How many times have you seen your favourite film? Rodney Ascher has seen his, The Shining, 16 times; that is “if you mean forwards, while listening to the sound at regular speed.” He'll get another chance when it's reissued in cinemas this weekend. As if this were not sufficient proof of Ascher's obsession, Room 237, the documentary about the 1980 horror classic, which he spent two years making, is currently showing in cinemas nationwide.
Ostensibly, The Shining is a film about Jack Torrence (played by Jack Nicholson), a writer who takes on a caretaker position in the snowed-in and haunted Overlook Hotel in order to work on his book. The solitude drives Jack slowly insane, culminating in a maniacal attempted axe attack on his family.
But what is the film really about? Alternative interpretations explored in Room 237 (named after the Overlook’s most haunted room), range from impossible architecture, to parallels with the Native American genocide and the theory that The Shining is Kubrick’s coded mea culpa for his role in faking the 1969 moon landings. If you pay close enough attention, the theory goes, you will notice clues, including an Apollo 11 sweater worn by Jack’s son Danny and several stuffed bears representing the Soviet threat. Convinced, yet?
Like rare psychotropic fungi growing in the basement, alternative film theories thrive best in the darkest, dankest, most seldom visited corners of the internet. Asher’s film was initially inspired when a colleague showed him an online article about The Shining. He soon discovered this was merely the tip of the Kubrickenalia iceberg. “We thought if there’s one or two things out there maybe we’ll do a twenty minute short, but there’s a hundred things.”
Similarly, it was on an obscure internet message board that someone’s hunch that the events of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off may only exist in the mind of Cameron, Bueller's best friend, took root, that Labyrinth became all about menstruation and X-Men was revealed as a riff on the Civil Rights Movement, in which Sir Ian McKellen is an unconventional casting choice for Malcolm X.
Wacky film analyses are now so numerous they have their own sub-categories. There are the films which are really all a dream (Minority Report, Total Recall, Taxi Driver), the films which convert children to an extreme ideology (beware Communist propaganda The Muppets and environmentalist manifesto The Lorax) and then there are the films that are in fact live action sequels of cult comic strip Calvin & Hobbes (okay, that’s just Fight Club).
Some films, like Donnie Darko and Mulholland Drive have spawned enough competing fan lore to fill several websites exclusively dedicated to debunking and propagating. Jason MacNeil, who runs thematrix101.com, a site about the 1999 sci-fi and its sequels, believes film-based conspiracy theories are as much a product of their societies as the films they reference. “The Matrix came out in 1999, and there was a lot of paranoia about the millennium, about machinery, about our information systems no longer being dependable, once 2000 rolled around. The plot of the movie played off the prevailing anxieties of that time.”
The prevailing anxieties of parents, particularly far-right Christian parents, seem to be the source of the most persistent film conspiracy theory - the movie industry’s equivalent of satanic messages hidden in heavy metal records. This is the notion that disgruntled Disney employees have included single pornographic frames in their feature animations. Is the word “sex” really spelt out by the clouds in The Lion King? Is Aladdin enjoining teenagers to strip? Is the priest that marries Ariel and Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid really concealing an erection?
Clearly, there is no end to what a film fan with a fevered imagination and a DVD remote control might read into a director’s intentions. But, says Ascher, there is nothing so implausible about an artist wanting to communicate a message and experimenting with the means of doing so. “The Shining was made at the dawn of the home entertainment revolution, which reinforces the idea that it would make sense to pack into this movie things that would reward multiple viewings…I would hope that [Kubrick] would appreciate that what we’re doing is testament to the fact that thirty-some years later his movie continues to upset, scare, entertain and puzzle us; that we all see it as something important enough to want to spend so much time understanding.”
And it wasn’t just Kubrick. Hitchcock famously played the central role in a career-long game of Where’s Wally with his fans, while subliminal techniques borrowed from advertising were widespread in the films of the late 50s and pop up again in later films including The Exorcist and Fight Club. Perhaps including hidden messages for viewers is not so much evidence of malevolent intent, as a filmmaker at the height of his or her powers?
Yet, there is still a risk of getting carried away and as The Shining helpfully reminds us, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. “I spent so much of the time sitting at a keyboard alone at my house, hoping that my wife and kid weren’t going to try and disturb me,” says Ascher of his own work practices during the making of Room 237, “Afraid that what I was doing was meaningless gibberish.”
Audiences can sift the meaningful from the gibberish themselves, by watching Ascher's film after catching a screening of The Shining on the big screen. Very nice of the BFI to re-release The Shining the weekend after Room 237 came out. “Yes,” says Ascher, raising a single, insinuating eyebrow “Isn’t that an interesting coincidence...”