For a horror movie, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) isn’t all that scary. Its climactic sequence—in which Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), the deranged caretaker of a remote skiing hotel, chases Wendy (Shelley Duvall), his terrified wife, with an ax—was being parodied on late-night TV almost as soon as the movie came out. But there is one moment that never fails to creep me out. It’s when Wendy finds the writing project her husband has been laboring over for weeks and discovers that his typed manuscript, hundreds of pages, contains nothing but endless repetition of the phrase All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. As she thumbs through the stacked pages in horror, one sees that the typist has lost the meaning of the words entirely and begun shaping them into designs.
Of course, design was integral to Kubrick’s work—not just production design, which he labored over for months or even years, but visual design and, more broadly, the way systems operate and then break down (the latter can be traced all the way back to the intricate heist of his first great film, The Killing). Kubrick’s rigid perfectionism and endless shoots are the stuff of legend, so much so that a cult has grown up around his powers of deliberation. Room 237, a documentary by Rodney Ascher that opens Friday at Music Box, explores the outer limits of that cult with scenes from The Shining and voice-over commentary from five Kubrick aficionados who propose various hidden themes in the movie: it’s about the Holocaust, about the genocide of Native Americans, about Kubrick’s rumored collaboration with the U.S. government to fabricate the Apollo 11 moon landing. These people have watched the movie over and over, studying every frame. Some of them, you suspect, need to go out and play.
Such is the hypnosis Kubrick conjures with his gliding camera (The Shining was one of the first movies to utilize the new Steadicam device), fiercely symmetrical compositions, and minutely realized sets. The Shining was shot over six months at EMI Elstree Studios in England, where Warner Bros. had bankrolled the construction of a giant hotel set taking up every soundstage in the building. The lobby was more than two stories tall, and the rooms and hallways were all built continuously, which enhanced the claustrophobic sense of a hotel so high in the Rockies it must shut down during the winter. Kubrick biographer Alexander Walker, who got a chance to tour the set, described it as “a spacious yet enclosed habitation. It felt like an actual hotel, not a movie set open to overhead lighting racks and ‘breakaway’ walls that collapsed when accommodating camera setups.” One of the movie’s trippiest shots closely follows the couple’s little boy, Danny (Danny Lloyd), as he tools around and around the hotel on his Big Wheel.
To create this little world, Kubrick sent researchers to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, which had inspired Stephen King to write his best-selling novel. They spent two to three months documenting every inch of the place, even exploring the area’s history at the Colorado State Archives. As Walker reports in his book Stanley Kubrick, Director, the set dressing back in England was so faithful that the milk cartons and butter packs in the storerooms were labeled for actual Denver supermarkets. Once the cameras began rolling, Kubrick redirected his mania for detail toward the actors, putting them through take after take until each scene had been worked out to his satisfaction. During the production, Kubrick’s teenage daughter, Vivian, shot a highly revealing on-set documentary (available as a DVD extra) that shows Kubrick coaching and pressuring Nicholson and, especially, Duvall. As Nicholson explains at one point, the original shooting script has long since been replaced by a continual stream of rewrites from Kubrick and his cowriter, Diane Johnson.
Given this level of focus, you can understand why some of the commenters in Room 237 take film auteurism to its logical extreme, refusing to believe that anything Kubrick committed to celluloid was random or accidental. Continuity errors become clues: the fact that a chair appears behind Jack in one shot and then disappears after a reaction shot of Wendy is offered as evidence that Kubrick is parodying low-budget horror movies. And get this: when Kubrick zooms in on Danny, he passes through an open door decorated with peel-off stickers of cartoon characters, the most prominent of which is Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, yet in a later scene, after Danny has experienced a psychic vision (the “shining” of the title), the Dopey sticker is gone. Certainly in the course of a six-month shoot, a sticker might fall off a door, but critic Geoffrey Cocks doesn’t think so: “I think what Kubrick is saying is, before, Danny had no idea about the world. And now he knows—he’s no longer a dope about things.”
Of the five contributors (none of whom appears onscreen), Cocks has the most sustained case to make about The Shining; author of the book The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, & the Holocaust, he argues that the director, who wanted to make a film about the Holocaust but never did, invested The Shining with numerous references to it. Jack Torrance types away at a German typewriter, an Adler (though even Cocks admits that in one scene the typewriter is white and in another it’s gray—whoops). Before chopping through Wendy’s bathroom door, Jack bellows, “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your door in!”—a line from Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs (1933), which was rapped by some critics for its anti-Semitic undertones. Even more ingeniously, Cocks argues, Kubrick takes advantage of a cross-fade between two long shots to superimpose a standing group of hotel guests against a pile of suitcases; Ascher compares this momentary image with an archival photo of stacked suitcases from one of the death camps.
In this sort of symbolist hothouse, the number of the haunted hotel room in The Shining must be charged with significance. Danny tells his parents about the strange things he’s seen in the room, which Stephen King called Room 217 but Kubrick renamed Room 237. The reason for this, or so the story goes, is that the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, which Kubrick used for his exterior shots of the hotel, had a Room 217 and was afraid guests would connect it with the movie. But the commenters in Room 237 don’t buy this explanation. For Cocks the real answer lies in multiplying 2 x 3 x 7 to get 42—a clear reference to 1942, the year Hitler moved forward with the final solution. For Jay Weidner, who thinks that Kubrick helped NASA stage the Apollo 11 moon landing for television broadcast, the room number refers to the average distance from earth to the moon, which is 237,000 miles. (Actually 238,857, but what’s 1,857 miles among friends?)
To Ascher’s credit, he presents all this in a spirit of fun and discovery, drawing clips not only from The Shining but from Kubrick’s Lolita, Barry Lyndon, and, hilariously, Eyes Wide Shut (which includes a scene of Tom Cruise strolling past a movie theater and inspecting a poster for The Shining). Some of the theories in Room 237 are far-fetched (journalist Bill Blakemore sees shelved cans of Calumet Baking Powder, whose label shows the profile of an Indian chief, as proof that Jack represents the annihilators of the Native American people), and some of the clues go nowhere at all (novelist Julie Kearns points out that a wall poster of a skier is highly suggestive of a minotaur). But by the end of the documentary, when the art deco patterns on the carpeting are being cited as images of sexual intercourse and genetic science, the plenitude of theories begins to suck you in. The climactic chase scene of The Shining ends in a giant topiary maze, which is a pretty apt metaphor for our own study of the film.
The one commentator who may have something, however, is Kearns, who was so intrigued by the set design that she tried to map out the entire hotel based on what she could see onscreen. In doing so she discovered that the little pumpkin-colored office where Jack sits for his job interview early in the movie has a sunlit window that, based on the room’s location in the floor plan, couldn’t exist because there’s no exterior wall. As blogger John Fell Ryan points out, “The set is so completely plastic that its contradictions pile up in your mind.” Subliminally, this may contribute to the sense of unease that pervades The Shining, though nothing would make Kubrick fanatics more uneasy than the idea that their godlike genius may have goofed up. Auteurists are a lot like theists, except that theists cite the design of the universe as proof there’s a creator and auteurists sometimes get it the other way around.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct location of the Stanley Hotel: Estes Park, Colorado.