VIFF 2012: Deeper into The Shining with Room 237

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I’m biased, but the only real problem with Room 237 is that it isn’t long enough. Talking to the Straight from New York, filmmaker Rodney Ascher readily agrees that there are “enough other ideas about what The Shining is really about” to have supported the 14 hour movie I’d like to see.

That aside, and even at its two-hour running length, Room 237 is pure decadence for those of us who have spent too much time contemplating the “meaning” behind Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 horror movie.

Ascher was aware of the intense levels of scrutiny and the mindboggling array of theories that The Shining has prompted in the ensuing three decades since its release, but Room 237—using wittily assembled footage from an array of sources (including other films from the Kubrick canon)—focuses on five of them.

Some are well known: Bill Blakemore and Geoffrey Cocks both construct stately arguments that the film is about the Holocaust and the genocide of the American Indian, respectively. Jay Weidner has spent years telling us that Kubrick faked NASA’s moon-landing footage, and The Shining is his confession.

Funnily enough, at least two of three men mentioned above claim to have hated the film when they first saw it, but they were compelled nonetheless to re-watch, ad nauseum.

Ascher mentions the “almost hypnotizing” compositions in the film, and wonders if part of the “Kubrick effect” is the notion that, as he puts it, “Kubrick is bigger than me, and he’s bigger than all of us, and if I didn’t appreciate it, the problem must have been me—I need to take another crack at it.” To that end, all of the theories advanced in Room 237 are remarkably detailed, whether you agree with them or not.

One thing that’s certain: all of the interviewees proceed from the notion that Stanley Kubrick exerted an almost quantum level of detail over the final product, which is why we’re permitted to infer so much from, say, the image on Danny’s shirt, the significance of a ski poster, or the fact that the Overlook Hotel’s manager has an “impossible window” in his office. (The latter, courtesy of playwright Juli Kearns, comes as a part of an animated 3D trip though the various impossibilities of Kubrick’s fastidiously mapped out set.)

It’s a disingenuous question from a confirmed Kubrick-phile, but why should we just accept that the filmmaker practiced such obsessive control? Ascher chuckles and points to a recent story on Huffington Post which describes how Newsweek Magazine was gamed into letting Kubrick take his own cover shot in 1972.

“It was a photograph that he designed, conceived, and executed on his own,” he says. “And it looks like a really nice, spontaneous, behind-the-scenes photo, but, of course, it was rigorously planned and executed.”

There are some things in The Shining, meanwhile, that simply can’t be explained away as continuity errors or any other kind of serendipity—like the sudden and inexplicable reversal of the mesmerizing, geometric carpet pattern in one of the film’s key scenes. Kubrick, for what it’s worth, actually designed the pattern.

Equally, Room 237 isn’t really about the veracity of anyone’s theory. Ascher comments that “right becomes a semantic question” in this context, while New York Magazine’s Bilge Ebiri, after calling Room 237 his favourite film at Sundance last year, wrote, “It’s about the fact that they’re obsessed… it’s a film about movie love.”

Indeed, possibly the most interesting commentary comes from musician-artist-provocateur John Fell Ryan of the No-Neck Blues Band and Excepter, whose all-consuming fascination with The Shining began to apparently affect his reality. “My life had become The Shining,” he says. “It seems to be designed to trap people like me.”

In particular, Ryan has some interesting ideas about Kubrick’s use of dissolves, and he went on to mount a screening of the film in which it was played backwards and forwards simultaneously, yielding a slew of third eye-tickling correspondences. “He’s not trying to prove anything,” Ascher says, “he’s just trying to show you something, and if you’re interested in the symmetries in the movie, both visually and structurally, it’s an interesting exercise.”

That said, even if Ryan’s take on the film is more on the magickal side, his “exercise” has an astonishing impact on the more strident and fixed theories we hear. And that happens to be among Ascher’s favourite things about Room 237.

“It was always an experiment,” he states. “What happens when we have five different points of view of one thing? Are they going to contradict each either? Are they going to reinforce each other? I get excited when they kinda overlap in interesting ways; I’m excited when they start converging in some sort of grand unified field of Shining.

Speaking of unified fields (or not, as the case may be), Ascher is still waiting for a response from The Shining’s original and famously unimpressed author. “He’s at the top of the list of people I’d love to hear from,” he says. “If, in some ways, 237 is my take on these people’s take on Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King, getting him to chime in at this point would really kinda close the circle.”

