Think Jack Torrance was tormented by inner demons in “The Shining”? Compared to the fixated folks in “Room 237,” he’s as mellow as Mister Rogers on quaaludes.
Stanley Kubrick’s films are many things, but “cut-and-dried” is not one of them. They are, however, ferociously polarizing. The epic majesty of many classic scenes, like the Star Child’s final emergence in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” has induced millions of jaws to drop, eyes to tear up, and spines to shiver. But Kubrick’s frequent placement of cryptic ambiguities and unexplained symbols has also prompted hair-pulling frustration. What does it all mean, and why can’t I get the pieces to fit?
By fashioning his films as seemingly unsolvable Rubik’s Cubes, is Kubrick reveling in sadism, unleashing visual bugs to burrow into your brain and plant a psychic itch that can’t be scratched? Or is he a demanding professor, forcing pupils to flex their mental muscles using his baffling brain games?
“Room 237,” Rodney Ascher’s documentary exploring the many theories, explanations, and interpretations surrounding Kubrick’s 1980 horror film “The Shining,” doesn’t answer these questions. If anything, it pulls viewers further into the director’s deep abyss of haunting riddles. Struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder and unable to just “let things go?” Then proceed with caution. This magnetic mind-f**k of a film might prove your gateway to full-blown insanity.
“Room 237” cracks open the imaginative minds of five “Shining” fanatics. Like the oceans of blood oozing from the Overlook Hotel’s evil elevators, their complex theories come pouring out in waves of impassioned conversation.
Does the film’s prominently featured German typewriter suggest a deeply hidden subtext involving the Nazi Holocaust? Was the moon landing was actually a fraud, covertly filmed by Kubrick on a movie sound stage? What’s the meaning behind Hotel Room 237, where bathing beauties suddenly decompose into hideous, cackling hags? Meanwhile, you be the judge as to whether or not a strategically placed paper tray is actually the hard-on of a hotel manager.
We never see the faces of these intense interviewees. Instead, their monologues are accompanied by a dream-like parade of connecting images, sewn together from “The Shining,” other films (Kubrick’s in particular), and original footage. Imagine a documentary devoid of talking heads, propelled only by movie scenes that drive the narrative forward in perfect synchrony with what’s being said.
Some will find the film – or at least its subjects – ridiculous, dismissing the material as trivial geek-porn generated by eccentrics with far too much time on their hands. Others will ponder the plausible nature of their elaborate fixations. Most will marvel at – or perhaps be horrified by – the mental death-grip “The Shining” has maintained on the minds of these impassioned scholars.
Dare to join Ascher on a tour through the Overlook Hotel, and into “Room 237?” Step into Stan’s Labyrinth, and read on…
Can you describe your first impression of “The Shining”?
I first saw “The Shining” when I was very young, after sneaking into the theater. I was terrified, and left after the first 10 minutes. Then I saw it again years later on video. I liked it a lot, because I was turning into this smart-a*s, punk-rock kid surviving my youth vicariously through horror movies.
In “Room 237,” you’ve compiled theories on the hidden meanings behind “The Shining,” as expressed by five Kubrick fans. I’m sure there were hundreds of interesting stories and interpretations. Was it difficult to cull it down to five people?
I gathered ideas with my producer, Tim Kirk, for about a year before starting interviews. Some, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the film. I wanted to keep the number of people small, and really go into depth. Not a bunch of sound bites going wildly out of control, but people talking in great detail about the experience of seeing “The Shining” for the first time… describing how they were first impacted, and also how it had affected their lives.
I’m sure there are other films with vague imagery that people have debated for decades. Why was “The Shining” so special?
We always had “The Shining” in mind. During our research, it became clear that that this was the most fascinating movie of its type. We did come across people with amazing interpretations of other movies, and thought about switching tracks to another film. But the fact is… “The Shining” has generated more of this type of work than any other film we could find. Plus, the concept of “Room 237” fit with our film’s theme of a small group of people trapped within “the maze.” Also, I love Kubrick and “The Shining,” and could spend a year and a half in the editing room looking at nothing but scenes from “The Shining,” and never lose interest (laughs). I love “The Godfather,” but I don’t connect with it in the same way, where I’d be happy focusing on it in microscopic detail.
Throughout “Room 237,” the storytellers are never seen – only heard, over an elaborate chain of related film scenes.
I didn’t shoot any talking heads. I did a short film a year or so before “Room 237,” in the same style. I thought that style had some really interesting things. It makes you work harder to come up with visuals. You can create a sort of visual trip into peoples’ heads: a dreamlike quality that was appropriate for this movie. The interviews were all audio recordings – I didn’t shoot any film. At one point, we thought about using a green screen, and super-imposing people into different scenes from “The Shining.” I don’t come from a traditional documentary background, and I don’t think “Room 237” has a typical documentary feel to it. In the past, most of my stuff was rather weird, short films.
“Room 237” uses hundreds of clips from different films, made possible in part by using the Fair Use doctrine. Can you explain this process?
Fair Use is a strategy most all documentary filmmakers use. It’s a way that they can incorporate footage from other films into their films, if it’s used in specific ways. Our process was pretty long and complicated. Some stuff was public domain, and there were some original graphics that I shot. There was some stuff we ended up licensing, and we had to make a couple of edits to get other things cleared. Our producers came on to help out. They had worked on “Hit so Hard,” the documentary about the drummer from Hole, which used a lot of popular music. They went through a complicated clearance process on that, so they were able to hold our hands.
Do you feel that the film’s theories are credible?
I think all of the theories are persuasive and mind-expanding. We wanted all of them to be strong. We wanted it to be Battle of the Champions. Were they provocative? Do these stories accurately reflect things that Kubrick put into the film for one specific reason? This is ultimately an impossible question to answer. He’s dead. When he was alive, he was reluctant to answer that kind of thing. People would tell him what they thought “2001: A Space Odyssey” was all about, and he would simply smile and not say anything. It suggests that these movies might act as tunnels and metaphors, but he’s not going to ruin things by revealing the solutions.
Why do you feel that Kubrick’s films seem ageless, and continue to fascinate over time?
I think part of it is the simplicity. There’s also the coupling of close-ups and tracking shots that doesn’t age. And they hold up on levels of story. I see them as the ultimate switchbox between art and entertainment.