****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A-
starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Danny Lloyd
screenplay by Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King
directed by Stanley Kubrick
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The Shining has perhaps dated the most of Stanley Kubrick's films. It's not as stylized as Dr. Strangelove or Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick pictures set in the "present" that nonetheless feel as foreign as those set in the future and distant past. Particularly with the earthy orange-pinks and piss-yellows dominating the Overlook Hotel's lobby in the opening sequence, not to mention the child star's shaggy head of hair, the film has deep roots in the late-Seventies to early-Eighties. However, I'm beginning to think that the aging process itself has provided the necessarily alienating "timeless" quality.
Last year I attended a midnight screening of The Shining at the Tower Theater in Salt Lake City and was sort of delighted to hear the riotous laughter that accompanied many of the early scenes. The audience dug Jack Nicholson's nonplussed reaction as he's told about the murders that occurred at the Overlook and Shelley Duvall's credulity when her son begins talking with his finger. But the bit that got the biggest laugh was when the camera zoomed out in Scatman Crothers's Miami bedroom to reveal framed pictures of topless women with enormous afros. The laughter was directed at not just the character's crude, blue-collar tactlessness, but also, I'm sure, at African-American ideals of beauty circa 1980. There's a lot to be said about the implications of the audience's reaction here, especially in light of what I'm going to say regarding the film's racial attitudes and Kubrick's relationship with his viewers. For now, suffice it to say that while the moment was probably funny in 1980, it's even funnier in the late-2000s.
What's important is that the audience didn't laugh at the potentially goofy horror passages, and this suggests to me that the scenes set in the "normal" world are designed to decay into kitsch. This is hardly unique in Kubrick. Consider the gap between the tacky second quarter of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the psychedelic but utterly sincere Star Gate segment. Kubrick has injected a few details that invite our derision independent of the 1980 setting. Duvall is infantilized from her first appearance, wearing a dress that makes her look like an overgrown Alice in Wonderland and reading, of all things, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. And when she and Nicholson are being schooled in how to use the Snow Cat, their employer (Barry Nelson), a cheesy game-show-host type with a bad toupee, asks them if they know how to use a car. What kind of moronic question is that? The idea is to get us feeling superior and mocking of what Kubrick has established is the dominant social and cultural environment--a world that his protagonists hope to transcend. It's an idea only accentuated with the passage of time.
If A Clockwork Orange is about the superman devolving into civilized man, The Shining is about the civilized man devolving into ignoble ape. The film's protagonist-slash-villain, Jack Torrance (Nicholson), is cognizant of the crippling monotony of modern life, of the domesticated, feminized world. Alas, he's too mediocre, too stupid, and too untalented to properly rise above it. His only means of escape is to become a tool of civilization's upper class. He's a weapon for them to assert their dominance over their social inferiors. The aristocrats are still part of civilization, but they are transitioning into the Star Child stage of evolution--where the pro-social values that helped mankind survive throughout the ages are surrendered for the complete moral freedom of individual (i.e., socially isolated) consciousness. This level of development is beyond Jack Torrance. He simply doesn't have the right stuff. He's defective.
Observe the scene where former caretaker Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) tells Jack about Jack's son Danny's (Danny Lloyd) "very great talent," and how Danny is using this talent to bring an outsider to the Overlook. Said outsider is Dick Hallorann (Crothers)--a "nigger." Worse, a "nigger cook." Jack expresses mild confusion and surprise, as if the very concept had never occurred to him before. The notion that it's thoroughly offensive to invite a "nigger cook" to the hotel originates from Grady, though, not from Jack. Grady's racist attitudes are born of a post-conventional code of morality that separates him and his kind (those with a future) from the insufferably mediocre, feminized core of society.
Grady ingratiates himself with Jack by posing as a clumsy waiter. He spills a drink on Jack and when they go into the bathroom to clean up, he subtly convinces him to murder his wife and son. At first we feel rather embarrassed for Grady as he dutifully dries off Jack and patiently endures the man's drunken and crude joshing ("Looks like you might have gotten a spot of it on there yourself Jeeves-y old boy!"). Eventually we begin to understand that Grady is in complete control. Patting Jack down, he looks like he is putting the finishing touches on his creation; and with his arms absent-mindedly extended to facilitate the process, Jack resembles a marionette. The notion that Jack is subservient to Grady is cemented later when Jack is locked in the freezer and Grady taunts him by saying, "Mr. Torrance, I see you can hardly have taken care of the business we discussed." Like Dr. Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut, Jack is motivated by the promise of social (and spiritual) mobility--and by design, he's incapable of achieving it. That said, he's blinded enough by the promise of it to become a pawn of the social/spiritual elite.
