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 with the frustratingly passive protagonist of 12 YEARS A SLAVE and the killjoy goody-two-shoes protagonists of PIRANHA 3DD: In a movie, we’re always going to gravitate towards the entertaining 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 the film clearly posits him as the central character. That gives audiences licence to adopt his point-of-view, and consequently identify with him, even when's he's objectively the villain. And --in my experience, anyway-- they do identify with him, and do so consistently. 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 took a survey of SHINING fans, I bet you'd find a general consensus that Jack is a cool guy who just gets unlucky, and that his wife is a whiny bitch. Certainly I've heard that sentiment more than a few times. But actually that perspective is entirely unsupported by the events of the movie. In fact, Jack is a complete loser, an utter failure on every imaginable level, both 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, a job which could easily 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 assignment which requires only that the person doing it live in a specific place for a few months, which is literally all that Jack seems capable of doing at this point in his life. 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, you might argue -- but come on, does he seem like the kind of guy who would be shy about hyping up any modicum of success that came his way? If he had so much as a published traffic report, he would be smugly dropping that into every single conversation he could rope some unwilling passerby into, and you know it.

At any rate, his writing definitely hasn’t been paying the bills: we know he’s been a teacher at some point recently (“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 more likely 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 his teaching job for attacking a student in a drunken rage. That's not part of the script, but we do know he drunkenly hurt his own son --intentionally or not-- so it's not exactly a huge leap to imagine something similar).

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?” This is a curiously dismal estimation of his prospects, is it not? I mean, this guy was a teacher before, I’d have to imagine he has some level of college education. Surely he could always get another teaching gig, or work as a tutor, or even get a job writing copy or something. It's 1980 and he’s a white, college-educated man, for heaven's sake -- how do you manage to not be employed?! I think there’s a strong implication here that Jack is chronically unemployable, that 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 ineffectiveness? 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.

That abuse is something else worth talking about. It's one of the many odd details which the script explicitly notes, but refuses to emphasize, despite its obvious centrality to the family dynamic. Both Jack and Wendy specifically reference this incident, and both speak about it in an oddly minimizing, not-exactly-convincing manner (using suspiciously identical language) as an "accident," and "completely unintentional." Wendy offers a positive spin on it to a clearly startled and uncomfortable doctor, which is interesting enough to read in full:

"Well it's just one of those things. You know... purely an accident, um. My husband had oh... been drinking, and he came home about three hours late, so he wasn't exactly in the greatest mood that night. And well Danny had scattered some of his school papers all over the room... and my husband grabbed his arm, you know, and pulled him away from them. It's...it's just the sort of thing you do a hundred times with a child - you know, in a park or on the streets - but on this particular occasion my husband just... used too much strength and he injured Danny's arm. Anyway, something good did come out of it all because he said: 'Wendy, I'm never gonna touch another drop and if I do you can leave me,' ['if I do, you can leave me' is about the most frighteningly controlling way of expressing this sentiment that one could imagine; it implies that she can't even leave him without his permission] and he didn't and he hasn't had any alcohol in eh five months."

Wendy is so laboriously trying to downplay the severity of this incident and emphasize its unintentional nature and the "good" that came from it, that I've watched audiences completely ignore this scene, or at least forget about it almost immediately (though I doubt the doctor she's speaking to will; look at her barely-concealed shock at Wendy's forced-casual, off-handed tale of drunken child abuse that ended in a hospital. We also learn that his injuries --physical or psychological-- were severe enough that "we kept him out [of school] for a while." Or did Jack just demand he stay home until he had recovered, rather than face questions from authorities about what had happened?). But just because Wendy acts like it's no big deal doesn't mean that's true. In fact, although it happens before the events of the movie, the importance of this episode can hardly be overstated. It silently hangs over everything we see, and colors the relationships in ways which are only hinted at aloud.

