Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

The horror, the horror

Some random notes on the film (WARNING: plot twists and narrative discussed in explicit detail)

Saw The Shining on DVD-- remastered and restored, it says, but as far as I can see not letterboxed (apparently what Kubrick intended, for better or worse).

The only extra is a "making of" documentary by Stanley's daughter Vivian-- interesting because it tells us more about Vivian and lead actor Shelley Duvall than it does about the film itself. Like that Vivian probably had a huge crush on Nicholson, that she just might have a slyer sense of humor than her father (when Duvall falls sick and has to be laid down on the studio floor, covered with blankets and fussed over by studio staff, one of the women says 'it's a good thing you got that out"-- the middle of which remark Vivian cuts to a shot of Nicholson unzipping his pants and pulling a Walkman out of his crotch).

Interesting to learn that most of the snow was salt, that studio people kept getting lost in the downsized set they built of the maze, that Margaret Adams (Kubrick's secretary) was the woman who typed all those variations of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" (Nineteen pages worth (I counted); plus the spelling on the first page was interestingly awry-- at one point, "boy" was "bot" (abbreviation of "robot?"), then "bog" (reference to A Clockwork Orange?)), that Nicholson trained as reserve fireman so that all that axe swinging onscreen is as real as can be (they used mockup doors at first but he went through them so fast they had to build new ones out of solid wood).

And Duvall-- wow. Offscreen she and Nicholson barely looked at each other much less acknowledged each other's existence. Nicholson's legendary for his hyperlibido, so you wonder how insulting it must have been for a woman if this incurable lech won't even look at her (personally I think Duvall's beauty was too unconventional for Nicholson's tastes). She's just had a failed relationship, she's forced to live in England away from her home, she even has to wear the same clothes for a year-- that would be trying under the best of circumstances; add the fact that Kubrick doesn't seem to give a shit about her, is riding her all the time, and it must have been a hell of an experience.

Most painful aspect is how Duvall sums it all up-- she's so cowed by Kubrick's rep as a genius she can't admit he was mistreating her; she claims she's learned more from the film and its director than from any other she's worked on (more than from Thieves Like Us?).

As for the film itself-- I've always found it odd, the film's editing in two scenes: first when Wendy Torrance (Duvall) finds their child half-strangled; second when she demands that her husband Jack (Nicholson) take their child Danny (Danny Lloyd) away from the hotel.

In the first instance we have a medium shot of the boy. Wendy approaches him, realizes in horror what has happened (even on video the bruise marks on the neck are visible), hugs the child tight.

Any other filmmaker would cut to a closeup of her face, as suspicion dawns on who might have caused the bruises; instead, Kubrick cuts to a shot of Jack staring at the camera (presumably at Wendy) then reverse shot behind Jack that shows mother and son in the distance, Wendy accusing him of strangling their son (as she yells Kubrick inserts a shot of Jack with right hand raised, shaking his head in shocked denial).

These series of cuts suggest that Jack is seeing one of the hotel's many apparitions, this time of his wife hurling at him the worse possible accusation she can think of (that he's fallen off the wagon and has again hurt their child).

In the second instance Wendy and Jack are in medium shot, talking; Wendy proposes that they leave. There's a moment where Jack's face registers surprise but before that surprise turns into anger Kubrick cuts to the child screaming silently, the furniture swimming in blood (the first we hear of Jack's angry reply is a voiceover while furniture jostle each other in a sea of red).

Again, the change of emotions you would see in a more conventional film is passed over, and the impression I got-- which I suspect more and more is the one Kubrick intended-- is that here again the hotel is presenting an illusion, this time for Wendy to witness.

Interesting to note that the plot turns on these two scenes: Wendy learns of Jack's irrational dedication to the hotel; Jack learns of his wife's irrational belief that he caused their son's latest injury.

I do see a difference between Jack and Wendy's experiences-- Kubrick allows Jack a few shocked reaction shots, so that we tend to identify more with his dismay (even in editing choices Kubrick seems to favor Jack).

