Essay: The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

When is a film not a film? Across the last three-and-a-pie-slice decades, Stanley Kubrick’s art-horror masterpiece has become the unlikely trigger response to this question… met by poor box office and middling reviews upon its release, The Shining is now hotly debated in film classes and coffee houses the world over; the cinematic equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube, and the subject of a new documentary called Room 237 (Ascher, 2012). And say what you will about that provocative piece – it’s been mocked and raved about in equal measure – but the flick has got cinephile chins furiously wagging, and can claim to have divided audiences as aggressively as its subject did way back in 1980 (when its biggest detractor was Stephen King, author of the original 1977 novel).

In preparation for an introductory speech to tonight’s Halloween preview, I spent this week poring over the film’s myriad details, reading analysis after crackpot analysis, rewinding and jotting down notes from a dozen or so documentaries, and even freeze-framing the Blu-Ray, shot by shot, in a fruitless and brainwashed attempt to decode a puzzle as ancient as the Indian burial ground on which the Overlook is built. The impossibility dawned on me… a five minute time slot to cover thirty-two years of examination, introspection and intrigue? Suddenly the appeal of the film – which I have loved since my second viewing; Kubrick’s never settle in the first time – broadened and deepened in my mind, and I became eager to uncover what further secrets lay in this extended version – a source of much confusion amongst contemporary film fans.

Released theatrically in the US on October 23rd, 1980, The Shining was recut by projectionists three weeks into its initial run after Kubrick demanded that the last two minutes – essentially the coda with that famous zoom-in on the photograph of Jack (Jack Nicholson) at the July 4th Ball – be excised. With film back in hand, the director then decided to make further cuts to the print prior to its European release. This edit reduced the film from 146 minutes to 119, but, contrary to popular belief, the US original is not Kubrick’s “Director’s Cut” – he has always stated on record that he prefers the shorter version, which is chillier and more ambiguous, though was obviously devised for purely commercial reasons. It’s not hard to imagine why Kubrick had attempted so valiantly to drum up extra business for this highly marketable genre piece, either, as his dream project, an epic Napoleon biopic, had been stuck in pre-production since 1968.

And what of the US cut, screened for the first time ever in UK cinemas this evening? For better and for worse, it’s the definitive take on King’s novel (which he remade for TV in 1997, with Peter Weber and Rebecca De Mornay (?!) replacing Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall), though the perfect Kubrick Shining lies frustratingly between the two. The biggest omission from the European cut, it seems, is the scene following Danny’s (Danny Lloyd) first vision of the Grady girls, and that iconic, blood-gushing elevator. In the US cut, a fantastic scene follows between Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and the nurse who examines Danny. This conversation, composed like most in the film as a simple two, then shot-reverse-shot, performs multiple functions, but chiefly it allows breathing room and an isolated dramatic beat for Wendy, a character often criticized for being shrill and one-note. When revising the UK cut, I noticed that Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson never permit her another scene that doesn’t revolve around somebody else’s mental state, making this moment, where her abilities as a mother are brought under fire, among the most vital in the whole film. One of Duvall’s best acted scenes, it also registers Wendy as a hugely appealing and sympathetic presence and, more importantly, as a loving and concerned parent. (Admittedly, it also lays on a little too thick the history of Jack’s alcoholism, an element which Kubrick chose to minimize. This, I suspect, was the source of much of King’s frustration with the adaptation, as his own battle with drugs and alcohol – still raging at his time of writing – had been channeled through Jack).

