Remember in the climax of The Shining when Wendy Torrance runs for her life through the sinister labyrinth of Overlook Hotel, and she comes across that one random tuxedoed fellow with a cocktail in one hand and a river of blood running down his forehead, and he says, “Great party, isn't it?” Stanley Kubrick's 1980 art film-slash-horror classic has withstood some pretty intense scrutiny over the years, and whether that party's great or ghastly depends a lot on your perspective. In its afterlife, the film has absorbed some of the most rabid cinephilia ever made possible by our young Internet, transcending mere moviedom to become a totem for the pleasures and perils of over-analysis.
To make his cine-essay, Room 237, director Rodney Ascher went spelunking in the sprawling subculture of Shining obsessives. Of these, he learned, there are many. Eventually Ascher nabbed five garrulous interviewees: a veteran ABC News correspondent, a history professor, a playwright, a conspiracy-seeking filmmaker, and a guy who puts on screenings of The Shining superimposed over itself and running forwards and backwards simultaneously. Among other things, they told him Kubrick's great and cherished film might be a treatise on genocide — of Native Americans or/and of European Jews. Or it might be an elaborate instance of the filmmaker telling us that our memory of having landed on the moon is as much a myth as, uh, the myth of Theseus. Or something. Ascher's project neither endorses nor debunks these many theories of The Shining, instead simply relishing the conditions that have allowed for their development. It's a very generous, film-positive attitude, and we got Ascher on the phone to discuss it.
SF Weekly: Tell us how Room 237 came to be.
Rodney Ascher: I blame a lot of it on Internet addiction. And on my friend Tim Kirk, who produced it. He emailed me this long intense analysis of The Shining. By the time I finished reading it, I somehow knew this was my next project. (I'd done a short documentary, in horror-movie drag, about kids being afraid of the Screen Gems logo.) I'm really interested in how film and TV can get under our skin — or attract us like a moth to a flame. Room 237 started as a year of conversations between me and Tim, just about art and history and conspiracy theories, and the multitudes contained within The Shining. And we found that a whole community, devoted to that, had popped in recent years. So the film tries to be a document of that phenomenon.
How'd you choose which folks from that community would be in the film?
I interviewed Bill Blakemore first. He'd written about it; his was the symbolic take on The Shining of record. Then I followed the trail of whose-ever theories were at the time being passed around and debated. These were people who come from very different backgrounds. What I found, and got really excited by, was that they all were very personally and emotionally involved. It wasn't just a dry, academic thing. To them this was a very important piece of art to grapple with.
And what do they think of each other's ideas? Did you have to break up any fights?
I have not seen a ton of contentiousness. Which is interesting because you might think these ideas are mutually exclusive. But that's the question: What happens when we take equally elaborate, out-there ideas and juxtapose them? Will nothing be left at the end? Will they somehow come together in a unified theory? Frankly, I had no idea. I find that exciting. Certainly, outside of this community, there are people who don't necessarily agree with any of it.
I'm probably on the record somewhere describing The Shining as a film I could never get sick of. But given the sort of immersion you've had, did you get sick of it?
One thing I really love about The Shining is how it changes over time for the viewer. I still haven't lost interest in talking about it. It's going to take much more than this single project for me to become jaded.
And, again, in the same way The Shining apparently isn't only about a family man going homicidally insane in a haunted hotel, Room 237 isn't only about The Shining. It's about ways of watching, of being a spectator.
That's right. There may have been a point when our ambition was to cover everything that's been said about every scene. But that became impossible. When I found out there's a guy who could sell out a screening of The Shining being played forwards and backwards simultaneously, that was more interesting. Technology has allowed us not only to watch it again and again but to transform it.
So that, and the Kubrick mystique, and the source material, and the time in which it was made, all add up to a very special kind of rabbit hole. I wonder if you think any other film made now or in the future could inspire such particular fanaticism.
It's something I've thought about. I don't know what that film is. One thing about The Shining is that I couldn't imagine a more perfect film for this to be done with. Kubrick's reputation is such that if you don't get his movie, it's not his mistake, it's your problem. But with this, it's still the perfect synthesis of art and entertainment. So, who else? Maybe David Lynch or P.T. Anderson, whose movies contain more than meets the eye. But it's kind of anybody's guess what's going to hold up in 30 years. Maybe I could do this kind of thing with [Lynch's] Mulholland Drive. But nothing else, so far, has generated an equal amount of this kind of engagement.
Have you learned anything new from the audience or critical reaction?
Just that it has been incredibly rewarding. It's rewarding to see other conversations spin off from ours. This movie was also created with no budget in the middle of the night while I was working part time as a teacher and taking care of a 1-year-old. It was made with zero consideration for how interesting anybody else would find this stuff. So it's very reassuring that I'm not totally crazy, and other people find it interesting too. This is not necessarily the warmest kind of project, but we've been able to have some really human connections based on it.