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Criticism or Critique of Criticism? Talking With Rodney Ascher About ‘Room 237’

Criticism or Critique of Criticism? Talking With Rodney Ascher About 'Room 237'

I can’t stop thinking about “Room 237.” 

I saw it for the first time a few weeks ago, then a second time the following night. I happily watched it a third time in preparation for this interview with its director, Rodney Ascher.

On the surface, it looks like a very simple film; a series of audio testimonials from critics, scholars, and fans who are obsessed with the hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” set to various clips from the film and other movies. But simple or not, it won’t get out of my head. Maybe that’s why I like it; I can relate to the idea of watching a movie a million times and building elaborate theories to explain its power.

In this case, my theory goes something like this: “Room 237” is as much about the act of interpretation as it is any specific interpretation of “The Shining.” By focusing entirely on the six theorists and their beliefs, Ascher forces us to look inwards: how do we read films? Are we seeing things that are really there or are we inventing things to suit our own beliefs? Is “Room 237” a work of film criticism or is it a critique of criticism?

That was the question I was particularly interested in talking to Ascher about. After a few general queries about how this fascinating movie was created, we got down to the business at hand.

So why “The Shining?”

It started with “The Shining.” My friend Tim Kirk — who was the producer and my partner on this film — posted this really long online analysis of “The Shining” on my Facebook page. And I immediately fell into it, like there was a “Shining”-analysis-shaped hole in my brain just waiting to be filled. And almost immediately, I thought this deep analysis of “The Shining” would be an interesting idea for a film. 

I’d done a short which was about people’s childhood phobias of the old Screen Gems logo. And I was like, “Maybe this is an interesting next step. If that was about people’s profound reaction to this little bit of TV, we could do something about people’s profound reaction to a movie, and actually one that regular human beings had heard of.”

The blending of all the different perspectives is really interesting.

It was immediately important that it not just be one point of view. We had suspected that there was a lot more out there. Certainly the Native American interpretation had been going around since Bill Blakemore wrote about it in the ’80s — it was syndicated in newspapers in 1987. So there’s the moon landing, and we’ve got some Native Americans. How much more is there? If there’s one or two more, maybe we can do some kind of comprehensive overview.

Immediately, we found that this is a gigantic world, that tons of people are writing, and that they were writing these deep, microscopic, symbolic analyses of what was going on. So then the experiment became: “What happens when we illustrate these multiple points-of-view essay film style?” Certainly if we did one, a lot of people would watch it and believe and say “Well, that’s clearly what ‘The Shining’ is about.” But if there’s two, three, five, what’s going to happen? It was really an experiment, not knowing would there be interesting overlaps where one idea informs another, and creates this unified field idea of what “The Shining” is about. Do they all contradict each other? Will one be the most compelling? That was a big part of the experiment. I was most excited when I saw things begin to overlap in weird ways.

Not showing anyone who’s speaking, just hearing their voices, is obviously a major part of the film’s structure. You’ve already said you envisioned “Room 237” as an essay film, but did you ever consider using video footage of the talking heads?

I started with voiceover interviews; that was also the way the Screen Gems short worked. I really liked how that puts you in the landscape of the imagination. Sometimes I find when you’re watching a documentary that you might get into this amazing sequence of imagery, but the montage ends and we come back to a guy in his office. It’s almost as if we’ve come up for air before we dive back in. I just never wanted to come up for air. I wanted this dive to go deeper and deeper and deeper. 

At the early stage, I thought we might do these audio interviews and then go back and film these people for specific moments. But then I became very engaged in the process of finding different footage to illustrate these ideas. Sometimes it would be very literal — they describe a shot, we see the shot — but when we would find these more subjective ways to illustrate them, or found a shot that’s doing two or maybe three weird things at the same time, I just liked it more and more.

Watching the movie I was constantly debating with myself: is this a work of film criticism? Or is it a critique of film criticism? On the one hand, it is all about analyzing this particular film. On the other hand, while they’re analyzing it, we’re analyzing them. When you weave all of them together, you see how differently people interpret things. Two people derive two totally different meanings from the same scene. How do you feel about the movie? Do you see it as a work of film criticism or a critique of film criticism?

