Whenever my mind wanders to The Shining, I see it as Stanley Kubrick’s own game of chess. The psychological and supernatural horror film is a playground for the mind and subconscious, toying with our notions of sanity and allowing viewers to vear off and spark up their own theories and find meaning in all the madness. And speaking to the horror genre, Kubrick once said, "One of the things horror stories can do is show us the archetypes of the unconscious; we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly. Also, ghost stories appeal to our craving for immortality. If you can be afraid of a ghost, you have to believe that a ghost may exist. And if a ghost exists, then oblivion might not be the end."
Although having touched on such themes in his previous work as the uncanny, dopplegangers, and doubling, as well as man’s inescapable and inherent impusle towards violence, it wasn’t until the iconic director’s 1980 masterpiece that he was able to fully articulate his auteurist sensibilities into melding a common genre beyond its original intent. With The Shining, he elevated the story of three people trapped in a hotel into something utterly terrifying, chilling, complex, and so psychologically unnerving that it has transcended well past its time and only gets better with each repeated viewing.
"The first time I watched it, I only made it about 20 minutes in," says Rodney Ascher, director of Room 237, a documentary that explores five specific theories about The Shining that goes into the realm of the obsessive. Named after the enigmatic room in the film that because the "locus of psychosexual" horrors for Danny and Jack, Ascher’s film shows the theories of Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner, whom we hear speak sans traditional talking head structure. Their ideas interject and disappear over a combination of moving and still images from The Shining, clips from other Kubrick and non-Kubrick works, and very meticulously looks into moments that help to open your eyes to the film’s five theories.
Ascher’s Room 237 is not a film that asks us to hold any of its ideas as truths, nor does it present them as such. For how could we ever know the turth that lived inside the confounding mind of Stanley Kubrick? The Shining is a film that explores the maze-like complexity of the tortured mind’s unconscious, and takes our idea of the nuclear family and throws it in our face. And with Room 237, we’re left to question where subjectivity and art collide—was any of this really Kubrick’s intention, and where do my personal affinities transfer themselves into his world? Ascher presents us with these ideas in an invigorating way that makes us question not only our own understanding of the work but career of a man whose films have continued to baffle, excite, and penetrate our subconscious inqueries and desires for over half a century.
Back in September during the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Ascher to discuss his personal experience with The Shining, how he discovered these absurd theories, and why he was compelled to make this film.
What was your experience watching The Shining for the first time?
Well the first time I watched it, I only made it about 20 minutes in. I was a little kid and I snuck into a screening. I had been in the habit of sneaking into horror movies as a kid but to things like Halloween or Alien, or these skeevy cation movies and I thought had some excitement and were kind of dangerous and sexy—but I never got especially scared. But The Shining was a different beast altogether. That music the plays over the opening titles, that Wendy Carlos riff, that just makes it seem like the story that’s unfolding in front of us is not just a story about a family but something with these grand metaphysical implications.
And it gives us the disconcerting feeling right away that there is something present there with us.
When Bill Blakemore is talking about it, he’s coming really close to channeling things that I didn’t have the language to speak about when I was ten. But in a way it was a similar experience, imaging the helicopter that we’re watching the movie from is actually the point of view of some evil spriits that are racing past the car on the way to the hotel. And even in the first couple minutes of the interview, the way the steadicam is gliding frictionlessly into the hotel, it was like pulling me against my will into this place I did not want to go to. So even though that scene is almost commonly mundane—the scene of the first interview at the hotel— I was already sort of beyond horrified.
Sometimes stillness can be more terrifying than action.
Exactly, so that kind of stuff just killed me and I barely made it further than that. I revisited the movie not long after on VHS and I was a real horror movie obsessed little kid, so I very much enjoyed it. I think I thought it was funny for a while. But as you age and the film stays the same, your perspective changes. So if as a kid I would always identify as Danny and be worried that the world around me was unstable and catastrophe is looming around the corner. And now I watch it and clearly my surrogate is Jack and I’m just hoping he’s going to get his act together at some point because his failure is my failure and he’s some kind of worst possible scenario version of myself in a cautionary tale that I need to learn from.
Why did you choose to make Room 237? What was the impetus for this idea?
