I happened to read an article about the new documentary Room 237, which delves into the wild conspiracy theories people have come up with to explain The Shining. These run the gamut, from a treatise on Native American oppression, to Kubrick’s admission that he helped fake the moon-landing footage.
Most of it is pretty silly. But one theory made me think twice: the idea of spatial impossibilities in the Overlook Hotel.
Apparently, some computer programmers were trying to recreate the floor plan of the Overlook, and found problems with the hotel’s design. For example, in an early scene, Jack Torrence walks through the lobby…
…heads through a set of double doors toward the inner office on the right…
…and arrives in the manager’s office. Except, there’s a problem: that window is impossible. Based on the layout we later see of the lobby, a hallway has to pass behind this office.
Throughout this two-part video, YouTuber Rob Ager dissects the many issues like this in The Shining. For example, the size of the Torrence’s room simply couldn’t exist…
…based on the doorway placements in the hall – all the rooms would overlap:
Kubrick was famous for his meticulous attention to detail and realism, and Ager argues that he must have been told about these spatial impossibilities – which means he approved them for a reason. Were these subtle incongruities intentionally placed by Kubrick to mess with us on a deeper psychological level, perhaps to depict the Overlook as a supernatural structure that physically could not exist in our world?
It’s a fascinating idea…but then again, this sort of thing is very, very common in filmmaking. Movie sets are almost always by nature impossible. Hell, just look at the blueprints for Dana Barrett and Louis Tully’s apartments in Ghostbusters – there’s no room for any other apartments on the floor:
Anyway, this past Christmas, I was watching Eyes Wide Shut, and I found myself paying particularly close attention to the Greenwich Village set used in the movie, which was filmed entirely in England due to Kubrick’s fear of flying (lame).
According to the Wikipedia article, “Kubrick’s perfectionism went as far as sending workmen to Manhattan to measure street widths and note newspaper vending machine locations…overseeing every visual element that would appear in a given frame, from props and furniture to the color of walls and other objects.”
And yet, as I was watching, I began to notice some spatial issues of my own. Could Eyes Wide Shut be part of the conspiracy too?? Let’s take a trip to Kubrick’s Greenwich Village…
Wallowing over his wife’s adulterous fantasies, Bill Harford wanders through the Village. As we go, I’m going to point out a few buildings to remember. First, note the green-awninged Pizza Parlor and the yellow Mexican Restaurant beside it:
Bill turns the corner, passing a Deli…
…and further up, a Vacant Lot on his right.
As he’s accosted by a bunch of drunks, we get a reverse shot down the street. Let’s also note the green/red building on the right, which we’ll call Arched Window Building. The Vacant Lot is now on our left:
Bill continues on, passing Stairway Storefront on his right.
He arrives at the next corner – and wait a minute…There’s the pizza restaurant again!
…but where did the Mexican restaurant go? The plot thickens…
Bill meet Domino the hooker, and they cross the street. Over their shoulder, we see the Vacant Lot again – which means the corner Deli has now become a white-signed Hardware Store. Harder to see but just two doors down from the Vacant Lot is the Stairway Storefront.
Domino takes Harford to her Red-Doored Apartment. There, they have a very brief tryst before being an interrupted.
Still sullen, Bill heads back out into the streets of New York and finds himself at the Sonata Cafe, where a college buddy is playing piano. Stay with me…
As he goes inside, we get a shot down the street. Note the two buildings at the end: one has a Yellow Auto Shop awning, the other has Christmas Lights.
Bill learns of a mysterious party, and is told he’ll need a mask and a cloak to get in. From the Sonata, he takes a cab to a costume shop.
Now, compare the two buildings above to those below as Bill’s cab arrives at the costume shop. The yellow awning has been removed, but they’re otherwise identical. Bill has just taken the shortest cab ride in New York history!
The cab turns onto the same street as the Sonata…
…arriving at Stairway Storefront – which is now the costume shop! Which means he is right back to where he was accosted by the drunks! Which also means the Sonata is right across the street!
Bill pays the cab driver, and we get the reverse. While it’s been painted, that would definitely be Arched Window Building we saw earlier on the right. Vacant Lot is hard to see, but it’s there on the left by the light.
Bill goes to the mansion party, where he is outed and threatened with his life.
The next day, he goes around cleaning up his mess. He starts by heading to the Sonata Cafe – and in the background, we see Yellow Auto Shop and Christmas Lights Building.
Alas, the Sonata is closed…
As he checks his watch, we see up the street toward Yellow Auto Shop – and there’s the costume shop on the far right (now vacant):
Bill is told that piano player who tipped him off to the party was staying at a nearby hotel. He goes to check it out…
Remember Arched Window building from when he went to buy the mask?
Oh, and in the background the time he was accosted?
Bill drops off his costume at Stairway Storefront/Costume Shop, now back in business. Beside it, Vacant Lot and White Hardware:
Then, he goes to check on Domino in her Red Door building. White Hardware is still on the corner:
Finally, Bill is chased through the streets, and we get a look right down our main set: Sonata would be on the left, Pizza a little further on. Vacant Lot and Stairway Storefront are on the right. The White Hardware Store on the corner has reverted again to the Deli. Yellow Auto is all the way up the street, now with a red facade and green awning.
Bill turns back to stare at his pursuer, and we see that the glass Verona Restaurant facade now covers the Hotel/Arched Window Building:
Finally, hurrying to escape his pursuer, Bill ducks into a cafe – in Stairway Storefront! Where the costume shop was!
Confused? Here’s a map of the set…
…and here’s a full map of Bill Harford’s very odd travels through the Village:
So what does it all mean?? Did Kubrick want us to psychologically pick up on the fact that we were seeing the same building facades used over and over? For such a meticulous filmmaker as he was reputed to be, why didn’t he insist on several different New York sets, as the similarities are obvious for anyone who takes the time to look?
I can imagine that Kubrick conspiracy theorists would argue that this is all intentional, adding to the movie’s dream-like feel. That by trapping Bill in the same three recurring New York streets, it’s like he’s in a nightmare he can’t escape. I could buy that to a certain extent.
But a more practical way to look at it is that Kubrick was simply doing what every filmmaker does when shooting on a set. Film sets are limited in size, and you do everything in your power to give them scope, the sense of an outside world. Also, film sets cost money, and rather than tearing down and rebuilding, you try to use them in as many different ways as possible.
Kubrick’s executive producer on The Shining recently said “The [Overlook Hotel] set was very deliberately built to be offbeat and off the track, so that the huge ballroom would never actually fit inside. The audience is deliberately made to not know where they’re going.”
Absolutely – you don’t have to be a movie conspiracy theorist to watch The Shining and get the sense of the Overlook’s incoherent labyrinthine grandeur. You feel lost in the neverending maze, and yet claustrophobic.
But to say that every single incompatible detail was part of some vast but subtle psychological scheme on Kubrick’s part is ridiculous. There’s a difference between very real artistic embellishments, and the constraints of practical studio filmmaking, where space is limited and you do your best to give scope where none exists – whether that’s adding an impossible window, or having Bill pass the same vacant lot three times in one night.
As meticulous as he was, even Kubrick overlooked a pizza parlor once in a while.
PS – There’s one shot in Eyes Wide Shut that I was sure was filmed in New York – when Bill walks by the Village’s very real Pink Pussy Cat Boutique. But I was only half right. Look closely and you’ll see that Cruise is just walking in front of a rear projection that looks quite fake.