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Features Essays Published 12 March 2014

The Kubrick Labyrinth

A.E Dobson on Rodney Ascher’s documentary of fandom and patterns, Room 237.

A. E. Dobson

Driving to the rescue in one late scene of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Dick Hallorann passes a road accident. An articulated lorry has overturned during a storm, crushing a red VW Bug and killing its passenger. It’s an ambiguous moment. The fact of the accident contributes little to the storyline and attracts little comment; it simply drifts in and out of the blizzard like so many other waypoints in this labyrinthine movie.

For one of the fans interviewed by Rodney Ascher in his film Room 237, however, the incident contains a potent coded message. King was reportedly furious about the fidelity of Kubrick’s adaptation, but the director wasn’t to be upbraided; instead, he took one liberty further. The wreck beneath the truck matches the description of Jack Torrance’s car in the novel, and Kubrick was thereby raising two fingers at the dispossessed writer. His act of defiance made it clear who was in control, but what goes around comes around. Just as Kubrick acted as parser of King’s novel, now here, in Room 237, is he interpreted – and his work subjected to some rough treatment.

The documentary explores four fans’ readings of The Shining. For one, the whole film is Kubrick’s confession to his wife for staging the moon landings; for others, it is an allegory of the repression of Native Americans or of the Final Solution. Each strings their observance of baking soda cans, skiing posters, parked cars and seemingly impossible topography into an ulterior narrative, each supported by maps, diagrams, and a good pinch of numerology. Even Nicholson’s eyebrows are implicated, and the hotel’s carpets are surely the most evocative ever lain.

But as unlikely as some of the accounts may seem, each is supported with textual evidence and culminates in a self-contained, logical system; it is fascinating to see these being fleshed-out, the gaps plugged and questions pre-empted. It gives us plenty to chuckle about. Our laughter may be incredulous, directed at either the implausibility or genius of the conspiracies unfolding before us; or it may otherwise be inflected by anxiety, the force of the speakers’ conviction revealing the circularity of rational arguments.

Ascher encourages us in this, inviting us to form our own links and identify contradictions by interweaving these explanations. In the latter we find what Kant described as antimonies of reason. Where accounts overlap – where the same symbols and sequences act as lynch-pins in the apparatus of different readings – we get a glimpse of the abyss that lies between them. Symbols have no fixed content. Their meaning may change not only from place to place, from time to time, but from individual to individual.

For this reason, it is easy to see why The Shining attracts critical attention. His film manages to balance accessibility and ambiguity, its many loose-ends hinting at concealed secrets. The images too are eerie and alluring and make for a highly seductive text. To understand is a way to assert ownership of something we find beautiful, but for all its qualities the film alone cannot bear this weight of love. We must instead turn our attention to the fans’ relationship with the director.

Kubrick had already been overtaken by his myth in 1980. His work seemed to confront the biggest issues in the most bombastic, spectacular fashion; every film became an event, a moment in history, an opus. Through him we see a glimmer of the profound, working in mysterious ways. Kubrick also looked the part: moody and disheveled, his darkly-ringed eyes betray a turbulent inner-life and fearsome intellect – he is every inch the artist. We expect certain things of a visionary. We expect agency and authority; we expect to be surprised and enlightened, for the heavens to shake. When these experiences are not apparent we may go off in search of them, perhaps even creating them for ourselves. As a result, what may be considered a lapse in continuity or realisation on the part of lesser directors instead gives rise, where Kubrick is concerned, to some serious chin-stoking and speculation. Like the interviewees, we may start attaching great significance to the movement of furniture between shots, or to inconsistent costumes during a scene.

The reliance on such stereotypes is an odd sort of homage. To speak in generalised terms of the particular serves only to evacuate meaning. In Room 237, we see Kubrick transformed into a receptacle for the spectator to inhabit – a screen for the projection of fantasies. His becomes the symbolic body of our own sense of uniqueness and individuality, and in our pursuit of this body the audience participates in Kubrick’s symbolic murder.

This is something reflected in the way Ascher has stitched his documentary together. Their life stories and analysis are illustrated by clips from Kubrick’s oeuvre, fueling them with their own vital energy and giving the impression of puppetry or possession. Whilst played for laughs, this also tells of a deeper impulse on the part of the spectator. To fill Kubrick’s space is to appropriate and exercise his creative power. It’s a form of role-play, but also a narcissistic practice: a declaration of equality or even succession; a claim to the other qualities hitherto ascribed him – not least, to a life that unfolds like a preordained narrative, that plots a course between seminal landmarks en route to destiny.

This is a textbook example of Romantic irony: the search for truth – in this case, the truth of the text as revealed by an intending author – itself precludes its discovery; as we look closer, what we seek recedes further from view. But cinema – and more specifically, the way it is encountered today – is riddled with ironies of this kind. With the advent of VHS and Betamax, it became ingrained in the medium. To own a film is to have access to an embalmed, unchanging performance, laid out for scrutiny.

One thing the fans in Room 237 certainly shared was the circumstances of their watching: having first encountered The Shining in the cinema, each later revisited and comprehended the film only when it was re-released some years later. Indeed, a sizable proportion of those interviewed were nonplussed by their original experience; it was only after repeated viewings that their obsession was born. This is something Ascher also appears to acknowledge. The techniques employed in his documentary tend to underscore the idea of an iterative approach to viewing – his use of slow motion, repetition, digital zooming and manipulation of images echoing the power of the remote control. The replaying of various sequences emphasises their multivalent potential for signification – demonstrating how an initial reading may develop over time, becoming richer or lurching into new directions.

The history of art teaches us that objects have long discursive lives; the dissemination of media today merely accelerates this process, allowing meanings to proliferate like mutations in a petri dish. The interpretations that convince us of anything do so with reference to factors outside the text – world events, moments in our lives; they are selected only so far as they meet the challenge of the current cultural climate. Reading-in is therefore inevitable. But where does all this leave the critic, armchair or otherwise? Few could say with honesty that their response to a text, in thought or writing, hasn’t been conditioned by what they’ve been doing otherwise – what they’ve recently seen or read, or what the weather’s like outside. But maybe this a false dichotomy. Readers don’t expect definitive accounts. Perhaps what attracts them more is the spectrum of possibilities – not a guided tour, but a suggested itinerary.

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A. E. Dobson is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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