Film about film: What is ‘The Shining’ really saying?

A new documentary at Cinema 21 revels in the interpretations of Kubrick's horror classic

The Shining 32By ERIK McCLANAHAN

One of my all-time favorite “Simpsons” episodes is from the legendary sixth season. Specifically, the first third of the Halloween episode, in which the once totally brilliant, hilarious animated show riffed on Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” It’s a perfectly calibrated bit of homage and mockery—here it’s called shinning, courtesy of Groundskeeper Willie (“Shhh! Wanna get sued?”)—that impressively distills Kubrick’s horror masterpiece down to seven minutes.

Fans of “The Simpsons” worth their salt know that the writers, at least in the early glory days, were huge Kubrick fans. With all the copious references dropped throughout—Bart dressed as Alex from “Clockwork Orange” in another Halloween episode, Homer as the Star Child when he goes to space, Bart marching his water balloon-equipped soldiers/friends like “Full Metal Jacket,” and so on—they had to be. A lot of us, this writer included, love Kubrick’s films. But few of us have become as obsessed with the greatest filmmaker of all time as the subjects of “Room 237.”

Opening today for a weeklong run at Cinema 21, this innovative and frighteningly entertaining documentary from Rodney Ascher (his first feature-length directorial effort) features five subjects, five theories on what “The Shining” is actually about, hundreds of clips from other movies (not just Kubrick’s), and zero talking heads. You never once see the faces of the voices stitched together that make up the film’s pastiche of sub-textual film criticism (or, Immersion Criticism as Chuck Klosterman calls it). You may not always agree with them, but Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan and Jay Weidner are compelling documentary protagonists, each with a story about what Kubrick actually intended with his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel.

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So, is “The Shining” really a thinly veiled confession from Kubrick to his wife about his involvement with staging the first moon landing? Or is it about the genocide of Native Americans? It’s funny how easily you could slap the subjects of “Room 237” with the same adjectives that followed Kubrick throughout his career: obsessive, reclusive, meticulous, hermetic, intelligent, driven. The film is a wonderfully weird dance of admirable cinephilia and absurd passion, sometimes laughably conspiratorial yet always fascinating.

Ascher, who’s done a lot of online comedy shorts and worn about a dozen different hats as a filmmaker (editor, cinematographer, visual effects to name a few), has always enjoyed “The Shining.” “I’ve always thought of it as more than a movie, it’s an experience,” he said via phone last week when I interviewed him. “Wherever you’re watching it, the walls of the room close in around the TV, and before long you’re not watching a movie you’re having a dream.”

“Room 237” started when a friend posted a deep, symbolic analysis of “The Shining” on Ascher’s Facebook wall. Before he finished the article, he knew what his next film was going to be, though he figured it would make a good 30-minute short, in three pieces. After his first interview with Blakemore, which lasted more than three hours, he knew there was more than enough for a feature-length odyssey into the way people have interpreted Kubrick’s horror epic, noting the importance of the personal aspects of each subject and how that elevated the material above a dry, definitive scholarly account.

There are some who find “Room 237” and its exploration of the id critic troubling, frustrating, and even exploitative. But I find Ascher’s approach exciting and fresh. He’s tapping into a bold, new critical movement that’s grown with the advent of the Internet, part video essay, part DVD special feature.

Citing the video series “Everything is a Remix” and the Red Letter Media “Star Wars” reviews, Ascher says “237” is certainly a relative of those video essays, but also draws from Errol Morris’s use of multiple perspectives in films like “The Thin Blue Line” and the “cut up techniques” of Bruce Conner or Craig Baldwin. He also mentions his terror as a child of “In Search Of…” episodes and horror movie atmospherics. “We steal from everyone.”

There’s a line in the film about how postmodern criticism dictates, “author intent is only part of the story of any work of art.” It’s the big question the movie asks but doesn’t answer definitely,” says Ascher, laughing. “This is a movie about what happens when this really weird, enigmatic, sometimes troubling movie leaves the artist’s hands and the people on the other side of the screen have to make sense of it with whatever tools they have.”

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“Who decides what a movie is about, the audience, the filmmaker, the critic?” asks Ascher. “Is a filmmaker better off not talking about what his movie is about in order to allow people to speculate? Should he confirm or deny when presented with a solution? What’s going to create the richest experience for the audience?”

Kubrick famously never talked about his films, preferring instead to let audiences decide on their own what they were about. With that in mind, surely he would’ve found the intellectual and entertainment value in this film that he helped inspire, even if he would’ve perhaps kept his opinions on it to himself.

I mentioned earlier that you don’t need to agree with the subjects to enjoy this film. Almost undoubtedly, you’ll scoff at some posits. Hell, a five-minute phone conversation with Jon Tullis, Public Affairs Director for the Timberline Lodge (famously used for exterior shots in “The Shining” as a stand-in for The Overlook Hotel), deflates Weidner’s assertion in the documentary that the Mt. Hood landmark never had a room 217 at all. Weidner believes Kubrick changed it in the film to 237 because it made an anagram for “Moon Room,” where all the answers of Kubrick’s past work faking the televised Apollo 11 moon landing would come to the fore.

That’s not true, says Tullis. “There is a room 217 here.” Former area operator Richard Kohnstamm, now deceased but around when Kubrick’s crew shot at the Timberline, told Tullis years ago that he asked Kubrick to change the number of the hotel room for fear that actual guests who saw the movie would be too scared to stay there. In “Room 237,” Weidner claims this story is false. But according to Tullis, Kohnstamm said he did in fact ask Kubrick to change the number to avoid scaring tourists. “But he never gave Kubrick a number,” says Tullis. “So the conspiracy theorists can still have fun with it.”

Yet this film is great not because every theory is plausible or even 100% factual but because of each theorists’ conviction. They may not be “professional critics,” but they (and Ascher) have given fans of “The Shining” a fun way to re-approach the classic and another rabbit hole to tumble down into, hopefully reemerging with a better understanding of the possibilities of cinema, capable of grabbing hold of all our imaginations with an iron grip.

What’s ultimately positive about “Room 237” is that it forges another path for open-minded, empathetic film criticism. After all, the best critics are those you can’t stop reading even if you disagree, and when you read or hear a negative review, you still are compelled to see the film. Today, anyone with an Internet connection is capable of being a film critic, so the time of the academic gatekeeper mentality is pretty much done. The experience doesn’t end after you’ve left the theater and decided if the film was good or bad. The conversation is just beginning.

ADDITIONAL READING and WATCHING:

Ready to formulate your own theory about Kubrick’s masterpiece? In accordance with this run of “Room 237” at Cinema 21, The Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium is showing “The Shining” Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27. Tickets available online.

Ascher says the film is only the tip of the iceberg in “The Shining” conversation. He wanted to feature plenty more great theories out there, of which there are many varied and interesting views on the film. A few prominent ones, says Ascher:

“The Making of the Shining”

“Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures”

Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #61, features the full interview with “Room 237” director Rodney Ascher.

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