It’s Saturday night, the lights are dim, and slow jazz begins to emanate through the coffee shop I frequent as I scrunch my body over Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and try to focus on the book’s merits (I mean, it’s okay, but it’s not my favorite). Michael has just left the coffee shop for karaoke, and I’ve elected to stay at the café, which closes at midnight, and study for a candidacy exam that takes place in late August. Suffice it to say, I’m not a huge fan of bars. But as I’m trying to get enmeshed in the heart-rending story of a stranded narrator’s self-constructed wall collapsing in a storm (really, the way I typed it sounds more exciting than the event does in the book) it occurs to me that the exam isn’t until August, and maybe if I read a little while longer I can rent…you guessed it…a horror movie.
To be fair, I do get some of Robinson Crusoe read, but I make sure I’m at Family Video well before the eleven o’clock closing time (so much for reading until midnight). I bypass the new releases, because I’ve seen (and dragged Michael to) practically every new horror movie on opening night. So I saunter nonchalantly over to the “Must Watch” section, rife with suspense, in hopes that this newly-added Family Video section will help me answer the question: What do I watch tonight? As it turns out, there are a few possibilities, but my eyes immediately avert to a maniacal man poking his crazed countenance through the broken part of a wooden door. Any ideas yet? Yes, I couldn’t help it. The Shining is my go to, a brilliant, engaging movie, an artful product of two fantastic imaginations (Stephen King’s and Stanley Kubrick’s) that satiates my horror hunger no matter how many times I’ve seen it. So, even though one of my earliest posts on this blog was 10 Great Things About the Shining, and even though I later wrote another post comparing the made-for-T.V. version of The Shining with Kubrick’s film, I decide my blog is going to proudly display another Shining post, because that’s the film I want to invest time in tonight.
After I put the DVD in the DVD player and press “play,” the ominous, cumbersome opening music score takes me through the isolated Colorado mountains and portends havoc and doom for the movie’s main characters, Jack Torrance (the wild-eyed Jack Nicholson), Wendy Torrance (Shelly Duvall) and their partially clairvoyant son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). If you’re unfamiliar with The Shining, then you should probably watch it before I ruin it for you in this post, but I’ll set the scene anyway: Jack, a former school-teacher-aspiring-writer-recovering-alcoholic (translation, my more patriarchal, ultimately insane spirit animal), accepts a job as winter caretaker of a ritzy Colorado mountain hotel that’s closed from the first of November to the fifteenth of May. The long and winding road that leads to The Overlook Hotel’s door (or set of doors) generally gets deluged with mounds of snow during the winter, meaning the family knows they’re likely to be stranded at The Overlook for months at a time. The opening scene establishes impending isolation and situates the hotel in what we might geographically consider the realm of “space.” If “place” is warmth and familiarity, space is openness and freedom, but without familiarity. Paradoxically, confined by hotel walls and suffocated by a blustering winter, Jack, Wendy, and Danny will be anything but free, despite the location’s strangeness. They seem to be in a sort of “non-place” – which I’ve written about before on this blog – an area that doesn’t contain the characteristics of either space or place. Non-places, I would argue, are stressful enough on the human psyche, without factoring in the presence of the supernatural.
After his drive through the mountains, Jack arrives at The Overlook Hotel for his interview. The hotel manager tells Jack the story of Delbert Grady, a former caretaker who killed his wife and two daughters with an ax, then committed suicide, while he was taking care of the hotel during winter months. Jack seems nonplussed – we are sure he is indifferent – and this becomes a primary indicator of his hubris. He’s been “dry” from alcohol for five months, but has no sense, no notion whatsoever that he’ll have difficulty in an isolated hotel with his family all winter. And he speaks for Wendy, who never gets to hear the story: “She’ll love it,” he insists. Jack, it should be noted, has fewer and fewer qualms over treating Wendy with indifference or belittlement the further he sinks into insanity, but he carries the subtle stench of dominance and patriarchy with him from the film’s start. Significantly, he’s lost his teaching job, so he’s also in a difficult, perhaps desperate situation. From a Marxist standpoint, society has placed Jack into a proletariat role, and his desperation to find some means of production (i.e. caretaking a hotel) aptly results in his demise (aptly in that Marx believed the human being was hurt, perhaps nearly-destroyed, by being alienated from the results of his labor and thus being a pawn in the capitalist scheme.) Jack is sacrificed for the hotel’s maintenance – in his insanity, he develops a bizarrely strong allegiance to the hotel – in that way becoming sort of a neo-liberal tragedy, a man driven insane by his forced position in society. (Okay, so I haven’t studied enough for my candidacy exam yet but might be using this blog to practice on it anyway… … …)
