Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) - 4K restoration

Wait till your father gets

--on the occasion of the film's 4k restoration

"(N)othing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center" Jorge Luis Borges, quoting GK Chesterton*

Stanley Kubrick, reportedly dismayed by the poor boxoffice of Barry Lyndon, decided his next project would be a horror film; he skimmed through the opening pages of a stack of books (tossing aside those that failed to hold his attention) settled on Stephen King's The Shining, about a haunted hotel that turns an alcoholic father against his wife and telepathic son.

King was reportedly involved in the initial process, was unhappy with the finished product: he thought the actors miscast (Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance was obviously crazy from the start, Shelley Duvall as his wife Wendy was basically there to "scream and be stupid"), recently declared the movie to be "a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside..."

I read the novel because I'd seen the film, was curious about the source material. Found the book fluidly written if overlong with a handful of chilling setpieces and plenty of colorful gore; found the characters on printed page more well-rounded overall than on the big screen, but strictly conventional types in a strictly conventional haunted-house story--maybe with stereo and special effects thrown in to turbocharge the scares. 

The movie was a whole other creature (King was that much right). The writer bemoaned Kubrick's relocating the action to The Timberline instead of The Stanley Hotel that originally inspired him; also heard a comment that the film doesn't depict claustrophobia very well, which in the story is one cause of Jack's madness (the others being alcohol and the supernatural).

"Of course it doesn't depict claustrophobia well" I replied, "and of course it had to be the Timberline (actually the Timberline's exterior combined with studio sets inspired by The Ahwahnee Hotel). Danny pedals his Big Wheel furiously down one corridor after another as if through a maze; look closely and you see the hotel's rugs and tapestries depict a similar (if more simplified and stylized) design; outside Danny and Wendy wander through a gargantuan complex of hedges with walls thirteen feet high; and through it all Kubrick's camera glides past and zooms into and pulls out of one level into another as if through a constantly contracting and expanding fractal pattern. The film--corridors and carpets and hedges and all--forms an intricately interlocked series of landscapes located entirely inside Kubrick's head.

"The horror isn't of confined space, it's of limitless space, or rather space that folds into itself over and over, a monster lurking round each corner--but not necessarily. I think the real source of horror is this: a labyrinth with no center no exit no reason for being, where the characters are caught like mice in a spiraling descent with no end."

I'd heard of people trying to map out the hotel's layout, using shots of Danny roving hallways, shots of the exterior, shots of Kubrick's camera drifting into this room and that--plenty of footage, very little of which matches. That's partly due to production circumstances--mammoth sets based off of one hotel, immense exteriors based off of another--partly I suspect intentional: this maze makes no sense is not meant to make sense and anyone attempting to do so (Jack?) will probably go insane.

Not as big a fan of the film's latter half, when the plot starts taking over and the horror assumes more conventional dimensions: the skeletons and cobwebs, the doggie man, the party guest with a fractured forehead. Even the blood flooding out of the elevator, while effective in its way (and the basis for Kubrick's creepy TV trailer), doesn't expand Kubrick's central thesis so much as ornament it--if Kubrick had cut those images out the film wouldn't really suffer.

Do appreciate the little details and unexpected twists dropped along the way to help the narrative along: Danny wandering through the hedge maze (in preparation for a time when he'll really need that familiarity); Hallorann taking all that time and effort to cross the continent, traveling from paradisiacal warmth to infernal cold (Did Kubrick know that in Dante's The Divine Comedy, hell is already frozen over? Does King?) only in effect to make a special express delivery of his snowcat; Wendy holding her bat midway through its length instead of at its end, sacrificing power for fast, vicious swings.

Better still are the long scenes between Jack and Lloyd, or Jack and Grady, or (best of all) Jack and Wendy in the hotel's Grand Lounge--the last a series of circuitous tracking shots moving through cavernous (as opposed to claustrophobic) spaces to underline Wendy's vulnerability, Jack's lunacy, the entire situation's volatility. Nothing is certain everything is possible from any direction--that's the terror of it. 

And yes the bathroom scene--funny how Kubrick's more memorable moments often revolve around bathrooms. Kubrick by way of King stages a harrowing sequence, breaking down actress Shelley Duvall's sense of self the way Wendy's sense of self is being broken by panic and exhaustion and despair--one thinks of Griffith's Broken Blossoms and Lilian Gish's Lucy trapped in a closet, in a near-unwatchable state of hysteria. In a maze you occasionally come to a dead end and are forced to turn and face your pursuer; this is Kubrick's interpretation of King's solution to that scenario.

Is the film the greatest horror ever made? It's brilliantly perverse, often confounds one's expectations of what horror should look and feel like; it's also one of the rare films that plays on one's agoraphobia as opposed to claustrophobia (others would include Hitchcock's Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Birds--would include a lot of Hitchcock, come to think of it (his filmography being a near-comprehensive encyclopedia of the differing types of dread)). I do prefer another film, explicitly inspired by The Shiningthat I think goes further and deeper than Kubrick ever did.

Mike De Leon's Kisapmata (1981) turns on a similar premise: a family terrorized by its father. There are images here there that can be seen as a homage to Kubrick--the nightmare about flooding, the hallway compositions with doors opening and closing, the sense of being trapped not so much by enclosing walls but by a sense of helplessness and fear. De Leon with less time and on a far smaller budget doesn't go for anything visually ambitious and resorts to simple claustrophobia, shooting inside a middle-class house as opposed to an elaborately constructed hotel. Kubrick does use a massive snowstorm to keep the Torrances in their domicile; De Leon's prison is made of subtler stuff--the bars and chains of Philippine society, of one's duty to one's parents, and of the patriarchal imperative.

De Leon works with less to create something I submit is so much more: a direct horror with no supernatural trappings whatsoever (save for the occasional nightmare) that is superbly Gothic and eerie (and, somehow, jawdroppingly funny). A film with a central figure that speaks straight out of the heart of middle-class Filipino tradition, that has warped into something dark and perverse and evil.

*(Borges thinks the quote was from the Father Brown story "The Head of Caesar;" he was basically right, only what the priest actually said was "What we all dread a maze with no centre.")

First published in Businessworld 7.5.19

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