The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Considering the staggeringly massive success of the novel and the rarified air status the film has risen to, the fact that acknowledged masters of their crafts Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick (hm… what’s up with the SK thing?) were the respective masters (with little respect for each other’s vision, but more on that later) and that a fairly recent documentary Room 237 took a look at the obsessive nature by which many a crackpot has dissected the film, certain of the validity of the plentiful hidden truths and subliminal messaging which big-brained Kubrick had crafted and was transporting to us, the unsuspecting sheep of an audience… I mean, with all this… does anyone really need a plot summary here?
Okay, let’s get it out of the way: recovering alcoholic writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job at the isolated and decidedly haunted Overlook Hotel, where he succumbs — to the detriment of his terrified wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd) – to violent madness.
I suddenly saw it all, in stunning 4K restored clarity, up there on the big screen. The Playgirl magazine that Jack leafs through as he sits waiting for his caretaker interview, speaking to the theory of Torrance’s rage rising from repressed homosexuality (to be fair to that theory… it’s a decidedly odd choice by actor and director as, trust me, in 1980, no average man claiming to be heterosexual would have dared be caught within eyeline of an issue, let alone casually skimming one in front of an entire scurrying-about hotel staff). The busy trinkets scattered about on the desk of hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), including the miniature American flag and the ashtray full of butts, as his hands dangle oddly, crossed skeleton-like, just below his face during most of the interview. The stereotyped image of a feathered-headed Native American, used as a brand label on various of the stockpiles of food cans behind our characters as they walk about the massive, vaguely threatening pantry (with imperialist civilization built upon holocausts, ultimately linking to the Jewish holocaust itself, as per another of the hypothesises branded about by these gyrating “Shining” theorists). The Apollo 11 spacecraft boldly displayed on Danny’s sweater as he goes on his unsettling journey of intermittent sound (over quiet carpet, then exposed flooring, carpet, floor, carpet, floor…) and final visual horror, as he turns the corner to be greeted by the bloody wonder twins (cuz you know — according to one extremely fascinating, if enjoyably bonkers, theory – Kubrick was involved in faking the moon landing, and for some reason couldn’t help but try to tell us about it in The Shining). The plethora of animal imagery on the walls all throughout the film, leading to the ghosts appearing near the climax, with some in animal masks getting up to all sorts of queer pleasures (speaking to some or other thing one of these theorists gets on a soapbox about, the details of which I can’t remember at the moment).
I first heard of these mad Kubrick enthusiasts with apparently little better to do with their time (look who’s talking – talk about the pot calling the kettle black) when each was granted their own interview episode on the podcast “Movie Geeks United” and, hey, with each given over an hour to enthusiastically dissect for us how the images and sounds within the film backed up their respective hypothesis, I found each not only fascinating, but often convincing (with the really amusing thing being hearing some of them rejecting another guy’s theory as whacko – proving yet again how self-awareness is usually the last thing the average person reaches, if at all). Soon after, seeing the dismissive attitude Room 237 had towards these guys, however, merging them all together to sound like a cult of crazies and giving them little individual time to really build their cases (not that I unequivocally believe them all, far from it) left me annoyed with the doc and its smug attitude (a sure-fire perspective for today’s horror festival crowd, though, so no surprise it was a hit there).
I don’t know. It was either learning about these theories in the interim, or perhaps the many years that have passed since I’d seen it last (with the first time being on its original release, when I –similar to many of my initial Kubrick experiences – didn’t particularly connect with it, nor did the girl I saw it with, who snorted afterwards ‘We could have seen Friday the 13th instead’, which I agreed with then, but now would be grounds for immediate dismissal, especially as, as usual, the ensuing years, and plentiful re-watching, has led to my estimation of this Kubrick effort having catapulted up to the level of sheer brilliance), or just finally focusing on all those little cinematic production design details after listening to all the various theories, both wildly out there and fairly rational (as any theory worth its salt needs to be a bit of both, I say), or the simple clarity of that stunningly gorgeous restoration now being released, but it was the first time all of these elements made their presences fully known to me. In many ways, it was like really seeing it for the first time, amazingly allowing an ever deeper appreciation of a film I had already slowly taken on a deep love for.
It’s odd that Kubrick apparently was so frustrated with Shelly Duvall’s performance as the fragile and terrified Wendy (if anyone sees that short behind the scenes film shot by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian, showing the director incessantly bullying and berating the actress, with the odd duck Shelly coming across as a neurotic diva, as Nicholson makes inappropriate sexual jokes and gestures towards Vivian that would have had him facing the full wrath of today’s #metoo squad, you’ll get a fascinating glimpse at behaviours on a film set that no way in hell would be allowed today) as one thing this viewing made me realize – with those dead-on closeups catching her dawning terror and realization of her husband’s encroaching madness and her realization that it will be all up to her to hold her fracturing family together – that Duvall’s performance is the very centerpiece of the film.
Even with the hysterical pitch she reaches by the end (a type of female performance that wouldn’t be met with much approval today, that’s for sure), it never stops her from resourcefully saving herself and Danny. Even the now famous scene of Jack smashing through the bathroom door again and again with the axe, now mostly recognized for the quotable ‘Here’s Johnny!’ (a line I never cared for much anyway, with its reference to a popular late night talk show host of the time), is elevated to the heights of sheer terror by Duvall’s harrowing shrieks and reactions (as well, of course, by the great music cues, with the score being brilliant throughout the film – but, again, do I really even need to point that out to anyone at this point?).
