showing the wonder of the natural world but they’re not necessarily a black-and-white guarantee. At least that’s my experience - if I spend too long dwelling on the Danny DeVito Penguin, I start to feel violently repulsed, and the Emperor Penguin I hung with at Chester Zoo was so uncommunicative I went home and watched The Thing - a movie - instead.
Anyway, I’m going to move on from Antarctic birds. I’ll come back to them when we’ve both got more time, when I’ve finished this column and when they’ve completed their insane seasonal egg-hatching cycle trip. Let’s get back to a movie about a movie - which is an especially worthy endeavour if the film in question is an outstanding work that demands further exploration.
The Shining is definitely that. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is an undisputed classic of horror cinema. It’s an absolute masterpiece - a terrifying, transcendental supernatural chiller that operates as both artistic auteur work and popular-appeal thriller.
There are so many great moments and indelible images in the film, and I don’t think anyone who’s ever experienced The Shining could forget it without the help of some supernatural power or a mortal axe strike dispatch to an oblivious afterlife. The film is Stanley Kubrick, as ever, operating on a higher plane of excellence, meticulously combining all the elements - outstanding acting performances, cinematography, sound, screenplay, production design and atmosphere - in sublime fashion to produce something that resonates forever and ever and ever and ever.
Altogether then, a comprehensive celebratory documentary is definitely deserved, and I’m talking about something more than Vivian Kubrick’s fascinating behind-the-scenes feature or a standard ‘making of’ doc to dump along the DVD extras.
Enter Room 237. (By that I mean that the film Room 237 has arrived on the scene. I’m not urging you to actually go into that inauspicious apartment unless you fancy taking a bath with a rotting ghost woman.) This recently released feature-length documentary, named after the most ominous place in the Overlook Hotel, is directed by Rodney Ascher and delves deeply into The Shining as the full cut of the original film simultaneously returns to cinema screens.
More than merely an enthusiastic tribute to Kubrick’s eerie tour-de-force, Room 237 gets under the skin of The Shining to raise issues and themes that may or may not inform and underpin the film. The film’s dripping with hidden meanings and steeped in subliminal messages - in dialogue, in costume, in continuity errors, in dissolve cuts, in costume design and so on. Room 237 gives five narrating specialists (or rather, special cases) space to expound their own personal theories over footage from The Shining, other Kubrick flicks and Lamberto Bava’s Demons. (And why not?)
A former reporter reckons it’s about the native North American genocide, while a historian outlines that The Shining makes heavy references to the Holocaust. Another conspiracy theorist regards the film as Kubrick’s confession of complicit involvement with NASA’s faked Moon landing footage. The others likewise interpret the mesmeric maze movie through the prisms of their own perspective and personal experiments on the flick. (I’d love to see a full screening of John Fell Ryan’s The Shining Forwards and Backwards Simultaneously Experiment.)
This compelling documentary is indeed crazy-making. It’s a powerful document of the process of belief highlighting how artworks act as Rorschach blots and how odd ideas can evolve to completely obsess you, ultimately affecting the way you perceive the external world. The contributors to Room 237 saw a couple of clues ‘hiding in plain sight’ amidst the ambiguous etherealism of The Shining, and from there, followed gingerbread crumbs until the point of complete absorption in a fantasy where everything substantiates their spurious speculations.
It’s a little like Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying Of Lot 49, where a California housewife’s entire existence is consumed by an underground postal conspiracy that may or may not exist. With Room 237, however, our unseen protagonists are now seeing Stanley Kubrick’s face in clouds, the number 42 everywhere and minotaur images around every corner. Are you sure, guys? That looks nothing like a minotaur, and the cloudface is clearly Danny DeVito.
Can a Greek mythology-based reading of The Shining work alongside the theory that it’s about Hitler’s Final Solution? Are the continuity errors intended or is the scrupulous maestro Kubrick alerting us, attempting to exorcise his Moon hoax guilt? My mind is well and truly boggled, and all these eyebrow-raising extrapolations are getting too much for me. What Room 237 has done is make a challenging movie even more unnerving and absolutely unhinged me to the point where I’m pulling manic Jack Torrance faces. I will now flee from The Shining and other cryptic Kubrick flicks (prime cases, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut) for the sake of my own sanity.
Still, I’m psyched up to run with the spirit of Room 237 and conduct semiotic investigations on other films. I’m not a passive consumer when it comes to cinema and I actively enjoy immersing myself in the film, experiencing its depth and soul, fully becoming one with its created reality.
I open myself up to the movie and urge it to share its mysteries and reveal its deep meanings. They’re there in everything you watch from avant-garde art film to high-concept blockbuster. Room 237 is a particularly potent reminder of this and has encouraged me to widen my gaze and look harder at the images unfurling on screen before me.
It’s fun, you’ll find intellectual stimulation and potentially incredible revelations if you approach the movies with what I’ll term ‘Room 237 Vision’. For example, I reconsidered Skyfall and found that it’s a hotbed of hermetic symbology, riddled with more esoteric references than several unsubtle nods to earlier 007 movies.
Start scratching at James Bond’s stubble and soon you find that the film is geared towards restoring the patriarchy in British military intelligence after years of emasculating feminisation. Freezeframe various explosions and you’ll find the silhouettes of all the other actors who’ve played 007 (Connery gets in twice). Pay attention during the London scenes and note the impossible geography which points to the grand conspiracy in which the capital is a self-aggrandising fiction propagated by British cultural products.
The penguin at Chester Zoo isn’t convinced but I’m pretty sure he was an agent for MI6. So the mysteries go on, forever and ever and ever...
You can read James’ last column here.