Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Breaking My Concentration

After watching the new DVD of THE SHINING, I have a few questions and/or observations. This is a film that I have a greater appreciation for now than when I was younger, partly because I read everything by Stephen King back then. I think my take on the film was somewhat colored by both the changes made to the material and by King’s own well-documented lukewarm response. But all these years later the fact is that I’ve spent a great deal of time pacing in front of a typewriter (or, more recently, computer) so there are certain elements I feel I can relate to a little better. I may feel a little more like Barton Fink than Jack Torrance, but it still applies. Anyway, these are just a few thoughts.

It’s often erroneously stated that the opening shot of the film is a helicopter shot of Jack Torrance’s Volkswagen Beetle driving up through the mountains. Of course, the first shot of the is actually of a tiny little nub of an island located on a large body of water in Glacier National Park. Why is this shot here? Is it some sort of play on “No man is an island” while telling us in advance that Jack Torrance is, in fact, an island? Is it just there to creep me out?

For that matter, all of that helicopter footage haunts me. I even like getting to see more of it like what appears at the end of the theatrical cut of BLADE RUNNER. I wish we could see even more of what was shot.

That reverse angle of Jack Nicholson listening to Barry Nelson tell the story of Charles Grady, the previous caretaker who killed his family. Has there ever been a better reaction shot of a character simply listening in the history of cinema?

Jack Torrance says of wife Wendy, “She’s a confirmed ghost and horror film addict.” I just have to ask, really? Is there anything in the character of Wendy Torrance that seems remotely like she would have any interest in scary movies?

This leads to thoughts on Shelley Duvall’s performance: I remember not being very crazy about her in the film when I saw it years ago which, again, my have had to do with how I pictured the character in the book. Viewing it now, she seems to be the most fully realized character in the piece. She’s not the most relatable person here, but she seems perfectly believable as a woman so totally devoted to her husband and son, even if certain bad things have happened in the past. Remembering that brilliant SHINING trailer parody that was all the rage some time back, I kept thinking on this viewing that the fake trailer is how Wendy sees her life with Jack and Danny, or at least how she hopes it is. She has no idea she’s going to stumble into a horror movie—as far as she knows, everything is peachy keen. I did occasionally wonder about certain things, though. She ambles innocently into the room when her husband the writer is no doubt deep in thought and asks, “Hi hon. How’s it goin’?...Get a lot written today?”, no doubt thinking that what he’s trying to do must be the most breezily enjoyable thing in the world. The whole time they’ve been married they never talked about how she shouldn’t be disturbing him when he’s working? I’m not saying Jack should go after her with an axe or anything, but I can relate. Duvall comes off as so genuinely petrified through the entire second half of the film that it’s hard not to associate that with whatever she must have been going through with Kubrick during production. So it’s surprising to see her bickering right back in the making-of featured on the disc. Even if he was really pounding down on her with his direction, her response makes it clear that there’s not an ounce of Wendy Torrance in her at all.

When we see the aerial shots of the actual hotel used for exteriors, where is the hedge maze supposed to be?

Speaking of the hedge maze, the diagrams of it that we see look far simpler than it does in the famous overhead shot. I would ask how that overhead shot was done but even after hearing explanations, I still don’t fully understand so maybe it’s best if it remains a mystery for me.

If anything ever really did happen in room 237 then what, if anything, does Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) know about it? Does he know anything about it?

Thoughts of the supernatural: arguments can be made that ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OMEN contain no supernatural material in them. It’s one of the interesting things about both movies that every single thing which happens in them is somehow possible, even if not probable. THE EXORCIST doesn’t fall into this category—right from the get-go we get clocks stopping, drawers opening, and that’s before anything really happens. With THE SHINING, does Kubrick invent a third option? It seems to accept the gift of the “shine” that Scatman Crothers and Danny Lloyd share, since we know there is an actual connection between the two. But how much of what Jack Torrance sees is truly supernatural? What about what Wendy sees? The implication is that the spirit of Delbert Grady unlocks the door of the storage room that Jack is locked in. But we never actually see this happening. So does it?

On the DVD of DEATH PROOF, Tarantino talks about the long scene where Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) gives his theory about what just happened, referring to it as the “Simon Oakland scene”. Trying to get the running time down, he thought about cutting it, but then realized the scene was needed. THE SHINING had its own Simon Oakland scene, but it was cut after the first few days in theaters, never to be seen again. Watching it this time, I had the strongest feeling that something more was needed at the end, maybe a full completion of some of the characters, maybe just a chance to catch my breath before I returned to the world. I felt like, whether the analogy is totally correct, that THE SHINING needed its Simon Oakland scene. Why did Kubrick cut it? Why did I come away from the film this time feeling like it was needed?

Maybe everything in THE SHINING doesn’t work, but right now it seems more fascinating to me than it ever did when I was younger. And more terrifying, too.


Tucker said...

Great post. I just finished reading (listing on CD actually) King's book "On Writing." Half way though I realized I hadn't ever finished any of his novels - maybe I was avoiding them for some reason. So now I am picking a couple to read and The Shining is one of them, not least because of the film, which I want to revisit. I saw the film many years ago and never again since. When I think of Kubrick's other films I consider him to be a filmmaker who is fully a materialist, with maybe the exception of Space Odyssey. With that in mind I wonder if his take on The Shining is purely a psychological one. I think an interesting double feature would be this film and Barton Fink, both of which deal with writer's block and hotels.

Anonymous said...

All of Kubrick's movies are waking dreams.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

It had been a long time since I had really seen THE SHINING but a lot of it had stayed with me. And now it's continuing to stay with me. I like the idea of pairing it with BARTON FINK, another film which I haven't looked at for far too long.

And yes, they are all waking dreams, a feeling the steadicam certainly helps with in THE SHINING. But I wonder who is having the dream that is THE KILLING.

Unknown said...

As far as the "Simon Oakland" scene -- great observation/question. My two cents: I wonder if in a movie with all those questions of who-perceives-what-that-is-or-is-not-supernatural, Kubrick's leaving us in the lurch at the end fits with the air of ambiguity. Plus, this is at the tail end of the great age of ambiguous American movies - the 70's. Horror is supposed to disconcert, so one way of thinking about the "just-sort-of-ends" ending to THE SHINING is we're all left out in the cold (pun intended).

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I like that idea. It was hard to shake the feeling when I watched it that I needed something more--some kind of reassurance, the chance to take a breath, whatever. Maybe that's exactly what Kubrick didn't want and that lack of catharsis just makes the movie stick around in memory longer.

Unknown said...

Though I would also say it doesn't entirely seem earned, that unfinished feeling at the conclusion (and elsewhere). It's a choice, maybe not the perfect one. But I only use a word like "perfect" because Kubrick is searching for it.

With THE SHINING he seems close to having made the perfect modern horror movie, but it's almost as if its own sense of mystery partially gets the best of him.