The Shining (1980)

What else can be said about The Shining that hasn’t been said before? How many times have I personally seen this film and what can I do to add to the conversation? That’s why I held off on writing anything about it, but after watching the new 4K version of the film at the Carnegie Science Center’s Rangos Giant Cinema — which features a 70-by-38-foot Certified Giant Screen, two industry-leading Christie® laser-illuminated 4K laser digital projectors and a premium Dolby Atmos®surround sound system with 45 speakers — I felt like I saw it again for the first time.

When projected across a screen that large, even the smallest moments in this film take on a dizzying new life. From the initial lone drive through the trees and mountains to the Overlook to being able to see every pore of skin on faces in the film’s numerous close-ups, the perceptions of the way that you traditionally view this film have been changed, which enables you to see it differently. Stephen King has famously hated the places that writer/director Stanley Kubrick took his story, even as this year’s Dr. Sleep will be presented as a sequel to both the King book and in canon with Kubrick’s visionary masterwork.

The issue that King has always had is that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is evil right from the start of this film instead of being driven mad by whatever lurks inside the gigantic hotel. King was struggling with alcoholism as he wrote the novel, so you can understand how personal it is to him. He felt that the two main themes of the book — the disintegration of family and the dangers of alcoholism — aren’t really present in the film.

He also had issues with the casting of Nicholson, reasoning that audiences wouldn’t be surprised when he’d go over the edge, and disliked the way Shelley Duvall played Wendy, saying, “She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid, and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”

He’s also gone on record about how the movie downplays the supernatural and I think that that claim is bogus. If anything, the movie is more otherworldly, presenting a place where even the physical space of the hotel cannot be trusted. He said, “What’s basically wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shining is that it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.”

I must have been watching the wrong film all these years.

That said, like any movie worthy of being watched multiple times, The Shining has all manner of explanations for what it’s really about: the history of America, the Holocaust, the treatment of Native Americans, Kubrick’s role in the mission to the moon and so on. I’m always struck by the nature of duality: the past caretaker named Grady followed the same path that Jack is on — and he’s always been at the Overlook and if we follow the photo at the end, so has Jack — but they have also both had a moment where they could change their destinies. Yet was their destiny to just be the monster? In King’s book, Jack becomes that monster. In Kubrick’s, to quote Laura Miller’s interpretation, the director is the monster, guiding his characters toward a conclusion while watching them in the same way that Jack watched his wife and child in the maze, from above, as if they were insects.

To back this up, there’s the fact that Nicholson and Duvall have expressed open resentment against the fact that Kubrick received sole credit for the film’s success above and beyond the efforts of the crew and the actors. Nicholson has gone on record saying that Duvall’s performance is the most difficult he’s ever seen an actress take on.

That may be because of Kubrick’s mercurial nature. For the scene where Jack finally breaks through the door with the axe, there were hundreds of takes and over sixty doors used over three days of filming. Sure, it’s an iconic scene, but that many takes had to ruin nerves. And the scene of blood coming out of the elevators took an entire year to get right.

There’s also an interesting duality in the difference between Jack in the book and in the movie. Book: a man struggling to remain sane; movie: an insane man struggling to seem sane. Duality is an intriguing concept when it comes to film, as the set of one movie is often the same set in another. For example, The Shining‘s Colorado Lounge is also the Well of Souls from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And much of the fake snow made for this movie ended up on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.

Even more duality — composer Walter Carlos was transitioning to become Wendy Carlos as this film was being made. As a kid, when I’d go through my father’s many Moog and synth albums, I always wondered if they were married or brother and sister. I didn’t learn the truth until I was older.

Fueling even more strangeness is the fact that this is also a movie with three unreliable narrators. Jack, Wendy and their son Danny are all trapped within a place that warps reality and presents images that may or may not be real. Jack is seeing these visions through the eyes of madness; Wendy through her cabin fever and Danny as a child interprets the reality of adults.

The unsung hero of all of this is Scatman Crothers, who had a rough time on the film, often needing a hundred takes for each scene. If you ever watch Vivian Kubrick’s documentary Making The Shining, you can see just how emotional he is. When he moved on to make Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy as his next film, he broke down in tears of gratitude on his first scene in the film. Eastwood, famous for often only needing one take, had to be such a welcome relief for Scatman. Yet even in the briefest of scenes that he appears in, he owns the moment, even when juxtaposed with the acting power of the two leads. He’s also the only objective adult voice in the film — you can argue that every single other person inside the hotel could be a figment of the imagination.

As a writer by trade, however, I often see Jack as a sympathetic character. My wife continually tells me that I react like him to interruptions, but to anyone that doesn’t know the sheer terror of writer’s block and the amount of time that it takes to feel ready to write and that inspiration takes hold, anything that gets in the way honestly feels like the worst physical pain possible. The Shining is one of few depictions of this feeling I’ve ever seen that gets it right. And even when you write your heart out, often it just looks like the same words written on a page over and over and over to the uninitiated. Nicholson said that when Jack snaps at Wendy, that scene hit home. He’d often been in a similar situation when girlfriends had interrupted him and drew on those feelings when he added the line that makes this scene sing: “If you come in here and you DON’T hear me typing, if I’m in here that means I’m working!” Writing isn’t just the actual act of putting the words down. I feel like I’m in the throes of writing, editing and dealing with how people react to my words on an endless cycle.

Even the keys of the typewriter are authentic, with the actual sounds of the keys typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” being hammered out. Kubrick’s assistant spent months typing and retyping those words without the aid of a Xerox machine. And in each country, different words are used:

  • Italy: “Il mattino ha l’ oro in bocca,” which means “He who wakes up early meets a golden day.”
  • Germany: “Was Du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf Morgen,” which says “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”
  • Spain: “No por mucho madrugar amanece más temprano” or “Rising early will not make dawn sooner.”
  • France: “Un ‘Tiens’ vaut mieux que deux ‘Tu l’auras’,” which translates to “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

However you see The Shining, whatever your interpretation, I feel that you are correct. Works of true art and vision are able to do this, to take on the feelings and emotions of the viewer and reward others with your interpretation.


4 thoughts on “The Shining (1980)

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