Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Shining

The Shining (1980)
Dir. Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers

Now, I usually don’t write about horror movies that I’ve seen before, and in the case of THE SHINING that rule should be especially true, because jesus, what the fuck else is there left to say about THE SHINING? Oceans of (mostly digital) ink have been spilled on this topic, not to mention numerous documentaries and video features so exhaustive that the most recent one, ROOM 237, is devoted entirely to rants from four unrelated and unqualified kooks who all have different, mostly insane, theories as to what it all means.

But of course, you know what it all means. It’s obviously a film which addresses the American genocide of the Amerindians. I mean, look at the Calumet Indian Heads! Could it be any more obvious?

OK, so that goes without saying. I’m on the fence about whether or not it means Kubrick faked the moon landing, but the Indian thing is pretty much proved by this point. The Math checks out. Dude, this whole nation was built on an Indian Burial Ground. Look at the damn tapestries, Jesus. What is this, the slow class?

So anyway, lots of themes, but the one that struck me this particular time isn’t about Indians or Moon Conspiracies, it’s about a slightly less exotic theme which runs through many of Kubrick’s films: weak men pushed into violence by a system which plays on their insecurity. Of all the Kubrickian characters who end up in this cycle of shame and violence, Nicholson’s Jack Torrence may well be the most extreme case. And the perfection of this role is best summed up by looking at the two performers at the center of this little tale: Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.

The thing that got me thinking about all this was watching Duvall’s work this time around. We all know the stories, how Kubrick constantly browbeat her on set, forcing her to do take after take, breaking her down to the point that she started to lose her fucking hair from stress, while at the same time treating her co-star Nicholson like an old chum. By now we also understand that he had a good reason to do this: he wanted to cultivate a particular power dynamic between them, with Nicholson as the self-aggrandizing, borderline abusive husband and Duvall as the mousey, beaten-down wife. And man, does it work: Duvall never looks more than a few second away from being completely overwhelmed by tears of despair, while Nicholson struts around like he owns the place, becoming completely enraged at even the smallest perceived slight.

So the dynamic works, but man, does it not make you want to side with Duvall’s character. It’s the same problem I had with 12 YEARS A SLAVE: In a movie, we’re always going to gravitate towards the interesting character, not the nice one. We’ll take a fascinating anti-hero over a bland do-gooder any day of the week. So, Nicholson with his wildeman charisma turned all the way up to 11 vs sniveling, downcast waif Duvall? Gee, which one of these two characters do we end up liking more? Even though Nicholson’s Jack Torrence has exactly zero redeeming qualities, we’re much more interested in him, and indeed, he is the central character of the film. I can’t tell you how many people have expressed to me their annoyance with Duvall’s Wendy, even bemoaned that Jack doesn’t kill her -- even though she’s shown to be nothing if not a loving, decent, and even practical person. But what can you say, right? Nobody likes a wet blanket, in real life and especially in movies. We want to see decisive action and charisma, and we’re not really too picky about the who’s and why’s.

Except, that’s not the way I felt watching it this time. For the first time ever, I started to really appreciate these two character not as icons, but as people -- and it leads me to believe the movie is even more brilliant than I realized. I think if you asked a lot of people, they’d tell you that Nicholson’s Jack is a cool guy who just gets unlucky, and that his wife is a whiny bitch. But actually that argument is entirely unsupported by the events of the movie. In fact, Jack is a complete loser, an utter failure on every imaginable level professionally and personally, whereas Wendy is actually surprisingly proactive and effective, despite being tied down by this (understandably) insecure piece of shit.

Let’s look at who Jack Torrence is. He’s taking this thankless, probably poorly-paid job at the hotel that could almost certainly be done by anyone with a pulse. In fact, he’s even kind of unqualified for that -- who do you see doing actual work to maintain the hotel, Wendy or Jack? It’s an utterly demeaning job which requires only that the person in question live in a specific place for a few months, literally all that Jack is capable of doing at this point. Just how big a fuckup is this guy? All we know about his past is that it’s a history of failures. He considers himself a writer but to all appearances has no published or notable works. Maybe he just doesn’t mention them, but come on, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would be shy about pimping any modicrum of success that came his way. At any rate, his writing definitely hasn’t been paying the bills: we know he’s been a teacher as well (“teaching’s been more or less a way of making ends meet,” he explains evasively) but that he’s not anymore, and moreover that his gig as a teacher ended definitively enough to necessitate the family’s move from Vermont to Colorado. If it was paying the bills, you’d assume he’d stick with it instead of quitting and moving across the country to take a low-skill seasonal job as essentially a janitor. Perhaps this represents his desire to break from his workaday life and become the artist he imagines himself as (note the stacks of books in his apartment), but then again, teaching ought to give him ample free time to write during the summer. I think it’s entirely worth speculating that his current joblessness has more to do with his alcohol problems than his artistic ambitions (in fact, in the novel it’s clear that he got fired from that job for attacking a student in a drunken rage).

