30/08/2016

The Shining - Within The Throes Of Abuse, Destruction And Dysfunction

Thoughts On: The Shining

This will be the last film featured in the series exploring which movies inspired and informed my most recent screenplay, Receptacle Infinity. This is post 8 of 8, so if you haven't checked out the previous 7 feel free to follow the link...


Jack Torrance takes a job as the caretaker of The Overlook Hotel through isolated winter months, bringing with him his wife and young son.


The Shining is a masterpiece. This is one of my favourite films of all time. This is one of the greatest films ever made. This is the best horror film ever made. But, this is not a flawless, through-and-through, perfect picture. Most importantly, this is not the movie Room 237 paints it out to be...


Room 237 is part interesting, part nonsense, part insanity. Ultimately, it does not reflect a true reading of this film as it presents itself. This is what I want to do today: both demonstrate why this is such a great film, and also what it means with an honest, taken-as-given analysis. Staying with Room 237 a moment, what we have here is a documentary tantamount to bad reality TV. It's intriguing, but in a way you feel probably isn't too good for your mental dexterity. More than this, Room 237 is primarily a collection of poor reviews or looks in on a film. You have obsessive fanatics of this film that zoom waaaaay to far into tiny details which ultimately does nothing more than trivialise Kubrick's ingenuity, talent, craft and artistry, making it not just pretentious to say he's a genius, but almost laughable. Then you also have those who pick up interesting details (like the reference to Native Indians) but cannot demonstrate the purpose of that throughout the narrative. This has always been something that has tugged at the fibres of my filmic pretension and geekness. It's fine to analyse the details of a film, to zoom into scenes, moments, seconds, but, each frame cannot be treated as an individual painting. Each frame must been seen as a segment of a collage. If you wanted to, you could make a claim for this film being racist against blacks or Native Americans because of certain designs on clothing, on the walls, the use of 'nigger' and of killing the only black guy. If you wanted to, you could use this film as evidence for the moon landings being faked by Kubrick (I know). If you wanted to, you could see this movie as being misogynist because of the way Wendy is treated by Jack, how she's given responsibilities in the kitchen and how women are generally the targets of a lot of violence. If you really wanted to, you could see this movie as a whole lot of things, and I suppose that's part of what makes it great: its ambiguity, its flexibility, its resounding accessibility. But, to judge a film you must take into account each scene, each moment, see how they interact and so hear how the film as a whole speaks to you. This is film analysis. It's not making a case for a sneaking suspicion you have, or a scene you thought pushed the mark too far. It's discovery and then the articulation of what you've discovered. It's here that you then make your case. The film provides your agenda, you don't bring it into the movie. That's said, let's get into why this film is so often seen as one of the greats.

I've often had a hard time seeing what people mean when they say a film is a masterpiece or is great. This happens all the time when I look into arts I'm not familiar with (almost all of them). What this says to me is that I just don't get what I'm looking at most of the time. However, I've loved film for a long time, but haven't always been able to see what people mean by great, or even form my own opinion on their view or the film itself. This is simply something you have to develop, meaning seeing greatness is something you have to learn how to do. That sounds stupid and elitist, but that's not what I mean for it to be. What I'm trying to get across is that greatness needs to be pointed out, made clear and precisely demonstrated - something hard to do but also gain access to--largely because 'great' is a word thrown around all to easily (myself being a huge culprit of this). Either way, what makes The Shining great, what makes any film great, is that it both excels in many of its cinematic elements and maintains an irrevocable quality over time and as a cohesive piece of art. 'Cinematic elements' are varied and vast, bringing together a huge skill-set of sometimes hundreds or thousands of people, stretching through numerous art forms. The most obvious elements of cinema though are directing, acting, editing, writing and sound design. A great film excels in all of these elements, but to varying degrees. This is because perfection is not a tangible thing, and the judgment of what is great is ultimately something not determined by a film's many individual parts (something we'll come to in a moment). So, The Shining excels most in the fields of direction, writing and editing. I love the sound design, but it is a little too blatant and emotive at times as well as repetitive. This cheapens the experience as it takes you out of the movie slightly instead of drawing you into the narrative and supporting the meaning of the film. I also love Jack Nicholson's performance, but, it's a little over the top at times, moreover, the acting overall isn't amazing (though very good, great in parts). Again, this cheapens the experience, but it also reduces verisimilitude which will add further detriment to the immersive quality of the film as well as diminish character work. On the note of character work, we're going to have to touch on Stephen King's novel. King has criticised this film quite openly on the basis of bad character work. Firstly, I haven't read the book. Secondly, this is a distinguished piece of work that has since defined itself from the novel, leaving the point of comparison rather useless. Thirdly, for reasons we'll get into later, the characterisation in this film is there to support the narrative. So to get along as quick as possible, let's move onto what's great about The Shining and take a look at direction.