Along with seeming vaguely patriarchal, Jack’s kind of an aloof, kind of scary, from the film’s start. After his drive to the hotel, when he meets with hotel manager Stuart Ullman, his interactions with Ullman seem forced, artificial, and flat. The banter between Ullman, Jack, and then another hotel employee, is self-reflexively cliché and strained, disrupting our expectations for a well-made movie (it is well made, thus the flatness seems intended) and satirizing the typical shallow (perhaps capitalist-society, perhaps American) job interview. The scene seeks to make us believe we’re grounded in reality (what could be more mundane than a manager in a suit and a little office with plaques on the wall) when really we’re about to enter a grotesque version of the Twilight Zone. The viewer can’t help but distrust Jack Nicholson’s version of Jack Torrance at first site; his Cheshire cat grin seems to mask, perpetually, both a calculating mind and a tumultuous range of emotions that go frequently and shockingly unexpressed by this 30-some year-old writer with a chiseled face and remarkably-arched eyebrows. Notably, in King’s book, Ullman is hesitant to hire Jack because he’s recently been fired from his teaching job for violence toward a student and he stopped drinking only five months ago (translation: the wise decision). Jack detests Ullman in King’s text, calling him, in his head, an “officious little prick” throughout the interview – one of the few details of the text I remember from reading it 15-20 years ago. In Kubrick’s film they get along remarkably on the surface, but what lies beneath the surface – particularly, what lies beneath Jack’s surface – is fodder for the most active imagination, and even the unknowing viewer is probably expecting the worst at this point.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, the lovable, delightful, albeit chain-smoking Wendy sits at the kitchen table, puffing away, while her young son, Danny, eats a sandwich. The scene’s vibe is a remarkable contrast to anything we’ve seen in the film so far, because it’s so comfortable, so refreshingly normal. The Torrance apartment – especially sans Jack’s presence – is the quintessential version of what geographer Yi Fu Tuan would call “place.” It’s so familiar that everyone can relate to it; there are books stacked everywhere, a modest kitchen, a table with a checkered tablecloth, and a somewhat monochromatic but welcoming living room. There is still some tension in the scene – Danny’s imaginary friend, Tony, is telling Wendy he doesn’t want to go to the hotel – but, particularly because Jack isn’t in the scene, the characters are warm and relatable and the viewer relaxes, albeit temporarily. Shelly Duvall is brilliant as Wendy and plays a dynamic, intelligent woman in this role. While she’s incredibly smart and thinks independently, she’s also noticeably maternal. The strong, loving, mother-son bond is an element of the story that Kubrick really highlights and capitalizes on; it’s an odd bit of warmth in an otherwise sinister, terrifying movie, but often the warmth and comfort is eclipsed by the viewer’s sense of impending doom, a sense that’s amplified by the consistently ominous, unsettling score that pervades the film’s background.
But Kubrick is manipulating us – again. I think a good director – and perhaps a good screenwriter – manipulates the viewers just enough, but not insufferably. Recently, fans of The Walking Dead have complained that the show’s writers have manipulated the viewers too much, a view I find plausible and intriguing. Kubrick manipulates the viewer just enough. We sink into this cozy, idyllic, mother-son rendition of a simple home when suddenly, while Danny is brushing his teeth in front of the mirror, his eyes open wide and he has a vision. As the music intensifies, Danny sees two symmetrical orange elevators situated side by side. Slowly, red liquid splashes out of the edge of one, and soon gallons of thick, crimson blood are pouring out of the elevators and obscuring the viewer’s vision. The hell has commenced. Of course, the vision is portentous and symbolic: The Overlook has a bloody past, and the potential for a bloody future. Danny passes out immediately, and when we next see Wendy and Danny, he’s lying in a warm, child-friendly bedroom surrounded by his concerned mother and a kindly, professional looking psychologist. We have, for the time being, exited the darkest parts of Kubrick’s imagination, but we know we are destined to return.
And that’s where we stop tonight. I mean, I have books to read and summer jobs to apply for, and if I finished this piece tonight, I’d probably have about 15 pages (and thus wouldn’t really finish it tonight). I’ve decided, then, to make this a regular installment. In a near-future post, I’ll continue going through The Shining step by step. I’ll analyze how I think the film achieves its effect and – possibly – critique it a little vis a vis literary theory – in an effort to elucidate what I love about it (ummm, and to practice applying theory to fiction for my imminent exam). So if you haven’t watched The Shining yet, what are you waiting for?!?! It’s over 30 years old! And if you have, stay tuned for more, and consider weighing in below with your thoughts on the film’s beginning.