Friday 20 September 2019

Kubism, Part 11:
The Shining (1980)

With a Napoleon-shaped bee still buzzing around in the Kubrick bonnet, it occurred to Big Stan that if he was ever going to get his dream project about the short dead dude off the ground, he was somehow going to have to make a metric fucktonne of money for a studio in order for them to finance it. Barry Lyndon had spectacularly failed to do this, so - much as he had once had the terrific wheeze to make the ultimate science fiction flick - The Kube expressed an interest in making a truly great, crowd-pleasing horror. Warner Brothers had already offered him both The Exorcist and Exorcist II, but neither tickled the Kubrick pickle. It wasn't until he read Stephen King's The Shining, about a psychologically flawed man whose assumption that he can regain control of his destiny is proven catastrophically optimistic, that Stan found his favourite boxes being ticked. So he packed his toothbrush, dug out his passport, realised he didn't need it because he was only going from St Albans to Elstree, and checked in for an extended stay at the Overlook Hotel. It's all inclusive, go mahoosive!
King was invited to submit a screenplay based on his novel, which he cheerfully did, and Stanley Kubrick cheerfully ignored it entirely and set to work on his own version, co-writing with novelist Diane Johnson. Swathes of backstory were jettisoned, along with King's preferred explanations for the somewhat unusual events that take place at the Overlook. Kubrick's filleting of so much exposition laid the ground work for the film's eventual reputation as a bafflingly ambiguous and inconclusive work of art open to a multitude of diverse interpretations, some of which are so insane they were gathered together into the even more unfathomable documentary Room 237, a film which ultimately proves only one theory beyond doubt: that it's possible to overthink these things.

Essentially, The Shining is the story of the Torrances, a family so fucked up that their very presence in a hotel causes it to shit out all manner of unpleasant business at them, including sexy naked ghost ladies that turn into cackling rotten hags, and vast amounts of blood that flow through the lift shafts in a haemophobic plumber's nightmare. Although even this is debatable: do the freaky psychic abilities of lil' Danny Torrance - and, to some extent, those of his dad Jack - awaken the sleeping terrors of the Overlook? Or does the hotel's gruesome history send Jack round the twist and strengthen Danny's powers? The truth is, it doesn't matter. It's a testament to The Shining's enigmatic aura that it's so frequently discussed and debated, but at the end of the day Stan's intention was simply, in his words, "to produce a sense of the uncanny". It's just a fucking great, enormously unsettling horror film. No answers are provided, only more questions; even the final shot just confuses things further. Kubrick gonna Kubrick.
The Shining is only Kubrick's second film not to feature a voiceover; instead, the Overlook's manager Stuart Ullman assumes the role of exposition dealer. He's doing exactly the same job as a non-diegetic narrator though, because none of the characters pay a blind bit of notice to anything he says. He's simply there to put the willies up the audience, with his casually tossed-off remarks about the hotel being built on an ancient Indian burial ground and former caretakers who turned out to be psychopathic axe murderers. His dialogue does offer the interested viewer a glimmer of potential meaning, however: those comments about the desecration of a Native American cemetery inform a reading about past crimes coming back to haunt us. Jack, who probably has more skeletons in his closet than just a brief dalliance with child abuse, bears the brunt of a karmaic retribution that combines his and his predecessor caretaker's indiscretions with those of capitalist white America. A failure to learn from past mistakes leads to their repetition, the result being an eternity spent in purgatory trying to clean up the mess. "You've always been the caretaker".

Kubrick loved to torture his lead characters, appalling examples of men that they are, and that failure of perceived masculinity gets a thorough going over from the Overlook's spectral staff. Jack's alcoholism (it's surely no coincidence that Stephen King gives his lead character the forenames Jack Daniel) appears in the form of genial barman Lloyd, who encourages him to "drink up, Mr Torrance". Meanwhile, waiter Delbert Grady - whose relationship to Charles Grady, the aforementioned family-chopper-upper, mutates a possible continuity error into yet another unsolvable mystery - represents Jack's capacity for domestic violence, urging him to "correct" his wife and son with chilling authority. If Jack brought his demons with him, the Overlook gave them uniforms and put them on the night shift.

