Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ as Rorschach Test.

February 19, 2013

Several months ago, I wrote about the strange phenomenon of obsessive viewers of the film “The Shining” discovering alleged hidden messages in the film. In that article, I briefly mentioned a documentary that came out last year titled “Room 237” that chronicled several of the stranger theories out there about the “true” meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Well I’ve finally caught up with that documentary and found it to be a fascinating film.

I doubt the filmmaker believes any of the interpretations presented in the “Room 237” but I greatly enjoyed listening to the cast of kooks who maintain them. Most of the interpretations presented in this film, with only a few exceptions, are totally bonkers. But that’s what’s great about this film. It uses “The Shining” to demonstrate the psychological phenomenon of pareidolia, which is when a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) is perceived as significant. We see the same grasping of tenuous connections among tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists. This is an exploration of Kubrick’s “The Shining” as Rorschach Test.

The “theorists” presented here commit a host of logical fallacies and assumptions that range from the slightly plausible to the utterly impossible. And while the latter often made me want to shout at the screen, they also proved the most fun such as the interpretation that the film was Kubrick’s confession for working with NASA to fake the moon landing. There are so many levels to why this is ridiculous, not least of which because the Apollo 11 undeniably did land on the moon and all the claims moon landing deniers have presented to prove otherwise have been thoroughly debunked. But putting that obvious fact aside, the “researcher” putting forth this notion in the film just plain makes things up like when he wildly speculates that the reason Kubrick changed the room number from 217 in the novel to 237 was because 237 MUST HAVE BEEN the number of the studio where they filmed the fake moon landing? Um, citation needed?

At another point in the film, a researcher makes a huge deal out of a simple continuity error in which Jack’s typewriter is gray in some scenes but eggshell color in others. The “researcher” claims this must be deliberate on Kubrick’s part because Kubrick controls absolutely every aspect of every frame of his films when the far simpler explanation is Kubrick and his crew were not superhuman and they shot those scenes at different times, using whatever typewriter happened to be available…like any other filmmaker would. This example further illustrates how naive the interpreters are to the filmmaking process. As a filmmaker myself, I have at least some experience. But one doesn’t have to be a filmmaker to realize that constantly adding to a film’s budget with absurd things like demanding a production assistant run out to buy TWO typewriters of different colors when only one was required is the kind of stuff that wouldn’t go unnoticed.

Then there’s the claim that Kubrick designed the film to be viewed  backwards and forwards simultaneously, one direction superimposed over the other, which is just flat-out impossible. In fact, I dare anyone to try, especially when limited by the  linear editing machines of the time. And with all the minute details these self-proclaimed “researchers” noticed, one minor detail they “overlooked” (no pun intended) was that Ray Lovejoy edited the film, NOT Kubrick. So Lovejoy would have to be in on all these editing tricks Kubrick supposedly wanted in the film too, right?

As debunkers of the infamous The Bible Code have demonstrated, one can find seemingly profound connections in just about any text of a certain length. In films, I suppose the equivalent would be the weirder a film gets in its choices, the more people can find an unintended wacky interpretation. I’d love to see someone apply the same rigor to investigating Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” I’m sure someone could then come away from that film believing Wiseau caused 9/11 or killed Paul McCartney, or whatever. Of course, the reason that might not happen is because what people really latched onto here is the larger than life mythology surrounding Stanley Kubrick himself. Because Kubrick was known to be a bit obsessive and a perfectionist, the underlying and totally baseless assumptions these interpreters make is Kubrick (1) was an unparalleled genius, (2) had superhuman abilities to control every aspect of both the production and every frame of the final product, and (3) had the fanatical desire to bury important hidden messages in his films so deep that there’d be no reason to believe anyone would ever find them. So when you begin with the assumption that Kubrick is totally infallible, then every continuity error becomes a clue to unlocking his true, hidden message. That’s where these theorists go wrong; they fail to recognize Kubrick was every bit as flawed and human as the rest of us.

On Kubrick’s alleged dual narratives and hidden messages in ‘The Shining’

September 23, 2012

Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining is a masterpiece. I think most serious film scholars, critics, and fans agree with that. But one aspect of the film that is highly debatable is the popular notion that Kubrick layered hidden messages or even whole dual narratives into the film. And many of the speculations about the meaning of these hidden messages happen to revolve around conspiracy theories.

The weird speculative theories about hidden messages in the film is the subject of a recent documentary called “Room 237” that I have not yet seen, and until recently, I was totally unaware this was even a thing. It first came to my attention earlier this year when I came across an article linking to a series of YouTube videosthat begin as if they’re objective analyses of the film, but ultimately reveal analyst Rob Ager’s true agenda late in the series when Ager eventually stops talking about The Shining altogether in favor of straight propaganda promoting his crazy gold-standard conspiracy theory. If I made a video analyzing, say, Citizen Kane that lasted the better part of an hour, and devoted at least a quarter of that analysis making a political argument about the evils of capitalism or whatever bullshit political theme I supposedly pulled from subtle symbolism in the film, and did so to the point that I stopped even mentioning the film Citizen Kane at all, you’d be right to not take me seriously.

Other than the whole gold standard thing, there are numerous other wacky interpretations of The Shining out there, as the New York Times article about Room 237 linked to above alluded to, like the theory that Kubrick worked in a hidden confession about having played a part in faking the moon landing. Some others, like the Native American slaughter motifs and Kubrick’s concerns over the Holocaust even made it onto the film’s Wikipedia page.

So is the film The Shining REALLY ABOUT Stanley Kubrick’s veiled confession of the part he played in faking the moon landing?

Is it about the slaughter of the Native Americans?

Is it about how the sinister elite plotted to rid America of the gold standard (the one true currency…somehow)?

In one word:  NO.

I know the weird iconography in the film has led many pattern-seeking people to go anomaly hunting and find all sorts of alleged “hidden meanings” in The Shining, but it’s just a product of the psychological phenomena known as pareidolia. We’re driven to see patterns, particularly when presented with ambiguous stimuli such as amorphous shapes. This is why it’s easier to see images in things like clouds than in most other things we might be looking at. It’s this pattern-seeking tendency that allows us to see coherent objects and subjects from the millions of pixels in films to begin with. If Kubrick did have hidden messages in The Shining, it almost certainly had nothing to do with the gold standard or the slaughter of Native Americans, etc. It’s just a great film by a master artist that happens to be full of weird, ambiguous imagery and dialogue that can be endlessly analyzed and used to find almost any interpretation the viewer is looking for. It’s like Yoda’s cave; what you find is ultimately what you brought in with you.

Further reading about the documentary Room 237 from Aint It Cool News’ critics Quint and Nording.