In college I was cast in a stage role as a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War who wanders into a Saigon bar, is blown up by an enemy grenade, and subsequently spends the remainder of the play as a tormented spirit reflecting on his squandered mortal life.
During dress rehearsals, the director suggested what I should wear onstage: green fatigues, heavy boots, and a green trash sack as a shirt, with ripped holes for my sleeveless arms. He also asked that I cover one side of my face in black makeup, and the other side in white makeup.
"I have no idea why," he admitted about the rationale to my stage makeup.
So I offered this rather snarky justification.
"Maybe the black-and-white makeup is to symbolize that my character is caught between life and death."
Part of the joy of college is that you can say such random nonsense and few question it. My director certainly didn't.
"THAT'S IT!" he shouted back at me.
And so it was that my character's face was a yin and yang metaphor of a living soul crippled by regret and chained in death to the past.
It all seems so silly now and intellectually painful. Learning that such deep meanings in plays, films, and literature could be so arbitrary and slathered in smart-aleck irony provided the same punch to the gut I felt when I discovered the truth about Santa Claus.
My suspicions about over-analysis of artists and their work were further confirmed a decade later in an interview with Art Alexakis of Everclear, who shared with me that he was bothered by those who interpret his lyrics and then attribute characteristics to him that aren't true.
"Say what your opinion is: ‘Well, my opinion is this and this,' instead of saying ‘Art Alexakis is doing this and this here,'" he said. "How do you know what the [expletive] I'm doing? I don't remember calling you and telling you, ‘I've got this new album coming out, I just wanted to get your feeling on this.'"
So I replaced symbolism with cynicism.
Then I saw the documentary Room 237 and my down-and-out faith in the power of hidden meanings and subtle subtext was miraculously restored.
Director Rodney Ascher's fascinating film explores what a handful of sane and mostly rational cinema geeks claim are the veiled meanings of Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror masterpiece, The Shining. One suggests The Shining is not-so-secretly about the near-genocide of Native Americans as part of manifest destiny. Another offers that the film is really about the Holocaust. Another said it's rife with subliminal messages, particularly involving sex. (His prime example will forever change the way you view a minor scene in The Shining.)
My favorite Kubrick-ism, though, links the great filmmaker to conspiracy theorists who deny we walked on the moon. The suggestion is that Kubrick was hired by NASA to film the faux Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969. (He was given this honor because of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released in 1968.) Feeling guilty about helping perpetrate the greatest hoax in our lifetime, the director later offered clues to his participation in the big lie and cover up in The Shining. The namesake of Room 237 figures into Kubrick's covert mea culpa.
Room 237 is playing in New York this month and isn't yet available on DVD or online streaming, but keep watching for it; the documentary is worth the effort.
With Kubrick's death 14 years ago this Thursday, we'll never know the truth of hidden messages and themes — if there are any — in The Shining.
And that's the fun of Room 237: no theory can be thoroughly debunked because the only person who could refute it isn't available for comment.
If he were alive, though, I wonder if at some point he would feel inclined to address these suggestions of coded meanings in his film with a rather simple and direct message:
"How do you know what the [expletive] I'm doing?"
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.