Stanley Kubrick’s ROOM 237 and Ours
Rodney Ascher and Tim Kirk talk about their nerve-rattling revisitation of Kubrick classic THE SHINING.
One of the true word-of-mouth sensations of the 2012 film festival circuit, Rodney Ascher‘s Room 237 may be the greatest movie ever made about another movie. That film is The Shining, and it’s no slight to Stanley Kubrick’s towering 1980 cabin-fever-dream to say that Room 237 is very nearly its equal when it comes to spooking and unnerving audiences.
Its freaky quality derives from the double bind created by Ascher’s choice of format. By overlaying the interpretive testimonies of five self-styled Shining superfans on brilliantly screwed-and-chopped montages of the film itself—and dispensing with any “real-world” footage whatsoever—the director turns us into honorary members of the Torrance family, shut up in an isolated mountain hotel. But of course, as anyone who has seen The Shining knows, the Overlook is an expansive and uniquely gilded prison, with plenty of hallways and lavish ballrooms for exploring. The sense of entrapment blurs with the anticipation of fresh discoveries. With every corner turned by the characters and our narrators, we may think that we’re seeing things too.
The question, of course, is whether Stanley Kubrick put those things there on purpose. The readings of The Shining in Room 237 are at times amazingly rigorous, and Ascher gives them credence (in some cases maybe more than they deserve) through his selective editing of the source material. For these reasons, Room 237 has been received by critics as a treatise on auteurist intentionality, and as a meditation on how even the most controlled art can yield truly unruly readings once it’s fed through the filter of an observer’s subjectivity. But it’s also a truly revelatory movie about the changing art of cinematic scholarship—about how the ability to parse a film in frame-by-frame detail can yield greater intimacy but also arguably deform the text beyond recognition. Keyframe spoke to Rodney Ascher and his producer Tim Kirk about Room 237, Stanley Kubrick and whether they believe that sometimes a continuity error is just a continuity error.
Keyframe: Can either of you remember the first time you saw a Stanley Kubrick film? Did your interest in his films predate your working relationship?
Rodney Ascher: We started working on the film together two or three years ago, but there were two separate lifetimes of Kubrick nerd-dom leading up to that. Kubrick was probably my first ‘favourite filmmaker,’ although I had been frightened out of a screening of The Shining as a little kid back in 1980. I saw 2001 in the theaters when I was 11 or 12, because they kept rereleasing it. Strangely, I saw it after I saw Dark Star, which is sort of a weird parody, and it had the best retort to 2001, which is that if we ever have spaceships they’re just going to be horrible, filthy, undesirable places to live. So by the time Full Metal Jacket was released in 1987, I had gone back and seen all the other ones. I think that as a teenager, in my own embarrassing suburban-punk, comic-book geek kind of way, I identified with Kubrick’s films. Even if they took place during World War I, or in the Pentagon, I related to them. There was something about his attitude and worldview—his distrust of authority—that made me feel like the movies understood me in a way that was special. Of course, a lot other people feel the same way, and so I know that I was fooling myself to think that there was this unique personal relationship.
Tim Kirk: I would say that my path with Room 237 has been one of letting go…of realizing that Kubrick belongs to the world, and not just to me. I think the sense of control that he has formally over his films is incredible. And as dark as his worldview was, as heavy as those films could be, that feeling of somebody being in control felt very comforting to me, even as a kid, when I was watching Dr. Strangelove on this eight-inch Panasonic television after my parents had gone to bed. I had an older friend who could get us into films, and I used that to sneak into all kinds of movies, that’s how I saw Apocalypse Now. And she got us into The Shining. And even though I felt that same sense of control, I couldn’t make sense of it at all. It disturbed the hell of out of me that I couldn’t get what was going on, and I wonder if that’s not where the genesis for Room 237 was.
Keyframe: What’s interesting is that while Kubrick’s films have these enigmatic, private qualities, they were also always big budget productions and big hits. There’s a weird tension between his dual status as an art-filmmaker and a commercial director.
