Magnificent Obsessions: An Interview with Rodney Ascher (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton
In the prologue to On Kubrick, James Naremore labels the subject of his book a prototypical modernist. For Naremore, Stanley Kubrick “made pictures that, however much they might resemble Hollywood genres, were very close in spirit to the Euro-intellectual cinema of the 1960s.” Perhaps no film better exemplifies Kubrick’s cross-fertilization of modernist motifs and genre conventions than his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. Received with skepticism, and even hostility, by viewers and critics upon its release in 1980, the film is now regarded as a contemporary classic that merits repeated viewings. The disappointment of Stephen King fans notwithstanding, The Shining’s leisurely pace and cryptic plot twists eventually delighted critics and theorists ranging from Michel Ciment to Fredric Jameson.
From the film’s opening aerial shot of the Torrance family’s car traveling towards their new abode at the Overlook Hotel to a final enigmatic photograph of Jack Torrance dislodged from late twentieth-century America and transported back to the hotel’s heyday during a nightmarish version of the Jazz Age, The Shining revels in a host of elusive narrative detours that continue to intrigue amateur cinematic sleuths as much as professional critics and academics. (And how does one explain the bizarre goings-on in the Overlook’s Room 237?)
In the Age of DIY cinephilia, where DVDs can be watched endlessly and freelance annotators with acute cases of logorrhea can churn out analyses on Websites, Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, acclaimed at, among other venues, Sundance, Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, and the New York Film Festival, chronicles how the digital era facilitates obsessive cinephilia by focusing on five zealous fans of The Shining and their disparate interpretations of Kubrick’s masterpiece. The overall, slightly manic tone of the film is perhaps best summed up by the blogger Mstrmnd an off-screen, yet nevertheless vibrant presence, in Room 237. For Mstrmnd, The Shining is both the most “complex” and the most “visually satisfying” film ever made—a movie that “isn’t composed of any one theme; isolating any of them dilutes Kubrick’s intent. All themes merge. Native American vs. Manifest Destiny, mirroring vs. doubling, linear vs. continuum…fable vs. myth, cartoon vs. realism….” And so on—for innumerable Web pages of dense, tiny print.
The spectrum of interpretations proliferated by Ascher’s other participants are less ecumenical, and, for the most part, considerably more monomaniacal. For ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, The Shining is primarily “about the murder of a race—the race of Native Americans—and the consequences of that murder.” Blakemore is particularly intrigued by the presence of “Calumet baking powder cans with their Indian chief logo placed carefully in two food-locker scenes.” Geoffrey Cocks marshals an equally voluminous amount of evidence—from an Adler typewriter to a preoccupation with the number “42,” the year of the Wannsee Conference—to demonstrate that Kubrick was primarily concerned with the genocide of European Jews. From perhaps the most easily dismissible perspective, Jay Weidner’s speculations concerning howThe Shining supposedly reveals how Kubrick “directed” the Apollo moon landings on earth provide considerable comic relief.
Ascher’s other protagonists temper their theories with a bit more aesthetic detachment. Playwright and novelist Juli Kearns is preoccupied with anomalies in Kubrick’s visual style and the Overlook Hotel’s peculiar topography; her scrutiny of the “impossible window” in the office where Jack’s job interview takes place is one of Room 237’s highlights. Musician and “culture jammer” John Fell Ryan, following up a suggestion by Mstrmnd, transforms Kubrick’s film into performance art by superimposing forwards and backwards projections of The Shining—a stunt that yields startling juxtapositions that function as another series of sly commentaries.
Both Slant’s Michal Oleszczyk and Film Comment’s B. Kite compare the monomaniacs in Room 237 to modern kabbalists. From another vantage point, they’re also celebrants of what Roland Barthes labeled “the triumphant plural,” a category that embodies the quintessence of modernism, complex works where “networks are many and interact, we gain access….by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one…” Barthes’s formulation foreshadows Mstrmnd’s enshrinement of The Shining’s intersecting, overlapping themes, but the endorsement of an implicitly “anything goes” strain of interpretive delirium may also explain Jonathan Rosenbaum’s condemnation of Room 237 as “reprehensible.” Rosenbaum is repelled by Ascher’s disinclination “to make distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic, conceivable or ridiculous, implying that they’re all just ‘film criticism’ and…everyone is a film critic nowadays…” The irate critic surmises that Ascher is guilty of bogus “impartiality.” Another possibility is that a film like Room 237 annoys professional critics and academics because it challenges their hegemony and proves that, after the sillier interpretations of Ascher’s experts are dismissed, it’s more than plausible to assert that the uncredentialed can teach us a thing or two.
