The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick made two films in the 1970s, each major in its own distinct way, but in retrospect, it’s The Shining — a film conceived in part as a commercial bid after the relative disappointment of Barry Lyndon — that might have changed the most about cinematic art, that might have possessed the most revolutionary ideas and utilized the most dynamic and dramatically risky execution of the particular problems of its genre. After nearly a century of Gothic-derived horror, horror rendered by shadows and darkness, The Shining discovers the unnerving, sickening nature of symmetry, organization, and every brightly lit corner of an eerily artificial space. Its geometrical Steadicam investigations of every far-flung nook and cranny, sometimes in literal travels on wheels, of the Overlook Hotel are finally a study in the dread and hopelessness of isolation, of the capacity of a human being to find oneself with nowhere to turn. The Shining has four important characters. All are alone.
Though an acknowledged classic by now (like all of Kubrick’s films), The Shining remains divisive (like all of… well, you know); voices of dissent have come from no less an authority than Stephen King, author of the novel upon which the film is based. I have not read this novel, an apparent parable of alcoholism and fatherhood as applied to a rather eventful winter one Jack Torrance spends as caretaker of the aforementioned Overlook, a place of inconceivable evil that infects Torrance and leads him into violence. Some fans of the novel, led by King, have proclaimed that Kubrick’s interpretation misses the point of the novel by crafting a Jack who’s clearly off the rails from the first frame of the picture. Of course, I can’t possibly know how well the film captures the spirit or letter of the book. But, to paraphrase Francois Truffaut, I do know cinema, and The Shining is cinema as a high calling, improbably beautiful and disorienting.
Perhaps it’s relevant in my praise of this horror film, however, that I generally hate the genre. They don’t scare me, don’t affect me, I don’t find them compelling. Two films have genuinely scared me: The Blair Witch Project and Repulsion. It’s neither a mark of success or failure of The Shining itself that I don’t find it particularly effective as a horror movie, nor do I find the surface fact of its story in and of itself terribly strong. If anything, the Overlook and the events therein are a bare psychological playground, like the room the Jupiter aliens create for Dave in 2001. The only time I ever found it frightening — rather than disturbing, a crucial difference — was when I showed it to my mom several years ago, and much as some movies are only funny when you’re not alone, The Shining was only scary then. I wonder, though, if there was a deeper reason for this.
It’s quite true, Kubrick offers no opportunity for the audience to get invested in the plight and inner life of Torrance before revealing that he’s a potentially dangerous psychopath. While he grits his teeth through a job interview, his perpetually mortified and nervous wife Wendy is making traditional fell-down-the-stairs excuses to a doctor for the violence that’s taken place in her home and for the fact that their son Danny is having spontaneous seizures, visions of blood, and conversations with a little man that lives in his mouth. This is not a peaceful home and the Overlook is only a specter meant to exacerbate its problems. On the drive over, Kubrick has Torrance cheerfully explaining cannibalism to his son and speaking to wife and offspring both like they are dirt he must peel off his shoe. And no, this is not — as a baffling number of the film’s detractors claim — just Jack Nicholson “acting like Jack Nicholson,” which a quick scan of Chinatown, Terms of Endearment and The Last Detail might easily prove. To classify Nicholson as a one-note actor is among the laziest and most egregious crimes of the generation’s worth of blogcrit ignorance currently populating the internet, but we digress.
Context is important, though, in measuring Kubrick’s intent in these key early scenes, as well as in the crucial moment later that has an attempted moment of tenderness between Jack and his son devolve into a cacophony of marital distrust. Like so many if not all of Kubrick’s films, The Shining follows its director’s storytelling instincts to the letter and expects its audience to do at least some of the work; a surprising number of viewers have assumed that Jack isn’t meant to be menacing in these moments, that his quick descent into ever more obvious insanity is a fault of the picture. My own feeling is that such a conceit is most handily disproven by a look at Kubrick’s prior film, Barry Lyndon. One might easily point to a general fault in Kubrick’s interpretation of human behavior if we were indeed expected to sympathize with Jack early on, as I understand we are in King’s novel. Few who’ve read more than a hundred words about the director are unaware that he cultivated a reputation for unfeeling distance from his characters — unjustifiably. One of Lyndon‘s emotional climaxes is a scene that mirrors the bedroom semi-confrontation in The Shining, when Lyndon can no longer bury his despair over his son’s impending death. Of equal note is the moment earlier when Lyndon suddenly realizes that his constant infidelities are hurting his wife, and they reconnect wordlessly. This was done with an actor so awkward and stilted as Ryan O’Neal. Had Kubrick wanted to generate genuinely touching scenes with Nicholson, he could have. He did not want to — that wasn’t the story he was telling.
So what story was he telling in this brilliant film? All of Kubrick’s last four pictures are direct critiques of masculinity: within an outwardly peaceful marriage in Eyes Wide Shut, in training and combat in Full Metal Jacket, cushioned by privilege in Barry Lyndon, and in this case literally unchecked by the outside world. With cowriter Diane Johnson (who was, unsurprisingly, less than enamored of the source material), Kubrick annoyed King and his acolytes to no end by virtually nixing the alcoholism theme and many of the film’s supernatural elements in favor of fashioning the Overlook as a demented outgrowth of a violent and unfeeling man who was already clearly off the deep end before the film began. Given unprecedented freedom at Warner Bros., Kubrick created arthouse cinema for a mass audience like no one before or since; to recast a hotel in the dead of winter as not a haunted palace for ghosts but an uneasy metaphor for the violence and evil in the heart of a man — a man humanized and familiar but still a dangerous, unfeeling man — is a bold move that is, if not the stuff of horror novels and cinema, certainly the stuff of actual nightmares.
