Albion College history professor Geoff Cocks maintains Stanley Kubrick was a master at creating indelible images on film that force the viewer to replay each scene, much like how a coach rewinds and replays a game or practice for bits of information. Instead of trying to interpret why a play worked or failed in competition, however, Cocks intensely analyzes the visual elements in Kubrick's films to decode a deeper message.
In Rodney Ascher's Room 237, which made its debut Jan. 23 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Cocks provides insight into how Kubrick's use of objects, numbers, colors, and music in the 1980 classic The Shining relate to the Holocaust.
"I saw The Shining because I had seen an ad on television and it was a striking scene," said Cocks, who made the trip to the Utah ski resort town. "One of the things Kubrick is good at is creating images that stick with you because they get at something elemental about whatever it is he's portraying. I couldn't stop thinking about it, thinking in particular, 'There was a lot going on there that I missed.' I went back and watched the film and all of a sudden all of these details began coming to my attention. You can watch that film 150 times and you're still going to find something you missed because Kubrick would spend so much time researching in making a film. His scenes are filled with information - visual information, oral information.
"Having a DVD with the ability to freeze the frame has made this much easier," Cocks added. "Kubrick would shoot most of his scenes with a great deal of depth of field, which means everything - from the front of the shot to the back of the shot - is in focus. There is lots of space behind the main action to put things for people to see."
In The Shining, Cocks maintains that images of a German typewriter and a shirt sporting the number 42 worn by one of the characters, as well as certain selections of music referring to the age of fascism, all refer to the year 1942, a defining period of the Holocaust. At the Wannsee Conference in January of that year, the Nazis convened to finalize a solution for what they would call the Jewish question. Cocks added that in constructing The Shining as a dream, Kubrick was expressing his artistic and personal reservations about a dark subject matter that he believed would be trivialized on film.
"Kubrick said on one occasion that probably what he most wanted to make was a film about the Holocaust," said Cocks, author of The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust. "I went back and looked at other Kubrick films and found the same sort of patterns of reference, sort of approach avoidance. I think he thought film is not an appropriate medium for the Holocaust in that it trivialized it too much. What I think happened - both consciously and unconsciously - Kubrick indirectly put messages in his films because that would avoid the problem of addressing it directly, which was personally threatening to him.
"I was able to use my background in Freudian psychoanalysis to understand the way in which The Shining is constructed like a dream," Cocks continued. "Kubrick was a big fan of Freud and he used a Freudian text in writing the screenplay for The Shining. What Freudian dream theory says is important is that in dreams and nightmares you get manifestations of unconscious content. The things that are most threatening, most dangerous, most malevolent are the things that are most deeply repressed, and so they come out in the most disguised form. The things that are indicative of great horrors in the past - rather than the horror of this story - are going to be represented in small elements of the picture that is projected by the dream. This is another reason why the Holocaust subtext in The Shining appears only indirectly, through objects, colors, and music."
At Sundance, Cocks walked the red carpet with ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, who in the film presents his theory about how The Shining's visual elements relate to the genocide of Native Americans. After the documentary's premiere, the two participated in a question-and-answer session.
While Cocks is never seen nor identified during the documentary - his voice is heard explaining visual elements Ascher selects from The Shining and other Kubrick films - he said the film was well received at the film festival and he enjoyed his experience.
"I was gratified to see that what Bill and I were saying, and how it was accompanied by the film clips [Ascher] chose, gave our ideas a fair representation and hearing," said Cocks, "The film is very cleverly and effectively done and it will appeal to people who like films. Ascher is really good at bringing images together.
"It was really a kick to be there. I had never been to a film festival, and this is quite a spectacular one in a beautiful setting in the mountains," Cocks added. "The audience was positive about the film and about Bill's presentations and my presentations. Bill and I had a good time talking not only about the film, but about history and journalism. The connection between history and journalism is quite significant because you have to consider an often complex variety of factors and essentially tell the history of something."