Dispatches: On The Shining

It is the greatest scary movie and the scariest great movie there is.  From its first foreboding shots of a car on mountain roads, The Shining tends to unmoor me completely from my critical faculties.  It’s a cliche that it only gets scarier with each viewing, but I’ll reassert it: I am more scared and compelled when watching today, maybe for the twentieth time, than ever.  Since it’s more a dreamlife than a movie, and depends on no shocks for its disturbing power, it only lodges deeper within me each time.  The problem is that in addition to being disturbing, The Shining also produces such pleasure that one has to watch it periodically anyway.  It creates a world of such photographic perfection and precise beauty that the idea of, say, a serif typeface in the credits would deface it utterly.  Yet it’s really, really funny.  It’s weird, but its austere beauty contributes to its scariness: if it had aged badly, it would much easier to laugh at and dismiss.  You could look away.

A number of memorable films were released in 1980: Raging Bull, The Elephant Man, Gloria, Ordinary People, The Empire Strikes Back, Private Benjamin.  The first three are great movies; seen today, however, none of them possess the strangeness of The Shining.  For example, to watch Raging Bull today is to enjoy a excellent and movingly acted biopic.  To watch The Elephant Man is to recall David Lynch in his embryonic period, with glimpses of the full-blown uncanny paranoia that emerges later.  In both cases, we are the master of our viewing experience – after several viewings, we comfortably comprehend and analyze the movies’ goals and the degree of success which with they reach them.  They are movies.  Nothing like this is the case upon re-viewing The Shining today.  It doesn’t even seem like a movie.  It fits into the category “films of 1980” in a much more confounding way, when it does at all.

A profound uneasiness surrounds The Shining, enveloping it so thoroughly that it seems some sort of unclassifiable formal object, so freshly does it continue to impress itself.  One way to put this would be to say that the other 1980 movies I mentioned are examples of different cinematic tones; The Shining‘s tone somehow stands apart and escapes the category of “movie” altogether.  This strangeness expresses itself by the camera’s action as well as the actors, who seem not so much to be professionals acting as the denizens of an archetypal reality.  Both the setups and the action occur at a very deliberate speed, giving you time to register (and interpret) everything that happens, every authoritative cut and koan-like speech.  In the very first sequence, when Jack Torrance is interviewed for the job of caretaker, the manager begins to explain the case of the previous caretaker, Grady.  As he introduces the topic, he stumbles, then makes a forced laugh.  There is an inexplicably pregnant cut towards his assistant, who sits in a chair, absolutely motionless – he’s wondering how the boss is going to broach this particular delicate subject.  That cut does everything to establish the mood of wrongness, yet it’s unmotivated on first view, like a lot of other bits.  That’s why the movie feels at an angle to the horror genre – as everyone notices, it completely eschews the usual scare tactics: sudden music cues come at the “wrong” times, our expectation of scary shocks is mostly thwarted, and the compositions are balanced and photographic instead of aslant and “weird.”

An odd thing: The Shining retains its tonal freshness even though much of it has entered pop culture.  Jack chopping down the door, the two murdered girls holding hands, Danny scrawling “redrum” on the mirror, the deluge of blood from the elevator: that these are celebrated and iconic images has not dulled their talismanic power.  Seeing them again, the movie’s technique of preparing you for a disturbing sight, making you anticipate it, becomes more and more terrifying.  (I’ll confess here that I can’t even watch the sequence in room 237 with the woman in the bathtub anymore – I worry so much for Danny I just can’t watch it.)  Even many secondary moments have entered the collective memory.  I remember first watching Jurassic Park and grinning at Spielberg’s allusion to The Shining as that movie’s children hide in the stainless steel cabinet of a professional kitchen.   Those pursuing velociraptors, though, did nothing to dislodge from memory the far more potent scene to which they alludes, of Danny hiding from his father. 

