Halloween might be over, but it’s never a bad time to talk about The Shining. Or, rather, a movie about the weird fan theories behind The Shining. If you’re a film buff, or just happen to enjoy Stanley Kubrick’s somewhat loose adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, then you’ve probably seen the equally fascinating documentary Room 237. For those of you that haven’t, stop reading, go watch The Shining, then Room 237, then The Shining again. Done? Good.
Room 237 is a fascinating film because it takes some of the more (or less) outlandish fan theories about the “real” meaning behind The Shining and allows its subjects to spin out their interpretations largely free of apparent external interference. It’s as hands-off a documentary as we’re likely to get (and anyone who’s ever tried to study documentaries can tell you that that’s not very hands-off), and succeeds excellently in not judging its subjects. But Room 237 is also a bit more than that: it’s revelatory about the meaning behind pop culture film criticism, exposing some of the more outlandish things that, methinks, many of us are guilty of.
Room 237 allows various fans to develop their arguments, which range from The Shining being a criticism of Western imperialism and the genocide of American Indians, to a veiled confession from Stanley Kubrick that he helped fake the Moon Landing. If that sounds a little crazy…well, it is, but each fan actually makes fascinating observations about the visual, aural, and narrative structure of the film. It is an interesting element that there are so many American Indian artifacts peppered throughout the hotel; it might be significant that there’s a scene that features Calumet baking soda cans in prominent display. Danny does wear a rocket sweatshirt in one key scene; the typewriter Jack uses is of German make. There are abrupt scene changes, weird angles (one subject points out that there’s a view out a window that’s actually not physically possible), and the Overlook appears to grow larger and smaller depending on what scene you watch. All of these observations are fascinating; all of them could be used to support some great analysis. As a director, Kubrick is notorious for his slavish attention to detail, and in truth there are no wrong observations. The meaning of those observations, though, is open for debate, and for the most part individual aspects of the film are nowhere near as significant as these fans seems to think.
The problem is that every subject of Room 237 believes that they are not just offering an interpretation of a film; they believe that they are offering the only interpretation of a film. They are entrenched in whatever their pet theory happens to be, tailoring the evidence to apply to it and tacitly ignoring even the existence of another interpretation. As most film scholars will tell you, that’s an easy trap to fall into: that you believe so strongly in the perspective that you’re presenting that there’s no room for any other viewpoint. What’s more, as my good friend Trey Lawson pointed out, the interpretations all make a very bold claim to know what Stanley Kubrick intended with The Shining.
Now, I’ve talked about my feelings on authorial intent before, but in all honesty Room 237 demonstrates the problems with this more clearly than almost any argument I could make. Because the people in Room 237 who believe they know what Kubrick intended are disproven by the sole fact that there are so many of them. Did Kubrick really “intend” to confess to faking the Moon Landing? Did he intend to make a movie about genocide, or about feminism, or about the Holocaust? Or was this film really about race? Obsessive art? He can’t have intended for all of those, so which one is right? Any one of the subjects would of course say that they are right and everyone else is wrong. And therein lies the problem of authorial intent, a problem that even some of the most intelligent film critics still seem to make. If you can claim to know a director’s intentions based on a film – ignoring the contributions of other writers, actors, artists, and designers – then what happens when everyone else claims something different? Whose interpretation is correct?
I hope everyone takes Room 237 as a cautionary tale. Do many of these fans sound a touch crazy, making claims on scant evidence? Do they appear to be making massive assumptions about what a director can intend? Well, the next time we presume to know what Alfred Hitchcock meant when he made Vertigo, or what Roman Polanski “intended” with Rosemary’s Baby, we should take a very big step back and consider what we’re saying. After all, it’s not any less crazy than faking the Moon Landing, now is it?