Shining On

On Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

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in Features

This essay includes a quote from The Shining wherein a racist term is used to demonstrate a dramatic shift in the narrative. 

The Shining is the most exciting and complex narrative motion picture in existence. The Shining lives on. The very two words of the title uttered by human breath ooze warmth. The sibilance of the syllables attack because of the film’s iconography: Jack, the ax, the hotel, the Big Wheel, REDRUM, the blood pouring out of the elevator, the white bathroom door being broken down, climaxing in “Here’s Johnny!”, from the moving opening shot on the water in Glacier National Park to the last ghostly blue titles on black, THE END. In between is spectral subject matter, and like the other Kubrick films, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut, it touches something raw, something we often can’t help keep hidden—our fear of death. It isn’t timeless because its time will never come; it’s timeless because it will always be ahead of time. Yet Kubrick told Jack Nicholson, “In reality, this is an optimistic picture…in some way this movie is about ghosts…anything that says there’s anything after death is an optimistic story.”

Though filmed on a soundstage in Britain, its appeal lies in its inexorable Americanness. Kubrick, Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd (the son), Scatman Caruthers (Halloran—the cook), and Garret Brown (the Steadicam inventor and operator — it was the first film to employ the Steadicam for a majority of its shots) brought this to light. (Most of the rest of the crew was British.) The film examines the ordinary American family and, by extension, the relations between them, minorities (Halloran), and the British, the country’s primary settlers. With the exception of Lloyd the bartender, all the ghosts seen are British. The Overlook Hotel has been built on an ancient Indian burial ground and according to Ullmann, the hotel manager, “I believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it.” The presence of a Navaho Sandpainting looms over the fireplace in the Colorado Lounge (Jack’s giant writing den) and he angrily throws a tennis ball at it early in the film. This yellow ball and other objects — the Big Wheel, Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater, the ax, Danny’s stuffed bear and the ghost in a bear suit, American foodstuffs (including the Calumet Baking Powder with the Indian feather hat), the local news that Wendy and Halloran watch, the film Summer of ’42 and the Roadrunner cartoon that Wendy and Danny watch, the copy of The Catcher in the Rye she reads, and the Playgirl magazine Jack pages through are very indicative of Americana. They become jumbled as mythical symbols in this wayward war of the unconscious, as Craig Nelson says in his book Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze,

When Jack moves through the reception area…on his way to a shining over the model maze, he throws a yellow tennis ball past a stuffed bear and Danny’s Big Wheel, which rests on the very spot (a Navajo circle design) where Halloran will be murdered (ironically, in front of the cashier’s cages).

Kubrick threaded very pregnant symbols into his images. Art, especially visual art, is not about answers but iconography — pictures have narrative and parabolic qualities, but their aim is at the unconscious. In Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung said,

. . .a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.

When Kubrick films filter through our minds, especially the five heavily symbolic masterpieces, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, they carry many nodes and vortices to trip our minds into ulterior sensations and so the films become more than films; they are living dreams someone has produced upon us. Because the art is so heightened, so composed, and so unmistakable, it can take people away from themselves. This is a discomforting experience and could account for the many love-hate reactions to Kubrick. He stated his foundational aim for his art for The Observer Weekend Review in 1960,

I don’t think that writers or painters or film makers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel. And they like the art form: they like words, or the smell of paint, or celluloid and photographic images and working with actors. I don’t think that any genuine artist has ever been orientated by some didactic point of view, even if he thought he was.

If any part of it was didactic, as in the second half of Full Metal Jacket, it would wobble, but as it is staked in the healthier soil of symbolism and imagery that assault the unconscious (like the ape Moonwatcher’s second look at the leg bone in 2001 after he has a brief vision of the monolith, and the brief insertions of the door with REDRUM with the same low angle shot), it is released from any responsibility to reality and drags any tendentiousness behind its running time like the spoils of its war against anything not spectacular. Kubrick’s films are full of extremes, from the hilarity of life to endless killing, including the destruction of Earth in Dr. Strangelove. But even the most mundane sequences, like someone walking across a room, are emboldened by a nod to the amazing.

