Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Shining

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining undoubtedly deserves its reputation as one of the cinema's creepiest, and most artful, horror films. Adapted loosely from Stephen King's novel about a hotel caretaker who loses his mind over the course of a long and isolated winter, the film is a bizarre and unrelenting experience, a slow pressure cooker that bears down on the viewer in much the same way as Jack Torrance's (Jack Nicholson) isolation affects him. Kubrick strips down the story to its bare core, as a study in slowly suffocating dread and terror. The film's pace is deliberate, and its plotting is minimal; Kubrick establishes the dominant mood through his evocative, distanced visuals and, especially, through the eerie soundtrack, with its pulsating heartbeat rhythms and sinister strings. In point of fact, it's easy to miss that not much actually happens here, that the film's actual horrific incidents are widely spaced and parceled out. More often, Kubrick lets the terror grow and grow, through lengthy and uncomfortable scenes that create the expectation of a horrible payoff, before abruptly cutting them off instead.

What's at the core of the film is the dysfunction of family, the bitter and ugly feelings that emerge from troubled father figure Jack. He's taken on a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, where he'll be snowbound for months with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd). While there, Jack, under the influence of the hotel's many ghosts or just his own unstable mind, begins to seethe with resentment and hate, feeling that his family is in some way holding him back or destroying his life. These sentiments are latent in Jack to begin with, as revealed by a story that Wendy tells to a concerned physician before the family heads to the Overlook. It seems that Jack had once been a drinker, and in an angry, uncontrolled moment had dislocated Danny's arm. This is a remarkable scene, staged almost entirely as a closeup on Wendy's face as she describes this incident, trying to put a positive gloss on it, to pretend that it was just an ordinary mishap. Kubrick captures her twitching smile, the way Duvall conveys the anguish and confusion lurking just below Wendy's chipper exterior. Duvall's performance here is extraordinary, as she bares her gums and her big buckteeth, while Kubrick holds the closeup, and holds it, and holds it, finally cutting to the skeptical, deadpan expression on the doctor's face, a stand-in for the audience, seeing right through Wendy's desperate cheerfulness. The scene perfectly conveys the multiple layers at work here, all in a simple memory that gets at the essence of this story's themes.

Wendy's insecurity about her potentially violent husband only worsens once the family is locked in at the Overlook, and this story about the dislocated arm lends queasy resonance to Jack's interactions with his family. At one point, Jack calls Danny over for a conversation, holding the boy in his lap and hugging him, asking him innocuous questions about how things are going and how he likes the hotel. It's a seemingly normal conversation on its face, but it's made creepy and strange by Nicholson's twitchy performance, and by the slowly escalating dread in the music. Kubrick treats everything this way; even the typewriter that Jack writes on is made an object of terror with a slow pan in towards its carriage, and of course later in the film this terror is revealed to be warranted when Wendy finally reads Jack's manuscript.

The Shining's particular form of terror is familiar by this point, even overly familiar, but it maintains its power because of Kubrick's subtlety, his decision to treat Jack's escalating madness as a surreal break with reality. The famous scene where Jack talks to the ghostly Lloyd the bartender (Joe Turkel) is a case in point. Jack walks into an empty ballroom and sits down at the bar, then Kubrick cuts to a closeup of Jack talking, presumably to himself, before cutting back to the longer shot of the bar, which is now stocked with bottles of booze and staffed by the suavely sinister Lloyd. The climax is even more startling in its disjunction from reality, as a frazzled Wendy staggers through the Overlook, catching glimpses of horrifying and puzzling sights, like what appears to be a man in a bear/pig mask giving head to a man in a suit. This famously inscrutable image, so unsettling in its effect, is a leftover from King's novel, where these characters had a story and a reason for being. Here, in Kubrick's film, without this context, it's simply a destabilizing surrealist break, a non-sequitur without any possibility of explanation or understanding.

Kubrick makes it absurd, and scary, and unfathomable, just as he strips much of the psychological rationalization from Jack. Kubrick keeps Jack's pathology at a distance, not only shooting everything in alienating long shots, but refusing to show the process by which Jack transforms from a slightly troubled family man into a raging lunatic. Instead, Jack's madness is shown from his family's point of view, as unexplainable and abrupt outbursts, as mood swings and sudden fits of rage without any clear cause. By the time Jack actually starts seeing ghosts — like his encounters with Lloyd and the hotel's former caretaker Grady (Philip Stone), who'd murdered his family many years before — he's already become violently angry. Nicholson's portrayal is of a man who is always just barely balancing on the edge of murderous rage to begin with, since Nicholson is almost naturally kind of creepy, with his sarcastic drawl and crooked smirk. Even before the family arrives at the Overlook, Jack tells his son about the Donner Party, taking such obvious satisfaction in freaking out the kid that he already comes across as a bit of a sadist.