The "heroes" of The Shining are each representative of a disenfranchised minority: women, children, and blacks. They are all ultimately ineffectual. Danny summons Hallorann to the Overlook via the "shining" process. We see him receiving Danny's visions, calling the forest service to check up on the Torrances, flying to Denver from Miami when he doesn't get a response, and renting a Snow Cat so he can get to the hotel. When he finally arrives at the Overlook, Jack abruptly swings an axe into his midsection. Although appropriately jolting on initial viewing, the more times we watch the film, the more Hallorann's death approximates a sick punchline to an extended shaggy-dog joke. To think he traveled all that way to go out like a punk. If we suspect that Danny brought him there knowing he was going to die, it becomes all the more darkly funny. Danny wasn't expecting him to rescue them or defeat Jack--he just needed somebody to drive a working Snow Cat to the hotel. (Jack sabotaged the one the hotel provided for emergencies.)
The climax of the film is profoundly unsatisfying. Jack chases Danny through a hedge maze while his wife Wendy (Duvall) runs though the hotel with a kitchen knife and cries at various ghostly tableaux. Danny tricks Jack by covering his tracks in the snow and escapes from the maze. Jack gets lost and by morning has frozen to death. Thus the film ends not only with Jack's failure, but also with a lack of triumph on the part of Wendy, Danny, or Hallorann. A conventional film might have had Wendy victoriously battle Jack after Hallorann is dispatched, showing that she has learned to stand up to her abusive husband. This certainly would have lent The Shining an audience-pleasing pop feminist uplift. But no, instead Jack is defeated by Danny's trickery.
Not that this is a "plausible" action on Danny's part. I don't think a five-year-old, much less this five-year-old, would be savvy enough to pull this off. One could justify it by saying that Danny was under the control of "Tony," the part of his subconscious responsible for the "shining," at the time, and that Tony is more sophisticated than five-year-old Danny. Yet there remains a palpable divide between the character and his actions. Young Danny Lloyd's performance consists of him responding to Kubrick's verbal cues; Lloyd was not required to act, exactly--he never had a character to play and never had to concern himself with things like motivation. His extremely superficial performance accentuates the idea that Danny is a passive character. His "talent" consists of him going into a trance and having Tony show him things that already happened or are going to happen. "Shining" doesn't require him to do anything. And when he defeats Jack, it's in an indirect, non-confrontational way.
A constant theme in Kubrick's films is the view of modern (2001-era) civilization as feminine and matriarchal. A key scene in 2001 has the astronaut Dave Bowman breaking away from the comfort of the womb and killing his mother (the HAL computer having had a female voice in original conception and possessing a fey male one in the finished film) in order to advance to the next stage of spiritual evolution. Fundamentally, the women ruling this society are castrators. (Castrators in that the penis is the source of all power; they don't have penises/power, therefore nobody else can.) It's not that they want men to be subservient, it's that they want men to be their equals. They want men to be women, too (i.e., powerless and without value). This is clearly what Jack is rebelling against. He despises Wendy a lot more than he does Danny, claiming that "it's his mother's fault" when Grady confronts him with Danny's betrayal. He constantly accuses her of trying to sabotage everything he has worked for. "Wendy, I have let you fuck up my life so far, but I am not going to let you fuck this up," he tells her.
The joke is that Wendy does not do anything particularly objectionable or threatening the entire film. Jack's hatred of her seems to stem less from her than from what she represents. Wendy is a classic enabler of domestic abuse. She attempts to justify an off-screen attack on Danny by Jack that left the boy with a dislocated shoulder by mentioning that her husband had been drinking. He subsequently promised to never touch the bottle again--if he did she could leave him. He hasn't had a drop since, she insists while nervously chain-smoking, transparently unsure that the explanation is going to take. Wendy is a woman so terrified of being alone that she is willing to absorb unspeakable emotional abuse (the phrase "human punching bag" comes to mind) to ensure that her husband doesn't leave her. Her husband's insanity is meanwhile just something to which she's grown accustomed.
Duvall delivers a brave performance as one of the most repulsive figures I've ever encountered in a film. She's repulsive not because she is violent or cruel but because she is weak. Indeed, in spite of his vulgarity, Jack is considerably more likable. In A Clockwork Orange, the Minister defines a "true Christian" as "ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify, sick to the heart at the thought of killing a fly." This description fits Wendy marvellously. She represents how conventional moral behaviour is the internalization and legitimization of weakness. The mediocre and perpetually powerless will naturally and inevitably find virtue in persecution.
