Rob Ager’s take on the Room 237 controversy

17th Oct 2013


A couple of years ago director Rodney Ascher contacted me to ask if I’d like to record an interview for a documentary film he was planning, which would showcase a variety of people’s interpretations of The Shining. The one thing that all of the interviewees had in common was that they believed that Stanley Kubrick had encoded hidden messages in his famous horror film, though these interpretations varied wildly.

We discussed the project further and Rodney seemed like a really genuine guy, but I eventually decided not to be interviewed for the film. My first and foremost reason was that I’d have no control over how the sections of the movie relating to my interpretations would be edited. When I publish a new film analysis of my own the information is carefully sequenced and I usually try to anticipate and respond, within the analysis itself, to the majority of key questions and points of disagreements that might be raised. But to let someone else edit the presentation of my work would most likely distort it, and I didn’t know Rodney Ascher well enough to trust his judgment.

Another reason I didn’t take part was because, having already studied how journalists and media organisations operate, I knew that a lot of reviewers would simply pick out the most ridiculous interpretations by the least credible interviewees featured in the Room 237 film and prominently showcase them as a straw man way of discrediting all interpretations of hidden messages in The Shining.

And a third reason I didn’t take part is because, being that the structure of the film itself would supposedly be neutral as to whether any of the interviewees claims were true, the film would inadvertently promote the idea that all interpretations of movies are equal in validity, which would essentially mean that they’re all worthless – the idea that art is never about what the artist is communicating and is only about what the viewer projects into it. I call it the blank canvas theory, but as an artist and film maker myself I know that some people do get some of the messages in my work while other people misinterpret them, and most often it’s based on how much they managed to observe and cross reference when viewing the film. For example, if someone said that my feature film Turn In Your Grave was an allegory of Pretty Woman they’d be categorically wrong. However, if they said that the film was partially a commentary about how people often act like they’re in a movie without realizing it, they’d be right. I know this because I wrote and directed the film and encoded hundreds of clues to that effect. Movies are not blank canvases. If they were then people would happily sit and look at a plain white screen for two hours and enjoy it as much as the latest action-packed superhero blockbuster.

Regardless of my not taking part in Room 237 I did actually enjoy the film, even though most of the theories in it are at odds with my own published analysis of The Shining. Just because I disagree with some of these interviewees doesn’t mean I have to dislike the film. And it doesn’t mean I have to categorize those people with the boringly predictable label “conspiracy theorist”. A film director encoding hidden messages in his work doesn’t even qualify as a conspiracy because a conspiracy requires that two or more people engage in something intentionally secretive. A director is one person. So a more accurate term would be “hidden message in a movie theorist”, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue so well, does it?

My favorite part of Room 237 was the section about John Fell Ryan superimposing the film backwards over itself. I don’t personally think there was any intended meaning in it as far as Stanley Kubrick’s direction is concerned, mainly because the film has been released in at least three different run times, which would create three differing versions of the forward backward edit, but nevertheless I found the superimposed footage hypnotic to watch from a purely experimental view.

One issue I had mixed feelings about was that it wasn’t always made clear in the film which interviewee was being interviewed at which point. Anyone not familiar with the interviewees could have easily assumed that, say, Jeoffrey Cocks was theorizing that the film was about the moon landings, when it was actually Jay Weidner who gave that interpretation. In that respect I’m glad I wasn’t interviewed for the film, but at the same time the mixing up of the ideas sort of allows viewers to judge each theory on its own merit rather than the identity of the speaker.

Interviews aside, I actually enjoyed Room 237 more in terms of how the film was pieced together visually. And I’ve been impressed by the broad selection of highly symbolic posters and trailers made for the film. The trailer involving a river of blood and cassette tape coming out of a VHS recorder was a nice little nod to my video Something In The River of Blood. The film makers also used lots of footage from different movies, many of which are among my favourites. There was also a very frequent visual implication of a fractal narrative, of movies within movies, even though I didn’t hear any of the interviewees talking in such terms. And, amusingly, it’s something I’ve hardly heard commented on in reviews of Room 237. To me it was like director Rodney Ascher and producer Tim Kirk were the hidden interviewees, communicating their ideas visually, which is something I approve of because one of the best ways to teach people is to actually do what you’re talking about as you’re talking about it.

Overall I personally felt that maybe 20 to 30% of the interpretations in Room 237 were plausible and I am biased in that respect in that some of the interpretations overlap with my own. And, like most people who’ve reviewed Room 237, there are things in it that I think are plain ridiculous, but those details don’t make me angry, as they do some reviewers, and I don’t feel the need to respond with spiteful attacks on the interviewees.