Kubrick isolates this distasteful character within the Overlook's oversized rooms, not delving into his character but simply showing his disintegration from a distance. Wendy and the psychic Danny are shown at a similar remove, and Wendy's characterization is particularly limiting, as she is mostly just a weepy, insecure woman who sticks by a potentially abusive and nasty man. She nearly falls apart by the end of the film, and it's only Duvall's gape-eyed performance that gives Wendy some much-needed depth beyond her repetitive terror and crying. Ultimately, Kubrick makes the limitations of his archetypal characters into virtues, as the film is more about an abstract feeling of dread and the threat of violence than it is about a particular family and their horrific experiences. This is especially obvious in the character of the hotel cook Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), a stereotypical "magical Negro" character who can hear Danny's psychic cries. He shows up at the hotel after a lengthy struggle through the snow to get there, and just as suddenly gets an axe in his chest for his troubles. It's essentially a macabre joke from Kubrick, as he spends so much time chronicling Hallorann's journey to the Overlook only to abruptly destroy the pat hope represented by this rescue attempt. This is the film's essence, this reminder that hope and rescue can't come from outside: it's only Danny's cleverness during the final hedge maze sequence that ultimately saves him and his mom.


Sam Juliano said...

"Ultimately, Kubrick makes the limitations of his archetypal characters into virtues, as the film is more about an abstract feeling of dread and the threat of violence than it is about a particular family and their horrific experiences."

Indeed. This, more than any other Kubrick film, has gained in reputation and artistry over the years since it's release, a time when the source material was seen as a step downward for the cinema master. But what people couldn't quite understand at the time is that THE SHINING (along with IT and THE STAND) was King at his storytelling best, and King's virtues were always weaving a good horror yarn, far more than any special literary prowess.
Of course King was intimidated by the film and by Kubrick, and he foolishly made claim that the far inferior television version was a better transcription of his book, which all things considered is really beside the point.

Ed Howard said...

Yes, this film has definitely held up well, still as creepy and haunting as ever. As for King, you put it well: he could be a very good storyteller. His insistence that the TV version, which slavishly follows the plot, is superior to Kubrick's vision reveals a real incomprehension of the difference between film and writing. That he seems to think the ideal movie version is the one that's most "like the book" is a real mark against him; how could he not see that Kubrick took his basic material to much richer, stranger places? How could he miss the artistry of this film? How could anyone?

Doniphon said...

I believe what King said is that Kubrick thinks too much and feels to little, which I find deeply ironic, since it is a statement I undoubtedly agree with, but, for me, The Shining is easily Kubrick's best movie, and the one I have absolutely no reservations in calling great. In retrospect, a horror movie seems to be what Kubrick was born to make, and his unsettlingly cold treatment of the characters really complements the story here in ways that (I think) are unique in his filmography.

Joel Bocko said...

I think the combination of the wide lens, the long-duration shots, and ESPECIALLY the repeated takes add to the feeling of hypnosis with this film. That scene you describe on the bed is a key one. I don't know how many takes that particular scene took but Jack looks and acts like he's been through about 100 which just adds to the weird, otherworldly vibe.

As for the Scatman Crothers, he actually DOES serve a purpose since without the vehicle he drives up to the Overlook in, mother & son would have no chance of escape. But yeah, it is sort of an anticlimax when he arrives at the hotel, poor guy.

Ed Howard said...

Doniphon, interesting thoughts. I think more of Kubrick in general than you (or King!) and I would place The Shining somewhere in the middle of his small oeuvre. He's not an especially emotional director, sure, and his characters are usually more general than specific, but I think he feels much more than his detractors give him credit for. The much-discussed coldness of his films, the result of his precise aesthetic and distancing compositions, masks what can be at times quite intense, even overpowering emotions, like the fear and anguish of Shelley Duvall in this film as she watches her husband descend into madness.