The hotel's later visions are less bizarre (except for the nude woman in the bathtub-- but that feels more ineptly cut and shot than odd), which may not matter; Jack is monster enough with or without them. What does sustain interest, later when family tensions recede and more obvious horrors rear up, is that the characters act with intelligence; they don't just scream and throw up their hands.

A common complaint: that Jack onscreen (unlike Jack in the novel) is crazy to begin with. I think it's possible to argue that Jack (the character not actor) starts out a live wire and because he's Jack (the actor not the character) he's perfectly capable of driving himself even crazier. Further submit that the film shifts emphasis, from struggling father skidding into self-destructive spiral to deluded mother awakening to the reality of a husband in a self-destructive spiral (dragging her in his wake), and finally deciding to do something about it. She may jump to conclusions at first but later she makes the smarter moves-- brings a baseball bat to a verbal confrontation, later locks Jack in a pantry (he can eat himself to twice his weight while she and Danny escape, and I think it a pity when Grady knocks on the pantry door Kubrick doesn't slip in the joke of Jack sleeping on a pile of potato chip bags and candy bar wrappers). 

The ax scene reminds me of the endgame in a chess match (Kubrick's favorite form of recreation)-- Jack brings an ax (he's learned not to take Wendy's swing lightly), corners her in the bathroom. Check. Wendy slips their son out a window; Jack chops down door. Mate-- except a new player pops up (Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) arriving at the end of what may be the most pointless cross-continental dash ever attempted on film-- though he does manage to provide Wendy a fueled fully operational Snowcat*), and Jack is forced to retreat to ponder how to best deal with this new arrival.

(I actually like the perverse twist Hallorann represents: a sympathetic major character built up to be Wendy and Danny's savior, suddenly cut down-- a genuine WTF moment, later exceeded by Jack hunting Danny through the hotel's hedge maze. You can see the flop sweat forming in Kubrick's brow as he obsessively maneuvers around and past horror movie cliches, and the result is a bizarrely deformed plot-- but interestingly deformed, so there's that).

Ultimately what makes the film memorable isn't the prospect of dismemberment for the Torrance family, or the phantoms appearing guest rooms or hallways, but the hotel itself-- an infinitely intricate Mandelbrot pattern repeating itself from the carpet design to the hotel hallways to the nearby hedge labyrinth to the various rhyming images occurring throughout the narrative, from a pair of twins to caretaker confronting caretaker in Hell's own bloodred mens' room to Jack typing an endless series of variations to "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." All contained and rotating in steady stately majesty within Kubrick's vast expanded universe of a cranium. 

A strange horror, perhaps even a great one-- but I know of another heavily influenced by this and, in my opinion, better: Mike de Leon's Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981). As in The Shining, there's a father, mother, child, cooped up in a house; as in The Shining, the father isn't exactly sane. There's even an explicit homage to Kubrick at one point, a dream sequence (nightmare?) involving flowing water.

What makes me prefer De Leon's (aside from the fact that De Leon made his at a fraction of Kubrick's catering budget) is that he doesn't resort to the supernatural to frighten his audience-- the film is totally grounded in reality. Also, De Leon's film is properly worked out, with a satisfying (and increasingly tense) dramatic arc; the supernatural aspect in Kubrick's is rather confusing, its tension fizzling just as the ghosts grow more insistently visible. And De Leon's film is unsettlingly personal--aside from the Nick Joaquin source story, De Leon reportedly drew from his own life.

Nicholson has many strong scenes-- my favorite being his confrontation with Duvall over the baseball bat-- but in others, particularly his first conversation with Lloyd the Bartender (Joe Turkel)-- he's in full shit-eating mode, more mugging and macho defensiveness than any sincere admission of guilt (arguably admission is just what he's trying to avoid-- but I think it possible to suggest hidden pain the same time one is loudly denying it). Vic Silayan's performance as Sgt. Diosdado Carandang in Kisapmata is far subtler-- cheerfully garrulous when he's in charge, falling quiet (and by implication becoming more dangerous) as matters slip beyond his control. Carandang's massive bulk looms the way De Leon's sensibility does, a malevolent presence brooding over its family members like so many chess pieces on a checkered board.


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