Cult Column: The Shining

Right in time for Halloween, Stanley Kubrick’s formidable The Shining returns to cinemas. The film begins with Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) driving up to the Overlook Hotel in a yellow Volkswagen. He is (or at least he professes to be) a writer, and he is to become Caretaker of the hotel while it is snowed-in from early winter to late spring. He thinks he will find “five months of peace” to complete a writing project. Before he accepts the job, which will see him and his family (Shelley Duvall as Wendy and Danny Lloyd as Danny) take up residence for five months, Jack is told about Charles Grady, a previous winter Caretaker, who in an apparent fit of madness killed his wife, daughters, and himself. Jack replies: “Well, that is quite a story.”

The Shining’s story makes no sense. I have no idea why what happens in Room 237 happens; I cannot make sense of the connection between Danny and hotel cook Dick Hallorann; the scenes in the bar are above my comprehension; and what the ending purports to mean is beyond me. And yet I love this film. I love the feeling of being set adrift in Kubrick’s world. I love his exaltation in what Hart Crane called “illogical impingements.” I love that nothing is explained: it’s through this lack of sense that the moments of the film attain magnificent power. This is of course achieved with camera movements, music, and performances (more on this momentarily); but it’s also in the foundational material of the story. Fear comes from a lack of knowledge, so Kubrick skillfully assembles a set of familiar tropes to lure you in (the haunted place, the supernaturally gifted child, the descent into madness) and then proceeds to annihilate your expectations.

It also needs mentioned that without Kubrick and John Alcott’s stupendous camerawork the film would not be so uniquely engrossing. Early in the film, you can feel the influence of Orson Welles’s and Gregg Toland’s work in Citizen Kane (1941); the control of space and the deep focus emphasise just how expansive the Overlook Hotel is. As it progresses, however, the camera encroaches on the characters’ space as reality becomes ever more incomprehensible. The score, with its whistles and rattles and groans, remains ominous throughout, but flares up perfectly when it’s required.

While the performances are increasingly deranged and distraught, this is the one part of the film which is actually very funny. Nicholson’s performance attains the distinction of high comedy in the bar scenes. I find his over-exacting manner (“I like ya, Lloyd!”) and manic arches for eyebrows hilarious. Duvall’s scenes towards the film’s end, when famously worked to exhaustion by Kubrick, are so believable it becomes painful to watch. Lloyd is a superlatively unsettling child.

Even the film writer David Thomson, who has a fascinating hatred for Kubrick and his films, finds this The Shining to be a masterpiece. He’s not wrong.

Image: Andrew Kitzmiller (via. Flickr)

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