Ascher: I don’t have a number to support it, but I would assume that his catalogue is something that people revisit a lot, more than the films that made even more money when they were first released. Take the TV remake of The Shining from the ’90s. It seems more dated than the film that was made in 1980. There’s something about the costumes that feel trapped in time where the film doesn’t. The CGI effects were good at the time, but they’ve aged. Kubrick’s Shining feels eternal: His movies are for the ages.
Keyframe: The idea of ‘forever’ is key in Kubrick: It’s a horrifying threat in The Shining, but also at the end of Eyes Wide Shut, where Cruise asks Kidman if she’ll love him forever and she responds with a much more pragmatic and in-the-moment sentiment.
Ascher: Well, Bill Blakemore posits Eyes Wide Shut as a movie that’s an alternative to The Shining. It’s about a family that’s challenged and keeps it together. Certainly, the ending of A.I. is about the horror of eternity. And that seems to be the unstated ending of the Toy Story movies, a million years after the apocalypse, they’ll still be roaming around.
Keyframe: We could say that they’ll all become WALL*E
Ascher: That’s perfect.
Keyframe: The Shining is also very much a movie about roaming around through this empty interior landscape.
Ascher: The world of the Overlook is so palpable, and the way that the Steadicam pulls you through, it’s like the camera movement was prefiguring the worlds of first-person-shooter video games. And while I’ve abandoned those pursuits, I remember there was one game where there was this little map in the corner that was blank and as you travelled through the hallways they became illuminated. So you felt like moving through the place became a way of knowing and learning. So there’s that moment in our film where Julie Kerns is talking about the window in Ullman’s office, and she says that Wendy finally comes to it, walks behind it, and it’s like suddenly that part of the hotel has been illuminated, or the space has been activated.
Kirk: On that note, I’ve always thought that it’s no coincidence that these theories are all happening on the Internet. I always think of the Internet as a search for space, a search for a place. To write about the Overlook there is very suggestive. The Internet is a sort of gigantic space with all these pathways, like the Overlook Hotel.
Keyframe: Room 237 traps us in the Overlook Hotel, and in the world of films in general; it’s one of the only documentaries I can think of where the ‘real world’ is almost totally absent, save for one or two stylized insert shots, which are just versions of things that are in the film.
Ascher: I always wanted it to take place in the world of the Overlook, and of movies, and of Kubrick movies—places that have captured our imaginations. We never wanted shots of the subjects sitting in a chair, in an office. Those talking head shots ground things in reality, so after you’ve dove into the water, you come up for a breath of air. We never wanted to come up for air.
Kirk: It’s similar to how we don’t know a hell of a lot about Jack Torrance before he gets to the Overlook. I mean, we get a few clues, but not really. So with the people we’re interviewing, all we know about them is what they think about The Shining. Some of the real world stuff comes out a bit, maybe, but not really.
Ascher: When I was doing the interviews, I started with questions like, ‘What’s your name,’ ‘What do you do for a living,’ and ‘Where do you live,’ and there was a rough cut where some of that stuff appeared. But the more and more I stripped it away, the more I liked it. It’s like with Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, which is less about what was changed than what was deleted outright. The whole backstory of the woman in Room 237 is completely explicit in the book. But the way it’s presented in the film is much more accurate to what I imagine a supernatural experience would be like. You’re in a room where a murder was committed and you open up the door and you see the murder: You don’t get the ghosts’ whole life story. To be baffled by this bizarre tableaux feels more authentic. Even with 2001, he deleted huge passages of explanation that were in the book, even though he helped write the book! He deletes and deletes and asks the audience to go from A to C.
Keyframe: That sense of withholding ties into the idea of control, and the idea that there’s nothing that’s in—or out—of a Kubrick film that isn’t supposed to be present or absent. Maybe more than any filmmaker other than Hitchcock, there’s this feeling that nothing is accidental, which means that some people would probably think that he’d be rolling in his grave if he knew how people were taking those choices and running with them interpretively in your film.