You get the impression that employment for Jack has been a little spotty; Wendy doesn’t mention her career, but she does mention that Danny has been in daycare, strongly suggesting that she’s working at least part time to make ends meet (indeed, she clearly does all the work around the Overlook, while Jack writes). She may, in fact, be much more employable than Jack is: later on, when she starts to worry that this job may not quite be the best thing for their family, Jack angrily offers his assessment of his options back in Boulder: “I could really write my own ticket if I went back to Boulder now, couldn’t I? Shoveling out driveways! Work at a carwash! Wouldn’t that appeal to you?” I mean, this guy was a teacher before, I’d have to imagine he has some level of college education. Surely he could at least get another teaching gig, or get a job writing copy or something. It was the 80’s and he’s a white college educated man, Jesus, how do you manage to not be employed?! I think there’s a strong implication here that Jack is chronically unemployable, he may even have a police record or terrible job history that would bar him from most professional endeavors. And now that he has, as he tells Wendy in the same tirade, “a chance to accomplish something,” what is his assessment of his writing career? “Lots of ideas. No good ones.” Even at this, he has nothing to contribute.*

And yet, who does Jack blame for his complete ineffectualness? Everyone else, but especially Wendy. “Wendy, I have let you fuck up my life so far, but I am not gonna let you fuck this up,” he snarls at her, later ranting to his ghostly (imaginary?) bartender about the perceived pressure she puts him under and the the unfair guilt she makes him feel. But of course, we can see that she does nothing of the kind; if anything, she’s ridiculously supportive of this shiftless, irresponsible asshole. “White man’s burden, Lloyd, my man . . . White man’s burden,” he says, as if he’s being unfairly asked to shoulder the weight of the world, when in fact no one is asking anything of him except that he not drink to the point of physically abusing his son anymore.

Meanwhile, you’ve got Wendy. She seems mousey, hesitant, tentative, as you might expect someone living with this resentful, scapegoating monster to be. But the thing I noticed this go-round (maybe because of the Blu-Ray?)  is that she’s actually not the weak-willed whiner that she’s usually cast to be; in fact, she’s remarkably proactive and effective at almost every turn. She’s shown to be a devoted and attentive mother, playing with Danny and seemingly pretty tuned in to how he’s doing (she’s the one who noticed Tony, even though she was working too). Even though Jack’s an asshole, she’s also incredibly helpful and supportive of him; observe her concerned response to his nightmare about murdering her! She’s backing him up on his dream to be a writer, and essentially maintaining the entire hotel by herself, as we see her cooking, cleaning, checking equipment and taking stock of their resources. She even checks in with the local law enforcement over the radio --partially, it seems, out of simple loneliness-- but also clearly to learn about the system in case of emergency.

And guess what, an emergency does arise, and you know what she does? Fuckin’ takes care of business. For all the talk about her being disempowered, she does a pretty spot-on job of shutting Jack’s murderous rampage down. As soon as she realizes definitively that he’s gone insane, she grabs a baseball bat. Yes, she seems a little emotional about it, as anyone might be expected to be, but which one of them ends up getting whacked on the noggin and locked up in a pantry? Nicholson’s expression when she first makes contact is priceless -- he can’t fucking believe she’d do this to him. It’s such a perfect mixture of shock, umbridge, and self-pity that it basically sums up his entire character in one perfect image. He’s the one threatening her, and yet he feels completely unfairly victimized when she defends herself.

Heck, this one action alone would have solved everything; she doesn’t even have to kill him, he’ll survive in there until she can find help. But, the Overlook Hotel is an asshole, and so Jack gets a second chance at murdering this 80 pound woman and her mentally ill son. How does that turn out? She successfully locks him out of the bathroom, sends her kid to safety out the window, fends off his attack with a knife -- remember, he has an ax!-- and gets to safety herself. Her contingency plans --the snow cat and the radio-- are both shut down, either by Jack or, perhaps, by the hotel itself. But she’s really doing pretty well defending herself and her son even before poor Halloran comes along and gives her a way out (note that she knows how to drive the snowcat, presumably from practicing for just such an emergency). She even begins to “shine” towards the end, as she finally genuinely understands what’s happening here. Is she terrified? Sure, beyond words. But guess what, she fuckin works through that shit and makes it out alive, while Jack is outsmarted by a child and freezes to death in the hedge maze like the chump that he is.