Kubrick's style is something you could write a book about. But, in respect to The Shining, what is so exceptional about it is the regimented framing and fluid movement. The cinematography, blocking (where actors sit, stand, move) and framing work together to produce a beautiful, life-like look that is very open to technical analysis. And it's for this reason that The Shining is a film I can return to time and time again. I love the 'sit down and talk' scenes. These are the scenes that are often said to be the best way to judge a director's worth. If you give a director a huge set-piece, a whole lot of CGI, a magnificent landscape, or even phenomenal actors, what they capture is something that wants to be seen, that in some ways speaks for itself. To understand what I mean you simply have to consider something like the end battle of The Avengers or an action scene from Indiana Jones happening before your eyes, or in a YouTube video. Just seeing aliens, Captain America, Hulk smash or Indiana run from huge boulders, fight atop moving tanks, shoot unsuspecting sword-wielding enemies, is enough, and whilst direction can add a lot to this, there is a strong basis of amazement that leaves a lot of a director's job down to simply not distracting the audience from the imagery. The same goes for a great bit of acting, writing or artwork. You could otherwise just listen to, read or look at these things despite their presentation. When it comes to simple talks at a table good acting is key, but what elevates something like the opening to Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds, the majority of 12 Angry Men or Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, the monologues in There Will Be Blood, the central dramatic set-piece of Fury or Psycho, above a filmed podcast, a YouTube video or a play is direction. What this demonstrates is something I've already touched on a few times and that is the importance of immersion. The individual elements of a film (acting, writing, editing, direction, sound design) are there to ensure you are having a good time, are there to put you in that suspended place just above reality, but below a dream, are there to draw you in and hold your attention. This is a huge qualifying factor of a mediocre, good or great film. They have to entertain or draw you in. With the simple 'talk at a table' scene what you have is a segment of your story that is usually something you need, not really want - it is ultimate something your audience is not often looking to be entertained by. But, Kubrick holds long and (on paper) kind of meh conversations over long stretches with minimal acting and little movement by setting down cinematic poetry. By that I mean to reference what Scorsese calls cinematic language, and this term describes the means by which a camera angle can tell you something in the same respect these typed squiggles do. In other words, during the table scenes Kubrick not only manages to hold our attention, but say an awful lot with the positioning of his camera.

With the last sentence I leave an open end of analysis/explanation as going through scenes frame-by-frame would take a long time in what is already going to be a long essay. Nonetheless, it's the combination of editing and great camera work that truly suck you into the film, but are also the source of a lot of rewatches, rewinds and obsession. That is to say, the camera work in this film demonstrates what cinema is: it is art made accessible, but art that retains the capacity to say a lot. The last thing that makes this movie great is the writing. This encompasses plotting, character work, dialogue, such and so on. You can then break these elements down further to assess them, and whilst the writing of this film isn't flawless, it is great. It's actually the writing of this film that makes it truly great to me as how a screenplay materialises on screen is my favourite thing about movies. But, before moving onto this I must conclude the point of parts and wholes. Elements of a movie can vary in their strength, but the quality of a picture must be judged over time, and with the movie seen as a singular composite of numerous arts. This comes down to what a film is and how we see and/or analyse them. Films, as repeated many times over, are there to entertain and draw us in for an hour or two. It then makes no sense for you to be ignoring or fixating on fractions of the film before judgement. You must see it in full and be paying attention to everything for your view to have any veracity. Moreover, a film explains itself. This is why film analysis is the articulation of what has already been said by a film. The purpose of analysis is to reflect overall meaning that some may miss, but also provide opportunity for the film to flourish in the themes it holds and the questions it asks us. In the end, a great film does a lot - a lot of impressive, astounding, interesting... things. Those things remain, in part, undefined, as a great film (given the needed approach or perspective) makes its own rules and plays by them like no other. The Shining takes the idea of book adaptations, makes its own rules of approach and surpasses the novel. The Shining also mesmerises, captivates, draws in obsessives, fanatics and weirdos. The Shining defines itself as the greatest horror film ever by being unlike any other, by being strictly irreplicable.

