VIFF 2012: Deeper into The Shining with Room 237
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.