The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil and spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.
With the recent release of Room 237, an entertaining documentary on the different analysis and critics of Stanley Kubrick’s very personal interpretation of Steven King’s best seller The Shining. Being one of the few who read the book prior to watch the feature film, I will already advance that Diane Johnson’s, along with Kubrick’s, vision of the story is far more efficient and holds up a better meaning and mystery. This long rewriting took eight months and even if King’s novel was far from mediocrity, with the Jack Nicholson version we are in for a better Freudian reading and a greater work of art.
A father brings his wife (Shelley Duvall) and their son to a remote Hotel in the Colorado for the entire winter while there are almost no ways to get there and escape. This recluse time was supposed to reunite the family, let Jack write his novel and take care of the Overlook Hotel in case if there were breakage of any kind. The only breakage that happens is when Jack suffers from writer’s block and that isolation and the privation of alcohol, Jack is ancient alcoholic. Added to that, Danny (Danny Lloyd), their son, has a gift that he shares with Chef Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers).
With this premise installed we can go on the many things that make it one the greatest danse macabre of all time. First, the mood of the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s and the decor gives to the film a very unique feeling. The pure bright lighting and the white, almost too white snow gives an aspect of bleak tragic winter. Every year the first snowfall of the season reminds me of The Shining’s immaculate winterland.
This unsettling mood is also well served by the tremendous photography of John Alcott, too often forgotten and in the shadow of his director. With The Shining, we discover the best use of the Steadycam, a device that is fixed on the cameraman and that gives a feeling of human vision. It also gives more natural movements of the objective. It renders an eerie feeling to the scenes where “we” follow Danny on his Big Wheel and when the camera is behind Jack when he bends over the miniature reproduction of the maze. This technical aspect of Kubrick’s film is very subtle but plays on another level in our watching experience.
Earlier, I mentioned that Johnson and Kubrick brought a deeper Freudian angle to the plot and the original material. It is not that difficult to read The Shining as an adaptation of the Oedipus Rex complex. Where the little boy is over protected by his mother and his father can’t interact and is not able to act about it. Long before Jack’s breakdown we feel that Danny is scared of his father more than a kid should be. Conventionally, the discipline is indulged to a child by his father as a strict but just figure. However, we learn that in the past Jack broke Danny’s arm by accident in an excess of wrath and booze. Note that the arm represents a phallic symbol as in the Oedipus Rex complex the boy is afraid that his father caught him and castrate the boy for loving his mother the wrong way and more than him. It is also a position where the child tries to take the role of the father and dethrones him from his status. More often than not, a father that is too strict and hard on his child will be replaced by another man that is more honest and respectful. In this case, it is Chef Dick Halloran with whom Danny connects with his gift. He represents a man that is ready to sacrifice everything for the widow and the orphan.
Having not seen Room 237, I yet read that it brought many wacky theories on the meanings of Kubrick’s movie. Of them all there is one about the genocide of Amerindians and another about the Holocaust. The later won’t be addressed since there are no obvious links I saw the film a dozen times. But, the first one isn’t completely inaccurate since it is mentioned early in the film that the Hotel was built on an Ancient burial ground. Plus, Shelley Duvall’s outfits are themed with Indian elements and hanged tapestries remind of the Art of these people. Even if these elements are brought to our ears and eyes, it is more an element of decor and detail that Kubrick is well known for controlling everything in the development of his projects. It brings a sense of mystery and an eerie opposition of the white man versus the Indian people but it would be too simplistic to just put it there.
The labyrinthine aspect of the Overlook Hotel is represented in many ways and it is more those elements that critics and enthusiasts should try to seek for meaning. The impossible architecture of the Hotel having doors, windows and long corridors that can’t exist give a strange effect to the overall look. There are many apparitions but the Hotel itself is living and giving the family a hard time. Just like the reproduction of the outside maze inside the Hotel Hall and the maze itself that takes place the final scenes. There are many symbolisms in these elements and they seem to mean to engulf the family in itself.
About the family, Jack Nicholson, Danny Lloyd in his only role, and Shelley Duvall are almost the only characters of this cabin fever masterpiece. Back when I started discovering films I used to think that Nicholson was the best actor of all time. Since, he always does his Nicholson thing in every role and I tend to think that he is more of an intense actor that plays more or so the same part. On the other side, Duvall, a cokehead of the Robert Altman gang, hated the director. Making her redo more than a hundred times the same scene over and over again she broke into tears probably as many times as she redid some scenes. There was a clear animosity between those two. Watch Vivien Kubrick’s (Stanley’s daughter) short shot on the sets to witness their sheer opposition. Her performance is good and I think it was probably what Kubrick wanted from her; she just doesn’t shine besides Mr. “over the top” Nicholson and is perfect persona for the Jack Torrance profile. The little Lloyd gives a good performance considering his once in a lifetime presence.
This brings our tour to my favorite scenes of The Shining. As you now must acknowledge, the writer of those lines is a strong defender of its prestige and the movie even made it to his “if they asked me” ballot of the 2012 Sight and Sound poll.
The first scene that I deeply love is the double scene in the Ballroom and the Men’s restroom discussion. The gold palette of the ballroom and the music that haunts this scene is superb. Then the red blood restroom is unsettling and the little camera trick that reflects the two actors. I also like the fact that Kubrick uses exactly the same camera movements (tracking shots) when he enters in a room multiple times.
Another scene or sequence I cherish is the first visit of the Hotel where we discover for the entire sets. We have the luck to feel the last day of occupancy. Then it is closed for the winter and the mood drastically changes.
The third and final scene I’d like to highlight is the moment when Jack throws his ball against the wall and begins to be enchanted by the walls surrounding him. It is the last time we see Jack playing before he breakdown because of his novel. Except that time with the baseball bat, I guess.
Finally, it is quite a release to pen down this review, or small essay, or call it what you want, because I admire Stanley Kubrick very much and this film more than I would admit. Thinking about the many qualities and meanings of The Shining was very inspiring but also scary to try to express my admiration and the many aspects that must be regarded. Even if I’m more than sure I will have forgotten a thing or two I think that those 1300 plus words are what this self proclaimed film critic thinks about this Horror masterpiece.