Ok, to delve into my favourite aspect of what makes this film great we come to the writing and in turn the meaning of this behemoth. This is a film entirely about destructive familial relations, it is about domestic abuse, child abuse and self-abuse. To see this you have to look straight to the aspects of this movie that are so easily looked past. The central performance of Jack, the constant build to the moment he's smashing down doors with the axe, pushing his face through the whole in the door to taunt 'Here's Johnny!' all detracts from the supernatural foresight of Danny, Hallorann and the ghosts Jack talks to - these are the most important aspects of this movie. That's not even mentioning the final image...


To understand how Jack is somehow in a ball in 1921, you have to understand what The Shining actually is. The Shining is the ability to see things that have happened or may happen that are demonstrated by the film to be a looming threat. This isn't strictly true though as Hallorann tells us. He was able to talk to his Grandmother, for hours on end, when he was a young boy. What's more, he talks to Danny. The Shining is then two things. It's the ability to see danger, but also communicate. To understand why Danny and possibly Hallorann have The Shining you only need to look to these scenes...


It's Jack talking to Lloyd that reveals the central elements of his character. Firstly, he tells the story of his breaking Danny's arm. Secondly, he hints at possible alcoholism with 'the hair of the dog that bit me' and Llyod handing him whiskey. What is implied here is that Jack, despite trying to be a good father, snaps at times. It's his relationship with Wendy that makes this most clear. And it's here we need to come back to character work. Nicholson injects a lot of needed life into a very subtle film. Like in Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick risks seemingly bland, even bad performances for faux interactions between characters to imply satire and an underlying lie.


With Jack and Wendy in the car, in the bedroom or talking on the phone you can sense an utter disconnect masquerading as shitty writing and terrible performances. It's knowing how much hatred for Wendy Jack is hiding that makes these scenes work. What looks like bad acting is bad acting, but on Jack Torrance's behalf, not Jack Nicholson's. Nicholson portrays a miserable husband who feels stuck in a relationship with the unthinkably oblivious Wendy. This is actually the aspect of character work that makes little sense. Wendy is never shown to pick up on Jack's disdain for her (not until it's too late). This may be because she fears Jack (due to his stressed/drunken and possibly violent history) and is putting on as much as of a show for him as he is for her, however, this is hard to find evidence for, leaving ambiguity a downfall in writing. In other words, her character is ultimately left a slightly tangential element of this film left largely unexplored. Nonetheless, the key takeaway from Jack's past and his relationship with his wife is that he is a conflicted, possibly abusive husband and father. Knowing this we can come back to what The Shining actually is. For Danny, The Shining represents an ability to reach out for help. This is made clear in early scenes with him talking in the mirror and with later warnings with the twins - but let's not jump ahead of ourselves. Staying with the opening act, there's an extended cut of this film that includes a small scene with a doctor coming to see Danny (who has been sick) and also one with the doctor talking to Wendy about Jack breaking his arm a few months before hand (something Wendy defends Jack on). This scene brings together the outside world and the inner family circle on the theme of abuse. This also happens with Hallorann interfering - and doesn't end well.


But, what is present in both of these scenes is the idea of Shining. Danny called out for help to Hallorann, but couldn't when alone with his mother or the doctor. The Shining is then a metaphorical means of presenting a child's (person's) ability to call out for help. This implies some interesting things about Hallorann who can also Shine and maybe lived with his Grandmother. It's possible that he had an abusive past, giving reason for his (alleged, but denied) fear of room 237 and why he would have lived with his Grandmother, not his parents. However, we cannot jump to that just yet.