By the way, notice anything about Jack’s hand up there? No wedding ring. But Wendy has one:

If she has a flaw, it’s that she’s actually bought into Jack’s victim routine and stuck with him when she should have kicked him to the curb years ago. It should be obvious how much he’s given up on this family, and how he resents them and blames them for his own failures as a professional, as a father, and as a human being. She’s still trying to make it work, though, still hoping that maybe his newfound sobriety will allow him to change for the better. Of course, he just ends up resenting her for that, too.

Which brings us back to Kubrick’s treatment of the characters. Kubrick clearly wants the balance of power to be tipped in Jack’s favor, but that’s not the same as liking him. In fact, I think Kubrick is trying to demonstrate just how ridiculous it is for Jack to be both a bully and a failure. Wendy is living in fear of this guy. It’s obvious that she has been taking his abuse for a long time and internalizing it, feeling bad about herself and scared of his explosive temper. But when it comes down to it, she’s actually a far stronger person than he is. She’s always been more than a match for him --maybe that’s even partially why he resents her so much-- but she doesn’t know it yet, she feels too weak to stand up to him. And like the classic abused spouse, she not only doesn’t seem to blame him, she seems to think that she needs him, accepts the fantasy that even though she’s doing all the work, he’s the one who’s being victimized. But of course, that’s not true at all. Jack is just a selfish loser, and he’s asserting his power over the only two people left that might put up with it.

It’s doesn’t take much of a push, then, for the (possible) entities in the hotel to play on Jack’s insecurities and martyr complex, and to goad him into violence. Note that the ghosts tend to phrase their suggestions in very paternalistic terms. Jack’s wife and child need to be “corrected”, the subtext being that they have attempted to thwart his control and that he needs to reestablish it. We see over and over in Kubrick’s filmography the ways in which the powerful manipulate weak men into committing violence, and it’s here, in THE SHINING that it may be most overt. Preying on Jack’s insecurity pushes his already fraying mental state into a frenzy of violent victim-blaming. But even here, he’s a failure, and maybe that was the hotel’s intent all along. Does it really want Wendy and Danny dead, or does it just want to reclaim Jack’s soul? Hell, for that matter, do we even know it wants Jack? Maybe the whole debacle is actually the hotel’s way of forcing Wendy to finally confront Jack and realize her own power and his weakness.

Kubrick’s portrayal of the characters, then, is almost satirical in how blatantly ineffectual Jack is shown to be and how successful Wendy is against him, while the characters clearly see themselves in completely opposite terms. Although it’s not evident from their performances, I think THE SHINING may actually be something of an empowering film for abuse victims: the story of a lady who clearly doesn’t believe herself to have any power --maybe never even realizes she does, even by the film’s end-- but is shown through her actions to actually be more than able to stand up for herself when the chips are down. Does she ever understand this? Jack Torrence certainly never gets the chance to introspect, but I’d like to think that Wendy does. There’s a long-lost scene from the end of the film where Wendy and Danny talk to Tracy Ullman at a hospital after all the horror is over. Kubrick never lets us see the stuff he cut out, but I like to think that there’s a moment where Wendy suddenly realizes what she’s accomplished, looks at herself in the mirror, and --for the first time in the movie-- genuinely smiles.

Anyway, in conclusion, Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing and the government killed him for it. I hope this essay makes it clear why. Hopefully now I will be able to go another year without writing 2,500 words about this damn movie.

*Since King saw The Shining as somewhat of an autobiographical work about his own struggles with alcohol, I’d wager Kubrick’s negative portrayal of Jack was a major factor in why he didn’t enjoy the adaptation. But in this, I think Kubrick’s typically cool, dispassionate read on the character is the better one; Jack didn’t become an asshole because he’s an alcoholic, he was always an asshole, and the alcohol just empowered him to avoid introspection about what a selfish bastard he is.


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yep, though not an especially faithful one, as Mr. King has pointed out grumpily on occasion.
  • SEQUEL: No.
  • REMAKE: Yep, King did his own mini-series in 1997.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Nicholson, but working for Kubrick is pretty much the antithesis of slumming.
  • ENTRAILS? No, lotta blood though.
  • SLASHERS: Well, actually Jack does become something of a slasher. Hmmm.
  • CURSES: No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Low. Beloved Classic.

5 hooks, but let's be real, this oughtta be way higher. I'd give it five whole puzzleboxes if that didn't necessitate doing a whole new image for it when it's already December and I'm still writing reviews.

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