'Room 237' director Rodney Ascher shares the mysteries of 'The Shining'
Did you know that "The Shining" might be an allegory about the Holocaust? Or, Stanley Kubrick's alleged acknowledgment that he helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landing? It could be the thinly-veiled story of the United States' mistreatment of Native Americans, or perhaps a modern version of the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur and his maze.
Or maybe Kubrick's horror masterpiece really is little more than the portrait of Jack Nicholson's writer losing his tenuous grip on sanity over the course of a long winter at an abandoned hotel with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny.
The new documentary "Room 237," which opens at the IFC Center and Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center on Friday, offers a fascinating bit of cinematic textual analysis, in which a host of speakers dissect scenes and images from "The Shining" to illustrate their various theories of what this big-screen puzzle means.
amNewYork spoke with director Rodney Ascher.
When did you first see "The Shining"? Were you instantly a fan? The first time I saw the movie was maybe the first time I tried and failed to see the movie. I was a little kid and I snuck in with a friend and only made it about 10 or 15 minutes before I had to slink out the theater in shame and defeat because it was more than I could handle. But then I watched it for real a few years later on TV and really, really liked it.
How has your view of the movie shifted? The movie changes as you change. When I was a kid I would identify with Danny and his powerlessness to stop them from going to the hotel, although he knew, he absolutely knew, what was going to happen. Now, I watch the film and I relate to Jack and see him as a nightmare version of myself, being unable to provide for my family and blaming my failures on them, and selling them down the river to impress some phony in a tuxedo.
When did you first start thinking about it from a critical standpoint? In my travels I had read a few Kubrick books and one of them -- Thomas Allen Nelson's "Inside a Film Artist's Maze" - had a great passage in it about some of the numerology in "The Shining" and described it as "2001" in reverse. Which I thought was really exciting because as much as I loved "The Shining" and most of his movies I never felt that I really understood them completely, but I felt that there was more there than I could quite get my head around.
So how'd you transition from that point to making this movie? I had put that aside for a long time, and a few years ago I made a short film ("The S From Hell") about people who had a childhood phobia of an old logo. That was in some ways the junior version of this. After that my friend Tim Kirk emailed me out of the blue, actually he posted on my Facebook page, one of these deep, mind-blowing symbolic analyses of "The Shining" on my Facebook wall, and before I was done reading I was like, "Well this is gonna be the next one."
Why are we so driven to solve puzzles like "The Shining"? There's a great phrase I came across, and I wish I remembered quite where, the idea that the human mind is a machine that recognizes patterns. I think it's kind of a basic human drive and skill, and you see it in the Kabbalah, and you see it by weather men. Those sort of bigger ideas weren't what me and Tim were thinking of at the very beginning, but before we started doing interviews, we were certainly tossing that kind of stuff back and forth.
What do you think Kubrick would make of "Room 237"? I like to think he'd be very happy that the movie continues to be relevant and to inspire conversation. Certainly, I've read that after "2001" people would come up to him and explain their readings of the last act of that film and he'd always be interested to hear it, but of course would neither confirm or deny that that was what he was really getting at.