So, Hallorann and Danny obviously have The Shining, but, what went over my head for years was that Jack does too. This isn't the same kind of Shining that Halloran and Danny have as he can't communicate like them, but it is what lets him see ghosts, just as it does Danny. Before delving too deep into that, we also need to recognise something implied about Jack's past. It is possible that his parents abused him, giving reason for his need for seclusion, his incredibly distant facade and ultimately his final break. So, with The Shining we can see that Danny, Jack and Hallorann struggle or have struggled with needing help, but not having a voice to call for it. But, The Shining is not just a means of communicating - as implied with Danny's violent visions and Jack's interactions with a ghostly world. The Shining is also a means of reflection. With Danny and Hallorann this reflection triggers foresight of possible danger. For Jack, we see something different. The best way to see The Shining is under the Freudian interpretation of a dream. Bad dreams or nightmares are a means of a dreamer working through fears. But, dreams are also a means of wish fulfillment. So, for Danny and Hallerann, The Shining provides warning based on their fears and anxieties relating to abuse (like a nightmare). For Jack we see a much more masochistic means of dealing with past trauma. In short, Jack seeing Lloyd is a very dangerous means of Jack accepting his violent side and embracing an abusive childhood/history - some kind of self-destructive wish fulfillment or a means of reversing repression. This is what will eventually explain the last image of the film and open up the true struggles of characters throughout the narrative. To get into Jack's visions we have to recognise what The Outlook Hotel is and so recognise what Jack's role as the caretaker means. As we all know, The Outlook is a fundamental symbol of isolation. And it's the barren seclusion that The Outlook provides that forces the singular families within to the edges of their psyches, sometimes resulting in tragedy.


The Outlook then represents a family home blown up and made to seem looming. What this emphasises Jack's role as caretaker to be resultantly becomes unbearable. In short, his responsibilities, not only for the hotel, but his family force him into deep waters of introspection that have him come out full of hatred. The Outlook Hotel forces deep soul searching, and for the deeply conflicted men at the heads of some of these families, the isolation of self leads to implosion. This then bunches Jack in with Grady, the father who killed the twins - and gives reason why Grady and Jack have an exchange about who is actually the caretaker of the hotel. What this allows us to do is see 'the caretaker' as an archetype. He is a man at the head of a family that is deeply conflicted and profoundly miserable. With Jack we see the conflict in the way he's pulled in two directions, both by his son and wife, but also by his job as the caretaker and aspirations of being a writer. In short, he loves his son and maybe loves writing, he doesn't seem to like the work he's got, or the wife he lives for. His dissonance on who he is to the family grows with him believing he cannot express himself, he cannot live for himself and is wasting his time. We see this in this scene...


... and also in the infamous lines...


It's here that we're moving towards room 237, so we're going to keep a hold on the dull Jack and his lack of play. Instead, understanding Jack as a conflicted man/father/writer/caretaker/husband we can pull apart why the caretaker is an archetype. The caretaker is a man that finds no joy in his life, not as a father, a husband, not in his work, nor in his art. He is isolated with the ones he loves in a world where he feels unappreciated. This is demonstrated to be a very dangerous figure, one apt to explode. The reasoning why comes back to Jack and his version of The Shining. As said, The Shining is a like a dream, for Jack, some kind of wish fulfillment that is ultimately masochistic. Remembering the implimence of Jack possibly being abused as a child combined with the discussed roles of traditional families and responsibility, we can see why he envisions the 1920s across the hotel. He sees Lloyd, Grady and so on because he sees himself as an archetype, a man built in another time. This then explains the last image as being a critique of the traditional nuclear family. Jack sees himself in a time passed, but displaced hugely:


That's why this image is so important - and takes a leaf out of Polanski's book and his masterpiece, Repulsion, with a picture essentially explaining the narrative. Jack is the centre piece if this image, but his central positioning only isolates him. The crowd around, full of couples and smiles, are a faceless mass that seem to engulf his presence. You even see his wave being held down as to suppress and demean his presence as what we can assume to be the caretaker. Seeing the image in this respect allows us to see Jack as the try-hard weirdo that has no friends, that smiles, but is never really happy. He tries to fit in with the masses, tries to conform, but simply does not fit in.

