One of the best documentaries you will see this year is unwinding this weekend (April 11-14) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Room 237 probes for hidden meaning in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. While that may read like a simple premise in reality the film looks at nine stealth theories of what Kubrick’s film, itself a horror classic based on a Stephen King novel, really means.
Director Rodney Ascher has taken on a vast task for his debut feature and he pulls the rabbit out of the hat repeatedly. Previously Ascher helmed several narrative shorts, and a doc short that found hidden meaning in the Screen Gems logo (The S From Hell, 2010).
“The style for S From Hell came together by using horror movie conventions to tell the story,” Ascher tells Free Press Houston in a phone interview. Likewise, his exploration into The Shining takes on a mystery conspiracy vibe as some of the trails are quite lucid and clear while others are obviously meant as jokes, even while expanding your knowledge of Kubrick the man. For instance, one theory about The Shining proposes that Kubrick covertly shot footage of the Apollo astronauts on the Moon in a studio. While that is far fetched, later in Room 237 we compare the graphic pattern of the carpet in The Shining with the outline of a Cape Kennedy launch pad, and you know what – they both look the same.
Of course the Kubrick moon story is actually based on a French mockumentary from 2002 called Opération Lune that was made with cooperation from the Kubrick estate. (This mockumentary is also available on Youtube under the title Dark Side of the Moon.) “I wasn’t aware of that film until I started on pre-production for Room 237,” Ascher says. Obviously a working knowledge of The Shining is important, although Room 237 stands on its own as a film. Houston is fortunate in that the engagement of Room 237 is accompanied with screenings of The Shining at both the MFAH, in tandem with this weekend’s screenings of Room 237, and as part of the big screen classics series at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park (10 pm. Saturday, April 13).
Room 237 explores rear projection studio film shots; the differences in Kubrick’s version and King’s version; the architecture of the Overlook Hotel, where the story takes place; and even themes of genocide both of the American Indians and during WWII. Does a piece of office furniture form a boner in one shot? Many clips from other Kubrick films as well as appropriate found footage pop up.
And don’t forget a version of The Shining known as The Shining Forwards and Backwards (shown at a few film festivals) in which Kubrick’s film is, yes, projected forwards and backwards at the same time. “It’s an unusual juxtaposition and heavy thematically,” explains Ascher. “The Shining itself is like a black comedy in the first half, while the second half is a creepy tragedy.”
The opening shot of Room 237 shows Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut standing in front of a marquee window looking at poster art and photos from The Shining. But already Ascher has an ace up his sleeve. In that shot Cruise is actually standing outside of a jazz club and Ascher has painted in images from The Shining instead of the poster and photos of Eyes Wide Shut pianist Nick Nightingale. Ascher laughs and reminds that Saul Bass designed The Shining poster.
- Michael Bergeron