Cineaste interviewed Ascher immediately after Room 237’s local premiere at the 2012 New York Film Festival. Even after enduring a full quotient of interviews, he was still eager to discuss the intricacies of The Shining, as well as the acclaim, and occasional controversy, that has accompanied the film since its screening at Sundance in January 2012.—Richard Porton
Cineaste: For my generation, 2001: A Space Odyssey was the focus of obsessive attention. Why do you think that The Shining has become such a fetish object? Do you think it’s because the narrative is so riddled with ambiguity?
Rodney Ascher: Well, sure, The Shining is full of ambiguity. You never know what happens to Danny in Room 237, or what the implication of the B&W photo at the end is, or even whether the ghosts are figments of Jack’s imagination. It goes on and on just on a basic narrative level before you even get into layers of metaphor. I wonder if there’s more thought going into The Shining now, because, given when the film was released, people who were scared by The Shining as kids are writing about it now. And New Media has opened a lot of new avenues for us to get the word out. Maybe that wasn’t so easy ten or fifteen years ago. The Shining has these sequences where Jack is just staring off into space and there’s ominous music playing, or when Danny’s riding his Big Wheel through the hotel and the camera rolls and rolls. Since there’s nothing much plot-based happening, you have time to meditate on the carpet patterns, the music selections, or the pictures on the wall.
Cineaste: Although this kind of analysis is commonly applied to European art films such as Last Year at Marienbad, it’s fairly rare for a so-called “pop film” to engender such readings.
Ascher: Sure, although a lot of other films have lent themselves to allegorical interpretations, few have been as accessible as The Shining, which made it pretty deep into the mainstream. Of course, Kubrick’s films all pretty neatly fall into the sweet spot between art and entertainment. People probably just watch the film thinking it’s a cool horror movie but then open themselves up to other ideas.
Cineaste: Would you conclude that Room 237 couldn’t have been made in the pre-Internet era? These online obsessives generated most of the analyses that fuel your film.
Ascher: For sure, the Internet absolutely helped inspire the body of work Room 237 draws from; three of our five analysts write almost exclusively for the Internet. It’s also YouTube and DVDs that allow us to watch films again and again, as well as in closer detail.
Cineaste: So the film is a product of digital culture in general?
Ascher: Yes, you can find a YouTube clip of The Shining with a thread that includes five hundred comments. The ability to watch a scene again and again and share your thoughts with a large community is not a form that existed until recently.
Cineaste: I also noticed the online ruminations of a guy named Rob Ager from Liverpool in the U.K.; he seems equally as obsessed as the participants in your film. Were you tempted to include him as well?
Ascher: Yes, I reached out to him, but the timing wasn’t right. Anyway, he’s finishing up his own DVD. I would love to have included him since he’s written some amazing things! But there was a point in the project when my partner Tim Kirk [the producer] and I realized that we were not going to be able to be exhaustive in including everything that everybody had said about The Shining. There was a process of coming to peace with that and trying to find little ways to let the film say, “This is just the tip of the iceberg; there’s a lot more stuff out there.” When, for example, John Fell Ryan talks about the time he spent obsessing about the film on the Internet, we get to see blurbs of Websites that discuss subjects that aren’t covered in the film. Or when we pan over one of Juli [Kearns’s) maps and see the chair from the Gold Room that she claims the woman in Room 237 was sitting in.
Cineaste: Since you winnowed it down to five people—with the exception of “Mstrmnd” who doesn’t appear on screen—what was the selection process for choosing the participants?
Ascher: First, there were a couple of people, whose work was discussed widely enough, that we felt obliged to include them. That would include Bill Blakemore, whose essay on the film circulated widely since it appeared in ‘87 and sort of got the ball rolling. And then there was Jay Weidner, whose NASA/Apollo 11 ideas got a lot of attention online and was one of the real starting points for Tim and me. We realized that many people were writing interesting things about The Shining, and interestingly enough, more and more people are doing it now.
Cineaste: Or nutty things, according to some.
Ascher: Well, sure, and I’ve had some fun noticing that different audiences pick which is which differently. But we were especially interested in people who had personal connections to the film—not just people who said the “carpet meant this,” but people were a little reflective and could speak about what, in their personal experiences, helped them understand The Shining and, conversely, what about studying The Shining helped them understand their own lives. I adored those maps that Juli was making and liked the idea of her watching the film and filling in a diagram as she went. John Fell Ryan’s screening of the film simultaneously forwards and backwards was important in seeing how the film is linked to digital culture. I mean, there’s a little subplot in the film in which we talk about the changing ways that people watch The Shining. First, they watch they film in the cinemas; then there’s the VHS, the DVD, and Blu-ray. Perhaps the final step involves them manipulating the film in order to look at things in a new way.
Cineaste: So that became the departure point for making the “forwards/backwards” version of The Shining a performance piece that was presented at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn?
