A Couple on Kubrick: The Shining (1980) - Can't Stop the Movies
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A Couple on Kubrick: The Shining (1980)

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The Shining has to be one of my favorite psychological horror movies and one of my favorite Stanley Kubrick movies (the other favorite being Dr. Strangelove). It’s dark, atmospheric, menacing, frenetic, disorienting, graphic, spooky, ominous, and, most of all, memorable. Continuing my praise, it is an opaque multi-layered movie that delves so much farther than the typical haunted house story is could have been.  Kubrick is quite a cynic when it comes to humans (as mentioned in our look at 2001: A Space Odyssey), but while 2001 cynically studied evolution and man’s insignificance in terms of space and time, The Shining focused on the darkness lurking in men in a more concentrated and (comparatively) microscopic way.

First, let’s focus on one of the main characters, Jack Torrance as played by Jack Nicholson. Kubrick wanted to deviate from King’s idea of Torrance as the normal but troubled guy turned crazy, and instead make Jack an embodiment of the dark aspects of man barely concealed by a thin veneer of humanity. In the beginning of the movie, Jack can put on an affable face of decency, but his outright contempt of Stuart Ullman (the owner of the hotel) and all other people (including [and especially] his family) is pushing through his friendly façade. I wonder how anyone can not notice it. How could Ullman look at Jack Torrance and say, “That’s a guy who is not brimming with malice beneath the surface”? That’s because Kubrick does not present or want Jack that way (I’d be baffled if he did) because that’s not what Torrance should have been.

He is a personification of the darker parts of man (and when I say man, I mean males). Before Jack even goes to the hotel, Jack is an alcoholic (though he is on the wagon in the beginning of the movie), an abusive father who hit his child Danny (Danny Lloyd) in a “Momentary loss of muscular coordination”, possibly emotionally abusive to his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) as it is heavily implied in the beginning of movie). When Jack starts to unravel, we find out he is somewhat of a racist when he speaks of the “white man’s burden” to the ghost bartender, Lloyd, and his insouciance with saying racial slurs and sexist remarks (he calls his wife a “sperm bank”). He also denies that he abused his child and would rather put his pride and sense of worth over that of the wellbeing of his child, accusing Wendy of trying to sabotage him whenever he finally starts to attain any success. As the movie progresses further, Jack snaps and is first fueled by aggressive murderous glee as he sarcastically and jokingly threatens the lives of his family, and by end becomes an unthinking incoherent feral beast of murder and rage. He becomes the malevolence of man incarnate.

Another way Kubrick showcases the darkness of man is by referencing the systematic Native American genocide in the USA. For starters, the hotel is buried above an “Indian” burial ground, which is not only disrespectful, but also the white man establishing dominance. Second, the hotel was recently redecorated in a mix of 1970s gaudy aesthetics as well as some Navajo and Apache decorating motifs (tribes that never resided in Colorado), symbolizing both the whitewashing of history and of the bastardization and fetishization of the Native American culture. Third, when Jack slips into insanity, he wears red and blue while attacking Wendy (who is wearing earth tones and a yellow jacket adorned with tepees at one point).

Jack’s darkness is brought to the surface by the house, but the audience is never exactly sure whether it is through Jack’s madness or if it is because of actual ghosts. One the one hand, Jack is always facing a mirror whenever he interacts with a ghost, which could symbolize his very apparent inner demons that are now made manifest through his own delusions brought about by stress and isolation. Also, if another character is around Jack when he is talking to a manifestation (e.g. Lloyd the bartender), only Jack is in the room. He also chases Danny through Chekov’s hedge maze that is not only a great snowy showdown, but also a way to present the disorientation and confusion within Jack’s mind in a coherent way. He has lost his sense of what is real, and now his mind desperately seeks sense in the world, but has forgotten the way back to sanity.

On the other hand, a few things do not make sense unless ghosts really do exist. First, how did Jack escape from a room that was locked from the outside unless he had help from a ghost? How come Wendy and Danny’s visions did not rely on mirrors (unless it’s to show the result of Jack’s madness)? What about all the idea of “something remaining” that Scatman mentioned at the beginning of the movie?

Personally, I cannot definitively say whether one works over the other. What I can say, however, is that the Shining is a fantastic and complicated film that has rightfully earned its place in cultural relevancy. What do you think about this movie, sweetie?

You were very thorough there, love.  Before I go off on a tangent, I would like to echo your sentiments that this is the best film Kubrick made.  It may not have the flashier visuals of 2001 or the consistent dark humor of Dr. Strangelove, but it's far more unnerving than either of those films and much more durable to repeat viewings.

Hell, you presented a large number of different interpretations regarding the same material and only scratched the feminist implications of the whole thing.  I don't know how someone could miss the montage of Danny, a gush of blood from a vertical slit, and the appearance of the ghastly twins (complete with phalically appropriate piercing tool as a murder weapon) and not gather there are some issues with women here.  Sexuality, especially the kind boys Danny's age are threatened to become exposed to, is a dangerous enemy and something poor Wendy has exhausted as a means of staving off her husbands' rage.

Aside from that and the thorough write-up you presented, I want to tackle the whole "book versus film" comparison and unfortunately have to drudge up memories of the horrible mini-series.  My hand is a bit tipped with that last expression, but one of the biggest mistakes I've encountered as a consumer of television and film is a straight adaptation of any other work of fiction rarely works.  The Shining just helps serve this point all too well.

I won't get too far into which is better, the book or the movie (answer: the movie), but since we're comparing different mediums it's not entirely fair.  That said, the themes, which a groundwork was patchily put together in the novel, become deliciously unnerving and endless when given life in Kubrick's hands.  This is a loose adaptation, yes, but that's exactly how this story needed to be treated to get at the deeper psychological, social, and sexual subtexts.  By contrast, the Coen Brothers film No Country For Old Men is almost a page-for-page adaptation of the book, but still manages to maintain their unique style and humor in a number of different ways (the quick shot of Chigurh would kill the tone of the book but is perfect onscreen).

Stephen King's original novel is a page-turning ghost story and very little more.  I've met a number of people who still claim the novel is better.  This is a trend I still think more having to do with films infancy as an artistic medium and the inherent snobbish superiority of getting to say "The book is better".  The mini-series has no imagination since they just decided to silence the film naysayers by importing the whole thing.

The result is a toothless bland bit of nothing.  The mini-series did not want to judge any of the characters and gave them all a chance to be a hero at some point in the story.  This might be fine if the production weren't pitched at the melodramatic level of a Lifetime film as I quickly lost count of how many times alcoholic poppa told sonny boy he loved him and would never hurt him.  Contrast this to the one terrifying time Jack shows Danny  his forceful love in the film.

Direct comparisons, in this instance, are far more fair and warranted.  Other plot details, like the hedge monsters, are relics of over-obsessed fans upset they're losing something which had little meaning to begin with outside of a very Structuralist approach to symbols.

The Shining, as a film, remains the definitive psychological horror experience precisely because it questions everything with so many firm visuals that the only way out is in.  This is only part of why the hedge maze works so much better than a leafy giraffe.

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Kubrick with text

Posted by Andrew

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