I had never heard of the various conspiracy theories built up around The Shining
(1980) prior to seeing Room 237
. But even if I had the doc would still have blown me away. Rather than debunk the idea that Kubrick helped fake moon landing footage - yes, you read that right - or attempt to prove the more supportable theories out there about The Shining
's hidden symbolic commentary on race, genocide and westward expansion, filmmaker Rodney Ascher simply presents the material hand in hand with the haunting imagery from the film. Interviews with talking heads serve as eerie signposts as viewers travel the breathtaking road to the Overlook, into madness and beyond. It is a great documentary accomplishment that manages to create a serious film out of what could have been the silliest of subject matter. TWITCH: There's no way to adequately cover this subject in a short interview.
RA: It's a bottomless pit. For me, it started from spending too much time on the internet. A friend of mine, named Tim, posted an analysis of The Shining
that Jay Weidner had written, on my Facebook wall. I was already pretty primed in terms of interest. I'd been a Kubrick fan forever and I'd even done this parody of pre-show trivia slides that had a three paragraph section in it on the numerology of The Shining
. Totally tongue-in-cheek. So Tim and I started talking, and looking around online and we found this massive amount of material that people had generated about the film. Some of it was pretty silly, but a surprising amount of it was pretty deep. That's when we realized we could make a film. TWITCH: Usually when a documentarian is dealing with people on the fringe they make it a character study. You do the opposite here. You let all these people make their case for the most part and treat THE SHINING itself as an idiosyncratic element. Of course you also end up doing that to Kubrick to some degree. He almost comes off as Asbergian.
People talk a lot about Kubrick being hyper intelligent to the point where it was difficult to even understand how he approached the creative process. Certainly there is a lot of internal conflict there, with all sorts of symbols and ideas competing to wind up on the front burner. But that doesn't mean all the others are discarded.
I haven't found a lot of material where Kubrick talks about deliberately inserting synchronicity into The Shining
but, for instance, there's a point in the Michael Ciment book, Kubrick: The Definitive Edition
, where he talks about the Jack Daniel's bottle. Even that seemingly minor detail is pretty fraught with synchronicity. Jack Nicholson is playing Jack Torrance, whose alcoholism is a major theme in the film. Danny Lloyd is playing Danny Torrance, Lloyd is the name of the bartender in the film, and the actor who played the bartender also played a genie [Joe Turkel played Abu the Genie in The Boy and The Pirates (1960) one of his best known roles prior to his role as Lloyd
] a character who of course is deeply associated with bottles the contents of which are what releases Jack's demon.
[pause]BOTH: Huge laughter. For a minute or two. TWITCH: Okay, okay. Here's what's not fair. There is a funny element to this where it becomes difficult to take a lot of this seriously. Was it hard for you to approach the subject without camping it up?
There is a lot of humor in the film especially in the way we repurpose some of the footage. Of course different audiences find different moments funnier than others. But it's certainly not broadly comic. A lot of my personal giggles have come from how far the synchronicities seem to reach. There doesn't appear to be an end. It's almost less funny than wonderful. It's like laughing in the face of impossibility. When we had our premier in Sundance we realized the theater was on a road named Sidewinder, which is also the road, in the film, that leads to the Overlook Hotel. TWITCH: The difficulty is knowing what was in Kubrick's head. There's an occult association here, in the true sense of the term, where what we're talking about is the striving after secret knowledge for an illicit end. People are being invited in but they have no way of knowing if they can trust what they find.
Kubrick never went on record much explaining what metaphors and allegories he put into his work. He always resisted that. But, for instance, when people would walk up to him to offer their explanations of 2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968) he wouldn't confirm or deny, but he always loved hearing them. There are so many obstacles to complete understanding. Even if he had explained whatever his intent was it would still only be a starting point for discussion. In one interview he said that people always resent being told exactly what something is about but if you allow them to find it for themselves it resonates that much stronger.
One thing at work here is the fact that during anybody's creative process they're making so many conscious and subconscious decisions that all sorts of curious synchronicities result.
TWITCH: There's a zeitgeist too, that all this feeds into. Our zeitgeist right now seems pretty paranoid. People seem afraid that they're shut off from the secret knowledge of what's really going on, from the true nature of the construct they feel trapped in is. It's a bit like being snowed in at the Overlook awaiting rescue.