Form is perfectly wedded to content as the recursion of spaces multiply into many mazes and this leads to one of the prime factors for the success of The Shining as an inexhaustible art object: space.

Space, applied to art, is a truly awesome word. According to film critic Manny Farber, the three most important types of movie space are, “(1) the field of the screen, (2) the psychological space of the actor, and (3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers.” Space is so important that it is everywhere and it continually overlaps in that place known as the screen and whether in painting, photography, or film the image standing before us is the collective pattern of chosen space. How do Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick constantly defy the strictures of narrative cinema? Space. In Rear Window and Psycho, the objects Hitchcock settles on — Thorwald’s apartment, the dog, the flower bed, the ring, the pack of money, the shower, and the Bates’ house — are all isolated by a certain regard of the camera, the blocking of the actors in relation to them, and their function as a plot device. In Kubrick’s films what makes one overawed and fearful are the distances, the range of what he shows (often in a wide-angle) to the audience’s eyes: the vast soundless space in 2001, the slow backward zooms in Barry Lyndon that begin on people who are mostly unaware of the true import of their surroundings and end at a point to freeze their coming despair in grand portraiture, the hotel’s golden aura and maze-like corridors exploited by the fluidity of the Steadicam in The Shining, and finally in Eyes Wide Shut where the Steadicam again swings and sometimes stabilizes to let all the characters but the main one leap out of their metaphorical toy boxes with a brio accentuated by the fairytale-esque, Christmas-lighted, and at times medicinally blue lighting scheme.

Of the two hours and 20-minute movie, the last two hours of The Shining are spent inside the hotel and its environs, excepting for brief breakaways to Miami, Denver, and the Forest Service. The establishing shots of the Overlook, first in fall and then in winter, are rooted. The audience is unable to meander from the pull of the hotel’s interior — its core and base that set designer Roy Walker created primarily from the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. Because of the paucity of locales inside the hotel, the visual possibilities are both a blessing and an invitation to deeper pools of the unconscious and the fantastic. Similar to the anachronistic 18th Century space hotel at the end of 2001, the Overlook is a timeless capsule, both an artifact and a vessel of history desiring to add more to its frenzied stores.

As they should, readings of the film have bounded from the most pedestrian — he went crazy and tried to kill his family, to the most laughable — the film is about the Holocaust or the Apollo 11 moon landing, as two subjects of the documentary Room 237 contend. The layout of the hotel and where the key rooms lie is also on some level an unpacking of Jack’s compromised mind. The opening scenes display Jack’s eager bullshitting to nab a job versus the darker information of his past, alcohol abuse and violence, given by his wife to the doctor who examines Danny after his blackout. The varying versions of the many rooms in his mind mystify as he and the audience will by degrees come to find what else is buried inside by going on an odyssey, care of the Overlook’s labyrinths. Early on, Jack finds the model of the hedge maze outside inside the Colorado Lounge. Nelson adds,

. . .Jack wants to stay inside the hotel’s maze rather than explore its surroundings (after closing day, he is not seen outside until that final chase through the snow into the hedgemaze), to control its center (the Colorado Lounge) like a madly inspired God writing his book of Creation. Symbolically, he wants to ‘forget’ himself (Jack Torrance in present time), and to ‘remember’ not how to escape from the center of the maze but how to command its static and enclosed timelessness. In contrast, the film associates both Wendy and Danny with ‘outside’ worlds, with contingency and movement, which means from the beginning that they will either escape Jack’s madness, if they ‘remember’ how to retrace their steps, or be cornered in a no-exit hallway if they choose the wrong path.

Jack’s venturing out of the writing den generates the more action-packed section of his odyssey. Just after his triggering dream of murdering his family, he finds drink and a friendly ear in the Gold Ballroom with Lloyd, desire and death in Room 237 with the succubus, anger in his bedroom, more drink and Delbert Grady back in the ballroom and bathroom, injury on the staircase of the Colorado Lounge, and finally confinement in the food pantry. Released, he tries to chop his family up in their room, his hand gets cut, Halloran arrives,  and he kills Halloran before finding his own frigid death in the hedge maze after chasing his son into it.