And then there's the maze, that central motif that spirals out to trap the entire film in its winding, inescapable dead ends. Simultaneously representative of order and chaos, the maze is everywhere in The Shining: it's the hotel's corridors, its carpet design, the increasingly confused psyche in which Jack eventually loses himself forever. You can't swing an axe in critical analysis of The Shining without hitting an academic pointing out that the film itself is a maze, its apparently infinite outcomes and possibilities leading to endless, frequently pointless, conclusions. And yet none of them adequately explain how the Torrances got that mountain of luggage in their VW Beetle.
You can bang on all you like about how great a director Stanley Kubrick is, and indeed I appear to have done just that, but much of The Shining's success rests on the shoulders of its three lead actors. Danny Lloyd is alarmingly good as the equally cursed and blessed child, radiating mop-topped lovability while scaring the bejesus out of us with his delivery of the word "redrum" and his drooling fits of psychic botheration. Shelley Duvall went through sheer fucking hell at the hands of her single-minded, frequently cruel director to get to the point where she becomes the physical embodiment of fear, panic, exhaustion and terror all at once. Variety somewhat callously described Wendy Torrance as "a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric", which I think is a bit harsh. With her snooker ball eyes popping out of her Munch's-Scream skull she's equal parts sympathetic and annoying, because Kubrick would just love it if you sided with her bastard husband, even for one guilty second.

Lloyd and Duvall also provide the film's biggest scares, with their own unique terrified faces. Their slack-jawed, boggle-eyed, convulsive reactions to the smorgasbord of mind-fuckery going on around them (or, in Danny's case, inside his head) never fail to erect the hairs on the back of my neck, no matter how many times I peek at them from between my fingers. And then there's Jack Fuckin' Nicholson, going full Jack Fuckin' Nicholson for the entire running time in a performance that's literally impossible to imagine in anyone else's hands. The Shining is the film where Kubrick's habit of shooting millions of takes became big news, and you can see it in every shot of Nicholson going batshit crazy, his face contorting as if being tugged by invisible goblins, because he's done this scene eight hundred times now and he no longer possesses any grasp of long-forgotten concepts like reality and sanity. These are the strongest, most powerful performances in the Kubrick canon; only R Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket comes close.

Even those performances, though, need a canvas from which to leap out, and Stanley Kubrick weaves a mean cloth. The Overlook hotel, tiresomely but admittedly correctly described by just about everyone as "as much a character as the people within it", isn't your average haunted house. Almost every scene takes place in brightly lit rooms or blinding daylight; the hotel itself isn't remotely scary, unless you suffer from a crippling fear of beige. But Kubrick moves around it with sinister foreboding, employing the then new-fangled Steadicam to menacing effect. Those low, wide-angle tracking shots provide a new, weird way to capture the scene of the crime, arguably more effectively and certainly more innovatively than the hand-held POV shots favoured at the time by John Carpenter and Brian De Palma. It heightens the fear of what's round the corner, and with good reason once you know what awaits you there.
Despite all this technical and creative wonder, The Shining did not prove to be the film that would help Kubrick get Napoleon made. Contemporary audiences familiar with the novel were disappointed and confused, and criticisms came thick and fast. Mostly thick, to be fair, not least from Stephen King, who got the bang hump with his vision being so efficiently and masterfully perfected. "I think [Kubrick] wants to hurt people with this movie," King complained, before ironically producing a rival TV miniseries based on his book that is literally painful to watch. Kubrick was nominated for Worst Director in the inaugural Golden Raspberry awards, immediately marking the Razzies out as the awards equivalent of Armond White: tediously contrarian and staggeringly irrelevant.

History, of course, has judged them all, and found the naysayers to be a forgotten clump of potato-brained numpties. The Shining is a hypnotic, blood-curdling masterpiece that crawls under my skin and slowly picks my nerves apart until I can barely take it. And yet every viewing feels like it could all end differently: watch closely and you'll spot a surprising number of shots inside the Overlook where there's a clearly signposted exit, yet none of the characters seem to even see them, let alone choose to use them. Even we choose to ignore them. The Torrances could escape at any time, but they don't, and thank God. We don't want them to leave. We want them to stay there, for ever, and ever, and ever.

Please join me again soon for more Kubism with Full Metal Jacket, or I will gouge out your eyeballs and skull-fuck you. Thanks!

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