This is even more evident in the Dick Hallorann character. Hallorann is a racial caricature, an "Uncle Tom" who leaves the comfort of his Florida home to rescue white people. As such, he is representative of the castrated, feminized male. Disempowered, he embraces diseased Christian values like altruism, sacrifice, and martyrdom. He is effeminate in that he runs the kitchen, clearly woman's work given that he orients Wendy but not Jack on the contents of the freezer. (In fact, he barely has any contact with Jack at all prior to his murder.) And Hallorann is childlike in that he shares the gift of "shining" with Danny. It's interesting that Wendy states that Danny's "imaginary friend" Tony didn't materialize until Jack dislocated his shoulder. The gift of "the shining" is then explicitly tied into Danny's victimization at the hands of his father. That whatever suffering was responsible for the African-American Hallorann's gift of "shining" is taken for granted seems characteristic of author Stephen King's paternalistic racism (see also: King's Magic Negro fable The Green Mile).
Post-conventional morality in the Kubrick universe is defined as preserving and asserting one's individuality and personal self-interest in full defiance of the idealism of the weak (or of the conventional morality, in other words). This manifests itself most blatantly in his films as violence against women, the personification of conventional morality. In addition to Jack's physical and emotional attacks on Wendy in The Shining, you have the killing of HAL in 2001, the various rapes in A Clockwork Orange (rape being the purest assertion of one's self-interest unheeded by the compassion of the weak and mediocre), Barry Lyndon's abuse of his wife in Barry Lyndon (a subtler variation on The Shining), the killing of the sniper in Full Metal Jacket, and the sexual exploitation of female prostitutes in Eyes Wide Shut.
I could plug the following reflections into any review of Kubrick's work post-2001, but this is as good an opportunity as any to include them. I'm still unsure as to whether the misogynistic post-conventional moral attitudes in Kubrick's films are sincere or merely sheer rhetoric. Often accused of misanthropy, Kubrick and his defenders prefer to see him as a realist or a cynic. He was adamantly opposed to celebrating a falsely idealistic view of the human race. I personally see his films as being based on three harsh but incontrovertible premises:
- If there is a God, a master creator of the universe, its true essence is far beyond our comprehension and actively denies the anthropomorphic. This is virtually self-evident to anybody with a rudimentary grasp of the size and scope of our universe and the harsh realities of the animal kingdom, but is very eloquently illustrated in 2001 all the same.
- Human consciousness has lapped and surpassed its original evolutionary function of survival. This is a strong focus in much of Kubrick's work from 2001 onward but again most lucidly in the tedium of 2001's second quarter. In the end, space travel is all gravy for human civilization; it is hardly necessary for survival.
- Explained best by Kubrick himself in discussing Alex DeLarge's love of Beethoven: "[It] suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Hitler loved good music and many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men, but it didn't do them, or anybody else, much good." If cultural refinement and "moral refinement" are independent from one another, what does that say about culture? Or morality?
What use is morality--by which I mean the traditional feminine morality of compassion, altruism, etc.--when divorced not only from the view of Man as child of God, but from Man as animal existing in the natural world as well? We all enter into an implicit social contract that essentially states, "If you don't club me over the head and steal my wallet, I won't club you over the head and steal your wallet." Does this become null and void when survival is no longer an issue? Survival ceases to be much of an issue the further we evolve as a civilization, and within our civilization survival is less of an issue for the higher strata than for the lower one. Utilitarian ethics could plausibly state that it's a greater crime for a poor man to kill a rich man than it is for a rich man to kill a poor man, given that the rich man will theoretically be of greater value to society (even if it's concentrated in his status as an icon). Or you could expand that by saying that a rich country has more right to invade a poor country than vice-versa, given that the richer country will likely have greater global value.
As radical as it sounds, I can't help but see this as a rational and realistic conclusion. To say that all human life has the same value is wilfully naïve in the way that Kubrick despises, isn't it? It means suppressing our use of reason. Those who persist in following conventional feminine morality do so out of necessity, because they have nothing to offer society and are concerned for their continued survival. Or they do so because they are frightened by the emptiness of existence and they seek something--anything--to fill it up. Neither reason is particularly pro-active. Neither one gets us anywhere. The famous match cut of a tapir bone and a space station in 2001 was preceded by a band of apes beating an opponent to death with said bone. Kubrick accurately reflects that as we advance technologically and culturally as a civilization, it's the togetherness and not the ruthlessness that we inevitably outgrow.
