The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)

“Women make babies, men make bombs”. My friend was in a feminism course that included this joyous little tidbit in one of her texts. Reductionist and laughable, it elicited much laughs and a little antagonism. It’s an extremely problematic statement, and outright sexist towards both men and women… and yet… I do think there is a small portion of the male population, especially white who feel a loss of entitlement. Jack Torrance seems to be one of these men, who yearns for the past, a time when men like him were the leaders, rich and in charge. Jack has strong conflict and resentment in the film against his wife, his son, and the black caretaker. The film also makes sure to highlight (however briefly) that the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, bringing back the past and further highlighting Jack as an oppressor. Though clearly a fantastic element has a play, as I see it, the catalyst for Jack’s madness is his inability to write… or “create”. Coming back to the original statement, this spurs his desire to destruct. His resentment and anger to a world that neither acknowledges what he should have, but also spurns his efforts, boils into violence, and he sets out to destroy his family. He wants to destroy them, because he sees it as his birthright to control his wife and son.

The film’s horror emerges through Jack’s frustration, and his family attempting to cope and escape from his controlled destruction. The setting encloses them in a hotel, cutting them off from the world. A terrible tragedy happened in this hotel, and somehow the boundaries between time and space bend, and they bleed into the present. Danny, Jack’s son, has the “shining” which allows him to have “special powers” that allow him to communicate with others with the gift, as well as having the ability to peer into the past and into the future. At first, it’s only through him that we are able to feel the unease in the hotel. Flashes of the past, in graphic and disturbing detail. During these sequences, Kubrick uses extensive wide angle lenses… slightly distorting the image. If you look closely at the edges of the screen, you’ll notice that the lines bend slightly outward. Without really paying attention, it’s difficult to miss, but this variation on what we perceive as reality adds to the unsettling atmosphere.

Much of what makes the film’s horror so effective, are touches like this, and the overall dream-like atmosphere. It’s very much like a waking nightmare, channelling that sort of distorted perception of the world. The flashes of violence and blood, the repetition of images, and constant reinforcement of mazes. One of the most common motifs in surrealist art, which borrows greatly on dreams (Dali reportedly ate cheese that lied in the sun all day to make his dreams more interesting), was long corridors filled with doors. There was this idea that anything could lie behind each door, and they were never-ending. It was a labyrinth in the mind, and it created a complete sense of unease. It’s actually quite interesting, as one idea that was explored thoroughly in the surrealist movement was “masculine anxiety”. It’s ripe with phallic symbolism, and sexual discomfort. Yes, tangent, but it plays into Jack’s frustration with his lack of control as a white male.

I’ve run out of steam.

4 responses to “The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)

  1. I really need to revisit The Shining one of these days. I pretty much hated it when i saw it a couple years ago, saw it as Kubrick trying to make horror into some kind of hyper-stylized art film where style drowned out everything (Danny riding the trike around the Overlook for about 10 minutes? Bah…), but you put an interesting spin on it, you did. Jack pretty much IS the frustrated, castrated male authority figure, isn’t he?

  2. I once dated this girl, very meek and sullen she was, and she knew “The Shining” was one of my master films. Then she reported seeing it and I was rather appalled to have her cheerily asserting that she enjoyed the scene where Jack viciously shoos Wendy off when she comes in to check on him while he’s “writing”[the “why don’t you start right now and get the fuck outta here” scene, not the one with the baseball bat!!]. I thought she was being dishonest somehow, or else not really engaging with the true darkness and violence of the film. Though I didn’t tell her, I thought she wasn’t “getting it” at all.

    I think Kubrick would agree with your basic take on Jack as frustrated hack who takes it all out on his family. And yet, he’s a compelling center in a way that is not entirely identical with Nicholson’s richly hammy performance. Kubrick may have inadvertently “liberated” Nicholson into the joys of self-parody for his future performances (but then, most great actors seem to find this for themselves!: Brando, Olivier, Pacino, De Niro). He does seem to have some odd tragic resonance, trapping us in some kind of posthumous identification with him even as he goes totally over the edge. Of course in the film’s final movements our suspense is “for” Danny and Wendy– Jack has become what our academic friends might call “the Other” [a term that only makes sense for me when applied to movie monsters!], but the malignancy that has been freed up inside to consume him feels somehow coaxed out of the viewer too, since we have watched for so long his lingering over the precipice of madness/possession/evil. –I’m oversimplifying, since of course throughout the film we’ve been looking over the shoulders of Danny and Wendy as much as over Jack’s, yet at the beginning of the story it is he who has the “aspirations” with which we are invited to identify. Living in the Overlook for the winter is his lark– his magic ticket to writing, employment, and good old “peace and quiet.” We are left in doubt as to whether Jack could ever enjoy those things under ANY circumstances– but he came to the last place he needed! . . .

  3. Simon: If it’s any comfort, the first time I Watched the Shining I turned it off about halfway through. Not because I hated it, but because it freaked me out so much. Even after seeing it last night I was shaking for a good hour or two afterwards. Has a strong effect on me. I do recommend revisiting it though, from what I can tell all of Kubrick’s work is worth being investing time and effort in, and personally I need to rewatch a good bulk of it because I saw it years ago just when I got into film.

    Jason: I agree with you, and though it annoys me in later years, within the scope of this film, Nicholson’s hammy/artificial performance fits perfectly. He never seems sincere, he never seems happy and he seems frustrated with every facet of his life. I think you’re right, he doesn’t seem like a man who would take pleasure in anything, and being cut off from the world only magnifies his madness. It’s really a fascinating take on the horror film, though it touches on many common themes, it feels unique and is at least one of the best looking I’ve ever seen.

  4. I’m glad you were shaken!: it’s certainly a movie worth getting freaked out over. Nothing quite rivals it as a cinematic labyrinth, and its terrible vision is at once ruthlessly intimate and cosmically expansive. Since it locates an abundance of evil in both directions, while depositing all that evil through such a symphonic mastery of his cinematic forces, Kubrick’s vision is shatteringly awesome.

    On another note: since I don’t want to try to be anymore of a smartass on your latest screencap challenge, I’ll slip in here that yes, I instantly recognize that darling frame from my beloved “Inferno.” If you’ve seen it– isn’t that the grooviest of cab-rides?! If not, well, it’s part of a grand sequence that’s as drunkenly gelled-up and dreamy as you’ll find. A magical nightmare! –In its very different way, Inferno is not entirely without analogy to The Shining, in the films’ obsession with those dream-state infinitely expansive threatening palatial environments.

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