The Shining speaks to our question of “being” in the world. Kubrick achieves this by overlaying the most ordinary moments with the most fantastic. It isn’t the horror of dying Kubrick is involved in as much as the anxiety around it. He elongates the scene of Jack breaking down the door, making it as close to real time, to incur as much charge from the act. He even accounts for the cutaway to Halloran in the approaching Snowcat during this scene by showing that the main left panel of the door is broken down (Jack only smashed through the right one before he slid his hand in and Wendy cut it) when the scene cuts back.

Branching off this, the film is about not knowing who or where one is. The play of the mirror when Wendy walks into their bedroom to serve Jack breakfast illustrates this early on. Most of the scene is shot reflected into a mirror, first zooming out from a close up of a sleeping Jack and then coming back in as Jack examines his face and tongue in the mirror. Only until the camera pulls back enough to display the frame of the mirror against the room and not just the image of the mirror itself is the shot “outside” of the mirror’s confines. The viewers first think they are seeing Jack, not his reflection. The continual pulling back and forth affirms his emotional state, the mood swings that soon will enlarge. Another similar instance is when Jack looks down into the model of the hedge maze (just before this his wife and son have gone out to explore the real maze) and in a point of view shot that may or may not be his or a God’s eye view, the tiny figures of his family move about the middle, though they seem as small as insects. It can’t be the real hedge maze; it has to be the model, but it isn’t. There are figures there. Then his “shinings” in the Gold Ballroom and bathroom with the ghosts — are we in his head or are there ghosts in the Overlook? There’s never a clear answer, which speaks to the durability of the film.

The Overlook’s space finally fractures when Jack leaves the hotel, as the minotaur is lured out of the maze to be killed. It’s a grainy daguerreotype of the ancient myth because Jack can only navigate his indoor labyrinth, not the replica outside. He has been assured by the ghosts/voices in his head that everything will be fine if he kills his family, but, for all his ferocity, he is still a failed writer, a failed husband and father, and an alcoholic off the wagon. Jack forecasts his death by looking at the model of the maze and its rectangular middle (where he dies) a few months before it happens. This points to each of his subsequent gazes outside at the real one. It’s an unforgettable shot of him staring out the Lounge’s window (with the Navajo Sandpainting over a fireplace on his left side and a wall of photographs very similar to the one he will be pasted into in the final shot on his right) at his wife and child. Again, they are outside, he’s in. This storied zoom into a close-up of his ill-seeking visage as he watches his family frolic in the snow destabilizes the viewer because of its unsettling length. With the ramping up of uneasy Bartók, this protracted holding of the shot for nearly thirty seconds on his glaze of madness (the ultimate Kubrick crazy stare) may be the scariest shot in the film. This act of an unblinking automaton, a man stuck in a reverse “shining” or a call to violence we can only read in his face, perfectly inhabited by Nicholson’s reptilian green eyes, is completed towards its end by how gradually he sickly looks up from the family to the sky. To the beyond? To his future of “always” being in the hotel? To his way out of an unsuccessful life? According to the preeminent Kubrick scholar, Michel Ciment, obsession with work is at the center of the WASP civilization that the Torrance family is a part of. Halloran and the child are in relation to something basic, mythical, and spiritual, whereas Jack is “a totally materialistic character”, although he is a product of the system. “We cannot condemn Jack because he is a victim,” and going back through the oeuvre, he adds, “Kubrick is always on the side of the oppressed,” whether it is Humbert, Hal, Alex, Barry Lyndon, or Bill Hartford.

