"Room 237" director Rodney Ascher explores the culture of "Shining" super-fans and five theories about what it all means
"The Shining" hit theaters more than three decades ago, but as the upcoming documentary "Room 237" makes clear, many moviegoers had a hard time leaving the Overlook Hotel.
The Stanley Kubrick horror film has inspired a fervent coterie of analysts, many of whom devote countless hours to devising elaborate interpretations for what the story of a hotel caretaker going mad (a scenery-gnawing Jack Nicholson) actually means.
Director Rodney Ascher devoted himself to elucidating this subculture of "Shining" aficionados with "Room 237," which opens in New York City on March 29 before expanding. His idiosyncratic exploration indicates that Kubrick, the iciest and most cerebral of filmmakers, and his adaptation of Stephen King's novel is still the subject of intense debate in a way that critics, many of whom dismissed "The Shining" as a lugubrious genre exercise at the time of its release, never could have predicted.
"The bulk of this deep, deep symbolic analysis of the movie was just happening in the last couple of years," Ascher told TheWrap. "I think it's because on the internet people can share their ideas much easier than they have before and be inspired by reading what one person says to do their own stuff. The ability to watch the movie a frame at a time on your desktop and the ability to share what you discovered, that's really a new phenomenon."
Of course not every theory warrants consideration, so Ascher and his team chose to center the film on five major schools of thought.
>>"The Shining" is an allegory about the eradication of Native Americans. This theory, advanced by ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, notes the location of the Overlook on a Native American burial ground (a change from King's novel) and the various Native American images and designs that pop up throughout the film on everything from wall art to Calumet Baking Powder tins.
>>It's a retelling of Theseus' struggles with the Minotaur. This interpretation by Juli Kearns makes much of Nicholson's character's final struggle to murder his family in an elaborate hedge maze, as well as several maze-like motifs that pop up in everything from the carpeting in the hotel to its intricate layout, to argue that its roots lie in Greek mythology.
>>It's a way for Kubrick to make sense of the Holocaust. History professor Geoffrey Cocks argues that the director, who explored the possibility of chronicling that period in a script he developed but never shot called "The Aryan Papers," allowed his fascination with and distaste for Hitler's extermination of European Jews to color the film. As evidence, Cocks points to Nicholson's German-made typewriter and the preponderance of the number 42 throughout the picture, which he thinks is a reference to the development of "The Final Solution" in 1942.
>>It's about the synchronicity of time. Performer and musician John Fell Ryan is one of the major proponents of this take on Kubrick's masterpiece, going as far as to stage screenings the run "The Shining" forward and backward, both simultaneously and superimposed over one another. Like the history of the Overlook hotel, Ryan believes that past and present collapse on each other.
>>It's an apologia from Kubrick for helping to fake footage of the moon landing. This conclusion is the one that elicits the loudest guffaws at screenings, but to his credit, conspiracy hunter Jay Weidner doesn't say the moon landing didn't happen, only that Kubrick helped stage it later for public relations reasons. As evidence, he points to Kubrick's close work with NASA during the filming of "2001: A Space Odyssey," which hit theaters two years before Apollo 11 touched down on the Sea of Tranquility.
"You hear five very different points of view and the assumption is he couldn’t have explicitly meant all of them, could he?" Ascher said. "But how important is his original intent? Whether he meant it or not these are all still interesting. A lot of what these people are saying draws on his personal history, so it's hard for me to eliminate any one theory categorically."
One choice Ascher did make, and it's a radical one, was not to show any of his five talking heads on screen. Their voices seep into one another. Their theories are illustrated with historical footage, shots of Kubrick on the set and moments from "The Shining" itself. The scene of the young boy in the film, pushing his three-wheeler through the vertiginous hallways of the Overlook, becomes an extended visual metaphor for these people's attempts to feel their way through "The Shining"s' layers of meaning.
It was a method Ascher employed on a previous short film, 2010's "The S From Hell." As with that project, he conducted the interviews for "Room 237" remotely via Skype and by mailing digital recorders to participants. However, he said he never felt the need to go back and film the interviews to include in the final product.
"If I didn't have the talking head to return to, then I had to work harder to find a visual way to describe what they were saying," Ascher said. "I saw this movie as some kind of hybrid video essay. Each of these voices represent a larger group of people, so it isn't about a handful of unusual people, it's about a battle of ideas."
Out of all of Kubrick's films, "The Shining" seems to have been an odd choice to have elicited such a wealth of analysis. "2001" and "Eyes Wide Shut," after all, are more ambiguous, while "Dr. Strangelove" and its satiric at nuclear disaster remains more topical.
But Ascher has a theory about why "The Shining" trumps them all when it comes to this generation of amateur film theorists.
"It falls squarely in the the overlap between art and entertainment," Ascher said. "There are other films that are more clearly symbolic, but they aren’t necessarily the ones people watch because they want to watch a wildly entertaining movie. 'The Shining' is perfectly suited for both the grindhouse and the arthouse."