Ascher: Well, John Fell Ryan was inspired to do it after reading that the Mstrmnd said the film could be played either way. But other people have manipulated the film in other ways, the most famous example probably being the trailer remix that turned it into a family comedy.
Cineaste: What about the mystique around Kubrick that your film reflects? The assumption seems to be that, like Hitchcock, he was almost more like a general than a director and that every shot exemplifies his mastery. But, surely, in The Shining, as in any other film, there must be sequences that contain mistakes and lapses in authorial control.
Ascher: Some people might disagree. If any director were to be thought of as an infallible author, it would be Kubrick. That does inspire people to get into matters that, with other directors, you might just dismiss as a mistake. And there’s also one layer beyond that; Geoffrey Cocks and John Fell Ryan talk about the idea that accidents, mistakes, subconscious decisions, and synchronicities can be meaningful too. David Lynch, in his book on meditation, Catching the Big Fish, talks about inviting synchronicities into his movies. It’s interesting to compare his films with Kubrick’s; he’s also someone who’s very determined not to explain the symbolic dimension of any of his films. There’s a great story where he describes a scene he was shooting where the lights went out when a fuse in the generator blew. Then he tried again and the same thing happened. Finally, he changed some of the dialogue, and during that take there was no electrical issues so he concluded, “I knew something was wrong.”
Cineaste: Of course, Room 237 is as much about as obsessives as it is about The Shining, isn’t it?
Ascher: Sure. In the eight or so months that Tim and I were trying to figure out what our focus was, we were absolutely hoping that it would be about something more than The Shining. Obsession was certainly something we talked about (whether in the making or watching of the film) or maybe we could touch on how people make sense of art, film, music, and the world around them—and what strategies they use in order to do that.
Cineaste: There are affinities between the analyses in your film and poststructuralist literary criticism where the meaning of a text is not stable and meaning can be generated by readers and, in this case, viewers.
Ascher: Yes, and in interviews Kubrick allowed for that possibility.
Cineaste: But Kubrick also mentions Freud quite a bit in those interviews and Freudian interpretations aren’t touched upon in Room 237.
Ascher: Yeah, maybe it’s a fault of the film that we didn’t go further down that road. There is a little detour where Geoffrey Cocks talks about Bruno Bettelheim’s Freudian study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. Again, it was a case where we had to make peace with the fact that we’re not going to get everything in.
Cineaste: Was there a decision early on to keep the documentary somewhat hermetically sealed inasmuch as you decided not to interview people close to the film’s production such as the screenwriter Diane Johnson or Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian?
Ascher: I had a documentary that sort of fell apart years ago because the focus was too broad and I felt paralyzed by all of the choices I could have made. So we decided to restrict this project to being about what happens when a film leaves the hands of the filmmaker and the audience is left to put the pieces together with whatever tool they have available.
Cineaste: I’d think that Geoffrey Cocks would be interested in the fact that Nazi film director Veit Harlan was Christiane Kubrick’s uncle.
Ascher: Absolutely, and I’m sure he’s familiar with that, having written multiple books about Kubrick and Nazi Germany. Ideas linking Kubrick and the Holocaust do tend to get stronger the closer you look. Also Hitler personally designed the Volkswagen which plays a pretty prominent role in the film (also the book, though it was red there.)
Cineaste: Since Kubrick had plans at one time to make a film about the Holocaust (i.e., Wartime Lies), one wonders why Geoffrey Cocks thought it necessary for Kubrick to express these concerns allegorically.
Ascher: Sure, and I don’t want to put words into Geoffrey’s mouth, but maybe the Nazi references couldn’t help but leak into The Shining, even though he was still planning on doing something more direct later. Another relevant Kubrick quote here might be, “I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point. How much would we appreciate La Gioconda [the Mona Lisa] today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth or because she’s hiding a secret from her lover? It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own.”
Cineaste: I suppose it’s the nature of obsession to take certain facts and push them to the farthest limit. Although mainstream critics mention that the Overlook Hotel is built upon a Native American burial ground, it becomes Bill Blakemore’s primary entry into the film.
Ascher: Well, he’s softened a little bit. The amazing thing is that, since making the film, our conversation hasn’t ended. I was out at a diner with him last night and his ideas about Kubrick and The Shining are continuing to evolve. He might now say that The Shining isn’t principally about Native Americans. If I understood him correctly, the idea is “If Kubrick wanted to make a horror film, what is more horrifying than the genocide of the Native Americans or European Jews?” So that material might be secondary, even as it drives the central focus of a piece of commercial popular culture. In other words, it makes a horror film scarier.
Cineaste: Jay Weidner’s take on Kubrick’s supposed participation in the staging of the Apollo 11 moon landing is probably among the most controversial interpretations. It made me wonder if he had ever seen William Karel’s mockumentary, The Dark Side of the Moon.
