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WISCONSIN FILM FESTIVAL

Wisconsin Film Festival 2013: Rodney Ascher, director of Room 237, analyzes Stanley Kubrick and The Shining

Ascher: "If most films, most stories, work on two levels, why can't 'The Shining' work on five?"
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In Room 237, director Rodney Ascher zooms in on Stanley Kubrick's obsessive, intricate 1980 masterpiece, The Shining. Though Room 237 could be called a critical study of this psychological horror film, it includes clips from many Kubrick films, as well as archival footage and conversations with people who share elaborate theories about the film and its meanings. Many of the theories are outlandish (that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing), some are fairly plausible (that Kubrick's symbolism at times serves as a middle finger to Stephen King and his initial novel), and some are indisputable (that Barry Lyndon is a boring movie).

Ascher answered some questions before heading to Madison for the film's screening at the Wisconsin Film Festival (Wednesday, April 17, 6:30 p.m., Sundance).


The Daily Page: In Room 237, you don't give viewers any real cues about what to think of certain theories. Did you intend to withhold judgment as far as what's valid and what's crazy?
Ascher: I certainly wanted to give people the freedom to decide which idea resonated with them the strongest. This may be a result of doing the voiceover-only option, but I've heard from people who when they're picking their favorite ideas, they will mix and match ideas from different commentators, or even their favorite and least favorite will both be from the same person, in a way that might be more difficult if they were associated more strictly with a face.

There was a whole science-experiment quality to this project... the idea being to illustrate radically different interpretations of The Shining and to try to be as persuasive as possible with each one. What the results of that were going to be was not at all clear at the beginning, whether it would be the end of Hamlet and the entire stage is littered with bodies, or if there would be some kind of clear winner in this battle royale.


And if there's a subtext that results from that approach, it's almost an underlying message of, "Well, why not?"
If most films, most stories, work on two levels, why can't The Shining work on five?


The biggest surprise is that some of your interview subjects have made very elaborate diagrams of the set.
Yeah, Juli Kearns made those. Aren't they beautiful?


You're never mocking the interview subjects, but isn't there a sense of humor and playfulness in your film, too?
Well, if you're going to be doing a feature-length exercise in semiotics from five points of view about a 30-year-old horror movie, it's going to go down a lot easier with a couple jokes. I think Stanley Kubrick films are often very funny. With an attempt to do this in a style that was not just kind of a straight-up piece of documentary journalism, I intended that parts of the movie would be funny, and that parts would be kind of eerie. What I didn't want it to be was a joke about five zany people.

The place that these people are coming from, I think, is similar to the way that all of us make sense of things. In other people's cases, it might not be The Shining. It might be history, politics, music, religion, something else. I certainly identify pretty strongly with these folks. The idea isn't a joke at their expense, but that some of the humor comes from unusual juxtapositions and connections. ... I don't know if it could have held out if that was the entire point of it.


One thing that's really strange about The Shining is that you can see the shadow of the helicopter the opening scene was shot from. What do you make of the fact that such an obsessive filmmaker managed to leave in a rather obvious flaw?
It's only obvious on the first home-video versions. You have to kind of geek out on the movie's history, how it was on the VHS and the first DVD, but not the second [DVD] or the Blu-ray, because of the aspect ratio and the way it was cropped. Without getting too deep into scrutinizing the shadow in particular, I think the shadow is a great case study about the way people think of The Shining. In any other filmmaker's work, that would be dismissed as an inconsequential error, but I've read very extended passages arguing either way, that the shadow is some kind of postmodern touch, or that it means x or that it means y, or people say, "No, it was just a result of this other guy who was shooting it because Kubrick wasn't in the helicopter." It's a very small element of The Shining, but there are no inconsequential elements of The Shining.


There's really as much of other Kubrick films as there is of The Shining. Why was it important to you to keep his other films in viewers' minds?
There are a lot of people who say -- and I kind of go along with the idea -- that all of his movies add up to one big movie, that there are recurring themes that travel all the way from Paths of Glory, or, gosh, from Fear and Desire, all the way through Eyes Wide Shut. There's a visual language and a thematic one that links all these movies. More than most any other filmmaker, his movies reflect a very singular vision that is more akin to a painter or novelist than a filmmaker, who usually is trying to lead an army of collaborators.


And you include films like Paths of Glory and The Killing, which are great films but not as trendy to discuss as A Clockwork Orange or Eyes Wide Shut.
Sure, but they're all incredibly important to me.


It's surprising that you didn't include more clips from Dr. Strangelove, though.
There's not a ton. There's the shot of Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) exhaling smoke in that montage, and in hindsight there's a moment where Strangelove himself does the "Heil, Hitler!" that could well have fit into one of the extended montages about World War II. I also kind of regret not having found a spot for the scene where Lolita does the "Sieg heil."


One of the more fascinating interview subjects is John Fell Ryan, who has played in bands like Excepter and No Neck Blues Band, and also has an extensive blog about his interpretations of Kubrick films. What kind of rapport do you have with him?
It's funny. He's actually the guy that I've gotten to know the best, now that he lives in L.A. and we've been able to spend some time together. I enjoy hanging out with him. He's a heavy guy, and just driving around, we seem to have pretty involved, interesting conversations. ... He talks more about philosophy than he does about trivia.


His blog is a reminder that what your interview subjects are saying is really just the tip of the iceberg, as far as how many other ideas they must have about The Shining and Kubrick in general.
Let alone the people that we weren't able to get into the film. That's something that we had to come to terms with at a certain point. In the earliest conception, there was a naive idea that we'd be able to do an exhaustive overview of all the metaphors and symbols that people have found in The Shining. We had to make peace with the fact that that was not going to be possible. There are moments here and there where we're trying to really suggest that this is just the tip of the iceberg. When we pan over Juli Kearns' maps, if you freeze it, you'll see references to all sorts of ideas that are really compelling but we didn't get into.


Well, my big takeaway from the film was "Whoa, I'm a rookie in terms of my love for The Shining."
Me, too. The Shining contains multitudes. I don't know that anyone's ever going to get their heads around everything that's been said about it.


In advance of the screening on Wednesday, April 17, the Livingston Inn on 752 E. Gorham St. hosts the Room 237 Happy Hour. Running from 4 to 5:30 p.m., this fundraiser for the festival's Real Butter Fund will feature hors d'oeurves from Lombardino's Restaurant and beverages from Cork 'n Bottle. Rodney Ascher and filmmaker Josh Fadem will also be on hand to discuss the film. Directly following the screening of Room 237, at 9:15 p.m., Sundance will screen a program of Ascher's and Fadem's short films.

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