Rodney Ascher is fascinated with audience reactions to film and TV imagery. With horror-like tension, his short film The S from Hell presented a cross-section of viewers voicing a peculiar phobia of the 1964 Screen Gems logo. Ascher doesn’t exactly create an argument for or against the logic behind these commentators, instead affirming the existence of their paranoia in their edited, intertwining words. As with The S from Hell, Room 237 gives cine-junkies a platform for their deep-seated analysis of cultural iconography. In the documentary, Ascher uses five incredibly fervent fans of The Shining to dissect the subtextual morsels they suspect Stanley Kubrick of having planted throughout the 1980 horror classic. These cinematic Easter eggs vary in significance, some suggesting a wide array of issues and historical meanings that Kubrick may have been hinting at, most notably the genocide of Native Americans—a theory ostensibly supported by, among other things, the careful placement of Calumet soup cans during separate scenes set inside the Overlook Hotel’s kitchen pantry. I sat down with Ascher last October during the New York Film Festival to discuss his favorite cinema essay films, what he learned most from The Shining fans he profiled, and his own love of Kubrick.
While making Room 237, did you think about cinema essay films like From the Journals of Jean Seberg and Los Angeles Plays Itself?
Absolutely, those films are an influence. I’m a big fan of Los Angeles Playing Itself. I haven’t seen the Jean Seberg one, but years ago I saw Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. Also, I’ve been a giant fan of the collage work that Craig Baldwin does. I’ve done both live action and sort of collage/remix work myself over the years. When I was first going through film school, I was really into Bruce Conner, even Kenneth Anger, who’s done some really interesting work. What’s the Anger film that features the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack”?
That film relates to Clockwork Orange, where Stanley Kubrick started playing with that kind of found footage and ironically counterpointing soundtrack underneath it, but a different soundtrack can transform preexisting footage. Sometimes he does it within his own films, like playing “Rites of Spring” during the airplane docking at the beginning of Dr. Strangelove, and makes it seem like a love scene from the point of view of the airplanes. Whenever you have a case where the music is informing a point of view that’s maybe different from the audience’s, it’s this kind of amazing alchemy. Tarantino does it in Reservoir Dogs, when the guy is torturing the cop and cutting off his ears. The contrast between “us” as an audience and the killer is so great that it plays as an interesting kind of joke. And Clockwork Orange is full of these little found-footage collages, such as Alex’s fantasy where the caveman is coming down.
There’s a universe of references in Room 237. I drew on the TV show In Search Of… both in The S from Hell and Room 237, more for the tone. Arguably, the show was a documentary series, though the program often used horror-movie language as part of its strategy. I was terrified and loved to be terrified of In Search Of… when I was a little kid. If we investigate a lot of the coincidences that surround The Shining, I’ve been surprised and freaked out, and somewhat delighted, that some of them have started to manifest within Room 237.
In both Room 237 and The S from Hell, you’re very interested in the viewer commenting on the film world and trying to find their place within an iconic landscape.
There are similarities with Room 237 and S from Hell, but they started in different places. One of the similarities in approach is that I’m trying to put audiences inside the heads of these people, to look at things the way they do. In The S from Hell, they have this childhood phobia, so I wanted to instill a fear of the Screen Gems logo into the audience as well.
See what they see.
Yeah. Room 237 isn’t a rigorous behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of The Shining. It’s an exercise in letting the audience, or even me, experience The Shining through these five people who’ve brought so much to it and have found so much there. Often what they found was eerie and uncanny and disturbing. And we tried to explore that territory as thoroughly and viscerally as we could. Talking about the way Kubrick used music, I’m not doing anything nearly as sophisticated in The Shining, but if one of our characters is finding something eerie and uncanny within the film, I wanted it to feel eerie and uncanny in Room 237. This meant using a horror-movie sound design, very inspired by late-’70s/early-’80s stuff such as In Search Of… and Italian zombie films.
I love Goblin, Marconi, Moroder, and Tangerine Dream. They were around, plus or minus a few years, when The Shining came out.
After conducting the interviews with the studied fans featured in Room 237, what did they illuminate most for you about The Shining? What did you learn from them that you now think is true?
A lot of what they talk about is thematic, or symbolic, or allegoric. There’s also a strategy that they would get into, the way John Fell Ryan talks about these dissolves, which isn’t something that I thought about—that they aren’t just transitions between different scenes, but juxtapositions significant on their own, and I would get especially interested in how some of those would illustrate an idea that someone else had. Bill Blakemore talks about the Native American scenes and there’s one dissolve where Jack is throwing the ball against the wall, and it dissolves to a shot of Wendy and Danny saying, “Last one to the center has to keep America clean.” You can still see Jack and the ball bouncing as they’re saying that, and both of those things suggest the characters are disrespecting Native American culture, from Jack throwing the ball against the tapestry, to Danny and Wendy joking about the “Keep America Beautiful” PSA with the crying Native American, which in the late ’70s was absolutely iconic. Certainly, the dissolves are a way of looking at the movie that I hadn’t thought of. Also, the forward/backward thing talks about the symmetry between the first and second halves of the movie, and in the beginning of the movie they have a tour of all the places where things are going to go to hell in the second half. It dead-centers on Dick Halloran getting the message from Danny, which is really the center point of the movie, and one of the big decisions that alters the movie. There are little details I never considered. Julie Kearns’s maps, which show that the geography of hotel is impossible. And that changing carpet pattern; a skeptic might say even mistakes can be interesting, but that carpet shot is the type of thing that’s harder to get wrong than to get right. A majority of what these folks pointed out was kind of new to me.