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The Shining

‘Room 237’: Kubrick Scholars Go Wild!

It’s all in the design

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. So goes the quote so often attributed to Freud, but it’s hard to make that case for coincidence and happenstance in the films of Stanley Kubrick. You can’t completely remove chance from cinema, with all its actors and technicians and moving parts, but the detail-oriented, notorious micromanager Kubrick came close. What appears to be a continuity error may in fact be a carefully placed clue for the observant viewer.

That argument is made in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which explores five uniquely different and obsessively catalogued perspectives on Kubrick’s 1980 The Shining. It’s about the genocide of the American Indian, argues Bill Blakemore, pointing to the prominence of Native American art (and Calumet baking powder) in certain frames. Geoffrey Cocks sees it as a metaphor for the Holocaust. According to Jay Weidner, it’s Kubrick’s surreptitious confession about faking the moon landing. (2001 was supposedly his “research and development project for the Apollo footage.”)

That last theory is easily dismissed, but that’s part of Ascher’s design. He doesn’t make fun of his Shinologists, who lay out their theses in voiceover (no talking heads here), or the five detailed, obsessively catalogued exegeses under consideration. Each obsessive interpreter is granted their own area of expertise in the Kubrickian details.

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Kubrick’s Shining

[originally published in Film Comment, July-August 1980]

Camera comes in low over an immense Western lake, its destination apparently a small island at center that seems to consist of nothing but treetops. Draw nearer, then sweep over and pass the island, skewing slightly now in search of a central focus at the juncture of lake surface and the surrounding escarpment, glowing in J.M.W. Turner sunlight. Cut to God’s-eye view of a yellow Volkswagen far below, winding up a mountain road through an infinite stand of tall pines and long, early-morning shadows; climbing for the top of the frame and gaining no ground. Subsequent cuts, angling us down nearer the horizontal trajectory of the car as it moves along the face of the mountainside. Thrilling near-lineup of camera vector and roadway, then the shot sheers off on a course all its own and a valley drops away beneath us. More cuts, more views, miles of terrain; bleak magnificence. Aerial approach to a snow-covered mountain crest and, below it, a vast resort hotel, The Overlook. Screen goes black.

the-shining-family-moment
A country drive with the Torrance family

Did Stanley Kubrick really say that The Shining, his film of Stephen King’s novel, would be the scariest horror movie of all time? He shouldn’t have. On one very important level, the remark may be true. But that isn’t the first level people are going to consider (even though it’s right there in front of us on the movie screen). What people hear when somebody drops a catchphrase like “the scariest horror movie of all time” is: You joined the summer crowds flocking to The Amityville Horror, you writhed and jumped through Alien, you watched half of Halloween from behind your fingers, but you ain’t seen nothing yet! And a response: OK, zap me, make me flinch, gross me out. And they find that, mostly, Kubrick’s long, underpopulated, deliberately paced telling of an unremarkable story with a Twilight Zone twist at the end doesn’t do it for them—although it may do a lot of other things to them while they’re waiting.

So Kubrick, who is celebrated for controlling the publicity for his films as closely as the various aspects of their creation, is largely to blame for the initial, strongly negative feedback to his movie. Maybe he didn’t know, when The Shining started its way to the screen several years back, that the horror genre would be in full cry, the most marketable field in filmmaking, by the time his movie was ready for delivery. But he could have seen that, say, a year ago. And still he pressed on with the horror sales hook, counting on it—along with his own eminence—to fill theaters, and to pay off the $18 million cost of the most expensive Underground movie ever made.

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Review: The Shining

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Stephen King’s The Shining is basically a novel of character: Isolated with his family for a winter at a snowed-in resort hotel, Jack Torrance faces the collapse of his own mind from an overload of alcoholism, suppressed violence, writer’s block, and personal failure. His son’s clairvoyance—the titular “shine”—is the mechanism whereby the boy is able to save himself and his mother, though not, alas, his father. Well, characterization and warmth have never been the hallmark of Stanley Kubrick’s work, so it’s no wonder that his film of The Shining is ultimately more Kubrick than King. No satisfactory relationship is ever established between the boy’s “shining” and the rest of the plot; and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), far from fighting against a gradual crumbling of his reason, seems prone to it from the outset. The fatalism of the film’s approach to Jack—underscored by Kubrick’s relentless use of Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer variations on the Dies Irae—serves perfectly the Swiftian misanthropy of the creator of Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s view of man is as characteristically 18th-century as his devotion to stylistic formalism. No romantic Roderick Usher disintegration for Kubrick’s Jack Torrance: it’s strictly “Orders from the House.” Milieu, not character, is the basis of the madness and of the film itself. The Shining might be (like The Omen, The Exorcist, and their host of imitators) a “Devil made me do it” movie, where lack of responsibility for one’s actions is “explained” by supernatural intervention; but Kubrick is more concrete about the identity of his Devil.

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