Ascher: I haven’t actually seen it myself and wasn’t even aware of the film when we started Room 237. I’m not sure when the idea that Kubrick faked the moon landings first came from, though you have to admit, if NASA needed someone to do it, Kubrick was pretty qualified. I don’t know if Jay was influenced by Dark, he talks about coming to his conclusions based on studying the Apollo 11 footage, and he’s certainly the first to say that The Shining was Kubrick’s confession. In her introduction toRoom 237 at the festival, Amy Taubin suggested that Kubrick could have been making a false confession, which adds another layer.
Anyway, Jay’s gone much deeper down that path than you see in our film; he’s actually produced two DVDs about his research into Stanley Kubrick. It goes beyond theories of the moon landing. (Tim saw the first one, although I avoided it because I didn’t want to be influenced and repeat something he had done.) I believe the second one is called Kubrick the Alchemist, which apparently deals with more metaphysical concerns.
Cineaste: Speaking of Barry Lyndon, I was a little taken aback by Jay Weidner’s observation that Barry Lyndon was boring.
Ascher: Well, yeah, he was speaking about the strategies of The Shining as a reaction to the static Barry Lyndon. Personally, I love Barry Lyndon, but Jay thinks it’s boring and that its boringness is relevant to how he interprets The Shining. So it was important to include this.
Cineaste: Why did the blogger Mstrmnd refuse to appear on camera?
Ascher: He’s an incredibly smart guy. I had a conversation with him and his off-the-cuff remarks were so provocative that I would have liked to have recorded them. Not to put words in his mouth, but he doesn’t think that The Shining is ambiguous, so maybe he didn’t want his reading to just be one of many.
Cineaste: I suppose Cocks, being an academic, is the most mainstream commentator.
Ascher: Yes, he’s written The Wolf at the Door on Kubrick and edited an anthology on Kubrick. He also wrote a book on the health-care industry in Nazi Germany, which seems like an especially relevant topic these days.
Cineaste: Some of the film’s editing patterns, as well as the integration of found footage, is reminiscent of music video? Did you think that aesthetic influenced the film’s style?
Ascher: I’ve done a bunch of music montages employing found footage, so that work was certainly an influence on the style. But I’ve been alternating working with found footage, live-action production, and even animation for fifteen some years. A lot of the projects I’ve done employ different visual styles, and I like mixing it up. In the course of the film, there were some happy accidents involving found footage: there were times that I was literally illustrating what people were saying and that was pretty straightforward. But then there were sequences where I would use stuff in a more subjective fashion; in one way, it’s connected to what people are saying, while also working in a metaphorical style that I found especially interesting and a real challenge. Music is certainly an important part of the film, too, and we were very lucky to get these guys to create a score inspired by late Seventies–early Eighties horror films—largely Italian horror films by Bava and Argento. The music harks back to Giorgio Moroder, Goblin, and Tangerine Dream. There’s probably more music than in other documentaries; I wanted it to have an emotional, not a journalistic, feel.
Cineaste: In any case, you wanted to avoid talking heads.
Ascher: Sure, I’m not a classically trained documentarian. So I don’t even know if I’d know how to make a traditional documentary.
Cineaste: I suppose you could call Room 237 an essay film.
Ascher: Yeah, it certainly shares a lot with that style. There’s also some influence from Craig Baldwin, and Christian Marclay’s stuff, even some of Kenneth Anger’s found-footage films. I’ve never found evidence of it, but I have always suspected that some of that strain of underground film influenced that little dream sequence in A Clockwork Orange.
Cineaste: What about The S From Hell, your short film about the Screen Gems logo? Did that employ a similar aesthetic?
Ascher: It was very much a junior version of Room 237. It’s structured in a similar way—audio-only interviews under different types of imagery, the idea was that some kids had a phobia about the old Screen Gems logo and I wanted the audience to see it through their eyes, so I used horror film aesthetics in this nonfiction context. Rather inexplicably, that film did very well and got into Sundance. I thought I’d follow it up with something more ambitious in a similar vein.
Cineaste: If The Shining functions as sort of a Rorschach Test for your participants, Room 237 seems to have performed a similar function for critics. The responses have ranged from Quintin in Cinema Scope claiming that he disliked Kubrick and The Shining until he saw your film, to Jonathan Rosenbaum complaining that you didn’t commit yourself to a particular interpretation.
Ascher: Yeah, and I think it’s fantastic. Rosenbaum certainly doesn’t have to like it, but the fact that he thought it was worth grappling with and writing about is incredibly rewarding to me. Room 237 talks about how different people react to The Shining, so I shouldn’t be surprised that people are seeing Room 237 in different ways too.
For more information on Room 237, visit http://room237movie.com/
Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine
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