It’s Danny Lloyd’s presence in the film, I think, that makes it so perfectly disturbing – any complicity the audience might have with Jack Nicholson’s charismatic psychosis rebounds viciously whenever Danny is onscreen.  His face is so beautiful and his manner so painfully innocent that he personifies the vulnerability of childhood.  This splits us against ourselves, since the film has taken pains to help us identify with Jack’s contemptuous antics.  If Shelly Duvall’s shrill Wendy Torrance makes us want to scream in frustration with Jack (and Kubrick), Danny makes us desperately protective against our own impulses.  We cower, transfixed, when Jack sadistically explains cannibalism to his young son.  And in a quite brilliant touch, Scatman Crothers plays the hotel’s head chef as the one truly loving, caring (and “shining”) person in the movie.  Naturally he ends up as the victim of the film’s vicious and only murder. 

I don’t mean to raise the ur-scenario of the isolated nuclear family as a suffocating nightmare above others, though.  But the fact remains that The Shining often seems to be an allegory for something without quite enough clues as to its meaning.  The massacre of Native Americans, the numerological significance of the number 12, the doctrine of eternal recurrence, the perils of alcoholism, the sense of human social life as a pathetic delusion, all of these can be supported by the right observer.  What can we glean from this excess of possibility?  Maybe this: the dream, not the real, is the state to which the film aspires, which is why it includes so many irregularities and “mistakes.”  Watch the famous scene of Jack chopping down the bathroom door behind which Wendy cowers.  He chops through the right pane of the door, then sticks his hand through, which Wendy slices with her carving knife.  We cut back to Jack’s face, then to a shot of him in front of the door, where the right pane is splintered, but the left pane is now completely and cleanly removed.  It’s plainly absurd.  This in a film that took a year(!) to edit, with forty or more takes of each shot. 

Perhaps the most lauded innovation of the film is its use of long Steadicam (an apparatus that allows an operator to walk and run with the camera without shaking) shots that track various characters around the hotel.  Among its many vivid employments, you probably particularly remember Danny riding his tricycle through the halls of the Overlook, his wheels alternately humming over the wood floor and being muted over the carpet.  These shots, along with the model of the hedge maze that Jack looks into, give us a clear and masterful spatial knowledge of the hotel’s layout, allying us with the maleficent authority of “the house,” implicating us in the desire to kill.  (“Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance.  Orders from the house.”)  As we haunt the hotel, so does Jack in his accelerating derangement.  Kubrick even mirrors this acceleration by speeding up the intertitles, from “ONE MONTH LATER” to “THURSDAY” to “8PM.”  The steadicam, the titles, the pace – these devices combine to remove the film from everyday life.  When you see Vivian Kubrick’s documentary on the movie’s making, the humdrum randomness of life on set (Jack mugging, Shelly whining, Danny running by with… it’s Leon Vitali! “Bullingdon,” from Barry Lyndon!) seems totally bizarre – by contrast, the film itself feels implacable, like it has no wayward elements.  It didn’t include any of the normality it didn’t want.  It never could have been any other way. 

And that, I believe, is the secret to The Shining: the perfect autonomy of its execution.  Shooting fifty takes of Danny running through the maze to get that perfect one starts to make sense: the film is stripped of any inner timeliness, any traces of the reality of 1980.  It’s other-world hangs together so immanently, with such formal unity.  But such unity turns out to be suspect.  At the movie’s center is Jack’s typewriter and the outrageous moment when Wendy discovers what his work consists of: ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY typed thousands of times, as I hardly need to repeat.  The most chilling of the suggestions the movie makes might be the idea that authorship, and maybe auteurship, are forms of psychosis.  To desire to create and escape into one’s one world is to risk succeeding to a sociopathic detachment.  You get the sense here of an autocritique: after all, it’s Kubrick who so clearly delights in the tiniest of details, like the little toy ax and American flag on the hotel manager’s desk, and it’s us who cheer him on.  Among all filmmakers, the sense of a pure aesthetic, a fully controlled formal world, is never greater than with Kubrick.  But it’s just this escapist impulse that The Shining suggests is murderous, and you can’t escape it if it’s in you too.

See the rest of Dispatches.