In Iron Man 2 (2010), Tony Stark discovers that his deceased father has left behind coded sketches for a revolutionary new element that could not be realized during his lifetime due to technological limitations. It is up to the son to decode these and use the means at his time’s disposal to device into existence something that has previously only existed in the mind of one individual.
This course of events will serve to illustrate the hopes put upon new technologies by a new generation of film analysts. In our scenario, Stanley Kubrick will play the part of the superior genius far ahead of his time and the generation around Web 2.0 the tech-savvy decoders who are only now beginning to get privy to the masters message.
Recent years have seen an avalanche of interest in the films of Stanley Kubrick, and in particular for his mysterious 1980 horror outing, arguably mostly famed for a writers block-suffering, axe-swinging and Johnny Carson-quoting Jack Nicholson. The documentary Room 237 (2012) presents a collage of theories devoted to The Shining, which range from the insightful to the astonishingly absurd.
The question to be asked is why The Shining? Why now? One answer is given by the film’s John Fell Ryan (2012), who on the blog adhoc.fm stipulates that it is not until now that the technology is on offer to catch up with the remarkable genius of Kubrick. New media is not decisive for all the theorists in Room 237, but a majority of them rely on it in one way or another. And there is more, lots more, to be found on the Internet. Ryan’s point about new technologies’ facilitating new approaches to film is therefore worth exploring, not only in regards to Kubrick but to film analysis in general. One of the most obvious effects of new media is of course that through the Internet, works can be published on authors’ own volition, thereby bypassing the often rigorous demands of academic editors. To be cynical, it is doubtful whether, without the self-publication enabled by the Internet, some of the more outlandish contributions to Kubrick-studies would ever have seen the light of day. However, the impact of new media can also be noted in the ways film analysis is practiced and presented. With the aid of HDTVs, search engines, zoom-enabled BluRay’s and desktop editing it is possible to get closer to the object of analysis than ever before. By dissecting and mapping film to degrees previously impossible, details can be unearthed that have before now existed outside the radar of film analysis. Furthermore, the accessibility of digital video and tools for editing entails that arguments can be presented and quotations be made in the same medium as the object of study, which is something that has previously impeded – in comparison to the study of a static art such as painting or a language-based art such as literature – film scholars’ pursuit of their time-dependent object. As Raymond Bellour (2001) had it, the fleeting and flickering signifiers of film are for the writer always to some degree “unattainable.” Not as much for the digital videographer.
There is, however, a flipside. When the object of analysis and the means for conducting it medially overlap, it becomes easier for the analyst to misidentify herself with the truth. The margin of error posed by limitations in the human perceptual apparatus is eliminated and consequently new discoveries are presented as irrefutable “proof” of the theory. “It’s actually there, look for yourself!” seems to be the contention when yet another video is posted on YouTube of a hi-res zoom-in of a supposedly meaningful detail that has previously gone unnoticed. Analysis before new media proceeded from the tacit understanding that they skirted the edges of fiction. The consequence of one medium being translated into another – moving images and sounds into words on paper – is that the object of study emerges as elusive and that its essence can only be pursued through an act that risks distortion. What’s lost by digital precision is the ever so human quality of fallibility – and with it the prospects for dialogue.
There is not much dialogue to speak of between the theorists presented in Room 237. All are equally convinced that they hold the truth to the secrets of The Shining. And in this context the value of truth increases relative to the level of sensationalism. One mustn’t forget that the results of some of these Kubrick-fanatics are published in the vast ocean of opinions and self-promotions that is the Internet, where whoever shouts the loudest takes the prize. Accordingly, it is a veritable yelling match as to who can come up with the most spectacular findings and push their theories the furthest. Call it “scoop-research.” Because like the modus operandi of tabloids, the hope is that the thrill of astonishment will put to halt closer scrutiny.
On YouTube, one can partake of videos that seemingly take inspiration for their titles from Dan Brown novels. And not unlike the author’s famous cryptologist hero, the creators of videos such as “The Shone Report” and the “The Shining Code” do their best to pimp something as unglamorous as academic semiotics off to the public with the promise of The Great Discovery. One of the masters of fleshing out grand revelations of Kubrick’s work is Jay Weidner. A toiler in alchemism and new age mysticism on the side, he dedicates a lot of his time to putting together videos that aim to blow the whistle on governmental conspiracies through the films of Kubrick. In his essay film Kubrick’s Odyssey (2011) he assumes the role of Morpheus to us the Neos who have inhabited a Matrix-like world of illusions. “It may be uncomfortable, but it is the truth,” announces Weidner before revealing the secrets of how Kubrick helped fake the first moon landing and later exposed it by encoding clues into The Shining. Ideas about Kubrick’s involvement in the Apollo 11 mission have been in pop-cultural orbit for some time, and the mockumentary Dark Side of the Moon (2002) bluffed its way through them with convincing poker-face. With such success, apparently, that Weidner swallowed it wholesale, because by him the same ideas are presented without a hint of irony.
