This is easily the most fun and interesting, and least time-consuming, of the various associated texts I’m working through in preparation for teaching The Shining as a cult movie (King’s novel, the miniseries, and Doctor Sleep, which should be done soon). It is a documentary in which five people explain what they think the film is really about: the Native American genocide; the Holocaust; Kubrick’s faking of the Moon landing film; the legend of the minotaur; and the dark violent sexual nature of human beings. (The latter two are the sketchiest, so it is hard to be certain what their central claims are, or if they actually have central claims – and I am sure I must have missed something about the last one since that’s hardly unusual material for a horror movie.)
Students anxious about analysing films often frame their suggestions with a nervous ‘I’m probably reading too much into it, but…’, while also seeming to assume that the process of analysing a film is to dig down and find a secret hidden meaning. Their development as critics usually involves learning to think differently about the nature of texts and the processes by which meanings are made. Meanings aren’t hidden deep within, like pirate treasure, but are the product of engaging with the details of the film in relation to various contexts. There is no ‘reading into’, there is just ‘reading’, because all the information is there on the surface to see and hear.
However, on listening to the (admittedly fragmented) presentation of Room 237’s five featured exegeses, I began to think that maybe I was wrong – that maybe there is such a thing as ‘reading into’ a text.
But that is a little unfair.
Room 237 gives us a fascinating if largely unwitting exploration of textual heuristics, epistemological limits and the uneven distribution of cultural capital.
Take, for example, Juli Kearns’ claim that the image of a skier on a poster is actually the silhouette of a minotaur. It does not look like one to me, but when she explained what she sees I understood what she meant. It is more convincing than someone else’s claim that the clouds in the opening titles contain an image of Kubrick, but it is still utterly unconvincing. The disproportionate bull-like upper torso is very obviously a hunched figure in a bulky ski jacket.
But perhaps she does not mean it is actually a picture of a minotaur, merely that it was deliberately chosen because it resembled one.
On the opposite side of the doorway, she notes, is a picture of a cowboy on horseback. A centaur, you might think, but no. Her point is that it is a mirror image: a cowboy opposite a bull-man. And it seems that it was only after noticing this ‘picture of a minotaur’ that she began to notice all the labyrinth imagery in the film: the maze, the model of the maze, the corridors and sometimes contradictory layout of the Overlook. What remains not just unclear but downright mystifying is why she needs to build her argument on a questionable interpretation of the skier poster rather than on, say, the film’s obvious and undeniabe labyrinths – and why she never seems to ask why Kubrick organised his version of the story around mazes, corridors and horizontality.
Part of the answer to the constricted nature of these five interpretations lies in the suggestion made by one of the exegetes that Kubrick was a bored genius who he decided to fill The Shining with puzzles and/or clues. A disappearing chair, the disappearing Dopey sticker, a mid-sequence costume change, an apparent reversal of the pattern in the carpet, all of which can be explained as continuity errors, are suddenly transformed into acts of conscious intent. Which enables you to continue believing in Kubrick as a genius who controlled absolutely everything that appears in his films. Which in turn separates from the dull herd those viewers who can pieces together his clues. Which brings the elect into the sacred presence of the author-genius, who slays ambiguity, guarantees meaning and dispenses certainty.
However, the whole proposition that this is what a genius would choose to do suggests a poor understanding of genius, and of creative endeavour. Kubrick ceases to be a person and becomes like that magical autistic guy in Cube (1997), able to do really hard maths without any of the visible effort the female character must put into calculating primes and primes of primes. Kubrick becomes a black box, a monolith, and only some primates get uplifted. Understanding how texts generate meanings is transformed into a paranoid-autistic hermeneutics, like in The Da Vinci Code, with one true meaning to be unearthed. Or, as Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) says to Danny (Danny Lloyd), this is ‘not [about] things that anyone can notice but things that people that can shine can see’.
Like when one of the exegetes argues that the recurrence of the number 42, the fact that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) uses a German-made typewriter and the graphic match evident in the dissolve from a pile of luggage to a group of guests is more than enough to prove the film is about the Holocaust.
The paranoid aspect of this spills out beyond the film when the NASA conspiracy guy claims that he is under state surveillance and that he fully expects an IRS audit next year. (Intriguingly, he insists that the Moon-landing itself was not faked, just the Moon-landing footage, but he never explains why NASA would do this – although he does dismiss someone else’s claim that it was to keep us from seeing the towering alien city in the Sea of Tranquillity.)
While watching Room 237, I could not resist constructing my own version of its real secret meaning which is also clearly bullshit. The exegete who sees the film as being about the genocide of Native Americans makes much of the prominence afforded to cans of Calumet baking powder. However, he completely misses the genuinely prominent placing of packets of Oreos – next to Jack when he wakes up on the sacks of salt, and then on the extreme left of this shot, clearly mis-shelved behind Jack and the baking powder cans (misdirection!). ‘Oreo’ is slang for a middle class African American, who might look black on the inside but is really white on the inside. Such conservative figures, who align themselves with white culture, function to conceal the supposed threat to white hegemony – especially white masculinity – posed by African Americans.
The same exegete notes that the five o’clock shadow of Bill Watson (Barry Dennen) makes him look mixed race, but quite ludicrously suggests that this aligns him with the native American, when clearly his major domo status – which includes walking behind hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), being expected to sit quietly to one side, and being ordered to perform menial tasks – positions him as an African American servant, like the butlers played by Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
But the task of looking after Danny, The Shining‘s Shirley Temple equivalent, is displaced on to Hallorann. Significantly, it is only after Danny – who, like Hallorann and Hallorann’s grandmother can, ‘shine’ – states his preference for ‘chocolate’ ice cream that Hallorann calls him ‘son’. No wonder Grady, in the red bathroom, warns Jack about this ‘nigger’ interloper, coming to replace him as Danny’s ‘real’ father. (And since ‘the shining’ seems to skip a generation, Hallorann is simultaneously positioned as Danny’s grandfather – that is, Jack’s father.) No wonder Kubrick replaces Jack’s light-coloured typewriter, a symbol of paternal authority and of entry into the Lacanian symbolic order, with a darker model partway through the film…
This is – of course – not remotely what the film is about. And I really hope no-one takes it seriously, but y’know how the internet is…