Kubrick takes an axe to The Shining

The Sick Rose

O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Condemning a film that is considered one of the best thrillers of all time and often appears in the sort of endless, mind-numbing countdown programmes on Channel 5 will no doubt be unpopular and critiqued by people saying ‘you don’t get Kubrick’. But the thing is, I think that not ‘getting’ Kubrick is a common problem in people’s lives and I have no doubt people have sought counselling over such an issue. Kubrick’s obscurity and intentional opaqueness is such a hindrance to his films and this can alienate the audience, particularly in The Shining.

I am also going to make it painstakingly obvious that I have read the book The Shining, to prove I can read and to make the non-readers of the book feel inferior to me, in a way that Kubrick would do. A comment I’ll make now about the book is that it was so good, you would have thought this ‘Stephen King’ fellow would have written more books as he seems quite capable of writing! Haha oh I’m hilarious, time to knuckle down with Kubrick’s inane filmmaking now.

You will all be glad to know that I have done my research for this article. I have found that there are many interpretations of the film that people have taken a liking to, such vague, ambitious interpretations suggest that The Shining was a secret message from Kubrick to tell us that the moon landing had been faked. They say that Danny’s Apollo 11 jumper and the Room 237 (at the time it was supposed there were 237,000 miles to the moon) are references to this and that Kubrick directing 2001: A Space Odyssey assisted in the faked moon landing. People say that, and this is no lie, Kubrick changed the room number from 217 in the book to 237 in the film, the sum of the numbers in 237 is 12, and if you insert two zeros and reverse the number this is 2001; a defining link to 2001 and therefore the faked moon landing if there ever was one.

Another one is that the film depicts Kubrick’s defiance of ‘the system’ and that Mr Ullman is actually John F. Kennedy and there is supposed emphasis on the ‘West Wing’ of the hotel, referring to the West Wing of the White House.

Others say that the film has links to the Final Solution of the Nazis in 1942 and the hidden scientific findings of the Nazis. There is even so much mystery and intrigue surrounding the film that there is a fan fiction film based entirely on depicting the meaning of the film (Room 237). People watch the film upside-down, some watch it backwards and even through a mirror – some have even watched it upside-down backwards through a mirror all in one. Outrageous. The astounding thing is that there are as many interpretations of it as a William Blake poem, something that would only please Kubrick more.

One of the greatest disappointments, or flaws, with the film has got to be the overly obtuse ending. Some lesser critics might dismiss this as ‘classic Kubrick’ or ‘ZOMG what an amazing ending Kubrick iz the bestest at films #apartfromTarantino’; but the ending makes no sense whatsoever. However you look at the inclusion of Jack in the photo from 1921 it makes no sense, and this is done purposefully. It seems that Kubrick is purposefully confusing the audience, subsequently making us feel inferior to him. This is something that Stephen King did not feel the need to do in the book and I am fairly sure he had good judgement of how to appeal to his audiences. Kubrick ruins the legacy created by King and the credibility of the whole film as it is basically like finishing the film with someone waking up from a dream.

Kubrick is so overwhelmed by his own importance that he is deliberately trying to be enigmatic, but no matter how you look at this ending it can make no sense.

One of the few things that I can praise the movie for is the development of Nicholson’s character of the crazed axe man with wild eyes, one that he builds the rest of his career on as he repeats it in such films as Wolf and Witches of Eastwick. Nicholson is one of the highest thought of actors in Hollywood (despite featuring in few quality films since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ) and has even been famously dubbed as “acting royalty” [see article ‘And so it begins…’ below]. This was a role that inspired many future movies to be built around him.

Nicholson plays a bit of a nutter in the majority of his films after The Shining, including The Departed, A Few Good Men and the lowlier considered Anger Management, and these roles can only have been written with the character of Jack in mind.

Here's Johnny

As for the other acting in the film. Danny Lloyd, who plays the ‘shining’ Danny, is good…I think. He seems incredibly awkward and creepy throughout which I imagine was the aim; but he creates such a cold character that it is hard to truly empathise with him – although you do find yourself willing him to escape at the end simply as he is only a child.

I don’t quite know what to make of Shelley Duvall. She is very convincing at playing a flailing, hysterical imbecile and delivers her lines worse than the cast of Made in Chelsea. But is this a purposeful development of another cold character? That’s the issue with Kubrick, you don’t know what he’s trying to create so it’s easy to get mixed thoughts on whether it is a masterpiece or truly awful.

Shelley Duvall actually received a Worst Actress ‘award’ for this role but again this may be Kubrick (who won the Worst Director ‘award’ the same year)’s fault. He is well renowned to drag scenes out and take hours over small cuts, to such an extent that perhaps the actors just turned into mind-numbingly dull characters.

There are many iconic scenes in The Shining, something that Kubrick manages in most of his films, from the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange and the Happy Birthday scene in Full Metal Jacket. In this film the Torrances’ long and scenic trip up to The Overlook inspires films such as Blade Runner, building the suspense and the isolation of the hotel.