Weidner draws all the benefits of having film for medium of his analysis. Slow motion extends scenes for emphatic clarification and swelling strings underpin just the right parts in order to shortcut conviction through the route of emotions. Like good propaganda, it makes you want to believe, in spite of better judgment. In the context of the other clues highlighted by Weidner, it is for instance tempting to accept that the famous hexagon patterns on the carpet in the Overlook Hotel bears a striking resemblance to NASA’s launching ramps. And when the playing Danny, dressed in a jumper decorated with Apollo 11, rises from the center of one of these hexagons – like a rocket about to take off – it is at once clear what Kubrick is trying to get across: that the Apollo-mission was make-believe – a simulation – and that he was the one behind it all. By running the concerned clip in tandem with Weidner’s revising take on what we have before us, we get all the emotional potency of the original imagery but overlaid with an entirely new meaning. This is film analysis as drama, and it is not without embarrassment over one’s willingness to be duped that one recognizes a shiver running down the spine.
The theories in Room 237 are but the tip of an iceberg. Sensation-prone “revelation-pieces” in the vein of Weidner flourish on the Internet. Among the more extreme, blogger Wrong Way Wizard imparts the harrowing insight that The Shining encrypts information about 9/11. The sceptic here objects that the film was actually made twenty years prior to the planes went crashing into the Twin Towers. What such naïveté has failed to realize is that Kubrick was, if not the one who staged the whole thing, at least clued in to the plans around it. In poor taste? Quite. Thrilling? Without a doubt. And this is not even to get into the link between Kubrick and the movie-theatre killings in Aurora last year.
How are academic educations to relate to this genre of new media-facilitated scoop analysis? They are often startlingly ambitious, being the results of years of research; they often fulfill academic criteria of argumentative stringency and coherence. Add to this opportune placement. A great many students today regard the Internet as their primary tool of research. In a class assignment on The Shining, therefore, pieces such as Weidner’s are closest at hand. Universities are not exempt to the influence of technological change. As they shouldn’t be. Yet places of education cannot make concessions to research that thrives more on chock-value and emotional seduction than on historical accuracy and respect for textual integrity. New means for presenting analysis must be accompanied by renewed attention to source evaluation. When film analysis begin to exploit the emotional force structures of the objects they’re studying for purposes of seducing addressees into conviction, they only displace the purpose of analysis. Meta-levels keep propagating and piling up. What is needed now is analysis of analysis in order to penetrate the thrill of sensationalism and emotional response to videos such as Weidner’s. Maybe Room 237 can lead the way.
By passing off source material from different movies as coherent, as well as letting different clips resonate off each other, Room 237 underscores the manufactured nature of cinema and demonstrates that its means of conviction is not based on rational logic but of loose, associative links. Yes, Jack tumbling down the stairs after being struck by Wendy’s baseball bat does resemble the Mayan human sacrifice from another movie (Apocalypto ), but so what? Does this make The Shining a movie about Mayans now? Even if this is so, as another blogger has attempted to prove, how does this enrich our enjoyment and/or understanding of the medium of film? These self-styled code-breakers of Kubrick’s films would do well to heed the warning of Michel Chion (2002), who, in a thoughtful and restrained analysis of Eyes Wide Shut, notes that there is a temptation, spurred by Kubrick’s stated desire to leave his films open and unexplained, to construct the “perfect interpretation.” However, when film is explained according to an underlying code, it is reduced to a lifeless cipher that does not account for the fascination that surely attracted interpreters to The Shining in the first place. Moreover, by proposing the ultimate explanation for The Shining, an exit is offered where there might not be one. As other exponents have shown, the film itself is constructed like a labyrinth similar to the one in which Jack Torrance gets lost – full of red herrings and dead ends.
Of the theorists interviewed in Room 237, only one takes recourse to postmodern authorless justification for his interpretation. For some of the others, it seems important that Kubrick actually intended the film to mean what they argue. When commentators style themselves as spokespersons for directors’ intentions and the truth, Room 237 can, again, offer means of source evaluation. By compiling and juxtaposing wildly different theories on The Shining it, like a film-discursive Rashomon (1950), at the very least demonstrates that truth is relative. For The Shining couldn’t very well be about the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and faked moon landings all at the same time? Or would assuming that it could not be to underestimate the genius of Stanley Kubrick?
Hampus Hagman is awaiting evaluation of his dissertation, which concerns split screens in film. In the meanwhile he writes articles on film, music and art.
Bellour, Raymond (2001), The Analysis of Film, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Chion, Michel (2002), Eyes Wide Shut, London: British Film Institute.
Ryan, John Fell (2012), “I Look At The Shining And It Shows Me Things: John Fell Ryan Gets Lost Inside The Overlook Hotel”, May 22. Accessed February 25, 2013.