Room 237, documentary by Rodney Ascher
By the time the conspiracy theory about director Stanley Kubrick faking the Apollo 11 moon landing is floated, the titters have become audible. And yet, after the dorm room pot haze dissipates, Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary about crackpots orbiting the expatriated American maverick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling third novel leaves its audience feeling like Danny Torrance, the five-year-old central to both book and film, whose telepathic ability dubbed “shining” allows him to see things that aren’t there.
In order to tackle Kubrick’s embed of everything from Native American genocide to the Holocaust, Ascher assembles a rogue’s gallery we never actually see. “The talking head shot in a room is a little mundane,” Ascher explains after his film screens for press at the 50th New York Film Festival before its March theatrical release. “It’s the world we all live in and I wanted this movie to be off in outer space or ancient Rome, not an office or hotel room.” In fact, Ascher calls his first cut a radio version. “We did all the interviews audio-only. I mailed people inexpensive, digital audio recorders I got on Amazon, then talked to them on the phone as they recorded themselves and then mailed it back to me.”
ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore posits the film’s dense, Indian imagery as an apology to Native Americans while history professor Geoffrey Cocks seizes on the film’s repetition of the number forty-two as the closest Kubrick came to parsing the Holocaust on film. Playwright Juli Kearns complies elaborate, 3-D maps of the Overlook Hotel while musician John Fell Ryan details booking an experimental cinematheque to project the film running both backward and forward superimposed on the same screen before falling down the rabbit hole wherein his life came to eerily mirror that of unhinged hotel caretaker Jack Torrance. But it’s conspiracy hunter Jay Weidner who knocks it out of the park with his moon landing theory, which initially garners laughter until Ascher cuts away to Danny wearing a whimsically knit sweater emblazoned with the Apollo 11 rocket.
Both Ascher and his producer Tim Kirk also came to the film through deception. “I snuck into it during its initial release,” Ascher admits, bolting from the theater during the opening helicopter shot accompanied by the macabre shrieking of Transylvanian-born composer György Sándor Ligeti’s 1967 composition Lontano. “The overwhelming quality of that music at the top chased me out,” Ascher says, “but I was a budding young horror aficionado so very soon after its release on VHS, I revisited it again and again. As young kids, it’s very natural to identify with Danny, but now that we’re at another stage of our lives and have young children, we’re absolutely watching this movie through the eyes of Jack and seeing him as a very bad cautionary story.”
“I saw it at its matinee premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre,” Kirk, who also lives in Los Angeles raising a three-year-old daughter, adds. “I got an older friend to buy me the ticket, but I watched it on Cinemax my freshmen year of college and would spend too many hours late at night just watching it over and over down in the basement of my dorm. I root for Jack to go crazy because he’s such a phony at the beginning of the film, but it really is about fatherhood and not being a terrible dad.” Ascher agrees, adding, “This film was made largely between the hours of nine PM and three AM. I was sitting at the keyboard typing away not sure if what I was writing was meaningless gibberish or something people could understand so it’s very easy to see Jack as a worst possible version of oneself.”
Source author King felt similarly, dedicating the 1977 novel to his son, “Joe Hill King, who shines on.” The autobiographical story was a result of King uprooting his young family to find a setting that differed from the native Maine depicted in his first two novels Carrie and Salem’s Lot. They arrived in Boulder after King opened an atlas on his kitchen table, randomly placed his finger over the Colorado town. A Halloween break in an adjacent resort at the foot of the Rockies had the Kings checking into room 217 as sole guests of the Stanley Hotel. Of course, Kubrick famously changed that room number to 237 in his film, which Holocaust theorist Geoffrey Cocks suggests is because 42 is a multiple of those digits while Apollo 11 theorist Jay Weidner extrapolates the phrase “moon room” out of the arcane abbreviation “room no. 237″ on the red key dangling from the ajar door of the haunted hotel’s sexualized epicenter.
Weidner can’t resist adding the moon is 237,000 miles from earth and suggests all of Kubrick’s alterations to King’s novel point to Apollo 11 fakery, but Kubrick went about making the story his own with aplomb. The Volkswagen Beetle the Torrances use to travel to the Overlook shifts from red in the book to yellow on-screen. Certainly within the aegis of a painterly colorist like Kubrick, but what of the red Volkswagen Beetle the family rubbernecks as it sits crushed beneath an eighteen-wheeler? King recently told The Writer’s Digest it’s the only film adaptation he can “remember hating” – a huge statement considering the Christine or Cujo adaptations – and King went onto pen his own three-part miniseries corrective that aired on ABC in the spring of 1997.
Ascher was always clear about focusing on his five experts and the film traffics in the post-modern tenet that author intent – either King’s or Kubrick’s – is beside the point, “but certainly now that it’s wrapped up, Stephen King is on the top of my list as someone whose two cents I’d love to get,” Ascher says, while Kirk puts Kubrick’s screenplay collaborator Dianne Johnson on top of his. Ascher adds that King’s sequel, a return-to-form horror entitled “Dr. Sleep” tracking Danny as an adult hospice worker, is due out next September and calls it “one of a thousand coincidences we couldn’t have imagined when we started this thing, before I spent too much time in front of my keyboard trying not to be too much of a jerk if any family members needed some attention.”