The scene with the maze is also a truly memorable scene which is often replicated or referenced in films Inception and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Clearly Kubrick uncovered a cinematic goldmine, with the maze possibly reflecting Jack’s state of mind or the hotel itself. Look at me, I’m getting all caught up in Kubrick’s ambiguity.

The maze becomes somewhat of a theme, with the various 70s styled carpets (steady) and lack of continuity with the hotel’s furnishings. Doors can be seen to lead to nowhere and the architecture of the hotel is supposedly impossible. All building to the mazed mind of mad Jack’s. See Orson Welles’ film The Lady from Shanghai which climaxes with the hall of mirrors sequence. The film is another child’s experience providing a thrilling backing to the films denouement, similar to Don’t Look Now as well. Is Kubrick also stealing films as Tarantino has done? Does this mean Tarantino is a cheap comic book version of Stanley Kubrick, who knows?

Obviously the most memorable bit in the film is the “Here’s Johnny” clip which is recognisable to people who haven’t even seen the film. This line was not in the script however and little credit can go to anyone other than Nicholson for this iconic moment, as it is his pure mania that makes the clip what it is.

The colour red features prominently throughout the film in the form of furniture, snow ploughs, boots and, more importantly, blood. The colour is very distinct against the odd sepia backdrop of the sets, and this is accomplished very well and easily by Kubrick. The repeated use of red builds on the further subliminal images in the film. The twins and often other horrific images pop up for a second or two before disappearing. Much like the red these seem imprinted in our subconscious and keep us on edge throughout. The colour of actual blood, when shown gushing through the hallways, is oddly dark, I don’t know whether this is meant to be a shock to our system seeing the darkness of the blood and if it is somehow more realistic or not.

The theme of red has a further connotation, so I would believe. The colour red is sometimes synonymous with evil and the devil; there is a suggestion of the devil appearing as the barman Lloyd, with his slicked back hair and pointy lapels who accepts Jack’s soul instead of cash. This is the turning point in Jack’s sanity and heightens the supernatural sense of the film.

The red is also notably used in a similar way to Don’t Look Now, in which the death of a child haunts her parents.

There are, in fairness, various outstanding qualities to the film. For starters, the cinematography is excellent. Aside from the aforementioned opening iconic scene, the rest of the film seems entirely different to others of the same genre as it places everything in the middle. That is as clear as I can say it! When there is one character on screen, more often than not, they are right in the middle of the camera. This creates more of a sense of portraiture and somehow identifies more with the character. It is clear the character is the focus of attention and focussing on them so highlights their isolation and the easing into madness. The film is also one of the first to take advantage of the newly-invented ‘steady-cam’ which, although overused, is used prominently and effectively in the film.

There is also a sense of symmetry throughout the film. Often when the characters appear in the centre of the screen or simply with the panning of The Overlook’s rooms everything seems symmetrical. Whether this means anything I don’t know, I think I’m getting more caught up in Kubrick’s façade. I leave this an open door for your mind to enter…interpret how you will.

The final area that Kubrick excels in, in my opinion, is the music. Aside from the fact it is loosely based on a horror novel, the music is what makes the film a horror. There are very rarely songs or singing, as that would defy the gloom, isolation and insanity of the place. Instead what sounds like a live orchestra plays behind the film. The music is fantastic at building tension where there wouldn’t be any at all and pointing out key moments in the film. The unbelievable tension is what would cause one to hide behind their pillow (I definitely didn’t do that) and the film would be nothing without the music.

Kubrick’s films were not always the bee’s knees, some would even say that he was on his way down after Dr. Strangelove. As new wave and punk hit the music scene the idea of a drug-fuelled labyrinth film with hidden meanings became unfashionable as pop songs were instantly accessible. This would explain the unpopularity and huge disappointment of the film at the time. I’m glad I fit in with people from the 1970s and 80s…so glad.

I must say that since writing this article and subsequently watching the film over again it has grown on me and I have been drawn to the technical brilliance of it, it’s definitely worth watching if you haven’t already seen it, or re-watching it with this article in mind. I began to think that it wasn’t Kubrick’s fault that the film is interpreted in so many ludicrous ways and that he just made an exciting horror movie. But then you take his other films into consideration. He is by far the most cryptic director whose films I have seen and he purposefully tries to be so. I will take my stance alongside fellow writer Stephen King himself and publicly disown the film as it raises too many questions and is “by a man who thinks too much and feels too little”. (IMDB Rating 7/10)

Apologies if this was too essay-like (as the adage goes, all work and no play makes Tom a dull boy), you can blame it on Kubrick trying to mirror William Blake, he must have confused me into writing an English Lit essay. Or you can blame it on Tarantino, why not?

Please note this article is better read in a sepia colour and upside down through a cheese-grater.

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One thought on “Kubrick takes an axe to The Shining

  1. I wouldn’t call it a thriller. It’s more like “2001”, in that it’s a allegory for man kind. Specifically colonialist expansion. It makes the perfect prequel to Full Metal Jacket in a way.

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