What is it about the films of Stanley Kubrick that inspire the sort of over-analysis that has become, almost exclusively, reserved for superhero movies and “Star Wars?” Of course, that’s a rhetorical question, as anyone who has watched Kubrick’s films, be it “Lolita” or “Barry Lyndon,” “2001” or “Eyes Wide Shut,” has probably devoted plenty of memory cells to every tic, or even a particular shot, the late director put into his films. After “2001: A Space Odyssey,” though, I don’t think more thought has been put into a Stanley Kubrick film as has been devoted to his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, which was released in 1980, and has been puzzling, frustrating and terrifying audiences ever since.
A couple of years ago, a documentary came out called “Room 237,” and in it, we hear from many different people about their personal theories about the film, what Kubrick was trying to “say” with the film, all over clips and from behind-the-scenes footage from the film. By the time I saw it, “The Shining” had firmly landed itself as my favorite horror film of all-time, and I had already written about it in 2007 here. Needless to say, I was interested as to what director Rodney Ascher had put together. Unfortunately, I found the film to be a disappointing hodgepodge of ideas that felt more like conspiracy theories and concepts the people sharing their readings on the film were bringing to the film rather than finding within the film. I’ll admit that there’s some potential for analysis with regards to the Native American motifs within the film, and the almost thrown away line about the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground, giving credence to the idea of the film, subtextually, being about the genocide of the American Indians by the white settlers who came to America, but in particular, the notion of it being part of a larger concern in Kubrick’s work dealing with the Holocaust, and a shot of Danny Torrence in an Apollo 11 sweater being something of a mea culpa for his theorized role in faking the moon landing, feel like critical stretching, grasping at straws to pull from the film to make it seem deeper than it was meant to be. It felt like a 102-minute YouTube video by film geeks who spent too much time looking at the minutiae of the film. Trust me when I say, such a thing can be exhausting not only to listen to, but do. That process can lead to intense pessimism within a film fan, and an inability to enjoy the work as simply a film if too much time is devoted to finding “secrets” the filmmaker may have left for the viewer. Besides, simply looking at “The Shining” at face value, one finds within it a treasure trove of cinematic diamonds to be polished and appreciated. Such is the power of Stanley Kubrick as an artist.
I have not read Stephen King’s novel in its entirety; I began to do so a couple of years ago, but haven’t finished it. I have seen the King-approved 1997 miniseries adaptation of The Shining that restored much of what Kubrick left out of his film, which turned 36 this year. The miniseries is a very good watch, and I have no doubt that it’s more faithful to King than Kubrick was, but something just feels like it’s missing. There’s an energy to Kubrick’s film that resonates long after that zoom in on a puzzling photo in the Overlook Hotel from 1921 that has Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrence at its focal point. The second a string is plucked in Kubrick’s movie, it vibrates throughout the rest of the film and beyond, and a lot of strings are plucked in “The Shining.” While it’s true that the miniseries, directed by King-adaptation veteran Mick Garris, was never going to be able to go to the extremes in terms of violence and tone Kubrick did by virtue of it being a network production (think of how it could have been handled on cable now), even its “scariest” moments feel muted and toothless compared to the isolated horror Kubrick provides. When we see the exterior of the fictional Overlook Hotel in the miniseries, you don’t feel the sense of helplessness for Wendy and Danny that you feel from them in the 1980 film; you feel like someone could simply drive from a few miles away, and save the day. King fans may continue to hold a grudge over Kubrick not using The Stanley Hotel in Colorado that inspired the Overlook of the novel (which Garris did use for the miniseries), but one look at the exteriors of Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, alone on a mountainside, that Kubrick shot for his Overlook, and you immediately get the sense that Kubrick will be putting the Torrences in a situation where there is only one escape, and it involves the same fate that the Grady family met years before.