The constant overshadowing idea of Grady and the crime he committed then lay heavy on the archetype of the caretaker as someone who is inevitably going to break. This is why Jack fits into this picture, why he sees ghosts, why he does their bidding. He not only bends to his own fears of hurting his family...


... but the will of apparent inevitability, of the past dictating the future. It's here where the theory of Jack being abused as a child becomes more poignant. Maybe Jack draw to violence comes from an idea of control, of 'correcting' his wife and kid as once Grady did. This idea may come from a traditional, and rather dysfunctional, idea of family, but maybe Jack's personal experience of family life as a child informed this. If his father used violence to lead and look after his family, why wouldn't Jack? If his father abused him and his mother maybe not just physically, but mentally, why wouldn't Jack? What we have here is a question of self-determinism and environmental-determinism. We cannot infer that just because Jack was abused as a kid that he will abuse his wife and kids. In fact, we can see a struggle within him to keep from this, to hold his family together despite him maybe not loving his wife (even like her slightly) anymore. The questions presented by the metaphorical Shining are then all about the world in respect to the individual.

However, we can't delve into these questions right now. Instead, we need to understand what room 237 actually is. Room 237 is ultimately nothing very interesting, at least, nothing that lives up to the weight the name holds. There is no significance of the numbers pertaining to moon landings. There is no actual significance to the physical room - it's just a designated place in the hotel. I've watched the film dozens of times over and never has anything explaining why room 237 is important as a physical place come up. There is the possible chance that this is where Grady and his family stayed, maybe it's where he killed his wife. But, there is no evidence for this, none at all. For this reason we can only assign room 237 the metaphorical meaning the narrative provides. Room 237 is Jack's suppressed thoughts hidden in his temporary family home. What is most interesting about it is not really what goes on inside (we'll get to that though) but what happens around it. Firstly, we have to look at its introduction through Danny who comes to ask Hallorann about it. What should be clear already is that room 237 is a sexual place...


... to juxtapose that with the distance between Jack and Wendy you should understand what this means:


Jack isn't getting any, and even if he is, it's not with a person that excites him, nor is attractive to him. Bring this back to Danny, and you see his fear of the family being split up, of Jack leaving in pursuit of another woman. Bring this theme of sexuality forward a little to Hallarann, we come across more interesting details...


When confronted by room 237, Hallorann denies he fears it. Combine this with his implied abusive past, the fact that he is alone in his bed (a bachelor) with the huge pictures of nude models and you see his confusing relationship with women. He gets along fine with Wendy, implying he does not fear or get nervous around them - just as he says he doesn't room 237. But, he stays away. Why? Well, maybe Hallorann was almost the caretaker archetype (giving reason for his Shining) but never committed to traditional family life as that was not for him. He remains a bachelor for his own sake, and maybe because he doesn't think he'd be a good father. This is the life that Jack maybe should be living: alone in his room by day, typing away, nude pictures hung around for him to muse upon, and then by night, he puts the typewriter away and goes out to sling some dick, get some free love...


Ok, this is not the time or place for an absurd theory, but the link to Easy Rider is an interesting one. Nonetheless, the commentary provided here with Hallorann and Jack is not that all men should be bachelors, just that some aren't suited for family life - Jack being a key example of this. So, getting closer to actually going inside room 237 we get a thematic build culminating with the accusation of Jack abusing Danny...