It started with the internet. A friend of mine, Tim Kirk, who became my partner on the film, posted this long online analysis of The Shining on my Facebook wall one day a couple years ago. I don’t think it took more than a second for me to realize that I wanted to make some sort of film inspired by it. I’d already done a film or two inspired by interesting, unusual things I found on the internet and this seemed like a bigger and better one and a subject that regular human beings have heard of. I don’t quite remember how the genesis of, well, let’s round up as many of these interpretations of The Shining as we can find and sort of braid them together and see what that means—it was very quick. Me and Tim spent probably eight months plunging into the world of super deep microscopic Shining analysis. It was interesting because although we started with The Shining and The Shining is a film I love enough that I could happily spend two years dissecting it and living with it and its odd corners, it was a very lucky choice because I haven’t found as much of this kind of material about other films, or even films that seem more plainly allegoric—2001: A Space Odyssey or Holy Mountain or Mulholland Drive.
Oh yes, I would love to see a film like this on Mulholland Drive. But still, there wouldn’t be as much to microscopically pull apart.
I haven’t found as much stuff about those movies. And then all sorts of amazing parallels came into focus and those were always besides the point, like that if The Shining is a story about these three people trapped in grand, beautiful hotel, 237 is film about five people trapped in a grand, beautiful movie and it’s kind of a maze we get trapped in. So one thing after another seemed to make sense about doing it for The Shining but The Shining is where it began and those were all just lucky coincidences.
How did you go about finding the theorists you wanted in the film? I imagine there are many more than we’re hearing from.
There are a lot more. Some of them were important because their ideas have been discussed pretty broadly and if those ideas weren’t discussed in the movie, their absence would be kind of conspicuous. So Bill Blakemore who writes about the Native Americans, his article was syndicated in 1987 and has lived online evermore, it was import an tho get him in it. Jay Weidner who wrote about the NASA connection, his stuff was getting a lot of play and it was important for me to get that in and it was so different than Bill’s stuff. And from there it was just people who had ideas that were significantly different than some of these and reported. And actually, from the first interview or two I started to realize that what was interesting about the people we were talking to, their experiences were also very personal and use their own lives to inform what they see in the film or find a connection to Kubrick.
Yes, and that took it outside of the world of film criticism because it was so personal and people were completely imprinting their own obsessions and knowledge of certain subjects into Kubrick’s work, no matter how absurd.
They’re finding a connection to Kubrick, that they had similar interests and obsessions. So then it was important when I talked to other people it got kind of personal and actually their experience grappling with The Shining changed their life in some small way. There were people I couldn’t find who had written under an alias that I couldn’t track down or people who didn’t want to participate because they were working on their own project. One guy swiped my digital recorder and stopped answering calls.
Why did choose to never show them? It did give the film a different dimension, making it more of an exploratory essay than a traditional documentary.
I sort of gravitate towards the essay film style, I think that going that route makes it a battle of ideas more than personalities. I didn’t necessarily intend that you would confuse who is talking but there are folks that are like: idea A is crazy, idea B is really compelling, and they might not necessarily have realized they were both coming from the same person. And the essay film style lends itself to keeping this movie in some weird landscape of the mind, then the nuts and bolts of a hotel room, an office, a living room, in outer space, or in a sound stage where they’re creating a hoax, we’re always in these magical places in the imagination. I might see a really interesting documentary that has a montage that really transports me and then when we cut back to the talking head shot, we’ve come up for air and I didn’t want to come up for air.
Did you try to distance yourself from these varying theories or did you find yourself compelled and believing in each as you went along?
I totally believed every one of them while I was working on them. Whatever the topic sentence is—if this were like a high school essay—by the time you have a half dozen supporting points it does become very compelling. So of course for the most part I was working on one section at a time, so I’m totally involved in it and what you see in the film is only a small part of what they have to say on the subject. So I was totally absorbed.
The more absurd and elaborate the theory, by the end I couldn’t help but be pretty swayed by it. The one that I gravitated towards the most was the NASA moon landing theory, which was very exciting and compelling and almost had me totally sold by the end.
And there’s so much more to that one too! The way he describes it is great because I wasn’t pre-meditated to try and shape his interview but you know, he didn’t say, a equals 2 and b equals 3, he kind of took us along on his mission of discovery like, "And then I saw this! And that’s how i know this!" He’s just as excited in the interview now as he was when he first made the connection. And he’s got two of his own DVDs on the subject.
Some of these theories are really supported by the simple fact that Kubrick was so notoriously meticulous but it feels so confouding because we’ll never know if any of these slight ideas were even his intention.
Yes, questions of intentionality. It’s one of the big questions of the movie and I don’t think 237 set out to answer that but how much of this is intentional—of course a fascinating question but unanswerable. I think he was trying to do something much more ambitious than the story of three people trapped in a haunted hotel but he would also never want to explain that kind of stuff in an interview. But some of the research he did and the places he went, like Freudian ideas of the uncanny and the research he had already done about WWII and themes, moments in The Shining that seem evocative of his earlier films—the ghosts seem to have a kinship with some of the characters in Barry Lyndon or Paths of Glory and that sort of corrupt ruling class. But since he would never explain it in an interview and if he said something it might not always be thoroughly reliable. People can often work subconsciously, make a thousand little decisions without ever exactly thinking why—I get kind of lost in exploring the area around it.