Ascher: Actually, he was explicit about this exact thing in interviews. He said he didn’t want to tell people how to read his movies, and that The Mona Lisa doesn’t have a plaque underneath explaining what she’s smiling about.
Kirk: My father is a minister, so I come from a religious background. I’m familiar with people who do the ineffable readings of the Bible where every word is intended by God. So when you talk about Kubrick rolling in his grave, it makes me think of the God who supposedly wrote the Bible thinking that people were sort of missing the point of what he was saying by focusing on the words.
Keyframe: For some people, the image of Kubrick on set is equivalent to God writing the Bible. But could we also suggest that sometimes a continuity error is just a continuity error?
Ascher: I can argue either side of most of these things, but in the scene with the disappearing chair…let’s say he did fifty takes with the chair. On take 25 he says I don’t like how that chair is lining up, let’s lose it. And then he uses part of one take and part of another. When it comes time to edit, he sees the chair missing. He could have said one of two things. He could have said, ‘We have a shot I want to use here, and the audience will forget that they saw the chair before.’ Or he could have said, ‘Maybe that’s cool, after all, this is a haunted house, and things are moving around.’ Did he intend it on the set? Maybe, maybe not. Would he have noticed it in editing? Probably. Maybe it’s not even something that he would have said out loud to his editor.
Keyframe: Hypothetical scenarios like this become a sort of limit case for the idea of auteurism.
Kirk: This whole discussion is about the auteur.
Ascher: In the film, Geoffrey Cocks talks about how Kubrick was the master of depth and composition, and how everything in the frame is totally intentional. So when I watch that shot, I think less of the chair than of the scrapbook in the foreground.
Kirk: Which is a huge thing in the book.
Ascher: In the book it’s huge, and I think it might have been a bigger part of the screenplay as well. So there’s this giant object in the foreground, which suggests that it’s important, even if we don’t know why.
Kirk: That thing we were talking about with the chair also applies to the photo at the end of the movie. We could get into that. If you look at it, it’s clearly a different ballroom. I can’t imagine there are two big ballrooms in the Overlook.
Ascher: And why is the caretaker posed at the front of a big group photo? He’s not the maitre d’ or anything.
Kirk: So there was either a decision to use a different ballroom entirely, or he just sort of Photoshopped Jack in there.
Ascher: I think he’s working with those Russian ideas about montage, about whether our memory lasts one shot or two shots, and trying to stretch it, to see what effects it has when you deliberately screw with it. The chair thing, yes, there’s a lot of back and forth about that but the scene where the pattern on the carpet flips around, well, that’s a lot harder to get wrong than it is to get right. They would have literally had to take all of those little model trucks and reverse them. I’ve been on enough film sets to know that turning camera and lighting set-ups around is a lot of work, so maybe it was easier to just switch the things on the floor around. But I don’t get the feeling that Stanley Kubrick was a person who was worried about time, or rushing through things.
Keyframe: I wonder if you think that it would have been possible to make this movie if Kubrick was alive. He probably wouldn’t have responded to all of these interpretations anyway but having him be absent—or a ghost—means that there’s no way of ultimately proving or disproving anything.
Ascher: Cocks says something at the end about how the filmmaker’s intent is only part of the process. If you’ve listened to the director’s commentary on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Jack Sholder was quite surprised to learn that he had made an allegory about a high school kid coming out of the closet, which is quite clear if you’ve watched the movie. So there’s the question of intent: What was the plan, what was the method of getting at it? Or it could be a hundred subconscious choices. And then when the filmmaker talks about it, if they’re trying to be enigmatic or clever, what they say may not be what went down anyway. In doing interviews about Room 237, I’ve tried to be as truthful as possible, but sometimes just in trying to be coherent I talk myself into a blind alley. And then later I think about it and realize it wasn’t completely right.