It's this scene that solidifies the idea of abuse and The Shining being linked because of all the violent and supernatural snowballing that occurs as a result of this scene. Danny claims he is hurt by the woman in room 237. In other words, he foresees Jack wanting to split up with Wendy and find another woman. Him being physically hurt by the woman isn't something we should take seriously though. It only makes sense that Jack was the one that hurt him, as seeing the woman in the bathtub as a metaphor leaves him the only one left to hurt Danny. His manipulation of the family then demonstrates how deeply troubled he is, how he not only pulls the wool over their eyes, but possibly his too. What we now need to ask is why Jack beat Danny upon discovering room 237. Well, maybe he stumbled upon a secret of Jack's, maybe he questioned his intentions, or let loose some kind of anxiety over the state of the family. We cannot know for sure, but what is implied is that some kind of sexual tension has been picked up by those with the capacity for Shining - and it tears them apart. But, assuming Jack did beat Danny, you can see clearly why he'd accuse him of murder, be in a zombie-like state and use The Shining (Tony) to call for help.


It's from that point that all hell breaks loose and the family break apart, Jack being frozen out of the group...


It's having said that that we can quickly touch on the maze. This is a symbol of introspection, of being lost in oneself.


For Wendy and Danny to be able to navigate this well enough, but Jack to be ultimately lost (to freeze to death) in here speak volumes. It demonstrates the resounding struggle he faces as a conflicted father/husband/writer such and so on. But, we still need to conclude what goes on in room 237. It's knowing what this...


... horrific image means, that we'll understand why Jack devolves into a murderer. So, going into room 237 forces him to confront his suppressed or latent sexual desires. However, he sees them decay in his grip, implying that he feels he is too old or too deep into marriage to be a bachelor. This means that he is both stuck with a woman that will rot in his arms (sorry Wendy) and that his desire for a young, beautiful woman has also rotted to nothing over the years of his marriage. This realisation drives Jack over the edge as he sees no meaning in life. He finds no joy in work, he cannot write, he cannot love, and so he decides he wants to snuff all of his problems out.


The final thing to do here is ask why Kubrick has pulled together such a complex subtext and so see the cohesive whole of these many intricate parts. The major elements of this story are of abuse, of tradition, of sexuality and of disconnect. This is what fuels all of the violence and horror and what ultimately makes clear to Wendy why she needs to get away from Jack...


And, yes, this is her realisation that Jack is not sexual attracted to her and...


... ultimately wants to kill her. She sees the violence and the deviance within him, a deviance that maybe implies Jack is gay. This says a lot about Hollorann, Grady and even Danny, and I suppose if you wanted to you could see this film as being about trying to come out of the closet, but not being able to. In fact, it makes a lot of sense if you wanted to see many of the male characters as lying to themselves about their own sexuality. This would explain why Wendy doesn't have The Shining, why she's not a focus of the narrative and her perspective is never really taken seriously. I won't say that this isn't a possibility, just something that doesn't fit that well into the narrative as Jack seems quite enthusiastic about the young nude woman, and quite concentrated on an idea of family and fatherhood. I suppose it's up to you on how you see the end takeaway of this film as about heterosexuality or homosexuality.

Nonetheless, the many elements of this film (sexuality, abuse, tradition, disconnect) are encompassed by one major theme - isolation. The Outlook Hotel is so important as it truly represents a psychological Petri dish that holds specimen the Torrance family for the world to see. It's a metaphor for social moulding and its perceived constriction. It's Jack that sees the world's image of normality projected onto himself who asks: why isn't he happy? He cannot cope with the pressure of responsibility, maybe because he is deeply conflicted on grounds of childhood abuse, or maybe because he is a deeply suppressed homosexual. In the end, he can neither express himself to his family, or through his writing as he cannot channel his anger, his lamentations, his sexuality to someone who he feels can listen. He does not know how to ask for help, and he let's that destroy him. The lasting question of this image...


... is then as much about isolation, as it is self-determinism. Was Jack always doomed to be the broken caretaker archetype, or did he simply doom himself?

In the end, what The Shining is all about is down to you. You have to put yourself in Jack's position as to hear the questions he may be asking himself, to maybe understand how he justifies his heinous outburst. If you find intrigue in this, in the craft of the filmmaking, in the experience of this film, I'm sure you, as I do, will see this film as an undeniable great.

Before you go, this is the last time you'll hear me say this, but if you want to know why The Shining is apart of the Receptacle Series, please check out...


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