Reissued in a Two-Disc Special Edition available individually or as part of Warner's newest Stanley Kubrick box set, The Shining returns to DVD in a freshly-mastered widescreen transfer. As with 2001, I'd call the presentation definitive if a Blu-ray option didn't exist. Be that as it may, the film will surely never look better in standard definition. Debate the aspect ratio if you must, but as the 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced presentation crops a helicopter-shadow out of the main titles that was doubtlessly intended to be matted-out all along, there's not much defense for the 1.33:1 version beyond a stubborn attachment to it. My only real complaint about the image is that the colours look a bit too pumped-up--other than that, it's impeccable. The attendant Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is an inoffensive reconfiguration of the mono track to give it slightly broader ambience, but this is one area where they should've maybe left things alone.
Recorded separately, SteadiCam inventor/operator Garrett Brown and Stanley Kubrick: A Biography author John Baxter share a feature-length commentary track. Baxter told me little that I didn't already know. I was puzzled by his assertion that Jack Nicholson's performances were comparatively naturalistic earlier in his career and that starting with his self-directed Going South they became more baroque. Has he ignored the obvious stuff like The Last Detail or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Or certainly his bit part in The Little Shop of Horrors? I just don't see Nicholson's work in The Shining as being that much of a departure. Still, moments such as Baxter's zealous description of the elevator blood-flood as "an extraordinary Freudian image" make for a painless listen.
Brown makes good with the behind-the-scenes stories, revealing that young Danny Lloyd was actually hired after he came up with that infamous "talking finger" gag during an audition (?!) and that part of the reason Kubrick moved to England from the United States was that he was terrified of nuclear annihilation (?!!). And though I had heard it before, I appreciated his anecdote about how Tony Burton, who has a bit part as the owner of the hardware store where Hallorann rents the Snow Cat, became a minor hero on the set after beating Kubrick at a game of chess. Many of Brown's comments regarding the film's cinematography are repeated within the bonus material on Disc 2, but it's enlightening to discover just how much was shot with the SteadiCam, and I appreciated his dry musings on how he wasn't wearing safety goggles when filming the close-ups of the axe chipping away at the bathroom door and how shooting a nude scene is anything but an erotic experience. The Shining's theatrical trailer rounds out Disc 1.
The second platter opens with the terrific "View from the Overlook: Crafting The Shining" (30 mins.), a featurette condensing most of the relevant information from the aforementioned yakker and packaging it in a more engaging manner. Cinematographer-turned-director Ernest Dickerson confesses that he is genuinely baffled by how they could have achieved the extreme high angle of the tiny people walking through the hedge maze; Brown says that this was for all intents and purposes the only optical effect they used. Remarkable! Note that Steven Spielberg's interview in this documentary, describing his initial dislike of The Shining and subsequent discussion with Kubrick about it, was taken directly from Warner's 2000 DVD release of Eyes Wide Shut.
"The Visions of Stanley Kubrick" (17 mins.) basically declares that Kubrick was unapologetically a photographer and, to paraphrase Pauline Kael's complaint about Barry Lyndon, made movies so he could take pictures. The director's imagery is repeatedly described as "indelible." A little tedious, but who am I to complain? In "Wendy Carlos, Composer" (7 mins.), Wendy Carlos, composer, shares some of the tracks that didn't make the cut for The Shining and A Clockwork Orange and relates how she picked up on the director's humanity when she saw how he treated her collection of Siamese cats.
Easily my favourite extra is Vivian Kubrick's splendid "Making The Shining" (35 mins.), which was more or less commissioned by her father to keep his then-17-year-old daughter "out of trouble." The doc features rare footage of the master at work and was pillaged for this reason by Chuck Workman's The First 100 Years. What I love most about it is its depiction of filmmaking not as an obsession, but as a way of life. Not that it really applies to The Shining specifically, but this short reminded me of Gene Siskel's dictum "Is this film as interesting as a documentary of the same people eating lunch?". I found it hard not to fall in love with clownish Jack Nicholson, patriarch Stanley Kubrick, or even masochist Shelley Duvall; I could stand to be in their company for several more hours. (Off the top of my head, the only film that possibly tops "Making The Shining" in this respect is Tim Burton's Ed Wood.)
A bubbly Vivian Kubrick records a surprisingly informative yak-track for the piece, detailing everything from the camera she used to the on-set fire that threatened to shut down production. At one point, she mentions how young Danny Lloyd seemed to respond to Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" when running through the hedge maze: upon realizing that we might not know what "The Rite of Spring" is, she explains, "That's the music that was in Fantasia with the dinosaurs. It originally was a ballet of all things." Originally published: October 28, 2008.