And one last little detail, just in case you doubt that this is as important as I'm making it sound: the reason Wendy is telling the story to a doctor in the first place has nothing to do with Danny's arm. It's because when Danny had his "injury, so we kept him out [of school] for a while... I guess that's about the time when I first noticed that he was talking to 'Tony.'" This incident is the source from which most of THE SHINING springs -- Tony's intrusion into their lives, Danny's "shining," Jack's violence towards his family. We know that Danny's "Shining" is a real supernatural ability; he demonstrates it to Halloran, and obviously knows things he otherwise could not. This leads us to assume that "Tony" is also supernatural, some kind of possessing spirit which begins residing with Danny at this point. But is that true? "These little episodes... are brought on by emotional factors," the Doctor tells Wendy. I submit that "Tony" --who, we'll later see, takes over when things get bleak-- isn't a ghost, but an aspect of Danny which was created to deal with his horrifying knowledge of his father's barely-suppressed violent resentful rage at him and his mother. Wendy can try and be hopeful about Jack -- at least he stopped drinking, that must mean he's trying to be better. Danny, with his "Shining," knows what's in his dad's heart, and has a clear view of his ever-growing hatred of his family. Jack is such a monster by this point that Danny can't even consciously deal with it, and has to create an alter-ego who can. "Why don't you want to go to the hotel?" Danny asks him. "I don't know," replies Tony. "You do too know, come on tell me." Tony doesn't have knowledge that Danny doesn't know -- he knows things Danny doesn't want to know. Jack's mind --and the pall he casts on the family-- is so corrosive Danny literally can't deal with it.

That's made perfectly clear when we eventually get Jack's account of the same incident, told to the ghostly bartender Lloyd (a particularly relevant profession given the context): "I haven't laid a hand on him. Goddam it, I didn't. I wouldn't touch one hair of his goddam little head. I love the little son-of-a-bitch." [We already know this is a lie, and it's not the first time we've heard it: when Danny catches his Dad staring psychotically off into space, he tries to reassure the kid with: "I love you, Danny... and I'd never do anything to hurt you, never... you know that, don't you, huh?" to which Danny mechanically responds, "Yes, Dad."**] Jack's labored insistence that he's a good father already seem at odds with his mocking tone and uncomfortably aggressive language ("little son-of-a-bitch"). When Lloyd just stares at him (exactly the same way the doctor stares silently at Wendy), he adds, a little awkwardly, "I'd do anything for him. Any fucking thing for him."

Lloyd remains silent, and then the dam breaks and Jack suddenly snarls, "That damn bitch. As long as I live she'll never let me forget what happened!" The order in which Jack's "confession" plays out here is very interesting. He starts with a bunch of self-serving hyperbole about his great love for his son, and how magnanimous he is. But when he's forced to walk it back, the first thing that bubbles up out of him is not regret or guilt, but simmering fury at Wendy, for allegedly constantly reminding him about the incident (we see her bring it up exactly once in the whole movie -- and not to him, and only when prompted, and in an almost comically forgiving manner).

He goes on: "I did hurt him once, okay? It was an accident, completely unintentional. It could have happened to anybody. And it was three goddam years ago" [interestingly, Wendy says Jack "hasn't had any alcohol in five months." Has he fallen off the wagon, perhaps, a time or two since then? Or is he exaggerating his suffering again, or is he beginning to lose his sense of time in the Overlook?] "The little fucker [again, note his violently profane language to describe Danny] had thrown all my papers all over the floor. All I tried to do was to pull him up. A momentary loss of muscular coordination. I mean... a few extra foot pounds of energy, per second... per second." [note how similar this language is to Wendy's description. It's almost as if she's been coached to describe the incident exactly the way Jack wants it to be remembered, the same way Danny has been coached to assure his Dad that he knows he'd "never do anything to hurt [him]," despite the fact that both of them obviously know better.

Both Wendy and Jack describe the affair in ways which are transparently meant to minimize it, and especially to minimize Jack's responsibility. Wendy's telling, though, can't entirely disguise how sordid it was. She's so used to Jack's abusive ways that she thinks nothing of dropping the details that Jack had, "been drinking, and he came home about three hours late, so he wasn't exactly in the greatest mood that night," into a story which she claims is about a simple accident which occurred during a normal parent-child interaction which Jack says "could have happened to anyone" and she describes as, "the sort of thing you do a hundred times with a child - you know, in a park or on the streets." But I notice that Wendy has no trouble at all not hurting Danny. It doesn't seem so easy for Jack. This kind of willed innocence and forced normalization is intended to protect Jack, not Danny (it's also chillingly close to the way I've seen real-life abusers force their victims to pretend nothing is out of the ordinary).

