There is a moment in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in which novelist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) gazes into a scale model of a labyrinth that lies just outside the walls of the Overlook Hotel, the remote ski resort where he and his family are spending the winter. In that model he sees the real thing, and in that real thing he will eventually become lost and perish. The labyrinth is a trap. The movie is a labyrinth. The trap is the movie.
Based on the novel by Stephen King, The Shining was Kubrick’s one stab at horror. It’s a story of familial collapse, writer’s block and cabin fever. (It may also be a ghost story, though that’s up for debate.) But after you see Rodney Ascher’s remarkable essay film Room 237, named after an especially troublesome room at the Overlook, you might start to believe that The Shining is also about the Holocaust, the colonization of the Americas, and how NASA faked the moon landing. The film is structured around interviews with five subjects who each have exceedingly elaborate theories about the film’s real meanings, theories based on architectural inconsistencies, typewriters, canned foods, posters, carpeting and the number of vehicles in a parking lot. Ascher weaves these interviews into a symphony of fringe scholarship and film clips, a beguiling, immersive homage to obsessive interpretation and the looming power of a work of art in which no seemingly inexplicable detail can possibly be the result of mere accident.
Producer Tim Kirk and director Rodney Ascher
I spoke with Ascher and producer Tim Kirk during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Room 237 screened to the delight of the city’s most ardent cinephiles. We met at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, which, though located in the heart of Canada’s biggest city, retains just enough aging luxury to evoke the appropriate creepiness.
JB: In the press notes for Room 237 you mention how you guys would take walks with your children to discuss The Shining. There’s something creepy about that. I guess because, amongst the apparently infinite number of readings one can apply to the film, it is also parable about families falling apart.
Rodney Ascher: Absolutely. One of the interesting things about re-watching The Shining over the course of 30 years is noting how your relationship to it changes. As a kid, Danny is your surrogate. Yet as we enter other stages of our lives, Jack becomes this cautionary figure. Perhaps in another 30 years I’ll be identifying with the ghosts.
Tim Kirk: What makes that idea of us walking with our children even creepier is that when you’re with your kids the goal is to be present, yet Rodney and I would be there, several layers of theory in—that Aztec reading, how does that align with the reading involving Native Americans?
JB: Your roles in this project seem primarily curatorial. But as you began compiling these different readings, were there any that you were especially persuaded by?
TK: We had moments with almost everyone where suddenly the hairs would go up on the back of the neck and you’d think, “Oh my god, are they right? And if so, what does that mean with regards to this film and the universe and how I understand life?”
RA: As you watch Room 237 you’re spending five or six minutes with each of these people at a time. Making the film, I listened to these interviews for hours. I didn’t always understand what the subjects were talking about when we were conducting the interviews. But then I would bring it into the computer and start lining it up with the footage, and suddenly think, “Right on the money.” I should add that I was making this movie after my kids’ bedtime, so it’s three in the morning when I’m putting scenes together. I would almost always believe everything while I was working on it.
JB: You spend enough time immersed in something and you start to demand to a consistent logic. You want the mirror world to make sense in the way the real world is supposed to make sense. So by the time Juli Kearns is addressing the geography of the Overlook Hotel and these windows that shouldn’t be there, I’m thinking, “I know this is fiction, but still, if those windows aren’t logical then there must be a reason!”
RA: That’s because other movies don’t have as concrete a sense of space as The Shining. Perhaps they’re shot with long lenses and the background is often just a blur. But here you have this film shot with wide-angle lenses and long takes that are snaking through hallways, so you get such a strong sense of this being a real space.
TK: I’m really drawn to your thought there, that as a viewer entering a cinema, especially with someone like Kubrick, who has a reputation of being in control of every frame, you feel like there’s this unwritten contract that this world is going to make sense in the way that you understand the real world. So that Kubrick messes with that contract is one of the things that’s so compelling about The Shining.
JB: Someone in Room 237 makes a point of saying that intentionality is not an essential component of any reading of a work of art. But Kubrick being the kind of artist that he was makes it impossible not to see intention everywhere—there surely can’t be such a thing as a continuity error. And someone else points out that The Shining is, for the most part, a barely supernatural story, so we can’t simply chalk things up to sheer inexplicability.
RA: There are many supernatural events in the novel, but in the movie, the only time when something clearly supernatural occurs is when the door gets unlocked. And even there, John Fell Ryan came up with a logical explanation as to how that happened. So while there are a lot of bizarre tableaus, what’s physically happening is not so strange. Many have suggested that Jack is simply talking to himself. One theory we weren’t able to use points out that whenever Jack is talking to the ghosts there’s always a mirror opposite him.
JB: Because Kubrick seemed to have no special interest in horror or the supernatural, I wonder if part of the reason why The Shining is especially magnetic has to do with that tension between the material and the director’s MO. As I watched Room 237 I kept asking myself if your movie could be about another movie, if you could apply a similar tack to any number of works.
RA: Our research didn’t yield too many films that generated a body of exegesis to rival that of The Shining’s.
