The first time Rodney Ascher saw The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s cryptic horror classic proved too much to handle, and not simply because it scared the Hell out of him. “After 10 minutes, I had to slink out the back of the theater. I think I knew I’d met something more than I could put my head around,” says Ascher, who was 11 years old at the time. Three decades and dozens of viewings later, Ascher returns to the scene of Kubrick’s immaculately staged crime story with Room 237.
The documentary, opening Friday in New York, uses scenes from the movie to illustrate commentary from five Kubrick obsessives, who point to background props, secondary characters, carpet patterns, wardrobe choices, and other on-screen minutiae to make their cases about what The Shining movie really means.
On one level, The Shining, adapted from Stephen King’s novel, is a ghost story: Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance character holes up as winter caretaker at the remote haunted hotel, loses his mind, and terrorizes wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) while his clairvoyant son Danny (Danny Lloyd) suffers an onslaught of blood-drenched visions. Nicholson’s ax-wielding “Here’s Johnny” moment achieved iconic status, but Room 237 makes a persuasive argument that there’s a lot more going besides plot-driven terror –if only the experts could agree on what it is.
One Kubrick obsessive argues that The Shining serves as a metaphor for the Holocaust. Another believes the movie addresses the conquest of Native American culture. A third analyst argues that King’s source material functions as a Trojan horse enabling Kubrick to tell the world that he secretly staged the Apollo moon landing.
Ascher, who spent a year with producer Tim Kirk interviewing those who would decode The Shining, explains, “I did my best to get inside each viewpoint as deeply as I could and say, ‘My job is now to sell theory A as hard as I can. And now my job is to sell theory B as hard as I can.’ Some of these ideas might be mutually exclusive, but I kind of let them fight it out.”
Room 237 contributes to a resurgent fascination with Kubrick, who died in 1999 at age 70 after putting a perfectionist burnish on an astonishing range of genres encompassing: film noir in (The Killing); sword and sandal spectacle in (Spartacus); science fiction in (2001: A Space Odysseyy); political satire in (Dr. Strangelove); ultraviolent distopia in (Clockwork Orange); and modern warfare in (Full Metal Jacket).
The überhip Upright Citizens Brigade recently produced The Shining! The Musical!. The Kubrick exhibition, showcasing artifacts from the auteur’s films, runs through June at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, complete with a Kubrick app and a Beyond the Infinite film series surveying his influence on other directors. The John Malkovich movie Color Me Kubrick in 2005 told the story of real-life Stanley Kubrick impersonator Alan Conway, who conned London film circles by pretending to be the reclusive filmmaker.
And Kubrick’s impeccable eye recently inspired cinemaphile “Kogonada” to compile a tribute video of perfectly composed shots, embedded below, that demonstrate Kubrick’s command of “One Point Perspective” throughout his career.
Why have The Shining, in particular, and Kubrick movies in general, aged so gracefully? Ascher says, “It may be that ambiguity plays better a few years down the road, which is a risk that not everybody wants to take. There’s something about all of Kubrick’s films: They land smack in the middle of art and entertainment. People choose to watch them because they look beautiful, they’re full of memorable characters and there’s always more there than meets the eye.”
Kubrick’s reputation as a control freak who micromanaged every detail of a film’s production means, to his fans, that even the tiniest on-screen elements must have been deliberately chosen by the director for a reason. And yet, for Ascher, the director’s intent remains elusive.
“Movies like the Sixth Sense or Shutter Island answer the central mystery in the last act so you can leave the movie theater feeling that you have in some way mastered this thing,” Ascher says. “But The Shining clearly is a puzzle that’s missing a few pieces even on the surface level. You never find out definitively what happens to Danny in Room 237. The black-and-white photograph with a date at the end is more of a puzzle than a solution. I’ve gone back to watch The Shining many times saying to myself: ‘Okay this time, I’m going to watch very carefully, and I’m going to understand it once and for all. I won’t let it get away from me.’ But it gets away from me every time.”
Check out the slide show to learn the secret messages embedded in The Shining, as hypothesized by the deep-thinking theorists of Room 237.