Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Beginner’s Guide to The Shining (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Listicle)

The impossible path travelled through The Overlook Hotel by Danny (Danny Lloyd) and his Big Wheel is one of the many puzzling features of Stanley Kubrick's classic, The Shining (1980).

It’s that time of year again. The leaves are starting to change colour, everything you never wanted now comes in a “Pumpkin Spice” option, and many of us are beginning our month-long horror movie binges in honour of Hallowe’en. Maybe this is your first year participating in this ritual and you’re not sure where to start. Maybe you’re trying to impress some new friends with your carefully honed critical eye (read: ability to read Wikipedia). Or maybe, like me, you’re feeling the itch to have a horror movie night but you’re lacking the time, energy, or desire to actually get dressed and entertain people so you prefer to connect with like-minded strangers on the internet. Whatever the case, I’ve got you covered with everything you need for a satisfying critical viewing of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 horror film, The Shining

If you haven’t seen it, The Shining, at its core, is based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name, although it should be stressed that the book and film are very different creatures. In Kubrick’s film, out-of-work school teacher, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), is hired to look after The Overlook Hotel while it’s closed during the winter months due to heavy snowfalls that render the hotel inaccessible. Unperturbed by the Overlook’s unsettling history of ghosts, Indian burial grounds, and a gruesome murder/suicide committed by a previous caretaker, Jack brings along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and five-year-old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) and settles in to do some work on a novel he’s writing. History ultimately repeats itself and, whether by supernatural influence or plain old cabin fever, Jack inevitably loses his mind and attempts to kill his own family.

Stories of madness and betrayal always make for a good romp but The Shining has stood apart from the pack for 35 years since its release, receiving fanatical scrutiny and criticism to this day. Most of the film’s clout stems from the usual Kubrickian lore: that director Stanley Kubrick was renowned (or notorious?) for his meticulous attention to detail in films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Spartacus (1960), that his filming was often cloaked in secrecy, and that he never, ever made mistakes. Kubrick was also reportedly kind of awful to some of his actors, particularly Shelley Duvall, who did a record 127 takes of the baseball bat scene in The Shining until Kubrick was satisfied. The borderline religious reverence fans have for Kubrick’s presumed genius coupled with The Shining’s uncertainties and ambiguities have left filmgoers searching for answers that will probably never be found. People try, though, and their interpretations of the film's details, both big and small, fall anywhere on the spectrum between “totally plausible” and “crackpot” (several of the more egregious, specifically, are showcased in the let-down of a documentary, Room 237). Although some interpretations are laughably extreme and single-minded, attempting to understand The Shining isn’t a total exercise in futility. There may not be a Rosetta Stone that will crack the code and reveal the one true interpretation of Kubrick’s classic but many of the details in The Shining add colour and richness to the story, and taking them into consideration makes for a far more enjoyable viewing experience.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Whether it’s your first or fiftieth time watching The Shining, here are some key features to look out for.

1) Mirroring. It’s wise to remember that Kubrick was indeed a mere mortal, but there’s a reason he had a reputation for being meticulous. In The Shining especially, props, set pieces, and costumes often reflect each other, encouraging the audience to draw parallels between the two objects. The most obvious example occurs early on in the film, after young Danny has an “episode” in the bathroom. Wendy stands watch while the doctor talks to Danny in his bedroom about his invisible friend, Tony. In the background, a figurine of Disney’s Goofy (side note: where has Goofy gone in recent years?) stands on the nearby bookcase, dressed exactly like Wendy Torrance in this scene, right down to her yellow shoes and limp, dark hair resembling his dog ears. Another key example is Danny’s teddy bear pillow in the same scene, whose eyes look exactly like the two floor indicators above the elevators in his bloody psychic vision. Later in the film, a similar mirroring effect foreshadows Dick Hallorann’s (Scatman Crothers) death in the exact same spot on the floor where Danny left what appears to be a black doll or stuffed toy in a previous scene.

2) Mirrors. Pay attention to the actual, literal mirrors in The Shining too. It’s worth noting that every time Jack talks to a ghost in the Overlook, he is facing a mirror. Delbert Grady’s back is to the mirror in that eerily red bathroom where the two men casually discuss killing their families. If Grady (Philip Stone) were to be removed from the scene it would look like Jack is talking to himself in the mirror, casting doubt on whether or not the ghost is actually there. Similarly, the bar in the Gold Room where Jack encounters Lloyd the bartender (Joe Turkel) is backed with another mirror. In this instance, the mirror is also partially obscured by phantom booze, suggesting perhaps (bear with me), that Jack drinks to avoid having to figuratively look at himself and see his abundant flaws and shortcomings. The mirror in Wendy and Jack’s bedroom is also front and center in the scenes that occur there, but its significance is a little harder to pin down. Some fans suggest the mirror in the bedroom signifies moments where the narrative diverts from truth into an idealized version of events. The scene where Wendy brings Jack his breakfast in bed is shot entirely in the mirror and showcases what seems to be the film’s only amicable interaction between husband and wife. In the same mirror, Danny is later shown sitting on Jack’s lap when he enters the room to get some toys. Although Wendy expressly warned Danny not to wake his father for fear of angering him (no doubt considering Jack’s abusive streak), Jack appears to be uncharacteristically affectionate and fatherly in this scene. The interaction is strangely uncomfortable nonetheless and it’s worth noting that, shortly thereafter, Danny appears in the Colorado Lounge with mysterious hand-shaped bruises on his neck.

Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall (or Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson) in The Shining.

3) The Hotel. Not only is the Overlook potentially haunted, it’s also an architectural impossibility. During the film, try your best to map the hotel’s floor plan and get a grasp on where certain rooms are in relation to one another. The results are hilarious: rows of doors connect hallways to rooms that have no space to exist, windows in the center of the buildings are illuminated by the outside sky. Ullman’s office, where Jack interviews for the caretaker position, is the foremost example of this spatial madness. In one tracking shot, we see Jack walking through a long room, taking a left early on, then a quick right, and landing square in a windowed office that cannot be, without batting an eyelash. As Danny explores the hotel on his Bigwheel, he is similarly unphased when he turns a corner and incredibly transitions from the first floor to the second without ever changing planes. The hotel is a maze designed to gaslight the audience. The Torrances may be seeing things that don’t make sense, but so are we.

4) Abuse and Alcoholism. Listen, Jack Torrance is not a nice guy. If my friend were dating him, I would stage an intervention. One of the things I love most about horror movies is that they rarely spell out what’s wrong with their characters in explicit terms. The issues are generally inferred, left to the interpretive abilities of the viewer. The Shining hands us the fact that Jack has a drinking problem, but reading between what is said and unsaid in the film suggests his issues run deeper. At two separate instances Jack and Wendy state that Jack has been sober for five months, ever since “accidentally” injuring Danny in a drunken rage. At the bar in the Gold Room, however, Jack confesses to Lloyd the bartender that he injured Danny three years ago. Obviously Jack either fell off the wagon or was late getting on it in the first place. Wendy is also alarmingly quick to blame Jack for the bruises on Danny’s neck and frequently throughout the movie, Jack makes hollow and seemingly unsolicited reassurances that he would never hurt his family. The sum of these parts is that Jack is a drunk and physically abuses his son, if not his wife as well. Deeper down the rabbit hole, some fans suggest that Jack’s abuse is also sexual in nature, indicated by a couple low-flying clues and interpretive leaps. One is that Jack is seen reading a copy of Playgirl magazine early on in the film. The issue in question, if one were to look into it, includes a cover story on incest. Following the “golden rule” that nothing Kubrick does is accidental, Jack’s odd choice of literature might have sinister implications. Furthermore, Jack’s complete lack of both success and vision as a writer also seem to suggest he left his position as a schoolteacher involuntarily and permanently. Proponents of the theory that Jack sexually abuses Danny conjecture that Jack’s permanent change of profession alludes to an unforgiveable offence, likely related to his relationship with minors. Lastly, a more ambiguous scene often included in support of this theory is at the climax of the film, when a frantic Wendy walks in on a person in a full-body bear costume (recall Danny’s bear pillow) apparently going down on an adult male in a tuxedo. It’s a stretch, but if there are other explanations for this bizarre image, I’m open to them.

The long, dark K-hole of The Shining criticism has plenty of treasures to offer beyond my starter pack for budding Kubrick conspiracy theorists. Consider these some rudimentary tools for developing your own theory, crackpot or otherwise, and by all means check out some of the more detailed analyses including one that identifies the film as an allegory for the genocide of Native Americans (it’s another stretch, maybe, but it has some valid points), and another still that suggests The Shining is an expression of Kubrick’s remorse for faking the moon landing. While The Shining gives us plenty of worthwhile material to stew over, I don’t know if I believe there’s one true interpretation of the film that all of its puzzle pieces can neatly slot into. That said, I don’t really believe in ghosts either. At the end of the day, though, the doubt that arises from what we find to be inexplicable, in either ghost story or Kubrick film, is what keeps life interesting.

Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

1 comment:

  1. Great breakdown. This works really well as a sort of "Shining 101" for someone hoping to understand why people talk about this film so much. I agree wholeheartedly that the spurious Room 237 is almost a complete waste of time (Kubrick putting the shape of his own face into the clouds during the intro? Come on), but there are plenty of truly incisive analyses out there that expand on Kubrick's artistic intent, as well as the technical details that are so well-known. My favourite of these is an expansive essay series by film analyst Rob Ager, which you can find here: He's remarkably measured and thorough in his interpretation (unlike the deluded, puerile interview subjects in Room 237) and if you choose to watch his video series, you get the added bonus of his calm, soothing Liverpudlian accent. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Kubrick's work (Ager is somewhat of a Kubrick specialist, with an even more detailed analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey) or just film theory in general.