The last blog (KH49, The Great Lost McBlog of 2012) was supposed to be the foundation-stone for this and the next one; I'd defined-my-terms so I wouldn't have to keep defining them, I'd referenced the relevant quotes, I'd parsed the reviews for the direct-quotes-to-which-I-planned to respond... tough to reconcile myself with having to do it all over again.
|But, You go back, Jack, and do it again.|
This may be a little on the long side. Don't forget to change your jacket before the fish and goose soiree...
Much has been written about this film (here's a great review, one of thousands out there), and even more about Kubrick-the-man/ Kubrick-the-auteur. Additionally, much ink has been spilled by King fans who seem to view the book-vs-film discussion as their own personal Roe v. Wade. I'm not going to get into any of that. Frankly, a) it's stupid. This isn't a case of "Everybody Comes to Rick's" vs. Casablanca, or more specifically to Kubrick, Burdick-and-Wheeler's Fail Safe vs. Dr. Strangelove. Both the novel and the film are well-recognized masterpieces. b) It may be instructional to discuss how they differ (and I don't dispute this) but there are enough side-by-side comparisons and reviews out there that I feel no need to add my voice to that chorus, and c) I'll save King's specific criticisms of the film for next time, as they definitely inform my personal bias against the mini-series.
And as if all the above wasn't enough, there are so many different interpretations of the film that they warrant their own film (Room 237). So, what I'll do here is just focus on only two of the interpretations.
Before I get to those, a couple confessions:
Kubrick is my favorite filmmaker, and The Shining in particular is one of my favorite films. Let me get that bias out in the open straight away. Much has been made of Kubrick's alleged "coldness," lack of human empathy, over-cerebralness, etc. Reviews of The Shining in particular mention this often, but one finds the same reaction to most of his other films, as well. I've confessed my bias, sure, but... give me a break.Kubrick's work is filled with deep emotion. If you failed to be moved by the end of Paths of Glory, when the German girl (Kubrick's eventual wife, incidentally) is thrust onto a table and bullied into singing for the French soldiers and whose simple, innocent song shames the crowd, or by the tortured cries of Private Pile after he's savagely beaten by his platoon-mates and the one friend he thought he had in Full Metal Jacket, or by Alex's improbably heartwrenching post-rehabilitation eviction from his parents' flat in A Clockwork Orange, or by the bedside father-and-son moments during the latter's death in Barry Lyndon, or the comeuppance of the title character, or by roughly three-dozen other such moments from across his films, there's little chance you'll identify any which filmmakers are "cold and cerebral" and which ones aren't.
Anyway, there is more speak-directly-to-your-soul emotion in The Shining via musical-choice alone than there is 90% of other movies. Literally, 90%! I've done the math.
Another of my biases is towards the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance.
I'll get into this more next time when I address the casting of Steven Weber and King's reservations, but let me just say that this is one of my all-time favorite performances, ever.
|Granted, so's Bruce Campbell's in Evil Dead 2, so take it with a grain of salt, if you must.|
Consider this, as recounted (among many other places) here:
"Stephen Spielberg tells a story about talking to Stanley Kubrick about The Shining. Spielberg felt that Jack Nicholson went over the top. Kubrick asked him to name his top five greatest actors. Spielberg named people like Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Clark Gable and Cary Grant. Kubrick noted that he hadn’t listed James Cagney. Spielberg realized this was true and Kubrick pointed out that even though Spielberg liked Cagney he didn’t consider him to be in the top five greatest actors of all time. Kubrick did and it’s why he doesn’t consider Nicholson’s performance to be too much. It made sense to Spielberg and does to me too."
When I defend Nicholson as an actor to my friend Alex, whom I bring up only because we talked about this over pitchers of beer for like three hours the other night, he always counters with Gary Oldman. I love Gary Oldman; Gary Oldman's the man. But to expect a Gary-Oldman-like performance from Jack Nicholson is like expecting Wade Boggs to pitch a no-hitter. Different actors, different approaches. And although I don't think much of Nicholson's acting after a certain point in his career, when he was on, back in the day, he was on.