One thing I learned doing this is that people look at films differently. Your reading is certainly one that I’ve talked about with a couple of folks — and I absolutely see it. At the beginning of this project, it seemed that this was just going to be a movie about “The Shining.” And as me and Tim would talk about it, and talk about other sort of related ideas, we got very excited that it seemed to also talk about some other very different things. And I embraced that. We certainly didn’t start this thinking let’s have a symposium on film criticism. But I can totally see the way you’re looking at it.

I think you can argue that the movie is as much about the way we interpret any movie as the way people interpret this specific movie.

I’ve had so many conversations about art and people interpreting art or literature or the world around them because of this, but it started with “The Shining.” And maybe “The Shining” was the perfect movie, because although you can do this exercise with a ton of other films, and in some ways it would be a similar project, in a Kubrick film there’s always that possibility that a lot of this stuff is in there.

Right. He was such a mad and obsessive perfectionist that he actually could have put this stuff in there.

Yeah. Which complicates it in an interesting way. 

I suppose what I’m seeing in your movie is just my interpretation, the same way the elaborate fake moon landing argument is just one person’s interpretation of “The Shining.”

But you’re not alone.

The Kubrick aspect is interesting. There were times when I began to wonder whether perhaps we give him too much credit. Isn’t it possible that he put that can of baking powder in that shot because he just liked the way it looked, and not because it represented some clue to this elaborate reading of the movie?

It is. But: “He just liked it.” The “just” is a really interesting qualifier. Why did he like it? Maybe he didn’t even know why he liked it but subconsciously, he chose that can over another can. Certainly there is a ton of Native American decor in the hotel. There’s dialogue about it. So I can totally understand why you pick that can and not another can. But’s interesting to talk about the possibilities of people working subconsciously. He just likes that can, but he just likes it because it actually reinforces themes that he’s working on in the movie, even if he never explains it to anyone else or articulates it.

Have your subjects found their theories evolving in the face of the other theories presented in the movie?

They’re all still engaging with Kubrick and “The Shining.” They’ve all seen the movie, and they’re all very supportive. I don’t think anybody has been swayed to change teams. [laughs] Though Bill Blakemore and Geoffrey Cocks did meet at Sundance and I think that they’ve been corresponding. Their ideas dovetail nicely in general; the themes of genocide and this corrupt elite class are pretty compatible even if the specifics are a little different.

So much of the movie is about these viewers digesting a work of art however they see fit, which raises the question: how much does a movie belong to its director? How much does your work belong to you?

Clearly this movie is about what happens when a film leaves the filmmaker. It’s a fair question to say “Are they putting their own spin on it? Or are they in a special place in their lives where they’re able to receive the message that Kubrick’s sending?” Most of these guys are using their background to look at the film. But it’s usually in a way that relates to Kubrick’s experience and themes he’s working on. So it’s sort of this endless yes but no but yes.

One of “The Shining” experts discuss what happens when you watch the movie forwards and backwards simultaneously, which was how it was shown here at Fantastic Fest. Have you ever watched it that way?

Yesterday was the first time I watched it the whole way through. And I dug it. I knew there was a lot of interesting visual overlaps and juxtapositions, but one thing I wasn’t prepared for was how much more tragic it made the movie. There’s a lot of amazing coincidences, like when Lloyd says “Women: you can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em,” you see the nude woman from Room 237. But it also almost becomes like “Irreversible” — while we see the family together in one scene, we see the final act, with him trying to kill the family in the other. It’s like an eerie foreshadowing when you’re watching it in the first half and a tragic flashback at the end. You’re thinking about the happy days as you’re seeing the horrible stuff.

A colleague of mine said he felt like the characters were shining to one another from different parts of the movie.

You get that. When Danny is having his visions, traumatized in bed, you’re seeing the murder of Hallorann. I don’t know that every moment is improved. But things interact in this wonderfully complicated way.

Do you read reviews of your movies?

I know I should stop! But it’s my first feature so I’m excited that anyone’s interested in talking about it or going to see it. I feel like I might be indulging myself in navel gazing. But I am interested in what people have to say.

Have any of the reviews surprised you in the same way that some of the “Shining” theories surprise us?

A couple. There was someone who wrote that it seemed like our interviewees were like ghosts in the hotel, which I hadn’t thought about, but I love it. I’m happy to take credit for it.

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