The Secrets of 'Room 237'
By ALLEN DI BENEDETTO
March 21, 2013
Though more than a decade has passed since the death of legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, the director behind such visually rich and thematically complex films as Full Metal Jacket, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, his work, like that of any brilliant artist, continues to provoke. Kubrick's films, an often contradictory balance of thematic subtext and narrative excess, full of grand visual poetics and subtle, nearly imperceptible psychological touches, have been picked apart and debated for years by countless fans eager to discover the possible secrets hidden in every frame.
Never, though, has the debate been more prevalent, or more prone to such vast and varied interpretation, than in Kubrick's 1980 horror classic The Shining starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. Room 237, a new documentary from filmmaker Rodney Ascher, of The S From Hell cult fame, explores this debate, detailing the rich, intricate, and often outrageous theories surrounding Kubrick's Shining, a film that appears, on the surface, to be little more than a standard, albeit well made and infinitely thought-provoking, horror film.
ET sat down with Ascher, along with Room 237 producer Tim Kirk, to talk about their film, where Ascher spoke of the reasons why The Shining continues to mystify after all these years. "At once it is a terrifying, sometimes funny, instantly watchable horror movie, and it's one starring major movie stars, but it's also a severe art movie that makes some very unusual choices," Ascher tells ET. "So if you start to watch it just because it might be fun to watch, there's enough slow moments and there's enough air in it and there's enough odd choices to keep you thinking about it. While also there's some very basic questions about The Shining that never get answered, and most movies today answer all of your questions. The Shining is a puzzle that's missing a few pieces."
"Even on a basic plot level, you never find out what happened to Danny in room 237," Ascher continues. "Well, you never explicitly find out, though there are lots of people who have very strong ideas about what happened to him. In that black and white photo at the end, it's presented as, 'A-ha! Here's the answer to the riddle you've been watching!' But it doesn't work anything like that. It's a whole new riddle. So The Shining, unlike a lot of films, leaves you with more questions than answers."
Ascher also spoke of why he chose to devote his entire documentary to the discussion of just one film, explaining, "We decided to focus in on exclusively what happens to a film after it leaves the hands of the filmmakers, and the audience has only their own toolset to put the pieces back together again. … So, by design, we didn't want to do a making of and we didn't want to talk to an art director or Diane Johnson the co-screenwriter [of The Shining] or producer or anyone like that. I said, 'Let's just be hyper-focused on this one thing and then go really really deep down that hole.'"
"Each of the people we interviewed was intelligent, compelling, engaged," tells Kirk. "And I like people like that. And I found each of their voices would just grab me, and I would be drawn into their theory. And always there would be some kind of eureka moment where I was like, 'Oh my god, they're right!' and then we'd move on to the next one, and then the impossibility of these things adding up, or is it impossible? Can we put it all together? That's what sort of drove the picture for me as we were researching it, as [director] Rodney was cutting it. I think it all comes down to the people we interviewed."
When speaking on the validity of the theory that The Shining is really a metaphor for the genocide of the Native American people, Ascher revealed, "The closest I've heard anyone from the film commenting on the Native American themes in the movie was [film theorist] Bill Blakemore who talks about them. [He] said that, through a friend of a friend of a friend, he asked Kubrick whether that was his intention with all that imagery in the film, and he didn’t get any sort of categorical answer. Which is consistent with interviews and things that I've read with him, where he said things like, 'The Mona Lisa wouldn't be improved if there was a little plaque on the bottom that said she's smiling that way because she's thinking about how cute her boyfriend might have been as a little kid.' There was another quote that he had which was really great, which was, 'People [will resent you] if you tell them anything straight out. But their minds [will be] attracted to puzzles and allegories.'"
"The phenomenon of this deep, deep symbolic analysis of The Shining was kind of a recent one," Ascher explains. "The bulk of what we've been finding has only been done in the last couple of years."
Room 237 will be available theatrically and on Video on Demand on March 29th. For more on the film, including one mystery the makers of The Shining have revealed about the movie, watch the video!
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