Friday, October 27, 2017

The Shining (1980)

UK / USA, 146 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
Photography: John Alcott
Music: Krzysztof Penderecki, Bela Bartok, Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
Editor: Ray Lovejoy
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Danny Lloyd, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone

Here's a platitude. Horror is a matter of personal taste—whether you like it, first, and then what works and doesn't. I like horror, but The Shining has never worked for me particularly. It's too long, too slow, too dependent on performances that are mannered or desperate, with a story full of ridiculous holes. Among other things, it is at war with its source novel. The images that jolted me are only good once (blood inexplicably pouring out of an elevator shaft) or derivative (the twin girls, too reminiscent of Diane Arbus, though underlining director and cowriter Stanley Kubrick's origins as a photographer). I've never been impressed with Jack Nicholson's cackling looney tunes turn here, even less with Kubrick's mistreatment of Shelley Duvall to provoke the raw (and, yes, convincing) anxiety that she brings.

Yet that said, those kinds of problems and many others are hallmarks of Kubrick's career, and in spite of them I keep returning to his movies. So I have kept returning to The Shining, hoping something I could hold on to would shake loose. I got an important clue from the strange and often annoying 2012 documentary, Room 237, which features interviews with people obsessed with The Shining and what they think it's "really"  and "obviously" about: the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, an apologia by Kubrick for his part in the moon landing hoax, so on so forth. Out of this mess came my elusive moment of clarity, such as it was.

Someone in the documentary decided to show two versions of The Shining superimposed on one screen: one running forward with the sound on, and the other running silently from the end in reverse. I want very badly now to see the whole thing that way. The few glimpses we see—mostly to further that particular person's case, whatever it was—are full of the many happy accidents you find, say, when running The Wizard of Oz to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. It might even help to be stoned, but what I noticed about The Shining that way were the remarkable consistencies in framing shots and moving the camera. When the film runs forward and backward at once the seamlessness of Kubrick's composition is emphasized by how precisely they work together. The result should be a jumble but it is instead some third thing that transcends both. The images rhyme and intertwine and give each other room to live and breathe. The words reverberate against both images. It's really something, at least the brief clips shown in the documentary.

So I return to The Shining because it's so great to look at in spite of its gross flaws, and I still notice things that are new. Last time I caught an unusual camera movement. In the scenes when Jack Torrance (Nicholson) has gone full frenzy demented and is breaking down doors with an ax to get at his wife Wendy (Duvall), the camera is fascinated with the ax head, moving with it even in the tight space allowed. The reliance on steadicam often feels more like a fascination with novelty but there is still deep mystery to this camera, as there often is in Kubrick's movies. I started to think about the idea that the camera itself might be the haunted spirit of the hotel, roaming the hallways of the giant place, crouching and running behind the boy Danny (Danny Lloyd) riding his Big Wheel, stalking up and down the hallways and through the ballrooms and private rooms and remembering scenes of the past.

I don't want to start sounding like one of the people in Room 237. The elements in The Shining don't line up in any conventional way, which is why people reach literally to the moon for explanations. Ultimately I have to take Torrance as the bad guy in this movie, from the beginning and all along—if only because he is obviously an abusive asshole and comes into the movie that way and doesn't change. But somehow it is still a long time before he can be recognized as such. In fact, one of the best reveals ever is when Wendy gets a look at what he's been typing on reams of paper instead of writing a novel. Yet what is the point of hiding his malevolence from us? It's still only that very last confounding shot that confirms it, maybe, as if until then we still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, even when he was slinging an ax around. Like, maybe treatment will help if we can just stop him.

But Kubrick can't have it both ways here. He may want Jack Torrance to be a disturbed psychopath and for hauntings at most to be merely some kind of psychic echo of past great evil within the walls of a room. But the original King novel says otherwise. Kubrick still has to allow the mystical connection Torrance has to the hotel. He still has to enlist a ghost with agency, Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), to get Torrance out of a jam—pretty good character too. Wendy sees things toward the end that can only be called supernatural, when she never did before. Now they're real? She's hallucinating? And seeing what everybody else has all along? Perhaps worst of all, Kubrick goaded the silliest performance from Nicholson, what appears to be cocaine-fueled posturing and desperate flailing, capping one of the highest-pitched moments of the action with a clanking shout-out to Ed McMahon. By all reports Nicholson's performance is exactly what Kubrick was looking for.

So it just doesn't add up, and the excuse appears to be "it's horror." That's what annoys me every time. Still, parts of The Shining you cannot deny. The reveal of Torrance's insanity is perfect. Those twin girls haunt and so does the carpet pattern. The maze chase at the end is pure cinema, concocted with great ingenuity and executed perfectly. The soundtrack or sound design is often perfect too—at high points of tension I noticed music transmuting into jumbled ritualistic chanting. It could have just been a piece of modern classical but it feels like going insane at random moments. Stanley Kubrick did not actually want to make a horror picture. After Barry Lyndon he had hopes for a movie about Napoleon, with Nicholson in the role. But Barry Lyndon turned out to be a commercial flop and he was forced to look at a moneymaker. The Shining is deeply flawed, as horror and as a coherent movie, but I have to admit, if I happen onto it on a cable channel in a hotel room, well, yeah, I'm probably going to take a look and try to figure it out one more time.

1 comment:

  1. I like your writing ab the movie better than my memory of it but I'm an agnostic ab Kubrick. Although, I remember watching Citizen Kane after reading something ab it by Robert Warshow, I think, maybe Andrew Sarris, it changed completely the way I saw the movie. But b/f I go back to The Shining I think I need to see Paths of Glory or The Killing.