Take this bit of physicality of Nicholson's performance in The Shining, as one of many examples:
|After being accused of hurting Danny, Jack storms off down the hall...|
|spasms of physical anger. He is clearly exhibiting the classic body language of someone in denial, disgusted with himself.|
I defend wholeheartedly the casting of Nicholson as Torrance, despite many opinions to the contrary. (Not the least of which is King's, himself.) Personally, I agree with Kev's:
“As early as the opening line – “Jack Torrance thought, officious little prick.” – Torrance comes across as adversarial. He is a damaged man whose deep flaws have damaged others. A recovering alcoholic, Jack is given to fits of temper and rage; addiction seems less a cause than a symptom of his deeper character issues… Alcohol is not necessarily a trigger for these outbreaks, merely an accelerant.”
And as Karina Wilson writes: “There have been many literary portraits of drunks, but it’s unusual to see a dry drunk in all his glory. Jack’s a textbook case: full of anger, denial, self-pity, blame, grandiose ideas of his worth to society, and prone to secrecy, self-isolation, and blaming others for his failure, all without a drop of liquor having passed his lips in fourteen months.”
So, to the charge that the audience identifies Nicholson as wackadoo/violent too early on, I can only say, verily again and again, the barely-restrained-rage/simmering-anger is self-evident to me from the novel's first chapter. It's compartmentalized in the film, but it's not a mistake.
You can take issue with the absence of last-minute-redemption in the book ("Go. And remember that I love you." before smashing his own face to smithereens with the roque mallet) - actually, take issue with whatever you like, of course. Go forth and blog the gospel. But for me, the death of Jack in the film is as engaging and mythological (perhaps even moreso) as it is in the book, and I have little reservation with the changes made. That said, I can certainly understand King's being upset at the omission of his carefully-constructed backstory/ motivations for Jack Torrance in adapting the novel to film (all the stuff with his Dad is gone, the agonizing over his beaten-former-student, etc.), but it is simply incorrect to say the character changes all that much. Different flavors of the same cola.
One last thing - go up to anyone and say "Heeeeeeeere's Johnny." (Go on. I'll wait.) Ask them where it's from/ who said it. Most people answer "Jack Nicholson, The Shining." Not that it really proves anything, but it's telling of how deeply Nicholson's performance has permeated the collective unconscious. As some-review-I-read-but-lost-to-the-Blogger-ether pointed out, Ed McMahon said that (his catchphrase/ introduction of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, for those young'ns in the audience) roughly a million times, night after night; Nicholson said it just once.
Okay, so on to the two interpretations I wish to discuss. The first is Rob Ager's "Gold Room" analysis. It's worth watching all 4 parts of, trust me (and quite fun), but I'll summarize:
1) The film, like Cronenberg's Naked Lunch or the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, must be viewed as a story-within-a-story. What we see is partially the story of the Torrances at the Overlook and partially the imagined-story within Jack's novel, or both, as mixed-as-metaphor-for-writers block.
This is most-explicitly expressed in this next shot, where we see Wendy-and-Danny "emerging" from Jack's typewriter:
It's an intriguing idea. As he notes, the original draft of the screenplay - as seen in the Kubrick archives - ends with a close-up of the Overlook scrapbook, where Jack's story is laid to rest, and an unidentified hand closing it. Suggestive, to be sure, but does this alone prove the whole thing is or was at-least-once-conceived-as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story?
Ager argues that many of the continuity errors throughout the film are also meant to convey this. I forget who said it, but when a hack makes a continuity error, it is proof of their hack-ness; when a great artist like Kubrick does, then verdammt, it must be a clue.
