Directed Viewing has always been a project about discovering some greater comprehension of a director through their filmography. I’ve always believed that it’s the best way to learn about a director, their movies, and even the time in which they worked. That’s why initially I was very excited for the Kubrick project, but it’s also why as we approach the last few movies I find myself as frustrated as I am happy about the progress made in this particular project. Let’s call this installment my personal dark night of the soul.
I had seen as many Kubrick movies as I hadn’t going into this project, and certainly had seen most of the really famous ones. Some movies, like Lolita and this week’s movie, I’ve seen multiple times. Usually those were the ones that were classics but that for some reason or another I didn’t like. I’m often obsessive about classics when I don’t like them, turning them over and over in my head like some puzzle I need to untangle. What makes so many people consider something so highly? If it isn’t apparent to me, I have to keep working at it, hoping to crack it open like a particularly stubborn nut. I cracked Lolita, finally. My first experience with Dr. Strangelove in turn gave me a new trouble spot to worry over. You win some, you lose some.
The problem is that for all the work I’ve put into these Kubrick remains as much of an enigma as ever. Maybe even more than when I started. I can’t predict what I’ll like or hate, and I can’t predict whether or not what he’s doing is intentionally part of a greater whole or just another movie. Kubrick, with his constant and often conflicting adaptations, confounds the attempts to easily peg him within the concept of auteur theory. At times silly, others grave; his movies have a schizophrenic quality between despairing horror and hopeful (if cynical) good humor that has me running in circles trying to figure out who the man is, outside of a complex study of the extremes of humanity. It is, if you’ll allow me the obvious segue, maddening. Like today’s movie! (Whoa, who ever saw that segue coming?)
The Shining (1980)
This was my fourth time watching Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s claustrophobic haunted hotel story, and I’ll tell you from the start that it’s had a long uphill battle. The first time I watched The Shining I absolutely hated it, hated it’s stilted pacing and overwrought melodramatic atmosphere of horror, hated each reveal and how unrelentingly ambiguous it all was. But most of all, I hated the cast. Oh, how I hated the cast.
I’ve gone on record, multiple times now, with this crazy theory that horror movies have to hinge on you caring about the character who are put in peril. If you don’t feel worried about the people the film is following, or at least invested in their lives and goals, then the movie inherently doesn’t work. Sometimes it can still be enjoyable (Nightmare on Elm Street coasted on having a charismatic villain for a ton of sequels, though the first movie actually did fit the pattern of strong characters) but it can never be effectively scary. And The Shining‘s narrow cast of Shelley Duvall, Jack Nicholson, and Danny Lloyd were the epitome of unsympathetic leads.
Everybody at this point kind of knows the rough form of The Shining, even if they haven’t seen it: Jack Torrance (Nicholson) is a recovering alcoholic writer who decides to take a job as caretaker for a vast mountain hotel for the winter. Him, his wife Wendy (Duvall), and his son Danny are going to be sequestered away in the labyrinthine halls of a hotel that might or might not be haunted, a job that’s so psychologically taxing that one caretaker famously murdered his family during his winter stay. Oh, and Danny might already be psychically aware of the ghosts on some level, communicating with a creepily-accurate invisible friend. What could possibly go wrong?
Much of the cultural consciousness of The Shining is the “Redrum,” the hallway with the twins, the fireax and the manic “Here’s Johnny!” but in reality all of that stuff is in the last half hour or so. What is first and foremost in The Shining is the pace: like the winter itself, long and desolate and jarringly disconnected. We get there, but first it all starts innocently enough: instead we start with Jack interviewing for the position, Wendy and Danny left at home, a look at this couple in their ‘normal’ state. Except … they’re not really normal at all.
The thing that I somehow missed in my first few views of this movie, the thing that really stood out upon this viewing, is that from the start we are given no character to root for. I thought initially that it would be Wendy and Danny, because of how crazy Jack gets at the end. Of course the mother and child in peril are the ones the audience should sympathize with. But are they? In fact, revisiting it this time revealed the easy genre trap Kubrick actually never intended to build his film around at all.
