“The Shining” has burrowed its way into the heads of filmgoers for years now, becoming a perennial pick as one of the greatest horror films of all-time. But there’s always been something more sinister and unique lying underneath the surface of “The Shining” in it’s paradoxes, contradictions, and flat-out mysteries. The new documentary “Room 237,” which recently showed at the New York Film Festival, casts a light on some of these theories, but the focus isn’t on what “The Shining” is about (which could be American Indians, the moon landing, or sexual abuse), but rather what it means to become obsessed by a film, vexed and perplexed by the meanings between the lines, the truth, or the lies, that manifest when we begin to consume a film far beyond what’s comfortable.
Director Rodney Ascher took a unique approach to making his film, one that has set “Room 237” apart from other documentaries. Eschewing the “talking heads” approach, “Room 237” instead allows the voices of those possessed by Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the Overlook Hotel to play over footage. However, it’s not only various scenes from “The Shining,” but also other pictures, some also from Kubrick, some from a group of completely unrelated films, suggesting “The Shining” is part of a massive cinematic tapestry. So too was Ascher influenced by other pictures that he found inspiration from several sources to craft “Room 237” into a narrative about obsession. The result feels like a confessional, not from a group of paranoid “The Shining” fans, but from cinema itself.
Here are six films, and one extra source, that Ascher told us helped inspire the making of “Room 237.”
“Los Angeles Plays Itself”
This famed video essay will likely never find proper distribution as it is entirely stiched to together of footage from dozens of films. And this seemed to be a focal point for those discussing the potential of “Room 237” to struggle to find distribution, a claim that was debunked when IFC Films picked it up for release. With a single flat narrator, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” is as much a historical document as it is a cinematic collage, showcasing the long history and role of the city of Los Angeles on the big screen. To Ascher, he was most fascinated by, “this voiceover with an amazing essay film underneath,” suggesting that the plainspoken narrator of ‘Los Angeles’ helped give “Room 237” a way to explore the words of the fascinated “The Shining” fans without any filter.
“The Thin Blue Line”
Errol Morris’ documentary was a groundbreaking film at the time, which helped stage interviews in between cold, stylish re-enactments of a violent crime in Texas that may have put the wrong man into prison. Ascher was particularly fascinated by, “multiple perspectives in the documentary” and a dry, impartial approach that involved, “Letting the audience do some of the vetting on their own.”
The famous visual essay about life in motion provided not only the sensibility, but the sound of some of the quieter moments in “Room 237.” “It’s a documentary, but sort of a piece of meditation,” Ascher says. Though he had something just a bit spookier in mind in regards to the score from Jonathan Snipes and Bill Hudson. “I wanted something that would be like Dario Argento’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi.’ I found that Philip Glass music, Goblin, [Giorgio] Moroder or Tangerine Dream has a similar meditative quality to them. It makes the importance of what you’re watching raises the stakes, tells you you’re watching something with metaphysical importance.”
“There may be a little influence from ‘Zodiac,’” Ascher suggests, gesturing to David Fincher’s seventies-set thriller about the futile hunt for the elusive Zodiac killer, and the house of cards that is a tenuous collection of clues that go nowhere. Ascher found himself seduced by, “The way they embrace the ambiguity, and how details can fall apart the closer you get. Though I only saw it once, I think conversations have stuck with me harder than the particulars of the film.”
There are several clips from unrelated films in “Room 237,” but two that keep recurring more than any others are the Italian horror classics “Demons” and “Demons 2.” “ ’Demons 2’ is such an amazing sequel, since ‘Demons’ is about film, and ‘Demons 2’ is about video,” Ascher enthuses. “It’s almost like this JG Ballard kind of setup because everyone’s stuck in a high rise, and they’re falling into TV monitors, and it takes sort of the dream logic of ‘Demons’ even farther. Both movies blur the line between film and reality.” Though Ascher yields that using both films, where audiences watch a movie that lets boogeymen come to life and jump off the screen to kill, served a practical purpose. “If we need scenes of people in the early eighties watching a movie, that happens to be just some of the best footage of people in the 80’s watching a movie!” Ascher exclaims.
And while Ascher also mentions the work of experimental filmmakers like Craig Baldwin, he cites one more unlikely source of inspiration: the online-only “Star Wars“ dissections from internet personality Mr. Plinkett. “The ninety minute ‘Star Wars’ reviews, oh my god, he’s a genius!” Ascher raves. “And he has the unreliable narrator that has his own story arc that’s developing alongside of his takedown of ‘Star Wars,’ and it evolves over the course of those three feature films. And that blew my mind when I saw it the first time.”