Less has been said of Jack’s “shinings” precisely because they can’t fully be explained — so why try? What’s incredible in The Shining is how many points of view there are and how intermingled they become, leading to a most inexplicable cinematic gesture. Danny has an invisible friend, Tony, who sometimes takes over for him. He “lives” in his mouth. After getting assaulted by the woman in Room 237, Danny gets stuck in that mode (Tony’s speech is in a low and guttural) until his voice changes and registers back to Danny’s high-pitched child’s voice after writing REDRUM on the door in lipstick. Danny’s own power, named “shining” by Halloran, who also has it, links him to his father, after the scenes of Jack’s “shinings” in the green bathroom of Room 237. What complicates this sequence, even more, is Danny’s “call” to Halloran in Miami framing Jack’s visit to the room. The zooming close-up of Halloran’s shaking face as he feels what Danny has suffered yields to a glimpse of the opened door of Room 237 with the key, what Danny already experienced, and a brief shot of Danny foaming at the mouth in his bedroom in the process of “calling.” The heartbeats sounding under these images bleed over into a strict point of view shot of Jack going into the bathroom and finding a beautiful naked young woman. She gets out, walks over to Jack, and they kiss. But while doing so she turns into an old hag with blotchy veinous skin like colored candle wax. As she walks toward him, Jack leaves the room moaning and then another shot of Danny’s shining to Halloran is intercut with his backing away from her. The hag rising out of the bathwater is Danny’s vision because a second close-up of him foaming from the mouth precedes it. In Room 237, all three characters’ consciousnesses criss-cross within a matter of minutes. Film is the easiest medium to convincingly portray this act and for a film so obsessed with the mind’s twitches and eventually breakdowns, the mixture pressures the viewer into complicity with the supernatural. In the only interview he gave about The Shining, with Michel Ciment, who conducted the three most important interviews Kubrick ever gave, Kubrick said,

As the supernatural events occurred you searched for an explanation, and the most likely one seemed to be that the strange things that were happening would finally be explained as the products of Jack’s imagination. It’s not until Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker who axed to death his family, slides open the bolt of the larder door, allowing Jack to escape, that you are left with no other explanation but the supernatural.

As the film goes on, Jack questions more and more where he is and who he is (he won’t admit to Wendy that he found anything in Room 237), but especially after his third “shining” where he finds the Gold Ballroom filled with a party from the roaring 20s. There he begins to lose his hold and gets satisfied by an explanation. Grady tells him what is going on behind his back, or “against your will,” as he informs Jack of his son’s “great talent” and appeals to his hatred by chummily referring to the “outside party” Danny has summoned (Halloran) as a “nigger cook.” Jack looks on dazed, already returning somewhat to the primitive man he will fully embody at the end when language and reason leave him and he exhaustedly sits down to a frigid death borne of his weakness. His will to live has vanished because that is the only way to live forever in the hotel.

Wherefore the impulse to make The Shining? Kubrick once asked Brian Aldiss, whose short story he wanted to make into a film (it would become A.I.), “How can I make a movie that would gross as much as Star Wars and yet allow me to retain my reputation for social responsibility?” With The Shining, Kubrick sagely fashioned a film adhering to instant tension. One didn’t even need to hear a line of dialogue. The exposition, a family moving to an old haunted hotel for the winter, was the hook. More than an exemplary artist, Kubrick was a great showman and knew just that hint and the book’s reputation as a bestseller pre-sold the idea of the film to hundreds of thousands of people. They responded; it was the 14th highest grossing film of the year.

When Kubrick made a film he threw off whatever genre might normally be attached to the subject matter. Because space is as plentiful as it is claustrophobic, The Shining is a vortex. Time squeezes in as the titles shrink from “A Month Later” to certain days of the week, to certain times of day, “8 am” and “4 pm.” This compression also enters the psychological state of the viewer. At about the first-hour mark of the film, the final act (eighty minutes of film time) begins with Danny seeing the tennis ball pushed into his play area somehow. This final act takes about two days within the last thirty minutes (save Jack’s dead close-up and the dolly shot to the photograph) in real time. Probably a point that has been played down since it came out is that The Shining is a thriller, mystery, melodrama, and horror film wrapped in one, yet in the last thirty minutes it becomes an unrelenting action film. The orchestration of the ax attack, followed by Halloran’s arrival and subsequent murder, then the chase of Danny into the maze, intercut with Wendy’s running around the hotel finding ghost after ghost until her escape with her son, overlaid with towering musical concordances, stands as one of the most exciting, exhilarating, and awing passages of film contained in a feature. As the beginning of A Clockwork Orange, it is relentless, but coming at the end it transfixes all the information that has come before it, synthesizing the spectacle into pure images with minimal words. For all of the other criticisms of Kubrick, his films are never boring.