For the most part, Kubrick’s omissions are beneficial (I’ll never miss the lowbrow, mechanical jolt of the skeleton ball), but many innocent scene trims end up cramping the narrative, diluting the film’s inimitable air of menace. Both versions are notable, with the obvious exception of those aggressively punctuated title cards, for their slow, near invisible fades, which make the transition to faster, choppier cuts when Jack’s mental state deteriorates all the more effective. But this technique feels more at home in the US version, which has a stronger temporal rhythm and more deliberate pace; its accumulative slowness becoming choking as time wears on. The extended tour of the Overlook (this must have been slimmed by ten minutes for the European cut) also has purpose, filtering patterns and symmetrical spaces into the subconscious so that, when Kubrick later repeats and turns them on their head, the effect jars and entrances (see bottom image). It’s vital that we experience and feel the sheer, immersive expanse of the Overlook before its keepers begin to crack, and in this respect it’s also worth noting one of The Shining’s wonderful technical contradictions – to create the sense of claustrophobia in the maze, Kubrick exaggerated and made larger the space using an extremely short lens, the 9.8mm. Positioned 24 inches from the ground, it swallows the characters and makes the 8ft hedges appear 12, 13, 14ft high – and the same effect can be witnessed within the Overlook, painting the Colorado Lounge onto a canvas as vast as Barry Lyndon’s (1975), and in other scenes cramping the corridor walls to make them seem little broader than Danny’s shoulders. Of course, the physical and geographical contradiction which appears as an extension of this is that, despite spending a prolonged amount of time touring the Overlook’s floors, corridors and rooms, the viewer still has no idea where any one space is in relation to another; by extending the space, Kubrick actually boxes and distorts it¹.

In his early life, Kubrick was a masterful – near unbeatable, I hear – chess player, and his films clearly establish a cerebral, taciturn approach to narrative and visual arrangement. As director he sits, motionless and sober, perceiving the widest possible angle – the pieces in play in perfect symmetry. Notice, for example, that the key object, face or motif of any scene will always lie at the focal point of the frame. An early overhead shot of Danny on his tricycle places him directly at the center of the shot; look closely and you’ll see the crown of his forehead directly align with the conjoined hands of the Grady sisters, who, of course, share symmetry of their own. But Kubrick, known for his meticulous and painstakingly exact compositions, finds symmetry in every nook and cranny of the film’s design – even the costume. In her first scene, Wendy wears a red jumper with a blue patchwork overthrow; later Danny repeats the combination – a red jumper with blue dungarees. Contrary to his reputation as a cold, clinical craftsman, Kubrick’s symmetry here evokes a deeply emotional response in the viewer – it subliminally reinforces the bond between mother and son, the film’s most important and instantly engaging relationship. It is even implied, by the introduction of Delbert Grady (who is a butler at the 1921 ball; not the caretaker who in 1970 axed his family and put a shotgun to his lips) that there are two Jack’s – our protagonist now living out the same reality as that of 1921’s Jack.

So, when is a film not a film? The Shining, with its endless provision of paradox and rhetoric, both technical and physical, becomes less an exercise in narrative storytelling – an element it also toys with, splitting into three uneven sections further divided by titles which serve neither thematic nor temporal logic – and more a literal puzzle box; something to be unpicked and decoded. Five viewings later and I still find the film to be an emotionally racking experience, but my revisitations to the Overlook Hotel are solely for the purpose of investigation, the way a detective returns to the crime scene time and time again, hoping that he missed a clue which will act as the final piece in an elusive jigsaw.

The Shining has now eaten itself, become symbiotic with its legend and traveled way beyond the realm of mere cult, deeper into the realm of conspiracy. Within the dense, ominous walls of Kubrick’s Overlook, theorists find commentaries on the persecution of the American Indian and, even more radically, the holocaust. That eerie hedge maze lying outside the hotel grounds, the location for a gripping set-piece finale, stands as a metaphor for the furore which now erupts at any mention of the film’s name. Beware, though. As learned the hard way by Jack and Grady, the temptation to challenge the labyrinth can only lead to madness…

¹In a further contradiction, the space is naturally distorted anyway. Nothing but the opening helicopter and a few exterior shots were actually shot on location, as Kubrick’s second unit and production team built a scale replica at London’s Elstree Studios. The exterior is made up to look like The Timberline Lodge in Oregon, whereas the interiors are a literal patchwork – not one room adheres to a singular design, as each was picked from a selection of 1000 photographs taken at 1000 different hotels by Kubrick’s scouting team.

The Shining will be back in select UK cinemas from November 2nd…


One thought on “Essay: The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)”

  1. Amazing job on this essay, Micheal! You hit upon many relevant points. Especially about Kubrick’s motifs and symmetry. I am very interested in watching Room 237 too. Thanks!

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