Stanley Kubrick: Sage, Scam, or Supernatural?
What to Stream This Summer, part one: The Shining, Room 237
It’s summertime, which means more free time to spend outside in the beautiful weather right? Wrong. In 2017 it means more time streaming movies and television. In this series, we’ll look at shows and films that can be found on a popular streaming service (Netflix, HBO ect.) and why you should watch them.
In this first edition we’ll look at Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, and the corresponding documentary Room 237, both of which can be found on Netflix.
The world does not need any more Stanley Kubrick takes.
A quick Google search will yield endless amounts of blog posts, conspiracy theories, and analysis on the fascinating director. You can find passionate arguments connecting Kubrick to the Illuminati, death cults, and of course the faking of the 1969 moon landing. It’s madness.
But the one thing that is consistent across the infinite Kubrick dialogue is the reverential tone in which people talk about him. He’s unanimously considered one of the greatest directors of all time, and you’d be hard pressed to find a list that didn’t have him battling Alfred Hitchcock for the top spot.
Pretentious capital “m” Movie critics, wacked-out internet junkies, and plain old cinephiles can all agree on his greatness, using words and phrases that seem to go so far as to imply that Kubrick may have been more than human (we’ll come back to this).
The point is that if you call yourself a movie fan of any level, Kubrick’s work simply cannot be ignored.
The real question to grapple with is…why? What makes him so good?
Because let’s be honest: If you pull up The Shining to watch it for the first time — or for that matter any Kubrick film — and you’re trying to enjoy it with the blissful ignorance that you watch any other movie, you’re going to be both incredibly confused and disappointed.
Partially, this uneasiness is intentional and overt. The strong horror-esque music score really carries what would otherwise be a rather boring first hour of the movie, hinting an impending danger and keeping us on the edge of our seats. The setting of a hotel built on an Indian burial ground with a hedge maze in its backyard certainly raises some red flags. And by the end we’ve seen ghosts, murders, and a kid who may or may not have a superpower yet also may be possessed? So yeah, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Kubrick was intentionally trying to make us feel uncomfortable.
But even on a first viewing from a casual movie fan, details can be noticed that are just a bit…off. There’s dialogue that doesn’t have any context or relate to the story, characters that are given a name and a role but don’t serve any purpose, and even entire scenes that don’t fit at all into the movie.
For any other filmmaker, these would be seen as mistakes. Cardinal Sins even. However, with Kubrick these oddities are not only accepted but lauded as the best parts of the movie. Again the question arises, how?
Even as I ask that, it seems silly. It is impossible to watch any of his movies and walk away thinking that he’s made a mistake. While Kubrick remains a mysterious figure to this day, one thing that was undeniable about him was his obsessiveness over every tiny detail of his films, and the masterful craftsmanship of the pictures is obvious to all. The question then becomes, why did he put them there?
There’s absolutely no definitive answer for that. Kubrick famously never “explained” what his movies meant or how they should be interpreted. The mysteries at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining will forever be as unsolved as they are enigmatic.
Which is why I think it’s fair to be skeptical as to whether or not this was all a gimmick. Certainly there is both critical and commercial incentive to creating and maintaining intrigue in one’s movies, and these curveballs have made Kubrick’s legacy almost mythical. Any fan of suspense movies knows the anticipation is always better than the payoff, a pitfall he avoided by simply eliminating the payoff.
This skepticism is also pretty unlikely. The Shining is the farthest thing from a tongue-in-cheek “gotcha!” flick, and Stanley Kubrick is the farthest thing from a director interested in a cash-grab. If anything, it screams “ANALYZE ME, FIGURE ME OUT!”
That’s where the producers of Room 237 come in, with 102 minutes of theories, explanations, and reflections on The Shining by five people who have watched the film hundreds of times in such great detail that it’s definitely impressive (read: unhealthy). And all are certain of two things: 1) Kubrick had a clear message he was trying to communicate through the film, and 2) that message is buried beneath the surface.
The key to understanding Kubrick, the documentary teaches, is to look everywhere in the frame except where you’re supposed to. That’s where the message is hidden, on the labels of cans in the pantry or posters on the wall in the corner of the background.
Yet the content of the message was different for each person. What was Kubrick trying to say? Was the movie really a commentary on the genocide of American Indians by the white men? Or was it his apology for the guilt he was feeling for faking the moon landing footage? It may have been a requiem for the holocaust, or an adaptation of the story of Theseus slaying the Minotaur?
What’s absolutely crazy is, there are several pieces of evidence to support each theory. I could be swayed by any of the arguments. And at the same time, I am reminded of a popular meme created as a protest against English teachers nationwide (left).
How deep down the rabbit hole should we really go?
When you go through the movie frame-by-frame, which quite honestly is probably the best way to watch it, even more of those “oddities” appear.
There’s a chair in the background of a scene that disappears mid-conversation, characters who walk into a meat locker on one side of a hallway only to walk out from the other side of the hallway, carpet that suddenly faces the opposite direction, a group of people about to be hit by a car only to cut to another angle where there’s no car, and of course an “impossible window” showing an outdoor area outside of a room positioned in the middle of the building. Are these continuity errors…or hidden bread crumbs?
I’m not sure! It’s all a bit hard to believe. But if you’re applying Occam’s Razor to the situation, I can’t think of any innocent reasons why little Danny was wearing an Apollo 11 sweater in the pentagonal hallway!
Really the most amazing part of The Shining, and Kubrick’s work at-large, is the fanaticism it inspires. Seriously, people have made entire maps of the floor plan of the Overlook Hotel. Entire books have been dedicated to breaking it down. Hundreds of YouTube videos have been produced.
I’m talking about hours and hours and hours obsessing over every little detail, for decades! The worship of Kubrick is almost biblical.
No other director is treated the way Kubrick disciples describe their demigod. It’s as if he’s some sort of warlock, sent to earth from some higher plane of existence to deliver messages vital to our human survival if only we can decipher them.
Here’s an actual quote from Room 237: “Kubrick is thinking about the implications of everything that exists.”
The documentary details a practice of watching The Shining both forwards and backwards simultaneously, overlaying the images on top of each other. I mean that’s just ridiculous! Why are people doing this? But even then, there are some unbelievable “coincidences.” The timing seems almost too perfect in certain instances, such as the moment Danny covers his eyes, and the exact moment he peeks through he sees Grady in the backwards image, whose exact line is explaining why Danny should be killed.
Personally though, I’m not buying it. There are too many people involved in the production process of a movie, too many variables and too little control. It’s an inexact science.
I found a very rare interview of Kubrick, in which he was asked what he hopes audiences get from The Shining. He responded, “I hope the audience has had a good fright, has believed the film while they were watching it, and retains some sense of it.” That just doesn’t sound like a warlock to me.
Here’s one final quote from Room 237, addressing directly the possibility that these theories don’t hold any merit. “One can always argue that Kubrick had only some or none of these in mind, but we know from post-modern film criticism that author intent is only part of the story of any work of art.”
So in the end it doesn’t matter which theory is right, or which message he was trying to send.
What makes Stanley Kubrick truly great? He makes us care about movies. He makes us watch closely and think deeply.
I watched a nearly-two-hour documentary, went through dozens of YouTube videos, read thousands of words of analysis, and wrote nearly two thousand more about a 37-year-old movie produced by this man.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty close to a superpower to me.