All that being said, if we take a surface look at Kubrick’s “The Shining,” what do we see? The quick answer is a psychological thriller where a man, with a history of alcoholism and physical abuse, goes mad with cabin fever over the winter as a hotel undertaker, and becomes a danger to his wife and son. Rather than focus on what Kubrick removed from King’s text, what should be appreciated is how well he took the story down to its essence, stripped it down to its bare bones, and made something that could scare the shit out of viewers. In lesser hands, that approached would lead to a run-of-the-mill slasher film that could easily fit on the low-budget horror assembly line next to the most average “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” sequels. In the hands of the director of “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001,” however, we get an unsettling look at how a family crumbles under the weight of anxieties they themselves don’t even really understand. From a logical perspective, it’s unlikely that Jack would ever get the job in the first place, as you would imagine that Ullman would have learned of his personal history in a background check, but such is the necessities of plot and story over realism in horror cinema. After all, there wouldn’t be a story otherwise. Jack Nicholson is essential to the film’s success. Yes, you can see the star of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Easy Rider” ready to go off the rails rather quickly, but do we really think that Kubrick, the ultimate perfectionist, didn’t plan it that way? He witnessed, no doubt, something in Nicholson’s previous work that was important for his film, and he didn’t back away from it when Nicholson brought it to each take. The best example of this is after Wendy finds the pages of Jack’s “book,” and sees the truth of his work. When Jack confronts her, forcing Wendy to back away while frantically swinging a baseball bat, it’s some of the best acting Nicholson has ever done. The way he plays the scene toes a very delicate line between over-the-top camp and depths-of-Hell terrifying, making some of his line readings (especially, for me, “Wendy. Darling. Light of my life…”) alternately hilarious and horrifying, and other scenes (like when he has a nightmare, and Wendy wakes him up and he’s in a cold sweat, and when Wendy traps him in the food locker) have equally exceptional moments from the actor. If there’s one problem with the casting of Nicholson, it’s that even at the beginning, he never really feels in sync with Shelley Duvall’s Wendy or Danny Lloyd’s Danny as a husband and father, respectively, but again, that was probably Kubrick’s point in casting him. Kubrick knows that we’ll be expecting Jack’s Jack to go crazy, and he just wants to make sure it’s as entertaining as possible for us when he does. On the flip side of Nicholson’s performance, you have Shelley Duvall as Wendy. It’s no secret that Duvall was miserable working on “The Shining,” having a terrible time being asked to cry and be hysterical most of the time, take after take, by Kubrick, but again, one has to think that Kubrick would have realized that of his actress, and played right to that misery. Abusive? Probably, but he also, reportedly, had the 69-year-old Scatman Crothers do over 100 takes at times as Dick Hallorann, the Overlook chef who understands the psychic abilities Danny possesses. By that point, anyone going to work with Kubrick must have understood the demands that might have been asked of them working with the director, so if you are cast, and accept the role, you probably have some idea as to what to expect. What might have made “The Shining” a particular acting challenge when working with Kubrick, compared to a “2001” or “Barry Lyndon?” The nature of the story itself. This is not the dark comedy of a “Lolita” or “Strangelove,” the stately majesty of space in “2001” or the political chess match on display in “Lyndon” but a tale of horror that is meant to put audiences through the ringer, emotionally speaking. Who’s to say you shouldn’t accomplish that doing the same to your actors, so that the emotions the audience feel are truly authentic?
Inspired, methodical acting is only part of Kubrick’s madness, however. Let’s return to the Overlook, and the sights and sounds it contains. Even with people at the hotel when Jack goes in for his interview, and when the Torrences arrive on the last day of the season, the hotel is imposing to look at. The way the exterior towers over the cars and people we see during the fall sun. The high ceilings in the lobby. The tall walls of the hedge maze outside. The hallways, which can seem either massive (like when we go to the Gold Ballroom) or claustrophobic (as we see when Danny is on his big wheel bike), depending where they are in the hotel. The echoes heard when Jack bounces a tennis ball instead of working. The dramatic change in sound while Danny is riding and going from a wooden surface to a carpeted surface. The Overlook is an intense, antagonizing force within the film even if the image of blood gushing from a closed elevator, the haunting visions Danny has of the Grady sisters, and the ballroom filled with ghosts that Jack goes in to were not part of the equation. Adding the supernatural aspects of the Overlook into the space, especially after a brutal winter leaves the Torrences snowbound and with limited communication to the outside world, only amplifies the chain of events to come after Jack begins to come unhinged. Add to that another flawlessly chosen soundtrack of pre-existing works, and the chilling electronic work of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind (masterfully edited together by Gordon Stainforth), and it’s easy to see that all one has to do to dig deep into Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and have it leave a lasting impression, is simply watch it, and let the film itself do the work for you.
Viva La Resistance!