You know the Calumet Baking Powder cans in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"? You know — the Calumet Baking cans? Lining the pantry of the film's Overlook Hotel? No, no: The baking cans behind all the carnage! Right, those baking cans. What's that, you didn't notice those cans, red and white, with the familiar Indian-headdress logo, what with all the rivers of blood and the axe-wielding and the bug-eyed Shelley Duvalls?
Then you need to see "Room 237," filmmaker Rodney Ascher's deadpan documentary about five "Shining" obsessives and their profoundly nuts, deep subtextural readings of the meaning of Kubrick's 1980 horror classic. For instance, those Calumet Baking Powder cans — the catalyst for longtime ABC reporter (and former Chicagoan) Bill Blakemore's contention that "The Shining" is actually a kind of apology for westward expansion and the genocidal treatment of Native Americans. You didn't get that from "The Shining"? You will after "Room 237" — or rather, you will probably think it's an even longer stretch than westward expansion.
And that's just one... theory? insight?
Ascher, open arms, listens to several, never showing the faces of the theorists, never showing himself either, as footage of the film plays in hypnotic loops: "The Shining" is Kubrick's apology for faking of the moon landing. No, an elaborate restaging of the Minotaur and the maze. No, it's a Holocaust memoriam.
Only slightly less mysterious: Who is Rodney Ascher? He's a music video and commercial director; he lives in Los Angeles, and "Room 237," which first played at the Sundance Film Festival last year, is his feature debut. We spoke to him recently by phone. The following is a condensed version of a longer chat:
Q: I know nothing about you. How old are you?
A: Forty-five. I'm not a public figure.
Q: Why did you make this film, Rodney?
A: Because me and my friends spend too much time online. Tim Kirk, who produced my film, posted a long analysis of "The Shining" on my Facebook page, and from that moment on, I have had no greater interest.
Q: Are you the kind of person who tried to sync up "Dark Side of the Moon" with a screening of "The Wizard of Oz"? (Presumably, Pink Floyd's record plays in perfect sync with "Wizard of Oz.")
A: Yes, I am.
Q: Also, in the background of "Wizard of Oz," there's supposedly a dead person hanging in a tree.
A: That's debunked.
Q: Are you more obsessed with the theories in your film or the people telling them?
A: I guess I was most obsessed with the substance of their theories, the implications. I'm a gigantic Kubrick fan and there is something genuinely enigmatic in "The Shining" that it's plausible something is going on.
Q: Really? Do you seriously think that though? Because I thought those things when I was 15. At some point, you start to realize, most filmmakers are generally pragmatic, even the crazy ones.
A: Oh, I don't know. There are puzzles in Kubrick's films. Why is a 14th century hotel room floating in outer space in "2001"? Don't you wonder what exactly "a clockwork orange" means? "The Shining" ends with a photo and a date: July 4, 1921. It's presented like a Rosebud moment, as if it were a solution to a mystery.
Q: But all art lends itself to personal interpretation, and if any of these people are correct — if this horror movie is actually about the crimes of Manifest Destiny — what's in it for the audience? Who goes to such lengths to make a movie about a very specific subject then disguises the message?
A: That's kind of the only time you hear my voice in the film: I ask one of the subjects why Kubrick would make it so complicated? He says, "Why did James Joyce write 'Finnegans Wake?" I think there is something about an artist who's had success, they want to ever increase the complexity of their projects. On the other hand, in a way, the people in my movie have the shining — they see things most people can't.
Q: Kubrick is also a perfect director to do with this. He was reclusive, mysterious, while, say, a Steven Spielberg, so seemingly transparent, but arguably no less complex, doesn't seem to be.
A: I thought about that. Kubrick never turned up on talk shows, but Orson Welles was on talk shows all the time and did a lot of interviews, and it never demystified his work. All the lore surrounding Kubrick, how he moved to England, spent so long making each movie, took so many takes, shot away from the eyes of studio executives — because he had such control, it does lend itself to assuming a certain intentionality.
Q: Is obsession the theme of "Room 237"?
A: It's one theme.
Q: Let me rephrase: Is obsession really what "Room 237" is about?
A: I neither confirm nor deny!