Room 237 screens at the Empire Granville 2, on Thursday (October 11)

You can follow Adrian Mack's contribution to the lobotomizing techno-nightmare known as Twitter at @AdrianMacked.

Comments (4) Add New Comment
A. MacInnis
King, as I recall, said one of his big problems with the film was the casting of Jack Nicholson. He wanted a more of an everyman figure, mentioning current BC resident Michael Moriarty, who would be shown to disintegrate over the course of the film, compared to Nicholson, who (I paraphrase) seems "nuts from the start." He's got a point, there...

But I'm curious: does ANYONE who analyses the film the film in Room 237 actually dig into what the film is saying about male-female relations or the roots of wife-battering? Because, um, I think that's a pretty important part of what's happening in The Shining. It's weird that so many of the analyses one sees seem to look for something HIDDEN in the film, rather than working with what's right on the surface. Danny's Apollo shirt doesn't even count as subtext, let alone text - it's an incidental bit of costuming. Haven't seen Room 237 yet, but it seems bizarre to make so much of a detail like this...

By the by, for a very interesting reading of the film, people might want to go here, for Rob Ager's articulate interpretations (often touching on the genocide theme): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEulbcXkgjo
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Rating: +10
A. MacInnis
Heh... I assume this is by the "moon landing guy." Take some time with this - at times he starts to make a certain degree of sense, and you find yourself compelled; then he'll come up with something outrageously idiotic (like the "moon room") that reminds you that this is a nutter talkin'... http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=nMEq6IjgR04
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Rating: +3
Adrian Mack
"Danny's Apollo shirt doesn't even count as subtext, let alone text - it's an incidental bit of costuming."

Al, I think it's anything but incidental.

I think Weidner is wrong about it, mind you (although he still has some pretty interesting insights). But to my mind, the Apollo shirt has a number of resonances. At the very least it might be a reference to 2001 (a la the copy of the 2001 soundtrack that appears in A Clockwork Orange), or it might relate to a theme that’s explicit in Strangelove, namely the appropriation of Nazi tech (and worse) into western power structures after WW2, which you could also fold into the larger concerns about “civilization” and genocide in The Shining (themes that I happen to think are really there in the movie, to the point of being obvious).

I’m surprised that you’d consider it incidental, but that’s one of the things Ascher and Kubrick-heads are asking you to take on faith, I guess, that almost nothing is incidental. And it’s an idea that’s supported by all the evidence, the lore, the words of anyone who worked closely with Kubrick.

I also happen to think you’re right about the film’s take on male-female relationships, or rather, I think the film is “about” (in some ways) the fact of male violence. And I think one of the brilliant things it does is make you complicit in Jack’s hatred of Wendy. I mean, you root for Wendy ultimately, but only after a number of extremely grating moments designed (I think) to test the viewer or force the viewer to examine their reaction to that performance.

Kubrick’s own cruelty towards Shelley Duvall is fairly legendary, but I tend to think that this loving husband and father of two daughters was doing what he often did – which was putting his actor in the psychological space he required for his own purposes. In this case, Shelley Duvall’s vulnerability and fear is every bit as affecting as some of the film’s more celebrated aspects.

As for King’s criticism – it’s moot. It’s not his text anymore. Jack is indeed crazy from frame one, pretty much. Or rather, he’s capable of extreme violence and destruction. On the micro and macro scale, that impulse is always there. It’s a building block of civilization.
Rating: +73
A. MacInnis
Mm.... Perhaps "incidental" is too strong a word; I certainly don't mean it's there by *chance*, which apparently doesn't play a very major role in Kubrick's films. I just don't think it should be blown out of all reasonable proportion. We can make something of it because it's there - and your readings seem like logical places to go, as opposed to the Moon dude's* - but how much of the text/subtext would be changed had Danny been wearing something else? (Some OTHER phallic, upward-pointing, technologically-oriented design...? Interesting that you don't mention the phallic aspect of that rocket, which connects to themes of male violence and misogyny... I think that's where I'd take it, if pressed...).

You make good solid points, tho' - about Duvall, about male violence; and yeah, I agree - the film deliberately makes us complicit, and it's not SUPPOSED to be a comfortable experience. I think I've finally come around to admiring this film. Hm.

*Do pardon my unveiled disrespect for this dude - I realize it's cheap of me, but I can't help it...
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Rating: +5
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