The final sequence also contains one of my favorite cuts in Kubrick. Inside the hotel, Wendy has just seen the ghost with a wound down the middle of his face toasting her with a drink, the second of her three visions or “shinings” which are intercut with the chase in the maze. Is the hotel hemorrhaging them in order to distract Wendy because it knows that Jack, who has left the center of the building, is now lost, only to be soon gathered forever by his death? And that only she could save Danny by driving him away in the snowcat? After Wendy sees this ghost, we get a medium shot with her wide-eyed, the knife flailing in her hand, and Kubrick cuts back to him saying, “Great party, isn’t it?” as the ghost is match cut to her same position within the frame. Kubrick then cuts back to her as she rushes away in terror and the camera follows her twirling, manic run to a brown wood panel door flanked by two red ones. She turns back as she runs and just as she is to go through that middle door, there is a cut back to the chase outside, to a shot having the same forward-moving Steadicam-ness about it, this time with Danny running through the powder blue tinted hedge maze of snow. It is a perfect continuation of the outside chase because the Apollonian symmetry of the crosscut ices the audience’s attention between two concurrent events — the chaos of the chase and the bubbling of ghosts and skeletons inside the hotel. Not only do the colors coordinate from the blue-robed Wendy to the blue haze of the maze, so does the blood, as mother gives birth again to son, grouping that miracle of life together again, and signaling the final beauty of the film which will be their reunion and escape. What also smoothes out the transition, leading it toward another exultant peak, is the delirious music continuing to gel with the images — and further on Krzysztof Penderecki’s Utrenja Ewangelia, with Native American chants, crescendos as Wendy sees blood gush from the elevator before a cut to Danny hiding in the hedge maze while Jack limps by following the tracks that soon end — the closest father and son will ever be again.

It was not for nothing that it took over a year to shoot the film, another year to edit it, and a week after it premiered, not surprisingly, given the last minute editing to Dr. Strangelove and 2001, Kubrick altered the ending. Originally, a scene of Wendy and Danny recuperating in a hospital after their escape ends the film. Ullmann, the hotel manager, visits them and produces the tennis ball once used by Jack and then commandeered by the hotel to lure Danny, giving one the feeling (quite wrongly) that Ullmann was in on the fantastic happenings. Mercifully, after a member of the crew said, “What are you doing Stanley?” Kubrick called the studio and had theater owners cut that brief scene and The Shining ends on the Fourth of July photograph on the wall — a finish giving away few secrets, but bolstering our sense of the supernatural. Of the ending, Nelson says: “The Shining recalls the ending of another film . . . Barry Lyndon, as it tries to stimulate our memory — not of a collective unconscious, but of a collective humanity (in the [1921] picture) tragically lost and frozen in the maze of our scrapbooks and our history.” Kubrick always wants to know if there is life after death — the biggest question there is. By giving us this “optimistic story” we can see for ourselves where we are going. Nobody will be unlike Jack. When the body is buried or burned we will remain as ghosts who were once alive, people who had their time before they didn’t.

Why watch The Shining? Why revel in it? A relative of mine called it “sick,” which, given the content, is the quite correct epithet. Some rush to Kubrick and others resist him, which is their prerogative. The Shining probably isn’t going to make people feel better about life, but they might be more excited and intrigued by life’s possibilities after they see it. They might understand that while the experience of terror isn’t pleasurable, describing terror beautifully is, as William H. Gass described John Hawkes’s novel, The Lime Twig, “. . . there’s a scene in The Lime Twig where a woman gets beaten with a wet newspaper – it is. . . stunning, and it is so beautiful, but does that make it in a sense, less horrible? No, it makes it a monument to horror and you know what is going on in a way you never would otherwise.” •

Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.