Thursday, June 21, 2007

Friday Film Appreciation: The Shining

This was going to an ongoing series on my MySpace blog, but much like 'Fox Force 5', it sputtered out after only one entry. Originally posted 6/23/06:

SPOILER ALERT: First off, if you haven't seen "The Shining", well, shame on you. Secondly, SEE IT! Third, this article reveals important plot details of that film and reading it without seeing the movie first would be very, very wrong!

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert does an always interesting bi-weekly series of articles called "The Great Movies" (his first 100 are collected in a very nice book of the same name). While he's no Pauline Kael, they're very much worth the time to read. The current article is about one of my favorite films, "The Shining". Here's a link:

So, what does a mere mortal like myself have to say that Roger doesn't about this masterpiece of suspense? A lot, actually. First off, anyone who knows me is well aware who my favorite director of all time is: Stanley Kubrick. One of these days I'll write a full appreciation of my great love of this filmmaking giant (as I always say, "Kubrick is God!"), but for now, I'll stick to "The Shining". I read the source novel prior to seeing the film, and to be honest, like several other Kubrick films, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it. Kubrick changed the book in so many ways that even Stephen King disavowed it (of course, he also directed "Maximum Overdrive", so I wouldn't take his opinion too seriously). I had a hard time with the changes, as I initially thought they hurt the story. As usual, though, I couldn't get this movie out of my head. The images, the score, the intense performances of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall; thoughts of all these things kept me up at night, trying to understand what Kubrick had done. So, I saw it again; and again; and again; so many times that I honestly can't tell you how many times I've actually seen it. But, I think I finally realized what he was going for (although I would hardly deign to ever completely understand the way his genius worked).

Basically, "The Shining" reminds me of a great 50s B-Film, "The Incredible Shrinking Man". Although it's usually lumped in with a bunch of other bad atomic era flicks like "The Amazing Colossal Man", "The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman" or "The Incredibly Strange People Who Suddenly Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies" (okay, I just love that title), "Shrinking Man" is a much better film than those other schlocky pieces. The hero goes through a radioactive cloud, begins to shrink, and slowly becomes victimized by the things he took for granted as a regular person (the cat, spiders, dirt). The ending is not happy but also not totally sad; he shrinks so much that he becomes one with the infinite of the universe and goes beyond our existence (try wrapping your head around that when you're six years old). The analogy is odd, but I believe "The Shining" is also about the disintegration of a man and his absorption into an existence that is beyond our ken. That is, Jack Torrance's existence is slowly subsumed into the puzzling infinity of the "Overlook Hotel". Kubrick opens the film with a very big helicopter shot of the Colorado wilderness and slowly settles on the Torrance family en route to their final destination. Everything is big, the sweeping score, the speed of the camera as it travels across the sky. Then, once they're ensconced in the hotel, the large rooms and grounds of the Overlook give way to tighter camera shots, and the increasing isolation of the family is mirrored by the filmmaking techniques. Long shots of Jack at work become much more narrow, and the focus inside the hotel is on cramped corridors and small rooms; as the weather turns, the isolation becomes claustrophobic. While this is occuring, the man we knew as Jack Torrance is changing, shrinking, slowly disappearing altogether.

Many people see Jack's character as one descending into madness, but I don't at all. Instead, I see his character becoming consumed by the "Overlook". In my mind, "The Overlook" is no mere haunted hotel; it's a darker place, a nexus between our existence and another that could even be considered a remnant of (or a portal to) some ancient evil thing that is way beyond our understanding (very much a concept that King/Kubrick borrowed from the author H.P. Lovecraft). There's a reason that both Dick Halloran and Danny Torrance share a psychic gift (and bond); the Overlook is like a spiritual magnet, drawing people who can sense things beyond normal reality into its web. I believe that it uses Danny as a tool to locate Jack and bring him into its fold. I also feel that the hotel wants those with the "Shining" to die there, ideally a violent death at the hands of its minions (does Danny really contact Dick Halloran and bring him back to the hotel or does the hotel itself do this? Think about it: Dick senses danger, rushes back, and is then immediately murdered by Jack with no idea that it's coming. Then, Jack/The Hotel turn immediately to murdering Danny. I feel the Hotel wants to feed on these psychic spirits to strenthen its power). Why would the hotel use or need Jack Torrance? In my mind, it senses a capacity for evil within him and needs to use his weaknesses to turn him over to the "dark side". Jack has sinned in the past, with alcohol and violence and other hinted at foul deeds; when Wendy suspects Jack of child abuse, she does so because of Jack's dark history. Slowly, the hotel uses Jack's weaknesses (rage, insecurity, frustration, booze) to break down his ability to fight its desire to consume him. Once Jack's last resistance is broken by his dark deal with the evil forces in the hotel (he makes a deal to escape from the refrigerator), the man we knew is completely gone and replaced by a murderous simulacrum. It may be Jack Torrance's body that is acting, but it's not him at all.

Getting back to the claustrophobia, the most famous moment in the film exemplifies the concept of shrinking - Jack pursues Wendy into her tiny bathroom and shatters the door with an axe. As his head pops in and says, "Here's Johnny!", the entire frame is filled with this image of madness. After this, Jack enters the hedge maze (a labyrinth that symbolizes the move from one reality to another) and never returns. As Ebert mentions, Kubrick filmed a scene that showed Wendy saying her husband's body was never found. I think Kubrick removed it, because he didn't want to give the viewer easy answers. Of course, the viewer does see Jack one final time: in a photograph of a party at the Overlook in the 1920s. He has been completely absorbed (shrunk into the infinity of this evil vortex), and I would imagine the others in the photo were also hapless souls who were captured there. In the infinite, time no longer has meaning (imagine the Native American concept of time as a circle rather than a linear continuum), and I would imagine that the Judeo-Christian version of hell and heaven would be much like this (a minister once answered my question about time in the afterlife and said it would be "timeless"). So, like the protagonist of "Shrinking Man", our "hero" is gone at the end of the film and off on an adventure that we can't even conceptualize (although I'd rather not go on the same trip as Jack Torrance, thank you very much).

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