'Shining' through: Rodney Ascher parses Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece for hidden meanings
Perhaps the most buzzed-about movies at this year’s edition of the annual indie film debutante ball known as the Sundance Film Festival was Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow, a black-and-white feature shot guerrilla-style at one of America’s leading tourist meccas: Walt Disney World. Even more than its content, what made the movie such a conversation starter was the issue of whether or not anyone outside of Park City, Utah would ever get the chance to see it, since Moore hadn’t exactly gotten Disney’s approval to use the park as the setting for his portrait of a man steadily descending into madness.
One person following the case of Escape from Tomorrow with some interest was filmmaker Rodney Ascher, who had firsthand experience being the director who had brought a movie to Sundance that seemed unlikely to play anywhere else. Exactly one year ago, during the festival’s 2012 edition, Ascher arrived in Park City to premiere his first full-length documentary, Room 237, a meditation on the meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1980 horror classic, The Shining. Through a series of detailed interviews with five self-styled Shining “experts,” Ascher gives viewers a guided tour to some of the theories—some persuasive, others decidedly less so—that have cropped up about Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King 1977 best-seller (which, in case you still haven't gotten around to reading and/or seeing it, recounts the horrific story of a family trapped in a haunted hotel during one very long, very scary winter) in the three decades since its initial theatrical release.
But subject matter alone wasn’t what made Room 237—the title namechecks one of the hotel’s more haunted domiciles—such an unlikely candidate for wider distribution. No, the hurdle that seemed insurmountable at the time of the movie’s Sundance premiere was the fact that Ascher had chosen to illustrate his subjects’ arguments with extensive clips from The Shining (as well as several other of the director’s films, most notably Eyes Wide Shut) without permission from the Kubrick estate. (None of Kubrick’s surviving family had seen Room 237 prior to Sundance and, as far as Ascher is aware, they still haven’t watched it.) At a post-screening Q&A at Sundance, the topic of theatrical distribution came up and Ascher semi-jokingly spoke about having a “crack team of lawyers” researching the possibilities for a wider release. Apparently, those legal eagles found a loophole, because Room 237 was eventually acquired by IFC and, after a year on the festival circuit (the movie played at Cannes, Toronto, London and New York, among other world cinema hotspots), will finally be available to the general public in theatres and via video-on-demand starting March 29.
Given his experience, Ascher isn’t as skeptical as some about the chances of Escape from Tomorrow eventually turning up at a theatre (or, more likely, VOD service) near you. “People didn’t think that my movie was going to get released,” he says, on the phone from his California home in late January, where he’s been monitoring 2013’s Sundance from afar. “But nature finds a way.”
How Room 237 came to be legally cleared for theatrical takeoff is a story that Ascher declines to outline in any great detail, but that aura of mystery is appropriate considering the movie he’s investigating. Even by Kubrick standards, The Shining is a strange beast—a chilly, almost clinical approach to the horror genre that willfully (and almost gleefully) ignores traditional scary-movie conventions, to say nothing of the wildly successful source material. (King himself famously loathed the movie due to the liberties Kubrick took with his book and, in fact, wrote and executive produced a more “authentic” adaptation for television in 1997—a version that was met with largely negative reviews and has by now almost entirely vanished from the pop-culture consciousness.) Instantly divisive—as almost all of Kubrick’s films were—upon its initial release, The Shining has nevertheless risen in stature over the years and today is frequently ranked as one of the scariest movies of all time.
According to Ascher, the movie’s deliberate strangeness is one of the keys to its longevity. “A lot of horror movies say, ‘Here's what it really was’ at the end and you don't feel the need to revisit it,” he explains. “The Sixth Sense, for example, is a cool little horror movie, but at the end, you get it. You leave the theatre having enjoyed it, but you’re not troubled by it like you are at the end of The Shining.” In fact, Ascher has noticed that amongst younger viewers in particular, The Shining’s mysteries have made it a more popular entry in the Kubrick canon than even 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“I was teaching a film editing class and I was a little disappointed to note that a lot of the students—kids in their 20s—weren’t into 2001. They were like ‘This movie is slow and those monkeys are fake.’ It had this medicinal quality to them, which was striking to me because for my generation, 2001 was one of the most amazing movies ever made. But they were really into The Shining, I think because it’s a kick to watch. Most people don't watch it because they're feeling literary—they watch it because it’s a cool, crazy horror movie and it certainly can be more fun to talk about a movie that seems less ambitious on its surface than one that’s clearly been made with allegorical intent [like 2001]. And maybe because parts of it just don't add up, you're driven to watch it again and again and while you’re there, you notice stuff. I wasn’t obsessed with The Shining, but I’ve also returned to it again and again, and as soon as the idea was presented to me that it’s not just a horror movie, but some kind of elaborate allegory where the clues are hidden in the numbers and patterns seen in the movie, as well as its structure and even the music choices, it seemed entirely plausible.”
The person who first clued Ascher into the ongoing discussion about the allegorical nature of The Shining was his friend (and Room 237’s producer) Tim Kirk. At the time, Ascher was coming off of his well-received 2010 documentary short “The S From Hell,” a cheeky look at the so-called “most terrifying logo of all time,” the 1964 Screen Gems logo. (The 10-minute film is viewable online and well worth a look…if you dare.) A test run for the style he’d later use for Room 237, “The S From Hell” also keeps its interview subjects off-camera, treating their commentary as voiceover to an evocative collage of scenes and images assembled from other movies and bits of stock footage, as well as repeated shots of that yellow and red Screen Gems title card. The result is so effective, even if you didn’t think that logo was terrifying before, you may feel differently after watching Ascher’s short.