Tim and I would go on these walks, it must have been like eight months, where we would talk about these theories. One thing that emerged was that all these people have formed their theories as a way of trying to understand the world, not just the film. They feel the film reinforces a belief or opens up a new way of looking at things. It's not unlike the way people approach anything that helps them grasp the world around them, art, the news, religion.
At the beginning we might have been tempted to approach the material by saying, "Well there are three major ideas that people use to talk about The Shining
." But very quickly we realized how inadequate that was going to be. The film was never going to be the definitive look at this, or at Kubrick, or at anything. We're offering the tip of the iceberg.
I've heard people say that the human brain is a machine for picking up patterns. The Shining
is so full of patterns it makes sense that people would be drawn to it in this way. In a literal sense the decor of the film, the carpets, the maze, seems to mix with these repetitions of theme and symbol. When you add Kubrick himself to the mix there's this uncanny sense of something that is worked out according to some sort of plan that not only goes beyond simple plot points but is created by something bigger than just someone's mind.
TWITCH: In a sense Kubrick now functions here as a kind of Yoda.
[laughs] Yeah, one of the things that really blew my mind when we were doing this was that person after person after person would describe Kubrick as a fuller better version of what they themselves were. Our journalist said, "Kubrick isn't just a great artist, he's a great journalist. He's talking about history in this movie." I was teaching an editing class and got to thinking about 2001
and his other films and kept thinking, "Wow, Kubrick is one of the greatest editors in the way he introduces such experimental editing techniques into his movies." Our composer called Kubrick the world's greatest music supervisor because of the incredibly bold choices he picks to butt up against certain images and scenes. This stuff is hard to argue with. Thus Spake Zarathrusta
is now forever known as the theme from 2001
. The beginning of Dr. Strangelove
(1964) uses the Rite of Spring
up against a scene of two planes refueling and makes it this unlikely love scene. The point is that you never know where Kubrick is going to take you but it always makes sense just like Yoda's broken speech.
Alex in A Clockwork Orange
(1971) loves Bethoven, which is Kubrick uses in an almost tongue in cheek way to cue you into what Alex thinks is beautiful, especially since much of what Alex think is beautiful is actually anything but. How many people have had the guts or the epic sensibility to approach silence in their films the way Kubrick did? Space in 2001
is utterly silent much of the time and all the grander for it.
TWITCH: We have access to everything now. Is Kubrick more or less important? Can't we just skate by on the brilliant things he's inspired rather than continually go back to the source material. Isn't all this fuss about THE SHINING sort of overblown?
You know, the thing about Kubrick is his films have never gone away. That's mostly because people still want to watch them. I was disturbed recently, though, when a class I was teaching - film students mostly in their late teens and early twenties - confessed that even though they loved The Shining
they really didn't feel like 2001
was anything special. "The monkeys are too fake. The spaceships are too slow. It's boring."
It could be that they haven't had a chance to see the film theatrically. But then we all have that problem now. What does it mean to be a film fan when you can get anything any time.?The DVD's just stack up and the films have less impact when you see them in noisy conversation ridden environments. If we aren't careful we could wind up with very large collections of film that basically serve as furniture, decor. It's more important to celebrate and mine great work than it ever has been.
TWITCH: Well it sets up another dynamic. It seems to me that a lot of people are looking for alternate cultural lifestyles. When mom and dad have big comic, or movie collections the natural thing for kids to do is to create something they can call their own. Video games have replaced movies for a lot of people. There's a massive non-media youth trend going on as well. The traveling experience, hippie back to nature camping, hobo-ism, non-Church based spirituality, are all on the rise.
It all begs the question. As wacky as some of this Shining stuff seems are we movie lovers on the fringe now creating our own sort of cults. Would Kubrick have smiled at that or just looked at it as the dumbing down of society?
You know, Kubrick was really interested in the idea of transformation whether it was societal or individual. I think this would have fascinated him. I think he would have fit right in. You go back and you look at the sort of research he did in preparation for his projects, even the many, many projects that never got off the ground and you find someone who would have felt incredibly free in the electronic-verse. There was a story about him researching A.I. that involved him calling up Macy's to ask what the view was like out the window. He was inventing Google maps decades early because he needed it!
And he imparted that level of detail into his work because that's how he saw the world and because he believed he could help others have their own points of view. I think he would have been optimistic. Even though so much of our media and internet culture is bent towards such silly ends a lot of it involves people doing that with each other. I think Stanley would have a big cautious grin.