MovieMan, good point about how Kubrick's notorious working methods only add to the sense of barely controlled hysteria running through this film. It must've been exhausting to work with him, so I suppose it's little wonder that both Nicholson and Duvall seem so genuinely frazzled and worn-out in so many scenes. And yes, you're right about the vehicle, but that's a whole lot of build-up just to move a plot device into its proper place. It's a deliberate anticlimax, setting up Crothers as a hero rushing to the rescue, only to completely pull the plug on that possibility.

MrJeffery said...

this movie is very scary. i had seen it many times on tv but when i saw it on the big screen, it was a totally different kind of event.

Samuel Wilson said...

The Crothers character is the one seemingly most grounded in the real world and the ordinariness of his home and his dealings with people on the way to the Overlook make his role more poignant in subsequent viewings. Even the first time out, I think viewers are supposed to appreciate his peril rather than expect him to save the day. One of the film's most ominous shots is Crothers driving past the overturned truck, which stresses that even reaching the hotel is a dangerous proposition. The fact that he makes it creates a brief breathing space to set up the shock of Nicholson's attack. I won't say this is Kubrick's best, but I agree that it's reputation has flourished since the "first epic horror film" tag line invited critics to draw their knives.

Craig said...

In fairness to King, he's not as inflexible as his reputation indicates. For example, he loved Frank Darabont's adaptation of "The Shawshank Redemption," despite it being markedly different than the original novella. I think King understands the difference between cinematic and literary mediums, or at least he does when other filmmakers do the work.

What he said about Kubrick's version was this: "There's a lot to like about it. But it's a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside, you can sit in it and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery - the only thing you can't do is drive it anywhere. So I would do every thing different. The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. Everything about it screams that from beginning to end, from plot decision to the final scene - which has been used before on the Twilight Zone."

King also felt that Kubrick gave Jack's alcoholism short-shrift in the movie, which was for King, a recovering alcoholic, integral and personal to the story.

I'm not comparing book and film, just giving some context to the author's reaction.

Ed Howard said...

Jeffery, I envy you for seeing this in the cinema; its compositions must be overwhelming on the big screen. I've only seen it several times on DVD.

Samuel, I don't disagree with your points, but I'm finding it hard to reconcile "the ordinariness of his home" with the outrageous camp of the nude, Afro'd women on the walls of Crothers' apartment, one of the funniest, goofiest touches in the whole film. (And Kubrick's humor is often underrated; there are some pretty funny bits and pieces in this film.)

Craig, thanks for the added context about King's perspective on Kubrick. I still think he's wrong, but his criticisms certainly make more sense in that light.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Ed, this is my least favorite SK film. I've been planning a retry for a long time. Let's see. Thank you for this wonderful review.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Am I the only one here who thinks this film works remarkably well as a dark comedy? Nicholson's performance is one of the most hilariously insane in cinematic history.

Don't get me wrong, the film is effective in evoking the very moods you talk about in this great write-up, but I sometimes think the film works on a manic comic level, too.

Anyway...I would love to see someone tackle this film from the angle of a dark comedy.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Film Buff, I'll be curious if your opinion changes after revisiting this one.

Kevin, as I noted above, Kubrick does have a great dark sense of humor that's apparent throughout this film, in all kinds of absurd details and little edgy moments of pitch-black comedy. I could easily see approaching this film as a dark comedy. It's a very thin line between insane horror and insane hilarity. And of course there's the additional element that so many of this film's most famous horrific moments have become seeped into pop culture to such an extent that the only possible response now to "here's Johnny" or "all work and no play..." is a little chuckle of familiarity, and probably a mental pile-up of all the other associations that these scenes now recall.

Jaime said...

It's occasionally been noted that Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT, if approached in good faith, is among other things a respectful homage to THE SHINING. In his work as a filmmaker, Van Sant frequently does double-duty as a film critic, and as such, he makes a visual argument that Dick Hallorann's death is not in vain at all, since he provides the vehicle for Wendy and Danny's escape. (Jack disabled the other snowcat.) Similarly, Benny in ELEPHANT attempts to play the part of savior - his partial success mirror's Hallorann's.

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

This has long been one of my favorite films by Kubrick, more for its formalist pleasures than any kind of connection to its characters or themes (although, as Doniphon points out, Kubrick's aesthetic nature and the horror genre do complement each other pretty well).

