Maybe ‘Room 237’ should stay locked


“Room 237” highlights several theories about Kubrick’s horror masterpiece

Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing.

At least I’m pretty sure that’s what Rodney Ascher is getting at in Room 237, a documentary that gives voice to several… interesting interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In one of the more well-known theories, Jay Weidner — who, like all other featured theorists, is heard from but never seen — claims Kubrick’s use of front-screen projection reveals telling similarities with actual Apollo 11 footage. Shadows don’t line up, the lighting doesn’t match and certain images are deliberately obstructed to hide camera equipment. All of this, Mr. Weidner claims, is damning evidence that Kubrick was hired by NASA to simulate an actual Apollo landing for televised national broadcast.

Believe Mr. Weidner if you choose. Ascher gives both Weidner and eight other Shining enthusiasts an impressive soapbox from which to explain their “true” reading of the film. Each theory comes in long clips of audio which Ascher layers over scenes from The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut and a hodgepodge of other existing films. Kubrick’s reputation as a highly-attentive auteur, one who focused on the smallest of details and the most precise direction of his actors, encourages a high degree of viewer analysis. After all, the man did 127 takes of a single scene before he was satisfied — and after he emotionally destroyed Shelley Duvall in the process. That level of intricacy enables Weidner’s theory that Kubrick was using Stephen King’s novel as an admission of guilt, despite at least one convincing counter-argument that nobody could have faked the Lunar landing in 1969. Actually, it probably isn’t all that outlandish to read The Shining as an allegory of American-Indian genocide either. Or the Holocaust. Or as a critique of the horror genre itself. That is until you actually listen to their arguments.

One theorist claims The Shining’s World War II connection can be found by way of the recurring presence of the number 42: the “42” on Danny’s sweater or the “42” cars parked outside the Overlook if one were to freeze-frame an establishing shot. Another reading purports that chairs which appear in one shot and “disappear” moments later are intentional jabs from Kubrick at scare tactics in cheap genre fare. Because Kubrick reportedly studied subliminal marketing tactics in commercials, his face is superimposed in the clouds during the opening credits. One of the more ridiculous claims insists when Jack Nicholson first meets the Overlook Hotel’s manager, Kubrick expressly staged the man’s desk so it would appear he had an “erection” at precisely the moment he and Nicholson shake hands. Maybe you really can’t make this stuff up.

In a film from a master craftsman like Kubrick, repeat viewings undoubtedly reveal more and more information the viewer. The Overlook’s manager mentions the hotel was constructed on an ancient Indian burial ground, so perhaps the cans of Calumet (or “peace pipe”) baking powder behind Scatman Crothers are more than just coincidental staging. What Room 237 asks, and never answers however, is whether there might be a limit to these analyses. At least one speaker admits to literally mapping out the Overlook’s architecture and floor plans as the hotel is presented in the film. Out of this attention to detail springs the “Impossible Window” theory, which asserts the exterior bay window in the Overlook’s back office couldn’t actually exist given the layout of the building the film presents. Sure, Kubrick could have deliberately intended for the hotel’s floor plan to subconsciously induce a kind of delirium. But isn’t a far simpler explanation more likely here? Remember that Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel was in fact a composite of Elstree Studio sound stages, Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, and Stephen King’s original inspiration, the Stanley Hotel in Colorado. So maybe the physical space of this building doesn’t quite match up simply because it doesn’t really exist. Then again, where’s the fun in that, right?

Room 237 shies away from any judgment of these theories, and while it’s likely out of Ascher’s respect to each theorist, the film also has the unflattering effect of making everyone sound slightly off their rockers. I read Jay Weidner’s Apollo 11 essay in college; I can confirm he is neither insane nor is he incapable of processing coherent thoughts. But Ascher’s fundamental flaw in Room 237 is allowing the train to continue full speed ahead. Ascher almost lets the inmates run the asylum, scrawling in feces all the reasons why The Shining secretly says this or actually does that. What’s clear is the profound impact The Shining has had on these nine individuals. Less certain are Ascher’s motives.

If anything, Room 237 stands as a testament to the power of film criticism, to the idea that one can interpret any film however he or she pleases so long as they back it up with some Greek mythologizing or an intricate understanding of the Holocaust. Maybe the most outlandish of The Shining theories, “The Labyrinth and the Minotaur,” argues Kubrick used King’s novel as a modern retelling of the story of Theseus and the eponymous beast. Among the evidence for this claim? A skiing poster, indistinguishably placed at the back of the Overlook’s game room, whose subject kinda sorta resembles a crouching minotaur. Could this be true? Could the analysis of an obsessive-compulsive director’s work actually reveal a meaning as cloaked as this? Does this theory go too far? Does any?

In conclusion, Rodney Ascher faked the moon landing.

  • If you couldn’t score tickets to Room 237 at this year’s Film Festival, it’s now available On Demand