TK: Though I’m surprised that there’s not as much about 2001. Eyes Wide Shut is a growth industry right now. There’s a lot of writing going on about that one.
JB: Interesting that you mention Eyes Wide Shut, because that and The Shining are both Kubrick films that have never really gained critical consensus.
RA: Several of our commentators talk about not loving The Shinning when they first saw it, yet they felt some strange moth-to-flame attraction that prompted them to go back to it.
TK: That impossible geography had a lot to do with me wanting to go back to The Shining. It felt like a dream. I knew there was something wrong. Juli’s theory was part of the honey that I got stuck in.
RA: She’s taken that theory to a level or two deeper than we get to in Room 237, where she even tracks the paths that characters take through certain rooms in different scenes, and then she superimposes those maps… Every time I mention something that didn’t get in the movie I feel this sting. Some might think that an hour and 40 minutes is a lot of time to talk about metaphors and secret messages in The Shining, but it could have been three hours long and still we would have only grazed the tip of the iceberg.
JB: It could have been longer for me. I think about Zodiac, another movie that deals with obsession and the unanswerable, and is on the long side. I’ve heard people complain about Zodiac’s length, but my response is always “How can you expect to get a strong feeling for the accumulation of suspicion and paranoia and obsessive investment without that duration?”
RA: Such a great sense of time passing in Zodiac.
JB: I felt similar with 237. A prudent 75-minute version would never have the punch of something that, in the best possible sense, is overstaying its welcome just a little. It needs to have that feeling that maybe it could go on forever.
RA: Which is why we tried to end it like a circuit, going back to the beginning. It was clear early in our research that we weren’t going to exhaust every major theory. We wanted to suggest that there’s so much more—and it’s still happening. I was looking at a YouTube video that a friend of Jay Weidner’s had made. There was this moment in The Shining where he’d heard an off-screen voice speaking the word “Shown.” Like “Shinning” in past-tense. This happens two or three times.
TK: And he found that it occurred at key transitional moments for Jack.
RA: Then I revisited Juli Kearns’ website and found that she also heard that “Shown.” I became really intrigued by the notion that if someone watched this movie in a supremely concentrated way, this anomaly would suddenly manifest so that everyone could hear it. [Laughs] It didn’t exist before, but was introduced into the film by sheer force of will.
JB: I think Philip K. Dick would have loved that theory.
JB: Going back to the way The Shining changes over time, when I first saw the film I was a small child and it scared the hell out of me. Coming back to it as an adult the effect is very different. It’s a common enough complaint, but it started to bother me that Nicholson already seems bonkers at the beginning of the film, and thus there’s no real suspense. Yet after seeing 237 I came to the conclusion that maybe that’s why The Shining is one of those films that you obsessively re-watch, because you’re not watching to experience a dynamic narrative arc—you’re watching it as an ambient experience. The backwards-forwards screening you included in 237 supports this idea. There is no arc, no change. Because Jack’s always been there.
RA: The forwards-backwards thing is so interesting. People think of Kubrick as a symmetrical filmmaker, but they’re usually thinking this with regards to composition. His work is symmetrical in time as well. Full Metal Jacket is a film made of two halves designed to echo each other. But regarding your feeling about the film’s lack of character development, I know people say that Jack seems crazy at the beginning, but every time I watch the film I’m always rooting for him, hoping he’s going to get his act together. [Laughs] This time we’re going to work through things!
JB: Critics have really responded to your film, and I think one reason for this is that, not to be disrespectful to your subjects, but it feels like a parody of film criticism, of how certain critics can get to a point where we’re so determined to stake a claim that we start analyzing minutia as though it’s the essence of the text.
RA: That makes a lot of sense, though it’s not something we talked about.
TK: We wanted to let our subjects present their ideas as best we could.
RA: We tried to get the audience to see the movie through their eyes.
JB: And the choice to not have your subjects appear on camera, was that because you didn’t want to have viewers be distracted by judgments about how these people look or what kind of space they inhabit.
TK: That was one consideration. We also didn’t want real-world credentials. We don’t introduce Bill Blakemore as a journalist; we just use his name.
RA: There’s also something about the essay film style that exists better in the world of imagination than on a couch in somebody’s office. It gets more under your skin.
JB: This approach reminds us of the power of just having a voice in people’s heads. The imagery in 237 is already familiar to its viewers, so what moves the film forward mainly has to do with these ideas, with these voices in the ether—they could even be voices in Jack’s head.
RA: Someone described them as ghosts. I love that idea.
TK: And you can’t always tell who’s talking. That’s pleasingly disorienting as well.
RA: I’ve read some critics who say that idea A is baloney, while idea B is really meaningful. And it seemed that they weren’t aware that both ideas came from the same person.
JB: I suppose the fake moon landing is probably the one that feels closest to conspiracy theory thinking.
RA: And yet its logic is consistent. That one really turned into a rabbit hole for me when I started to watch the special features on the 2001 DVD. I did my own research and it started to become more plausible for me. John Fell Ryan says that this is the great trap: once you start looking for clues, you just keep finding them. And they never stop appearing.