Kubrick and Johnson capture the dialogue of an abuser uncannily (you know if you know), and as in 2001, the director’s fascination with banal dialogue has a specific utility — Jack sees the world as being subservient to him, and everyone walks on eggshells making histrionically stupid small talk, Wendy almost dropping her cigarette with the jitters. Suddenly, after thirty minutes, the cook Halloran — this film’s Detective Arbogast — breaks into Danny’s world with the most vital scene of the picture. They’re talking about psychic powers or “shining” or some damn thing, but they’re really revealing that they understand one another, and Danny is learning to find solace after living in a terribly boxed-in, unloving world. Halloran will take his own trip to Jupiter and beyond in a Snow-Cat that provides the family with their escape despite his own senseless murder (the only onscreen killing in one of the most popular horror films ever made!) — his purpose is to drive the story from afar, to be doomed, to telegraph the senselessness of Jack’s blackened soul.
There’s also this: the Overlook allows Wendy and Danny to crawl out from under the oppression of Jack, a controlling and pathetic figure who seems to be waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike down his family in what was, in the novel, an act of malicious supernatural evil but is here just a chilling manifestation of his darkest impulses. There are horrifying images all the same; there are ghosts, introduced and otherwise, and the hauntingly suggestive and troubling vision of murdered twin girls in the hallway who want to play forever and ever: a quick flash of their dismembered corpses is awful enough, but then there is Danny’s face, a direct repeat of Dave’s in 2001. The horror that blossoms almost immediately when the hotel closes — when Danny wanders into forbidden rooms on his tricycle and little tennis balls come rolling in from nowhere, or when pages from a typewriter and attitudes that accompany their creation become figures of unimaginable fear, or when pantry doors are unlocked on their own — is all calculated and systematic, well matched by its strange and stunning design and composition.
But was that pantry door really unlocked on its own? Or are there things Kubrick deliberately does not show us? Such as the fact that Danny is aware Wendy’s subservience and malleable attitude toward her husband would doom them both if he does not perish? Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining is a chronicle of a systematic triumph over an unambiguous evil, in the form of a man whose boorish idiocy has long been all too readily accepted; the true horror happened before the film began. And it’s in the text: Nicholson’s wildly over the top final scene, which has him grunting and growling all animalistic and doomed in a spookily overlit hedge maze, is basically his King Kong reenactment (except he deserves it).
How many movies are this distinctive? You see any frame, any split second of footage from it, and you know precisely what film you’re looking at. The other Kubrick film we can say this about and the one most often accused of style-over-substance, A Clockwork Orange, seems much more over-intellectual and unfeeling than this one. It’s indeed something of an essental experience to see Vivien Kubrick’s short documentary The Making of ‘The Shining’ in conjunction with her father’s feature, because there is no better direct evidence of how nearly everything was thought of and considered in this shoot. One’s impulse becomes strongly to trust Kubrick, and to look closer at this film’s many eerie implications about its characters.
Those characters are defined and telegraphed by the actors playing them. A decade later, Matt Groening would design the characters on The Simpsons (which would eventually one-up at least one scene in The Shining with its own Halloween parody) so that they would be recognizable in silhouette. Conversely, Kubrick casts his film with the grandiose sense of melodrama of an old MGM picture, an unusual move for him that he’d repeat in Eyes Wide Shut — Danny Lloyd is riotously playful, perhaps in part because he was told the film was a comedy, a neat reversal of the trick used to get Slim Pickens to perform with the utmost sincerity in Dr. Strangelove. Shelley Duvall gives the most distinctive interpretation imaginable of an impressively sophisticated characterization that whips Wendy around from an in-denial victim to a terrified mother running from the psychopath in her bed to the racing, resourceful but low-key heroine at the climax. Her best moment — when she fights against her love for her husband and her instinct to leave Jack languishing in the pantry — is as heartbreakingly vivid as any analogous moment in a straightforward domestic drama. As for Nicholson, as Kubrick himself pointed out, he’s doing Cagney: an over the top asshole, but also a real and believably damaged man. His fever-pitch histrionics allow Kubrick to convicingly sell the story that interests him, melted out of the King text, that of a man for whom isolation is little more than a long-desired enabler. That’s scarier than ghosts or simple possession, but we get a bit of that too.
While I accept that not everyone sees The Shining as a drama of physical and verbal abuse, there’s presumably no need to remind you that the film is a minimalistic enough expression of its gripping story that people have read everything from Illuminati wackjobbery to racial-war parable into it. I suppose primarily I love The Shining because to me, it’s a playful and witty spin on a genre I generally loathe, in which guise it joins the good company of 2001 and Full Metal Jacket. But maybe I’m not supposed to grin all the way through it and find most of its individual scenes completely delightful. Kubrick at some point told Steven Spielberg that his famously unsuccessful comedy 1941 was “great but not funny.” The Shining is wonderful but not very scary. Outside of a few good shocks and luridly iconic sequences, the brightly-lit Steadicam garishness of it all is just too fun to be scary. But disturbing, nightmarish, tormenting, terrifyingly true… that’s another matter. In one of the first scenes, the hotel manager tells Jack about the previous murders at the Overlook and, without asking for any kind of a response, gets this one: “You can rest assured,” he smiles as our blood curdles, “that’s not going to happen with me.” Smile, shake hands, good day.