While on the lookout for another subject to apply that specific filmmaking method to, Ascher received an e-mail from Kirk with a link to an online interpretation of The Shining that posited some…well, unique ideas about what the film was really about. “I immediately thought that this could be a good follow-up to ‘The S From Hell,’” Ascher remembers. “As Tim and I talked about it, the idea came up to not just do one person’s theory—let’s see how many others are out there. In doing the research, I was blown away by how many people are still analyzing The Shining thirty years after the film was released. There’s this huge underground movement of people putting the film under an incredibly powerful microscope, which is a fascinating idea in and of itself. Why are so many people looking at every little detail of The Shining now? I’d be reading some of these theories late into the night and the hair on the back of my neck would stand up, which is a feeling I hoped to be able to pass along to the audience. I was excited by the way this project would allow us to combine documentary elements with horror-movie visuals.”
In the end, Ascher settled on five main voices for Room 237, starting with Bill Blakemore, an ABC News correspondent who wrote one of the first in-depth analyses of The Shining way back in 1987, in which he posited that Kubrick’s film was actually an elaborate commentary on the extermination of the country’s Native American population. (Key to his argument are the “Indian motifs” that recur throughout the film, most notably cans of Calumet brand baking powder, which bear the image of a tribal chief.) Also heard—but never seen—in the film is history professor Geoffrey Cocks, who believes The Shining to be a treatise on the Holocaust; playwright Juli Kearns, who is primarily fascinated by the bizarre geography of the movie’s setting, the Overlook Hotel; musician John Fell Ryan, one of the masterminds behind The Shining Forwards and Backwards in which two versions of the film—one forwards and one backwards—are projected superimposed and simultaneously on the same screen (The really scary thing? So many unexpected, but undeniable synchronicities are revealed while watching the film in this manner, it’s almost as if Kubrick intended for The Shining to be viewed that way all along); and, last but not least, Jay Weidner, who offers what’s perhaps Room 237’s most outlandish theory: that Kubrick made The Shining as a way of subtly revealing his involvement in NASA’s “faked” moon landing.
Considering some of the questionable ideas that his subjects float during the course of Room 237, it would have been all too easy for Ascher to turn the film into a mocking look at Shining obsessives. And there are certainly moments where the director seems to be courting the audience’s laughter via a well-timed edit or out-of-context piece of footage. For the most part, however, Ascher refrains from overt editorializing, allowing each person to make their case and backing their argument up with relevant, skillfully edited film clips. And if he believes that one (or more) of his subjects is talking out of their proverbial posteriors, he's careful not to call them out in interviews.
“I find all their arguments pretty persuasive, especially as I was listening to them at two or three in the morning" he says diplomatically, "One of the things we thought might be interesting while making Room 237 was to compare and contrast different theories and what sort of uncertainties that was going to create. Would having different ideas butting up against each other reinforce some while tearing others down? It wasn’t necessarily clear what the effect was going to be. And during the editing process, I’d get very excited when things would work on two or three levels; like, I might take a shot and apply it to a line of dialogue and then discover that there’d be synchronicities that either supported the argument or commented on it in a weird way. It’s not like everything they're talking about was put in there intentionally by Stanley Kubrick, but trying to eliminate any single one in particular gets tricky for me. I can always find a ‘Maybe’ in any of them."
And that's the million-dollar question inspired by Room 237: How many of the theories advanced by these five readings of The Shining can be directly attributed to authorial intent versus mere coincidence or sheer imagination on behalf of the viewer? Kubrick, of course, is no longer with us to explain the specific creative choices he made (and, given his reclusive nature, he most likely wouldn't have done so anyway) and while Ascher doesn't claim to have any authoritative insight into the director's working process, he does believe that Kubrick’s well-documented meticulousness points to him “having a singular amount of control over his work; he made his movies at his own pace and away from the studios, so although no one can control every variable, he could control more than most. I don't think that every choice he made was the result of an idea popping into his head that was perfect; a lot of times, I think it was a case where he had exhausted every other option. There are behind-the-scenes photos from A Clockwork Orange in which Alex and his Droogs are wearing all these different kinds of hats before you see them in the ones they have on in the movie, which are perfect. And, of course, there are the stories of how he'd sometimes shoot 160 takes of a scene. I've always had an internal debate over the idea of that many takes—either it's a case where you have the perfect way you want the scene to look in your mind and you don't stop until you get it or you want to explore every possibility and try things you wouldn't have thought of before, thinking, 'I'll know it when I see it.'”
Ascher adds that one of his most interesting experiences with Room 237 occurred when he screened the movie at Pixar in front of an audience packed with filmmakers and creative types (one who whom was Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich, a Shining devotee who runs his own website devoted to the film, TheOverlookHotel.com) who were particularly interested in the issue of authorial intent. “They talked about how viewers have interpreted different things in the Toy Story movies and shared some of the questions people had about those movies, as well as the answers for why things were the way they were.”
Ultimately, though, Room 237 is less about how Kubrick viewed The Shining than how moviegoers do, with Ascher depicting in fascinating detail how multiple viewers can watch the same movie yet come away with wildly different interpretations. In that respect, Room 237 stands as a unique fusion of filmmaking and film analysis that deserves to be taught in film classes for years to come. Ascher, for one, would probably be pleased to see Room 237 become a staple on collegiate syllabi. “I've seen a swipe or two taken at the film that it’s really just sort of a midnight stony dorm-room conversation piece, but I think that's actually a compliment. I remember those sorts of late-night conversations at school—the kind that were too much fun to end even though it was three in the morning and you needed to be someplace at eight—being something I loved and have missed since. So seeing people’s conversations about Room 237 continue after the film, whether in person or in Internet comment threads, is pretty rewarding.”