And this leads into the key issue I wish to explore in this article, which is the fascinating subject of how the media have responded to Room 237. Frankly, I was surprised that the Cannes film festival agreed to show the film, so well done to them for breaking the mould. From the initial reports I read, Cannes was a bit of a dull event in 2012, which made it easier for Room 237 to stand out among the other films.

The big marketing bonus for the film has been that it has divided critics and audiences. Positive reviews tend to cite that you don’t need to believe all the theories presented to enjoy the film. The theories are interesting anyway in that they show how powerfully movies can affect people and how differently that affect can be from person to person.

But something I find very interesting about both the positive and negative reviews of Room 237 is that the majority of reviewers tend to favour certain theories over others, which goes completely against the idea put forth by the negative reviewers that all of the interpretations are ridiculous. As an example, David Hagley wrote a piece for Slate magazine titled Yes, Super Fans of The Shining Are a Little Nutty. As is often the case in journalism, all Hagley has done is rehash an article from a major newspaper that appeared the day before. In this case he is referencing David Segal’s New York Times article, in which Kubrick’s personal assistant Leon Vitali is quoted stating that the majority of the theories in Room 237 are gibberish. However, toward the end of his rehash article Hagley goes against Leon Vitali’s dismissal of Room 237, stating his own opinion that it’s quite plausible that The Shining has a hidden theme regarding genocide of Native Americans. He’s admitting that The Shining may have hidden themes, which goes completely against the title of his article.

Ironically, other authors at Slate magazine have written positively about my own interpretations of movies, one regarding 2001: A Space Odyssey and, in another, journalist Forrest Wickman put forward his interpretation, inspired by one of my short videos, that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is, beneath its horror film surface, a statement against animal slaughter house cruelty. So it’s not just individuals posting on the internet who perceive deeper themes in movies. Journalists sometimes do as well.

Regarding the NYT article by David Segal, I’d like to share some observations. The first, and this should be pretty obvious to all concerned, is that Leon Vitali is neither a screenwriter nor a director. He may have been present on The Shining set as a logistical assistant, but it doesn’t mean he knows why Kubrick made each directorial choice that he did. For example, Vitali claims that Jack’s “three little pigs” line was made up on set in a discussion between he, Stanley and Jack Nicholson. However, as a director myself, I’ve often made thematic use of improvised lines and spontaneous on set script changes, and I don’t always let my crew know why I accept or reject certain ideas. If I did, I’d have to spend 80% of my time on set explaining my decisions to the crew and 20% actually directing. The truth is that a director makes dozens, sometimes hundreds, of tiny, unspoken aesthetic choices when shooting an individual scene and the majority of those decisions are not explained outright to the crew. So I think Vitali is wrong about the “three little pigs” line being nothing more than incidental. The Shining film is actually full of cartoon references (including several dialogue references such as Danny watching Road Runner cartoons and being referred to as “Doc”, and Wendy talking to Halloran about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to find her way around the kitchen). Kubrick did the same thing in his next film FMJ, which included multiple instances of Mickey Mouse related props and dialogue. Regardless of Vitali’s attempted dismissal, it is actually very plausible that Kubrick used these cartoon reference in relation to Jack Torrance being a symbolic big bad wolf chasing a road runner Danny Torrance.

As another example of Kubrick thematically using something that is reported to have spontaneously been made up on set, we have the scene of Jack throwing the tennis ball in the Colorado lounge. This is widely accepted to have been improvised by Jack Nicholson, but I spoke to Joan Honour Smith, who spent a lot of time on The Shining set. She explained to me that Kubrick saw the young actor Danny Lloyd playing with a tennis ball and decided to incorporate it. So, was it Jack Nicholson or Danny Lloyd? Which rumour is true? Either way, Kubrick went on to use the tennis ball again in the scenes of Jack looking at the table top model of the maze and Danny entering room 237. And here’s a quote from the film’s composer, Wendy Carlos, which I found in Vincent Lobrutto’s biography of Kubrick. Note the additional thematic use of a ball.

“There were great gobs of scenes that never made it into the film. There was a whole strange and mystical scene in which Jack Nicholson discovers objects that have been arranged in his working space in the ballroom with arrows and things. He walks down and thinks he hears a voice and someone throws a ball back to him.” – Wendy Carlos discussing production of The Shining score, P447 Stanley Kubrick by Vincent Lobrutto

Also note that this unused scene includes arrows, which fits with the Native American genocide interpretations of The Shining.

