“There ain’t nothin’ in Room 237. But you ain’t got no business goin’ in there anyway. So stay out. You understand? Stay out.”
– From Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)
Long before Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is told by a ghost that he has always been the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, Stanley Kubrick has prepared us for the possibility that this is one of those places one checks in to but never leaves.
As the creepiest “character” in Kubrick’s massively cult-friendly adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining, the isolated mountain resort called the Overlook is visually presented in terms of infinitely plunging space: the corridors through which Jack’s supernaturally attuned son, Danny, careens on his tricycle, the gliding Steadicam shots that draw us inexorably deeper into mystery, and the recurring maze motif, which is echoed everywhere from the patterns on the hotel carpeting to the huge outdoor labyrinth in which horror lurks with an axe.
The Overlook Hotel is all about being drawn in, and Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is all about what happens when you let the door close behind you. A documentary depicting variously outrageous but consistently compelling theories concerning the hidden meanings embedded in Kubrick’s most transfixing movie this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ascher’s film is also a kind of looking-glass reflection of the The Shining’s themes of obsession, isolation, insanity and surrender of self. The difference is that we’re the ones being looked at.
Rodney Ascher is sitting next to his producer, Tim Kirk, in a room the Royal York hotel. He is recalling how his obsession with The Shining led him down the corridors of other people’s fixations.
“I was always a fan of The Shining, and always a Kubrick fan,” says Ascher, an L.A. resident. “When Tim posted this one essay about the movie on my Facebook wall, it just instantly kind of blew the back of my head off. I wanted to engage with that world from the second I read it. Soon the two of us were like ‘How much else is out there?’”
The essay was written by Jay Weidner – who would eventually become one of the interpretive voices heard but never seen in Room 237 – and it offered an exhaustively comprehensive case for The Shining as Kubrick’s heavily encoded admission of complicity in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing.
But it wasn’t so much the actual content of the argument as the extent of its engagement with the film: Weidner had clearly arrived at his interpretation after an unholy amount of time thinking about and watching The Shining, and Ascher and Kirk began trolling around to see if there were other people whom the movie had tempted to plunge so deeply. There were.
“I didn’t think that one point of view was enough for a very juicy project,” Ascher says. “So I thought it would be really cool to compare and contrast different people’s takes on the movie. In the early stages, it wasn’t clear whether we’d be able to do a real comprehensive guide to anything everybody’s ever said about The Shining, or how big and ambitious a project that was. From the outset, we discovered this is a world, and we were only going to be able to get in the tip of the iceberg. Part of the challenge and a big question was how were these things going to play against each other? Are they going to reinforce each other? Are they going to contradict each other?”
From author Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City), they heard of a sold-out event in Brooklyn – the brainchild of John Fell Ryan – in which Kubrick’s movie was screened backward and forward at the same time and on the same screen, and from Ryan they were sent to Juli Kearns, who has done an extensive topographical study of the Overlook’s Escher-like architectural paradoxes. Veteran ABC journalist Bill Blakemore’s landmark 1987 study of the movie as a metaphor for racial genocide in America was a natural for the project, and Geoffrey Cocks’s reading of The Shining as a Holocaust allegory, particularly in its repetitive reiterations of the number 42, also fit perfectly.
When it came to structuring the film, Ascher decided on an interview technique that involved mailing a digital recorder to each of his subjects, then asking his questions via Skype. Kirk did the transcribing, and in the process of listening to the various voices the visual strategy – involving scenes from Kubrick films and others, and never showing the interviewees themselves – locked into place.
The result is a digital-age DIY mash-up movie that is as hypnotically rhythmic and carefully patterned as the one it talks about, and which gives equal prominence to each reading of the film. If there’s one single thing that reverberates with equal pungency from all these interpretations, it’s that The Shining invites a truly intemperate engagement from some of its viewers, which draws people back over and over and over. Easy to check in, but just try checking out. So what is it about The Shining?
“There’s a lot,” Ascher says. “Kubrick is such a meticulous filmmaker, it’s fair to think that any little strange thing in this movie has got some intentionality to it. He’s as serious as they come. There are other films out there that may lend themselves towards an allegorical kind of reading, but his movies are more entertaining than most of those. It isn’t work to watch them. You want to watch them. And in watching them and revisiting them, you start to notice things on the periphery.
“There’s also something about the way the Steadicam shots pull you into the hotel that makes it feel like such a real space, a place that you could go to if you got hit on the back of the head or ate some weird mushrooms, or had a near-death experience. It’s got such palpable reality.”
Beside Ascher, Kirk is nodding. “My father was a minister,” he says, “so I’ve been aware in the world that there’s the Bible and there’s meditation, these things that you just go over and over come at from every different angle that you can. I’ve always related to The Shining in that sense. The thing Rodney touched on is the ineffability of the film. If Kubrick put it there, he’s the master, he did it on purpose. There’s a reason, and if you work hard enough, you can figure it out. I think that draws people in and compels a certain kind of person, a seeker, to find something, to find that truth.
“But just watching it over and over again in a way is its own meditation.”