I also enjoyed looking at the film from what someone said about Kubrick being absolutely bored after making Barry Lyndon so The Shining was just the product of this insane genius creatively weary genius looking to make something challenging for himself.
It’s a very compelling idea and it allows for ideas that other people are talking about—this bored genius trying to work in a new way dovetails very nicely into the ideas about the importance of the juxtapositions and dissolves or Juli’s idea of the impossible geography of the hotel or even the jump-cutting chair. The other place I was going to go with intentionality is you know, there is an importance to what they’re doing but I think Geoffrey Cocks, at the end of the film, suggests that it’s not always even the final word. I watch Starship Troopers and I see it as some sort of satire on 9/11 and the war on terror, but the only problem is, it was made in 1998. And if you’re the type of person to watch Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 with the director’s commentary on, you’ll find out that the director of that film had no idea what he was really making was an allegory about a teenager afraid to come out of the closet. And if you watch the film, it plays very much like that but the director had no idea at the time.
Did you want to make a film that illustrates how immensely subjective film and art can be?
I guess the short answer is yes. The more nuanced one might be that we started off wanting to make movie about The Shining and we might have envisioned something that was as cut and dry as, "People have three ideas about The Shining: Native Americans, NASA, and WWII, and here’s how they each go. Goodnight." But in the making of it, we realized we were getting into much more complicated territory and we sort of embraced that ambiguity and are happy to raise these sort of questions. But how do people make sense of movies or music or art or the world around them? I’m sure we had lots of conversations about related issues that we never directly put into the film but hoped might come out in some way. Of course there’s an experiment when we’re presenting these multiple points of view—well what’s going to happen then? Is there going to be a survival of the fittest thing where one idea rises to the surface and everything else seems lesser? Will there be some mutually assured destruction where now we don’t believe any of them? We had no idea what was going to be the ramification of putting them together and that was part of the fun, part of the experiment.
And Room 237 isn’t just a film for Kubrick-obsessed fans; it does make itself universal and entertaining.
I hoped so, although in some ways it’s very, very much about The Shining. I’m mostly interested in these kinds of conversations where we start to talk about other things besides The Shining. And we’ve traveled around a little bit with about the film and the people that I’ve had the most engaging conversations with haven’t been Shining super fans. So I hope so.
I saw the film when I was probably fourteen or fifteen and enjoyed it but wasn’t particularly moved by it. And now, I have a completely different experience with it, so you’re right the way it changes as you age is pretty incredible.
There’s so much ambiguity in The Shining. Even just for going into levels of metaphor, just on a strict plot basis. What happened in Room 237 with Danny? It’s not known. What is the implication of the black and white photograph at the end? It’s not clear. What do the ghosts want from Jack? What do they want in return for murdering his family? Nothing as concrete as, murder your family and you’ll become a famous novelist!—which a lesser movie might have spelled out in exactly detail.
How did the theorists feel about their theories being weighed against one anothers?
They’ve been really supportive and a lot of them are kind of opening up a little bit to the possibilities of some of the the other ideas. Bill Blakemore lives in New York and I’ve been walking a lot with him over the last couple days and I think at the first screening he was very resistant. He saw a lot of value in some but was a little more resistant to others; but now he’s kind of opening up to the idea that people with very different backgrounds are able to approach the film in ways that he couldn’t and there might be something there for him to learn from.
And had you seen the film projected backwards and forwards simultaenously before making this?
Only recently. When I was making 237, I scanned through it and mostly found the things he was talking about and a couple of striking juxtapositions but I regret not having watched it all the way through because my selection might have been different. At Fantastic Fest maybe two weeks ago they screened it in the theater and maybe 100 plus people sat and watched the whole thing and it was kind of mind-blowing how it really worked.
Regardless of the projection, there’s this idea and manifestation of doubling that permeates the film so I’m sure the projection only enhanced that.
And it’s a story about people who can see the future but are burdened by the past and because the cuts are slow and frames are simple and graphic you can read both sides very nicely and have these amazing juxtapositions. There’s one where Llyod the bartender says "Women you can’t live with them, can’t live with out them," and at that moment the nude woman from room 237 is floating in one side of the frame. That kind of thing happens again and again and again it’s kind of uncanny.