PRINT March 2013


Rodney Ascher’s Room 237

Rodney Ascher, Room 237, 2012, digital video, color and black-and-white, sound, 102 minutes. Clip from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, 1980.

BY SO MANY MEASURES, Room 237 is a diminutive film. Directed by Rodney Ascher (reputed for his 2010 short, S from Hell), it is restricted in scope to the interwoven commentaries of five devotees of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic, The Shining, whose day jobs range from ABC correspondent (Bill Blakemore) and history professor (Geoffrey Cocks) to experimental musician (John Fell Ryan), playwright (Juli Kearns), and professional “conspiracy hunter” (Jay Weidner). The remarks of these aficionados are laid over corresponding clips from Kubrick’s film, in addition to occasional passages from the director’s other works and pertinent media footage from the beginning of the twentieth century on. Collectively, the perspectives voiced in Room 237 are rambling and disheveled, regularly shuttling from personal epiphanies experienced when first watching the film to obsessive ruminations across the decades about The Shining’s hidden meanings, overlooked idiosyncrasies, and, finally, rightful place as an artistic touchstone transcending the commercialism of its populist genre. In a film ostensibly intending to deconstruct a work by modern-day cinema’s most notoriously meticulous maker, one person’s scholarly analysis can give way to another’s midnight-movie munchies in the flash of a single frame.

It is precisely this discordant spectrum of voice-overs, however, that makes Room 237 such an intriguing film, since it seems ultimately less engaged with The Shining than with The Shining’s viewers—and, arguably, with the very conditions for viewership today. True enough, Ascher’s picture rehearses familiar lore surrounding the making of Kubrick’s film. For instance, the director, inspired by Stephen King’s eponymous novel, dispatched a band of researchers to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado (which prompted King to write his book), to gather comprehensive historical information about the building—as well as about the surrounding region’s checkered path to statehood—as the material basis for what would eventually be a deep foray into a psychologized American landscape. Strewn amid this account as well are hoary anecdotal tidbits, such as a request by Oregon’s Timberline Lodge (where Kubrick set his adaptation) that the director change the number of his film’s most haunted room from 217 to 237, lest superstitious guests refuse to stay in that suite in real life. The Shining has always had an air of legend about it, reaching well beyond the projection booth’s light. But with Ascher’s polyphony of perspectives, even such generally accepted stories are cast into doubt, rendered the stuff of hearsay and repression, unsettling the basis for nearly any comprehensive interpretation of the film. Grounded arguments such as Blakemore’s, that the film allegorizes the genocide of American Indians as white settlers made their way across the continent—the journalist bolsters his case by pointing to the original movie poster’s tagline, “The wave of terror that swept America”—find themselves woven into Weidner’s claim that the film constitutes a veiled admission by Kubrick that he had faked “NASA’s” footage of the first lunar landing. Elsewhere, close attention to Kubrick’s use of slow dissolves establishes suggestive visual links between human atrocities and historical geography, but only while similar formal analyses of his pervasive use of mirroring prompts others to look for obscured messages by simultaneously projecting the film backward and forward, creating occasionally mind-bending superimpositions. Ye believers in Wizard of OzDark Side of the Moon synchronicities, look on and despair!

All these juxtapositions serve to underscore how many different methodologies are in active play in Room 237, ranging from psychoanalytic theory to historical biography, from iconographic and structuralist readings to visual-culture studies. Each one follows the next on a single continuum—indeed, on occasion it’s impossible to tell who is speaking, scholar or conspiracy theorist—and occasionally the same methodology is deployed to radically different ends. And so Room 237 ends up positing a viewer suspended somewhere between Roland Barthes’s notion of semiotics and Bruno Latour’s diagnosis of an exhausted public sphere. If Barthes said the job of criticism is to endow any work with the proliferation of possible meanings, Latour has more recently argued that the sheer diversity of discrete sources of information in the media, lacking any language in common, has rendered the project of critique impossible. Nearly every interpretation of a work is plausible. One can find evidence to support any case.

The true magic of Ascher’s film resides in its ability to actually convince in this regard, which is partly attributable to Kubrick’s having himself riddled his work with false leads and inconsistencies. One by one, interviewees underline the way the topography of The Shining is perpetually shifting, subtly generating anxiety by accumulation: A typewriter’s color varies from scene to scene; chairs disappear from shot to shot; the pattern of a carpet changes; an actor who was downstairs is suddenly upstairs in a single cut; the very scale of the building mutates over time. Evidence that Kubrick would go to such lengths primes viewers of Room 237 for leaps of faith, so that even the most skeptical will feel a rush when, for example, the carpet under Danny’s feet is shown to bear shocking resemblance to the launchpad for Apollo 11. In such instances, one might recall William Burroughs’s famous Cold War adage that sometimes paranoia is just having all the facts—and then ask whether the terms for such a statement have been reversed for us by now, at least when it comes to critical viewing. For if Kubrick’s film is often understood as an allegory for an irrepressible past, Room 237 is haunted by these other voices of reception—those different models for discourse, once alive but now wandering through the halls, unrooted and homeless, seeming every bit as elusive, half forgotten, and yet intrusive as the stuff of shining.

Room 237 opens in New York on March 29.

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.