Jack apparently once hurt Danny badly while drunk, an event that led to him not drinking. Wendy goes out of her way early on to support Jack to an outside party, saying that he’s a perfect father now. At the same time, when Jack is told the hotel might be haunted, he casually remarks that his wife will love that, as she’s a ghost and horror aficionado. Both of these things seem to be outright lies: Jack is obviously not a perfect father, as the next time we see him he’s acting like a complete sarcastic asshole to his entire family. And at the same time, he gives no impression that he told Wendy about the ghosts—in fact she seems genuinely shocked when they do show up—and besides she is a kind of nervous, histrionic personality that seems unsettled by a bad mood, much less horror films and ghost stories. Neither of these people seem honest about the reality they face, but the film never explicitly calls out their lies. We’re left only to infer that these are not people to be trusted.
The same is true for Danny, too. Early on he has an ‘episode’ where he envisions the horrors they’re about to be visited, seeing shots from late in the film. The way that episode manifests in the real world is not shown, but it’s bad enough that Wendy takes him to a doctor, who starts asking the kinds of questions associated with neurological problems like epilepsy. And in fact, later in the film, when the malevolent forces are at their worst? Danny is shown in a rictus-like seizure, surrounded on both sides with visions of the ghosts. Is he seeing things?
If you believe the only outside party, Danny is having some sort of psychic attunement to the hotel called a ‘shining.’ This person, a chef named Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), ‘speaks’ to Danny with his mind during one scene. Or at least, that’s what Danny thinks. In fact, the way he acts around Danny, explaining the dangerous of the hotel and the way it’s magic works, is in no way like how he acts around the adults, where he’s personable but just a chef. In fact, when we finally see him in his home, he’s just lounging around, pin-ups on his wall, and he casually refers to the Torrance family as ‘a bunch of assholes.’ It’s a subversive twist on the Magical Negro, an archetype so deeply entrenched in cinema that the idea that our perception of him might not be fully reliable is honestly the most radical twist the film throws at the viewer.
This is all backed up by a narrative that skips merrily between moments in time signified by title cards. The last open day of the hotel skips to a month later in a second. A Tuesday where things seem fine skips to a Thursday that’s ominous to a Saturday that’s downright terrifying. But what the film does is strip it all of context. We peer into this situation, the family neatly put under the glass box of the hotel, but neverdoes the film give us enough information to trust any of the things or people we’re seeing. Jack is the most obviously crazy, but who is to say how deep the psychosis goes? The film makes a strong case to implicate all three of them to one degree or another.
The problem with this all, however, is that it still equals the same thing: without a handhold to attach to, we don’t care about these characters. What The Shining does instead is construct this deeply complicated series of unreliable events, from the fundamental question of whether or not it’s ghosts or a strange fated event or simply people going crazy down to the simple truths of whether these characters as they’re presented to us are accurate. Does Jack actually sit at the bar and talk to the caretaker who murdered his family? If so, why does the character insist on a different first name? Does Wendy see the ghosts at the end of the film? Or is she just frightened by her husband’s sudden incoherent hostility and seeing things? Is his rage and violence even real? That would be the real kicker, to be sure, but if everything else is predicated on lies why shouldn’t the very plot be the same? Who went up to that hotel, and what happened to them while they were there?
The Shining then is more intellectual exercise than horror film. But it pulls the fundamental truths out from under us so many times and with such skill that in the end it trips itself up. We’re left with no signposts, no real thing to believe. Which brings me right back down to the basic concept with which I started: I don’t really like The Shining very much. I don’t think it’s scary, and I don’t like the characters. Rewatching it, and thinking hard about it, have made me respect it a lot more. I appreciate what Kubrick was trying to do (and have said nothing about the technical accomplishments with early Steadycams and smart design [see below]), but that doesn’t mean I connect to it or enjoy it.
The interesting thing is I’m hardly alone in this. The movie was a critical and commercial disappointment upon release, despite the fact that Kubrick made it in hopes of turning around his niche appeal after the poor performance of Barry Lyndon. It was only afterwards, in the months and years after its initial release, that somehow it managed to worm its way into the popular consciousness and grow. I feel like that creeping mold type of social brainwashing is fully appropriate for a movie like this. It’s a movie that’s too clever for its own good, too ambiguous to contain the gut emotions it wants to evoke. As a horror movie, it’s a fundamental failure. As a treatise on the ambiguous nature of madness? It’s fantastic. But that doesn’t necessarily make for good genre cinema.
I assume most people on the internet have seen this video by now, but this short video essay on the spatial ambiguities in The Shining is absolutely required viewing. This was the first time I had revisited the movie since seeing that video, so I can’t recall whether I noticed these things so consciously before, but I certainly did now. Even unnoticed, though, I imagine such impossible structures play on the consciousness.