Upon the first viewing, Stanley Kubrick's classic "The Shining" is completely terrifying, filled with images that brand themselves on the brain: That cascade of blood from the elevator. Jack Nicholson’s bizarrely monotonous creative output. Those creepy twins. Yet upon a third, fourth, and fifth viewing, the movie starts to become really strange. What's the deal with that dude in the penguin suit at the end of the film? And why is Nicholson reading a Playgirl magazine when he's waiting in the lobby? Rodney Ascher's entertaining documentary "Room 237," which comes out this week, includes interviews with a series of people who give wildly divergent interpretations of the movie.
Is the film a metaphor for America's genocide of Native Americans? Is it about the Holocaust? Is the movie really a coded message that Kubrick in fact shot a fabricated landing on the moon? Some of the interviewee's arguments are persuasive -- there are a lot of references to Native Americans in "The Shining" -- while others are sound paranoid and kind of silly. Ascher, however, is utterly nonjudgmental about the interpretation espoused by his five interviewees.
At the center of the movie, of course, is the almost Mephistophelian figure of Stanley Kubrick, who was as famously secretive as he was controlling. Given that he micromanaged every element of "The Shining," from the font on the opening credits to the design of the poster, it's entirely possible that he did weave a dense web of semiotic meanings that could incorporate some or all of these interpretations. "237" is at its most fun when it points out things that you might not have noticed about the movie, like the impossible geography of the Overlook Hotel, the strange continuity errors, or little Danny's "Apollo 11" sweater.
What emerges from “Room 237” is just how much of a bizarrely blank slate Kubrick’s movie is. It will definitely make you want to dust off your "Shining" DVD and give it another watch.
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