So to say that the tennis ball, or any other detail in The Shining, can be proven meaningless because it wasn’t pre-scripted is ridiculous. It’s a non-argument. People create metaphors spontaneously and subconsciously every day in their choice of clothing, facial expressions, body language, choice of words and tone of voice. This is also true of film directing.

The NYT article ends on an important note. Vitali admits that he never spoke with Stanley about the meanings of The Shining, which is also true in the majority of reports I’ve read from Kubrick’s other collaborators. Vitali then says that he thinks Stanley “wouldn’t have wanted to listen to about 70, or maybe 80 percent of Room 237”. Why only 80%? Why not 100%? It seems that Vitali either suspects, or knows, that some of the interpretations in Room 237 might be true after all.

A relevant side note is that Leon Vitali also played the mysterious Red Cloak character in Kubrick’s final film EWS and he is actually named in a newspaper within the film as a fashion designer who had an affair with the prostitute character Mandy, who dies during the course of the film. Considering that Vitali played Red Cloak, the implication is that Mandy had an affair with Red Cloak (click here to see my short video on the subject). Did Vitali even know that Kubrick was going to utilize his name in this way in the final cut of the film?

Something else that conflicts with the complete dismissal of Shining interpretations featured in Room 237, a dismissal which is now often attributed to Vitali’s comments for the NYT, is this interview with Jan Harlan for the Guardian. Harlan, who was the exec-producer of The Shining and Kubrick’s brother in law (which means he is even more likely than Leon Vitali to have some idea about Stanley’s intentions), stated outright that The Shining is not Stanley’s apology for faking the moon landings, but then stated that the spatially impossible layout of the Overlook Hotel was deliberately done to disorientate the viewer. The spatial disorientation theme was featured in Room 237, as outlined by Julie Kearns. If Jan Harlan’s statement is correct then it casts serious doubt on Leon Vitali’s complete dismissal of Room 237. Either Vitali didn’t mention to the NYT reporter that the spatial disorientation theme was true, or he simply didn’t know about it because Stanley didn’t tell him. More likely it was the latter.

Now there’s one particular critic whose response to Room 237 I believe exemplifies the negative, small-mindedness typical of those who are afraid to accept the intellectual challenge of complex, multi-layered movies. His name is Jim Emerson and his review is posted on the website of America’s most famous film critic, Roger Ebert, who sadly died the day after Emerson’s review of Room 237 was published. Regardless of Ebert’s death, I must take strong exception to the childishness of Emerson’s review. He uses hostile terms like “Room 237 conspirators” and tries to attack director Rodney Ascher for having made the film in the first place and even attacks him for taking a neutral stance on the content of the interviews. So let me get this right; Emerson would consider Room 237 a more mature film if Rodney Ascher had set out to blatantly discredit his interviewees instead of allowing the audience to make up their own minds? Predictably, Emerson’s review uses the straw man approach, focusing primarily on the moon landing hoax theories to tar all of the theories in the film with the same conspiracy theory brush. And he finishes with this:

“In the end, once the film is released, the filmmakers’ intentions don’t really matter anymore because it belongs to the audience.”

What a stupid statement. If his blank canvas theory is true then that would render his job as a film critic redundant. Why would we need film critics if films inherently have no meaning other than that which we project into them? Jim Emerson’s response to Room 237 is typical denial from people who don’t want to entertain the idea that some movies might be a lot deeper than they realized. It scares them because it makes them doubt their own perceptual abilities, particularly if film critique is their paid profession – a profession that is now under fierce competition from independent, internet based, film reviewers and analysts. This motive on the part of Jim Emerson, and a handful of fellow “professional” film critics he chooses to quote, is quite evident in another article he wrote, attempting to brand the Room 237 interviewees as crazy “conspiracy theorists” by debunking the film’s featured theories in succession. It comes as no surprise that he does not attempt to debunk the theory that the Overlook Hotel layout was intentionally designed to be impossible (here’s my own version of that theory posted a year before Harlan’s confirmation, and which also generated considerable debate and controversy), nor has he updated the article to include Jan Harlan’s confirmation of that theme in a Guardian interview. He also contradicts himself, just like David Hagley of Slate magazine, by tentatively admitting that there may actually be some truth in the theory that The Shining includes a theme of Native American genocide. Does this mean Emerson now includes himself in the “conspiracy theorist” category?

