It is a sad reality that there are some gems of the film world that go unheeded for a long period of time, usually within the directors lifetime. As any Kubrick fan will tell you, The Shining (and most of Kubrick’s oeuvre) is no different. Initially slated by critics and described as the film that would end Jack Nicholson’s acting career (neither he nor the film received Oscar/Golden Globe nominations for the work, yet Kubrick and Duvall were nominated for Worst Director and Actress respectively at the Razzies), The Shining has matriculated to cult status since its theatrical release some thirty-one years ago in 1980. The film has been panned by Stephen King, author of its original novelisation, so much so that he insisted on supervising a television production that was made several years later. Despite this, neither Nicholson or Kubrick suffered any long-term damage to their careers, instead both individuals have come to be defined somewhat by the imagery that dominates the motion picture. As a horror film, The Shining has gone on to be included in numerous lists, ranking highly as one of the scariest and most popular films ever made. Aside from the impact Kubrick and co. made with memorable cinematography, the impact the film has made culturally is prevalent even today, with shows such as The Simpsons alluding to the infamous ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ scene. Thus, it is interesting to look at the shift in perception the film has undergone and the subsequent theories that have come to light surrounding the plot and structural difficulties.
Shot on soundstages at EMI Elstree Studios in Hertforshire, England the set for the Overlook Hotel was, at the time, the largest ever built. The doors used in the internal scenes are mostly real, including the one that Jack breaks down yelling ‘Here’s Johnny!’. Originally this scene was shot using a fake door but Nicholson, who had worked as a fire marshal previously broke it down too rapidly thus, Kubrick used a real door. Given that this line is the film’s and indeed, Nicholson’s most quoted phrase, I was surprised to learn this was unscripted and was in fact an improvisation by Nicholson. Kubrick, unaware that the line was taken from Ed McMahon’s intro to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, intended to use a different take. (Imagine the possibility of drones of fans not screeching this line every Hallowe’en had Kubrick followed through with it!)
Unusually for a Kubrick film, he allowed his daughter Vivian to make a making of documentary (available on DVD and Blu-Ray editions of The Shining), offering a rare and intriguing insight into Kubrick’s meticulous and often difficult filmmaking process. It says a lot about a director when they’re as under appreciated in their lifetime as Kubrick was and become known for their challenging requisites on a film set. Thankfully, Vivian Kubrick’s enlightening efforts allow for a deeper understanding of the ideal Kubrick was seeking to create. Perhaps this is the reason the director never managed to create his ultimate vision, a film on the Jewish Holocaust. Perhaps this is also why there are film theorists (Geoffrey
Cocks, I’m looking at you) who have posited that there are indirect references to The Holocaust in The Shining. Now, I have many doubts about this and the theory has largely been written off due to insubstantial evidence or specific instances of identifiable Holocaust themed scenes. There is however, a theme of genocide that runs right through the film but is subtly overshadowed by the larger, bolder images. The fact that The Overlook Hotel was built upon an Indian burial ground and many of the designs inside the building are of Native American heritage is symbolic of oppression and eradication on the part of the white man. The building’s situation above the burial ground is on a mundane level, a reflection of the white American creating a structure that rises above the land and the dead civilisation who once owned that land. To look at this more carefully, we can see in scenes such as when Jack visits the bar and speaks to Lloyd, a dead barman, that the hotel is almost like a shrine to what Jack refers to as ‘The White Man’s burden’ (a title of a Rudyard Kipling poem). This is also a reference to the drink he has just ordered, and the characters acknowledged alcoholism.
Similarly, the final shot of the film shows a photograph of Jack in front of a ballroom of people with a caption ‘Overlook Hotel, July 4th Ball, 1921′. The still has been the subject of much speculation and it seems likely that Kubrick was alluding to the idea that July 4th was no ball or Independence Day for Native Americans, a fact overlooked by many Americans in the present age also. If the photo is meant to be an ironic statement, it certainly does its job. Kubrick overtly stated that the character of Jack was a reincarnation of an earlier caretaker yet, I find this to be too simplistic and unsatisfying a conclusion. It seems all to tidy a resolution for a film that ends with no certainty about what happens to the wife and son when they run away. Indeed, there is no definite confirmation that Jack has actually died in the snow and the final, comical image of him supposedly frozen to death in the maze is more chilling when paired with the photo. Although he is likely to be dead, there is the suggestion that he (or the demons that have instigated his insanity) is merely being preserved as it suggests he is trapped in some cosmic time warp that refuses to let him out of it grasp. Regardless of how Kubrick intended the photo to be interpreted, it is an excellently used prop as the photo has been on the wall in the hotel for the duration of the family’s stay and yet it goes unnoticed. Perhaps it is akin to Poe’s Purloined Letter, where the object that has plainly been under one’s nose is the last thing one sees.
The film is an interesting case study of the Oedipal struggle in some respects and has been interpreted as a study of a crisis in masculinity, corporate America, racism and sexism. The Oedipal narrative is of particular interest here as it may no be an immediately noticeable theme. When one considers Jack’s interest in the written word (he has taken the job as caretaker in order to write a novel in peace and quiet) and his son Danny’s ‘gift’ of ‘shining’, or his extrasensory perception of images or visions, it is encouraging to comment on the Oedipal strife that occurs between the two as they become conflicted with each other. Danny’s sense that his father means his family harm is not only correct but in the scene where Danny directly asks Jack if he would ever hurt him or his mother, the viewer is also aware of Jack’s increasing descent into madness and this allows us an unusual insight into following events as we too see Danny’s visions contrasted with his father’s lack of sanity. The Oedipal struggle is utilised throughout the film in a subtle yet important manner; Jack’s love for the written word is compromised by his growing madness, which leads his wife to discover the ‘work’ he has been doing is in fact a repetition of the phrase ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy’ in numerous fonts and paragraph alignments. It is also apparent when he agrees to take the job at the beginning of the film commenting, ‘I gave my word…’ which can be taken to mean his soul in the Faustian sense by the end of the film. Similarly, by the end of the film, Jack has renounced not only the written word but language entirely as he pursues Danny through the maze letting out an inarticulate roar.
Another great attribute of The Shining is its then-revolutionary use of the Steadicam. Even now, the fine use this technology was put to is evident, particularly when Danny cycles on his Big Wheel across the wooden and carpeted floors of the hotel. Simultaneous bursts of sound and abrupt silence add to the eerie tone of the scenes and highlights the loneliness of such a big place for a little boy, left to his own devices. The scene would have required the Steadicam to be mounted specifically so that it would move fluidly and at the right height to follow Danny around. In this instance it was mounted on a wheelchair where the operator sat whilst pulling a platform along with the sound man. Although the technology is overlooked today, it would have been an especially wonderful scene to watch being filmed for its skill and dexterity.
Overall, The Shining has managed to overcome its once disreputable debut into the world of cinema and has found itself securely fixed as on of the greatest motion pictures ever made. Although it is not Jack Nicholson’s best work in terms of acting, he is naturally memorable as Jack Torrance. Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd are commendable support and work well with Jack’s demeaning presence. Stephen King criticised the film saying it consisted of memorable imagery but had strayed from his writing considerably. Perhaps he should be grateful that such a film has been constructed from his work, regardless of how true it is to the book. Kubrick’s work has always been his own, not an imitation and that certainly still stands out all these years later. All in all, it’s still got it!
All Rights Reserved © Copyright 2011 Michelle Lacey (Michelle Ní Láitheása).