In his review of the 1984 film 2010, a largely forgotten sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, Roger Ebert referenced a quote from the poet E.E. Cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.” For Ebert, 2001 was a work of poetry, whereas the sequel — which tried to clarify the mind-twisting ambiguities of the original film — was the equivalent of teaching 10,000 stars how not to dance.
If Ebert were alive today, he might write something similar about Doctor Sleep, the sequel to another landmark Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining, that arrives in theaters today. Based on the 2013 novel by Stephen King, who also wrote the 1977 book from which the Kubrick film derives, Doctor Sleep centers on the grown-up Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who is understandably haunted by childhood memories of his demented father, Jack, wielding an ax and attempting to murder him and his mother, Wendy, decades ago at the Overlook Hotel.
The film’s poster and promotional materials knowingly reference the iconic imagery from Kubrick’s movie. For many of us, a child riding his Big Wheel through endless, colorfully carpeted hallways can instantly provoke Pavlovian-style feelings of terror. While critical reaction has been mixed, King — who famously disliked Kubrick’s take on his book — seems pleased with the results, which aims to strike a happy medium between the relatively straightforward ghost story that King tells and the stranger, impressionistic and altogether obtuse mood of Kubrick’s The Shining.
As for me, well, I’m frankly not all that interested, perhaps because there was already a sort-of sequel to The Shining that I found satisfying precisely because it preserved what is unknowable about Kubrick’s film, even as it tried to “solve” it.
I refer to Rodney Ascher’s delightfully bonkers 2013 documentary Room 237, which explores five different (though equally radical) interpretations of The Shining posited by the film’s most obsessive viewers. One man insists that The Shining is actually about the holocaust. Another argues that it’s really about the extermination of Native Americans. And then the movie gets really out there: One guy says The Shining is an expression of Kubrick’s guilt for having helped the U.S. government fake the moon landing. A woman combs through the images and points out every appearance (real and imagined) of the Greek mythological creature, the Minotaur. My favorite might be the dude who makes a surprisingly strong case that The Shining can only be truly understood if you watch it backward and forward at the same time.
The uninitiated might expect Room 237 to unfold as a typical documentary, featuring talking heads plus B-roll of the subjects milling around their messy, eccentrically decorated apartments. But Ascher makes the crucial decision to make the testimony of his interviewees an extended, multi-headed voice-over set to images borrowed from Kubrick’s films, along with various other pilfered visual ephemera from several decades of pop culture. We never actually see these conspiracy theorists. Instead, we peer directly into their heads. This creates an engrossing, immersive effect, in which the viewer is encouraged to sift through the assorted memories and mental baggage that shape how we all view and interpret the movies we see.
Upon its release, some of the film’s detractors ironically chose to read Room 237 superficially, focusing on whether any of these theories were credible. The New York Times interviewed Kubrick’s personal assistant, Leon Vitali, who dismissed Room 237 as “pure gibberish.” No, the Times reported, the typewriter that Jack Torrance works on isn’t German-made because it’s an allusion to Nazism, it just happened to be Kubrick’s own machine. Uh-uh, those paintings in the background aren’t actually Minotaurs. And, please, Danny’s handmade Apollo 11 sweater isn’t a coded confession about a NASA-related hoax.
Well, no duh. The point of Room 237 isn’t to suggest that any of these people are “correct.” It’s about how no film isn’t ever just one film, but rather an infinite series of films that vary ever-so-slightly based on who’s watching it. We all take who we are and what we believe into the theater with us, and this “completes” what the movie ultimately becomes in our minds.
That’s not just true for The Shining, though the movie does seem to elicit extraordinarily primal reactions. I watched it again this week for the umpteenth time, and what struck me upon this viewing was how funny it was. Particularly Jack Nicholson, whose failures as a father and as a writer are clearer to me now than they were before I was a father and a writer myself. (This is the greatest movie ever made about being a writer who works from home. If could throw a tennis ball against the wall instead of making my deadlines, I would.)
I’ve come to view The Shining as a nightmare that addresses some of my deepest, darkest fears: Will I ever fail my children? Can my wife rely on me? Is my writing any good? Do I have any talent? I see in Jack Torrance the absolute worst aspects of myself, and like him I dread the possibility that I won’t be able to prevent turning into that person.
Not that I’m afraid that I will one day chase my wife and kids around with an ax. But The Shining does play on the anxieties that any parent has from time to time about whether they are actually good at taking care of and protecting their children. And it also, quite hilariously, skewers the old literary cliche about retreating to nature in order to write your masterpiece. Jack is, unequivocally, a hack, and his failure to produce anything of value when the chips are down felt all too familiar.
Now, that’s my version of The Shining, which I suspect is different from anyone who isn’t a father or writer. It makes sense that the man in Room 237 who believes The Shining is about the holocaust happens to be a history professor, just as it’s not a coincidence that the dude who thinks Kubrick fakes the moon landing has an interest in other conspiracy theories about all sorts of things. They might think that they are explaining The Shining, but the thesis of Room 237 is that The Shining actually explains them.
This is what makes Room 237 such a worthy sequel to Kubrick’s classic film. It doesn’t bother to continue the film’s story. Instead, it shows how our story with this movie and others carries on, forever, in our subconscious.