Heeeeere's Theory! The Shining Gets Chopped to Discursive Bits in Room 237
Like the film that provides its source material, Rodney Ascher's new-media documentary Room 237 about Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror film The Shining, is a cinematic vise. However, 237 owes it tension not to the spiraling madness of its central character, but to discourse that threatens to spiral into madness.
Interpretations of Kubrick's movie from five different sources—a journalist, a playwright, a professor, an artist, and a scholar—are "braided," as Ascher puts it, throughout the film, so that whose theory is whose becomes unclear. We hear The Shining dissected, by disembodied voices, as an analogy for the Holocaust or for the plight of Native Americans, as proof that Kubrick helped the government faked the moon landing, as a trove of secrets whose keys are embedded in its carpets or in the makeshift erection that appears if you freeze just the right frame with one character positioned next to a paper tray. It becomes exhausting, disorienting, overwhelming. And then, almost at the very end of Room 237's 102 minutes, there is blessed release:
"I don't have any clue what's going on," one of the interviewees confesses. "When you really sit and think about it, the whole thing is so whacked out and it's so not put together, everything is so wildly out of place that the closer you get into looking at things, the more you look at them…the more you magnify things, the more you look at them, the less purpose it serves because it's so out of whack. None of it makes sense from the beginning!"
While I found Room 237's picked-over stacks of minutiae to be patience testing, I couldn't stop thinking and talking about this movie after I saw it. Whatever it lacks in practice, it more than makes up for in theory. It is an object—an "independent, messed up, artsy remix documentary hybrid video essay thing that's coming from another planet," as Ascher put it earlier this month when we talked in the New York office of his Room 237 publicist—built from manipulated footage of The Shining and other sources over the musings of the always-unseen theorists. Much as Spring Breakers is the apotheosis of media portrayals of spring break, Room 237 is the apotheosis of fan-made video responses.
Invoking the obsessiveness of the 90-minute Star Wars reviews (which Ascher says he loves) and supercuts, alike, Room 237 was, like so many Internet labors of love, a sort of extracurricular production. As a new father and part-time film-editing class instructor, Ascher assembled the film over the course of about a year, working between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.
The result reflects how we communicate now, how much noise and confusion comes out of our democratized media. When everyone's a critic, and everyone has a chance to be heard, chaos looms. The L.A. Times called Room 237, "an examination of the nature of obsession, about how we are capable of convincing ourselves—and possibly others—that just about anything might be true." On Grantland, Chuck Klosterman wrote that Room 237 is a purveyor of "immersion criticism," a term he defines as feedback "based on the belief that symbolic, ancillary details inside a film are infinitely more important than the surface dialogue or the superficial narrative."
All of that is to say that there are multiple ways to interpret Ascher's interpretation of the multiple ways his subjects interpret The Shining. The rabbit holes lead to more rabbit holes.
"I find that endlessly gratifying," Ascher told me. "It certainly couldn't be more appropriate for this project. If what we're doing is showing that this one film, The Shining, can be seen in may different ways, it could be that 237 wouldn't have quite worked if it couldn't be looked at in different ways about that, as well."
Room 237, named after the Overlook Hotel's verboten chamber, has a sort of free-associative flow, resulting from Ascher and 237's producer Tim Kirk breaking down their interviews by topic and arranging corresponding Post-Its on a giant board, so that analyses could complement and contrast each other. It sounds like something out of the first season of Homeland. This isn't merely a movie about obsessing; it's the product of obsessing about obsessing. As the role of the critic becomes threatened by the sheer volume of opinion expressed by the masses, Ascher reaffirms the importance of a grand organizer to make sense (or, at times, what feels like nonsense) of it all.
"It's more about asking questions than finding answers," Ascher told me when I asked if he had a particular message, either about The Shining or about modern communication. "If our goal was something as simple as explaining to people what The Shining is about, well, we've failed even on that. Ultimately, we're still adrift in this world of ambiguity. When Tim and I were developing the idea for this movie and thinking of the scope of it, there were a ton of things we related it to."
Room 237 is full of footage from the movie it's sifting through, the product of a "complicated clearance process," that was nonetheless "not as painful or as severe" as Ascher anticipated after his rough cut. It's preceded by a disclaimer. ("Neither this film nor any view or opinion expressed in it, nor the context in which the film footage and images are used, is approved or endorsed by, or is any way associated with, the Kubrick 1981 Trust, Stanley Kubrick's family, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., or anyone else connected with the making of the motion picture The Shining.") Kubrick's former assistant Leon Vatali, who was on set for the filming of The Shining, told The New York Times, "I was falling about laughing most of the time. There are ideas espoused in the movie that I know to be total balderdash." It is easy to dismiss much of what you hear in Room 237 as insane or invalid, but the film as a document of modern communication, whose medium is perfectly tailored to its content and vice versa, is unshakable.
Ascher told me he is "tempted" to use the format of Room 237 for a similar treatment of another film, though he says should he proceed with that project, it won't be as teeming with symbolic analysis.
"There were parallels between The Shining and what we were doing that made this more interesting than if we did it with another movie," he said. "Both The Shining and Room 237 are movies about a small group of people trapped in a maze."