April 7, 2013

Room 237

Stub Hubby On Demand Presents: Room 237

A documentary about people who have developed elaborate theories of the true meaning of The Shining:
  • The Shining is about the slaughter of the Native Americans
  • Kubrick was hired by NASA to fake footage of the Apollo moon landing; Kubrick made The Shining to deal with his guilt over the conspiracy
  • The Shining is about the Holocaust
  • The Overlook Hotel is a labyrinth with a minotaur at the center
All those people are raving obsessive lunatics (ROLs)...except the one I completely agree with.
These ROLs speak on voice-over (we never see them) and their thoughtful, calm theories are illustrated with detailed, annotated footage from the movie. No judgements are made by the documentarians- none is needed. The theories speak for themselves. ROLs can attach to any piece of art. The Shining is a particularly strong draw to ROLs because:
  • The film is rich in detail. There are dozens of elaborate, sprawling sets.
  • Kubrick is involved with every detail of the production, and he's famous for it, so ROLs can assume that every prop, costume, camera move, and blocking was a deliberate, meaningful choice.
  • There's many long scenes with no dialog. I think this literally gives ROLs time to disassemble the movie at the molecular level. I was surprised at how little of the ROLs theories centered on dialog. Perhaps because dialog is text, and true meaning is in the subtext? (Am I getting too film-school-ish?)
In the defense of the ROLs, Kubrick does include plenty of strong imagery and subtext. He is trying to push our emotional buttons. I think the labyrinth theme is intentional: Kubrick chose to replace the "hedge animals come to life" section of Stephen King's book with a massive hedge maze. Danny uses the maze to escape Jack at the end of the movie, but Kubrick extends the labyrinth theme into the hotel. From the very beginning, when Jack interviews for the job, the Steadicam-mounted camera follows Jack around corners, confusing our sense of direction, chasing the characters, and revealing each new room and hall as the character discovers them.
This technique is effective. After the Torrance family settles in for the winter, the camera chases Danny around an endless series of left and right turns as he benignly rides his Big Wheel trike around the hotel. We lose all sense of direction. Later, he rides again, but this time he encounters the ghost twins. What's cruelly effective about this technique is, we feel totally lost when confronted with the twins, at the end of a dead-end hallway. There's no escape on the trike. Compounding this, the scare works equally well on repeat viewings of the film. It's all too easy to lose track: Behind which corner are the twins waiting? In most horror movies, if you've seen the movie twice, you remember which closet door, rotten tree, or moldy coffin the monster is going to jump out of. When Danny is riding his trike, you might remember "the twins are coming" but you'll never know when they appear.

Here's where ROLs take "effective cinematic storytelling" and "meticulous production design" and turn it into "Kubrick helped fake the moon landing": If some things mean something, then anything can mean ANYTHING YOU WANT IT TO.
  • Jack briefly reads a magazine while waiting for his interview. The cover is illegible onscreen. A ROL discovers it's a Playgirl magazine. THIS MEANS SOMETHING!
  • Jack's typewriter was manufactured in Germany- not that you can tell onscreen. THIS MEANS SOMETHING!
  • A character's pants change color between shots. THIS MEANS SOMETHING!
And, best of all, the hotel rec room includes a poster of a man in silhouette schussing downhill. It's literally a black silhouette of a skier. This particular ROL doesn't see a skier. She sees a minotaur. Completely oblivious to the fact that she's become a mental patient reading into an inkblot what she wants to see, she uses this poster to tie together her labyrinth theory. The good news for this lady is, I think the labyrinth theory has merit, but a ROL will seek out meaning in everything. Every continuity error, or meaningless choice of blocking or props can be used to bolster a ROLs case.
Sometimes Kubrick doesn't play fair. I don't think the Apollo moon landing footage was faked. I don't think The Shining has any subtext about space or the moon at all. This particular ROL is mostly reaching a long way for some very thin straws. HOWEVER, in one scene, Danny wears a sweater with the Apollo 11 rocket on the front. When a movie is filled with meticulous attention to detail, it's hard for a non-raving, non-obsessive, non-lunatic like me to understand WHY Danny would be wearing that image on his chest?

After discovering the Apollo sweater, a ROL has been given carte blanche to reading into every detail. A keytag says ROOM NO237. The letters R-O-O-M-N-O can be rearranged into MOON ROOM? This is only slightly less pitiful than the ROL who sees the number "42" everywhere. "42", plus the German typewriter, means the movie is about the Holocaust, obviously.

As a Shining fanatic, I loved the movie. Some of what I learned I am glad to know. A lot of it is bullshit, but other details help me enjoy the movie more. At the beginning of the movie, Hallorann gives Wendy a tour of the kitchen, dry pantry, and the freezer. The freezer is stocked with hundreds of pounds of meat. On a logical level, it looks like far more meat than a family of three could eat during their 6 ½ month residency, but the truth is, I am certain Kubrick loved the imagery of the meat piled up on the shelves of the giant walk-in freezer, like corpses in a morgue.
FUN FACT: If the Torrances each ate ¼ lb of meat at every meal, that freezer should be stocked with over 440 pounds of meat for their 6 ½ month residency! Of course, they don't make it until spring, do they?

I strongly recommend Room 237 for anyone who appreciates film theory, Kubrick movies in general, and The Shining specifically. A fun perspective on the fuel that makes crazy people run. My Stub Hubby grade: A!