Roger Ebert apparently didn’t even bother reviewing The Shining when it was released. According to one of the Wikipedia references on The Shining, he stated he was unable to connect with any of the characters. Since when do popular film critics avoid reviewing major film releases because they don’t particularly like those films? The standard approach is for the critic to review the new release and explain why they don’t like the film. It took 27 years before Ebert eventually did review The Shining in 2006, but he was still baffled, stating in his review that there are no characters whose perceptions can be relied upon – he describes them all as “unreliable narrators”, even though they weren’t narrating.

In his review Ebert asks dozens of questions about the mismatching elements of the story, such as why we see twins who were described as different ages by Mr Ullman and why Jack’s body was never found (a detail that was present in a scene deleted from the end of the film shortly after its release), but offers little in the way of answers. But he did actually get close to unraveling some aspects of the film in that he suggested, after noting the volume of plot changes between Kubrick’s film version and Stephen King’s source novel, that The Shining may not be a ghost story at all – that all of the supposed ghost visions might just be hallucinations as perceived by the different family members. Ebert was actually proposing that Kubrick had taken King’s novel and covertly transformed it into something else, which is exactly what the interviewees in Room 237 are saying. So, considering that Ebert put forward an interpretation of that nature in his review, Emerson’s use of the Roger Ebert website in posting a hostile attack on the Room 237 interviewees as “conspiracists” was both misleading and unprofessional.

Emerson may actually be interested (or disappointed?) to learn that Roger Ebert actually contributed to my own interpretation of The Shining by pointing out that when Jack sees ghosts there’s always a mirror of some sort present. (Yes, there are no ghosts. Jack is talking to himself.) Ebert’s comment also led me to notice Jack’s reaction to mirrors, left screen, as he makes strangling gestures, while contemplating having being blamed for strangling his own son.

Roger Ebert’s published review of The Shining, 27 yrs after its release, reveals that he knew the film wasn’t the ghost story it appeared to be. He tried to unravel what lay beneath the surface, but was unable to do so, at least within the word count limits of his review. According to Jim Emerson’s logic, Ebert’s speculations about The Shining would place him in the category of “conspiracist” alongside the cast of Room 237.

For all the artistically ultra-cynical Emersons out there who believe it is impossible that Kubrick, or any other director, have encoded hidden themes and messages in their movies, I offer two more, highly significant, pieces of information.

First, code encryption and decryption was a major topic of personal interest to Stanley Kubrick. Anthony Frewin, personal assistant to Kubrick for over twenty years, describes on page 518 of the Stanley Kubrick Archives book that the 1967 book The Code Breakers: The Story of Secret Writing, by David Kahn, was considered by Stanley to be one of the greatest scholarly works of the 20th century. The Code Breakers is a detailed history of message encryption and decryption, and code breaking was a central plot point in Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove.

Second, and again this is referring to Dr Strangelove, which Kubrick released 15 years prior to The Shining, on page 359 of the Stanley Kubrick Archives book are photocopies of two letters that previously sat for decades among Stanley’s collection of catalogued correspondence with fans and critics. The first is dated March 20th 1964 (two months after the film’s release). It is a letter from Mr Legrace G. Benson of the Dept of History of Art at Cornell University in New York. In it Mr Benson identifies and praises Dr Strangelove’s subtly encoded sexual themes. The second letter is a response from Kubrick on April 6th of the same year. Kubrick wrote:

“Dear Mr. Benson:

Thank you very much for writing such a flattering letter. I am sorry such a well thought out analysis of the picture has to be confined to personal correspondence. Seriously, you are the first one who seems to have noticed the sexual framework from intermission to the last spasm.

I will be in New York for the next few months and if you happen to come down from Ithaca, I hope you will give me a ring and perhaps we can have a drink together.

Yours very truly

Stanley Kubrick”

There you have it. In at least some of his films, Kubrick did encode hidden themes that went over critics’ heads.

So if you’re interested in the deeper side of Kubrick’s The Shining then I recommend you give Room 237 a watch. Even if 80% of it is rubbish, why ignore the 20% that’s worthwhile? And if you wish to delve even further, being that Room 237 only scratches the surface of the interpretations that are on offer, then you can check out the more detailed online analysis’ of the film posted by those interviewed in Room 237. And you can check out the essays by myself and Kevin McLeod, who also politely declined to be interviewed in Room 237, in addition to the multitude of other “professional” film critics who have, over the years, written their own varied interpretations of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. And of course, don’t forget to carefully re-watch The Shining yourself. Who knows what you’ll pick up on?