On the surface, everything is fine, but of course deep down the whole family knows what really happened, and it hangs quietly over everything in the movie. And just in case you're still buying that this was an "accident" that "could have happened to anyone," check out Wendy's response when Danny shows up with his sweater torn and bruises on her neck. She doesn't have the slightest doubt who's responsible: "You did this to him, didn't you! You son of a bitch! You did this to him, didn't you! How could you? How could you?" she accuses, in the one moment of the whole film we see her actually confronting Jack instead of coddling him. Uncharacteristically cowed, he just shakes his head. We're later told that the female ghost from room 237 was the real culprit. But are we so sure about that? If so, it would mark the single, solitary time in the entire film where the ghosts actually harm anyone physically. Meanwhile, it immediately follows the scene where Jack has dreamed of brutally murdering Wendy and Danny. We don't see what Jack was up to prior to Danny's attack; in fact, when Wendy confronts him, he's sitting at his typewriter in an odd position, with his hands to his head in a position that could be read as regret, or shock. And note what Jack does after this accusation. Does he deny it? Does he chase after Danny and Wendy and ensure they're OK? Does he immediately warn them that it wasn't him, and there must be someone else --some dangerous person-- loose in the building with them? Absolutely not. He goes to the bar and has the conversation with Lloyd that we've just seen. It ends with Wendy returning to apologize and tell him that no, Danny has told her it was actually a "crazy woman in one of the rooms." Jack's reaction is not "Oh good, this explains everything!" Instead he growls, "are you out of your fucking mind?" A very strange reaction from someone who is ostensibly innocent and should therefore know the culprit has to be someone outside the family. Of course, Danny has told Wendy about this woman; she hasn't seen for herself. But remember, Danny's been trained to lie to protect Jack, we've already seen him do it.

That's the kind of person Jack is: the kind of person who would abuse a child, and then loudly resent everyone else for making him feel bad about it, just as he resents the world for failing to adequately acknowledge how special he is. Remind me again why anyone is ever on this guy's side?

Meanwhile, you’ve got Wendy. She seems mosey, 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 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 --never once does she question how realistic it is, or show him anything but complete confidence--, 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. Even after all this, she's still looking out for him, ensuring he'll have food and promising to return with a doctor. By any possible metric, she's won, and she still manages to have compassion for him. 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. This is, I think, the trick Kubrick is pulling:he wants us to identify with Jack, and to, at least to some degree, empathize with his whining about how he's the victim, before he pulls the rug out from under us. But this only works if the audience is treated to Jack's self-centered perspective, and that means it has to turn the victim (Shelly) into a credible source of antagonism for her victimizer (Jack). It works like a charm for the reasons I describe at the beginning of this essay: Nicholson is hamming it up like crazy, and Duvall looks so broken down she can hardly mumble out a line. But that's just the setup, and I think a lot of people never understood the punchline: 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. His simmering rage comes out of his feeling that his "rightful place" as a man has been usurped --hence complaints about the "white man's burden" and his openness to the ghost Grady's suggestion that his family is "willfull" and needs to be "corrected" and "perhaps a bit more." Of course, that's utterly absurd -- both Wendy and Danny are grotesquely deferential to him -- but for a guy as worthless and narcissistic as Jack, it'll never be enough. His ego requires not just adoration but complete control, and since he's such a worthless fuck the only thing he has any control over is his family, where even the slightest hint of discontent is enough to set him off into a rage. We see over and over in Kubrick’s filmography the ways in which the powerful manipulate weak men into committing violence -- You can see prominent threads of this in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, DR. STRANGELOVE, FULL METAL JACKET, and BARRY LYNDON among others-- 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. Maybe it's a SAW thing.)

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 5,000 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.

** If you needed any further proof that Jack demands his family protect his ego even at the cost of the truth, there you have it.


  • 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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