I don't necessarily buy this. While Kubrick's meticulous attention to detail is a legend in the industry (and for good reason), I'm of the opinion he was not a perfection-machine. Even 2001 was the result of a five-year ongoing collaboration; he preferred to find the subtext in the filming-of-it. So, I don't see disappearing chairs in the background or mismatched carpet-colors to indicate anything other than what Jan Harlan (frequent Kubrick collaborator) said when asked about them:
"Kubrick, he explains, was always intent on pushing the form, on leaving the work open to multiple interpretations, like the French impressionists or the Cubist painters that went before. 'A straightforward horror film was not what interested him,' Harlan insists. 'He wanted more ambiguity. If he was going to make a film about ghosts, he wanted it to be ghostly from the very first to the very last. The set was very deliberately built to be offbeat and off the track, so that the huge ballroom would never actually fit inside. The audience is deliberately made to not know where they're going. People say The Shining doesn't make sense. Well spotted! It's a ghost movie. It's not supposed to make sense.'"
That may be too glib for some, but to me, it fits Kubrick's approach. (Incidentally, a disappearing-blue-sweater in 2001 is referred to on-screen by an intercom voice-over. Ager uses this as evidence that Kubrick would in no way not be aware of any continuity errors. I tend to agree, but I see Harlan's explanation, above, as more probable.)
The second part of Ager's theory is that the entire film is a metaphor for monetary history of the twentieth century, something a) definitely happened "offscreen" or hidden away from surface-level-history, and that b) Kubrick was unarguably interested in/ knowledgeable of. (There is some fun evidentiary support for this in Michael Herr's Vanity Fair piece on Kubrick, something Ager curiously doesn't reference.) He devotes considerable screen-time to said history. I won't get into it, but to back up this point, he references the famous photo that closes the film:
In Ager's view, the man with his hand on Jack's arm is "undeniably" Woodrow Wilson...
|(aka the President who signed The Federal Reserve Act into law) You tell me.|
Ager seems to identify several other financial luminaries in the photo, such as Benjamin Strong; apparently, the architects of America's shadow government are all hanging out with Jack in the Gold Room. These personages are visual indicators (i.e. things puzzle-makers insert into their puzzles to encourage people they're on the right track) to the audience that what we're seeing here is Jack (i.e. America's) seduction by a financial apparatus above and beyond all laws of man or charity.
|"You are passionate, Mozart," says the Emperor in Amadeus, "but you do not... persuade."|
I'm quite entertained by this view, but ultimately, I'm not convinced. Even if the people in the photo are who Ager says they are, what of it? The Overlook has hosted "all the best people," from celebs to Presidents to rich folks of all variety, both in the film and in the book. He goes into this much more than I am, here, and for all I know, he is 100% correct; if indeed the people in the photo are who he says they are, it certainly does suggest Kubrick is saying something about the personalities involved in unleashing what G. Edward Griffin describes as "The Creature from Jekyll Island," i.e. the Federal Reserve.
|Your money's no good here, Mr. Torrance. (But your credit is excellent.)|
Further to Ager's read are the shifting physical parameters of the Gold Room, indicating the deception over America's gold reserves:
|But I think Harlan's explanation about deliberately playing tricks with the viewer's perception re: its proportions, etc. covers this.|
and the "Midnight, the Stars, and You" song, which accompanies Jack's joining-the-party in the Gold Room, as well as over the final reveal that he has been subsumed into the Overlook:
As mentioned above, Kubrick was well-known for coming-at-a-topic in such a roundabout way. Strangelove and Lolita most particularly; the former can be read as the farce of male sexual anxiety (as can Eyes Wide Shut, but much more Freudian-ly, although this is an essay/ discussion-over-pitchers for another time) and the latter (both in the film and in the Nabokov novel) as the intellectual-European's "seduction" by this young, nubile language/ perspective, i.e. English. (Don't take my word for any of this, by any means; I certainly didn't, when these ideas were first floated by me.)