And that Danny kid. What a weird one. Never acting again, he’s both alternately cute and just very strange (made even more odd with that ‘Tony’ voice – i.e., ‘the little boy that lives in my mouth’). It’s oft-kilter choices like this from Kubrick that makes it understandable how slightly dense viewers like me often get turned off by a Kubrick film on first viewing… only to catch up later on.
It’s the direction of Nicholson’s performance that I really question. The actor is always great fun to watch, and he does bring some great moments… but his overall function (and I’m sure was pushed by Kubrick in this direction) is to go really broad, with his exaggerations even bringing a silent film theatricality at times. It began to make me wonder, with Kubrick’s well-known pension for needling and poking holes in the personas of his star actors, both in film and behind the scenes (see if you can’t read up a bit on the crazy antics he pulled with at-the-time hubby and wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman during the making of Eyes Wide Shut), if he wasn’t trying to reveal Nicholson as the over-the-top surface showman many were already accusing him of being post-One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or perhaps, with the insane number of takes Kubrick was known to do to bring actors beyond the point of exhaustion, having lost along the way any pretense at ‘acting’, to find some final desperate (and odd) variation of performance (the takes of which he would invariably use), the ‘broadest self’ was what Nicholson finally relied upon, revealing the egomaniacal core at his heart (which still circles back to Kubrick perhaps toying with Nicholson and the Nicholson persona).
Kubrick’s one-of-a-kind absurdist style of capturing a simple conversation really comes through in that aforementioned early interview scene at the Hotel (along with the one that takes place at exactly the same time back at the Torrance home with Wendy and the child psychiatrist, dancing around the abusive nature lying within the alcoholic Jack), with the camera almost always cutting back to the actor speaking (rather than looking to capture the reactions of the actor listening), which, on the surface could seem an awfully pedantic editing style (well, that would be if it wasn’t capturing that always fascinating Kubrickian performances), until it suddenly cuts to a reaction shot in which we’ve been set up, Pavolovian-like, to expect something said, but only get the odd reaction shot from a face that often looks slightly banal in expression, which invariably creates a blackly humorous moment.
The Shining was Day One of a three consecutive night jaunt with my 14 year old daughter, a trip down modern horror classic lane (and here she thought the learning stopped when the school bell rang for summer! NOT, say I!). And I was happy to see how enthralled she was, even getting those oddly humorous bits, as well as immediately getting the connections set up by Kubrick, such as the echoing of the words of the bloody twins to Danny later by Jack to the boy as he grows crazier and crazier (‘I’d like to stay here… forever… and ever….’). Post-film, she explained how she considered it less a horror film and more a sad tragedy of a father coming apart under the pressures of needing to succeed as the family patriarch and destroying his family instead… which, hey, I think of as good a film reading as any cooked up by all those Room 237 enthusiasts.
As far as the differing visions of Monsieurs King and Kubrick, while it’s been many a year since I read the book, which was a favorite from late high school through my early college years (I read it at least four times), at one time I was an avid reader of all things King (faithfully up though the unnecessarily bloated It and sporadically since) so I feel I have a good enough grasp of his simple perspectives on good versus evil to not be surprised at all that when Kubrick, in the midst of developing the book for screen, supposedly called up the author in the middle of the night asking if he “believed in God?”, and King answered “Yes”. Also not surprised that the haughty Kubrick huffed “Well, I don’t” and hung up on him, never bothering to reach out to the author again.
Putting aside the issue of proper etiquette, Kubrick didn’t have time to play around with an artist (or artisan) who wasn’t going to stretch him, move him forward into greater understandings. King’s answer to the question on the afterlife revealed to Kubrick he didn’t have another Isaac Asimov on the line, helping him to reach towards consciousness barely understandable, ala, 2001: A Space Odyssey. No, the author’s view, while making him a huge mainstream success, fits with religion, in that it provides comfort and belief that the universe is there for us, if we, as the good, are willing to fight the evil. Kubrick barely sees our role in any of that.
The handling of the menacing hedges that play such a central role in both book and movie provides a perfect case in point. Where King imagines the hedges in animal shapes that become living monsters (which I’m in no way saying isn’t great fun!), Kubrick transforms into a maze so vast it approaches absurdity (unless the hotel was deliberately looking for lawsuits from outraged guests who got lost for hours within it), and through the endless configurations of blocked paths and mysterious sense of vastness, speaks of a terrifying unknowability and an existential dread at the universe itself… it’s Kubrick’s ordered and mathematical version of staring into the terrifying black holes beyond human meanings that define so much of David Lynch’s cinema.
In other words, I’m sorry to say, Mr. King, as much as I’ve enjoyed your work (and do plan on revisit your literary The Shining again soon), it’s the cinematic SK’s vision of horror that’s far more mature… and far more terrifying because of it. To put it nicely, you provided the totem with which Kubrick was able to dress up with deeper meanings.
Who knows, maybe you’ll recognize that one day rather than continue to disapprove of the film…. but I’m not holding my breath.