I agree with Mr. Olson, too, that The Shining works well as dark comedy. I've always felt that Kubrick's film is a bit of a critique (how insightful I'm not sure) on the nuclear family and TV culture, hence Nicholson's lines and his weird parental urges. A lot of this becomes apparent, I think, in the hilarious "recut" trailer that positions The Shining as a tender family drama:


Overall, though, I do find the film a very creepy exercise, and I've recently gained some new appreciation for its spookiness after seeing a documentary on Last Year at Marienbad that identified a lot of intriguing parallels between the two films. You should see it, Ed, if you haven't already; I think it's on the Criterion DVD for Resnais's film, but I'm not certain.

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

Actually, if I remember correctly, I think James Naremore goes further into this idea of The Shining as a critique on the traditional family structure in his wonderful new book, On Kubrick. I highly recommend it to everyone, whatever your feelings are for the director; it's an incredibly insightful read.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Actually I find Elephant to offer somethign of a parody of The Shining in that the eforts of its Magic Negro are quite ineffectual.

The Shining is unique in its offerign us the spectacle of ghost in bright light rather than dark shadow. Yes Jack is crazy anyway, but the ghosts are really there too. As a result The Shining stands alone as a horror film.

Jaime said...

Actually I find Elephant to offer somethign of a parody of The Shining in that the eforts of its Magic Negro are quite ineffectual.

I can accept that.

Speaking of which:



Anyway. At Bill Simon's Kubrick class a few years ago, we discussed how Kubrick's films gain a lot of their power not from their depiction of insanity but because he BUILDS a non-coherent structure and follows it through to its perfectly irrational/insane conclusion. This reaches its thematic peak with FULL METAL JACKET.

Samuel Wilson said...

Ed, I'll revise my comment re Crothers and his home to "relatively ordinary." His decor only marked him as a loner as far as I was concerned.

By the way, I got to see The Shining on a big screen as a midnight movie at the local art house about ten years ago. It's an experience I recommend to anyone who has the opportunity.

Greg said...

I always feel slightly bad pushing something I've written on my blog in the comment section of another blog but I wrote a piece on The Shining, the book and the movie, back in the summer of 2007 and then reposted it in December of that year. The link is here. At the time I wrote it I was using Haloscan for my commenting system so click the link at the bottom for the comments. There are some good ones there from Bill, Kimberly, Sheila and Peet Gelderblom, who makes very astute observations on Kubrick reworking the horror genre.

I only link to it because it contains most of my thoughts on The Shining, in their entirety and so it's easier than rewriting it all out here.

I feel your piece is a terrific analysis of Kubrick's style in this and many of his films. An insightful, intelligent review, as always.

Ed Howard said...

Jaime (and David): Interesting points about Elephant, I love the Van Sant film but hadn't thought of that before. But Benny's sacrifice does mirror Halloran's, and I think David is right that Van Sant is consciously mocking the popular cinematic treatment of "token" characters like that.

Jeremy: I can definitely see the connection to Last Night at Marienbad, in the way the camera crawls through the corridors of the hotel, the way the pristine images isolate the characters in this cold, clean place. I'll have to seek out that documentary.

Greg, thanks for stopping by, and for the link; never be afraid to drop a link here when you have something to add. My memory of the book is hazy at best but your descriptions of its limits seem reasonable.

Jack said...

I will take Kubrick's directorial adaption of King's work over King's directorial adaption of King anyday. Maximum Overdrive (and even King's role in the numerous TV movies) shows he knows far less about filming horror than Kubrick does.

What I always found particularly unnerving and frightening about The Shining is that the film begins in a state of terror and just keeps building. The sense of dread is instantly palatable in those helicopter shots that begin the film. Kubrick injects creepy fear into every scene, even in things as innocuous as a child riding his Big Wheel through the house. The silence when Danny's bike hits the carpeting literally launched me out of my chair the first time I saw this.

Ed Howard said...

Jack, great point about Kubrick's use of sound there: that tricycle ride really is impressive with the way the sounds alternate as Danny moves from one surface to another. It really firmly establishes a sense of place and atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

Anyone heard the rumour that the film is viewable backwards? Try it, it's amazing. The whole thing is mirrored.

Dominic Johnson said...

I realize I'm a bit late here, but i totally agree with that Kubrick's style was well-suited to horror.

Kubrick's detachment and filming from a slight distance creates almost a kind of "home movie" quality - and that's unnerving, of course, because what we see here isn't the kind of thing we usually see in most home movies (or, at least, not the ones I've seen).