All of that said... I think this is a bit of a stretch. Also, it doesn't quite line-up with how Kubrick revealed to be approaching The Shining, i.e. as his "mainstream" film. I'm not saying he didn't put in any such subtext; I am saying, though that if he did, it's odd no trace of it exists in his archives, where he provided volumes of evidentiary support for all of his work. (Even his never-made work, like Napoleon.) What exists in the archives for The Shining is Jack's scrapbook, which does indeed detail various goings-on of the banking class of the Jazz Age, but no real "I was trying to talk about the Federal Reserve" smoking-gun.
In other words, there's some party here...
|but the guests have all gone home. If you're into this sort of thing, though, here's another one. Like The Shining, The Wizard of Oz lends itself well to multiple interpretations.|
The second interpretation I'd like to discuss is Bill Blakemore's theory that The Shining is about the murder of Native Americans and the consequences of that murder for the American psyche.
|"Ullman says, 'The site is supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground, and I believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it.' This bit of dialogue does not appear in Stephen King's novel.|
|"We never hear the rushing blood (that gushes from the elevator shaft). It is a mute nightmare. It is the blood upon which this nation, like most nations, was built.|
|White man's burden, Lloyd, white man's burden.|
|"As the credits roll, the soundtrack ends, and we hear the 1920s audience applaud, and then the gabble of that audience talking among themselves - the same sound the crowd of moviegoers itself is probably making as it leaves the theater.|
|"The opening music, over the traveling aerial shots of a tiny yellow Volkswagen penetrating the magnificent "West" wilderness, is the "Dies Irae." (i.e. REQUIEM)|
|"The Shining is explicitly about America's general inability to admit to the gravity of the genocide of the Indians - or, more exactly, its ability to "overlook" that genocide."|
It's a fun theory. (Well, as "fun" as anything looking genocide square in the face can be) But does it work?
My problem is mainly with its inaccuracy. Kubrick didn't invent the "Overlook" as the name of the hotel. The novel (as discussed in the blog lost in the Phantom Zone) can be read as an overlook of personal alcoholism ("I was the guy who wrote The Shining and didn't realize I was writing about myself," King says in On Writing, something which should not be taken to indicate Jack Torrance is a stand-in for King-the-author, but as an externalization of King-the-father's fears? Probably.) but also the father-murders-child myth of countless-origins/ losing-control/ anger. Also, King might not mention Indians but the "Do you see the Indians in this picture?" motif is used more than once when describing how the ghosts may or may not be there.
Additionally, to Blakemore's charge that the "all the best people" bit was invented by Kubrick, that is not so; the Overlook as indicative of a certain 20th-century-American-character is explicitly mentioned by Jack in the novel.
(Also, is "covering your tracks" really an old-Indian-trick? I'm pretty sure I've seen it elsewhere, in stories well-predating Columbus. The Minotaur from Greek Mythology, to name but one.)
The tying together Indian massacres with American racism thing, though, does provide a satisfactory frame around one particular image of the movie, which was Kubrick's invention:
|A shot I've never been able to explain to myself satisfactorily, although it could just be color-coding. (No pun intended)|
You get the idea. So, while ultimately I feel both theories above are not quite kosher, they are fun to think about. Personally, I agree with James Smythe's review in The Guardian: "(Both the novel and the film) are stories about hidden evil emerging when the snow sets in; when a family is isolated and broken, and when a man with buried darkness finally collapses and becomes what he was always, inevitably going to be."
"Symbolically," writes Kev, again, "the Overlook's preoccupation with its violent past mirrors Jack's destructive personality. Mistreated as a child by his father, Jack is unable to break the cycle of anger and abuse. (His) discovery of the hotel's scrapbook allows him to wallow in the hotel's past without being aware of its hold on the present, or is effect on his son; the scrapbook becomes a clouding addiction as destructive as his own alcoholism."
|The mini-series (God help me)|