Into the maze: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
As Roger Luckhurst has identified, in the years in which Kubrick was formulating his follow-up to Barry Lyndon, the horror film had emerged as a pre-eminent commercial genre in Hollywood. In the wake of The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) and Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), several horror cycles had become well established in Hollywood production rosters; themes of spooky children, haunted houses and psychic sensitivity emerged in such films as The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976), The Fury (Brian De Palma, 1978), The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979) and the adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976). (1)
Indeed, Carrie, King's first published novel, belonged to much the same tradition, and the somewhat-notorious film version is a tale of high school torment, body horror and bloody psychic retribution. From inauspicious beginnings as a high school teacher in Maine, King was a bestselling literary phenomenon by the time of his third published novel, The Shining, in 1977, and it is interesting to consider what, precisely, in the book attracted Kubrick's attention. Despite locating the source of its horror in the fracturing domestic unit, King's The Shining is ultimately marked by the kind of sentimentality that would later become one of his hallmarks. The optimistic note of King's conclusion contrasts dramatically with Kubrick's icy pessimism, with the director more interested in how inhumanity thrives once individuals are pushed beyond their psychological breaking points. This ideological schism results in two mirrored but inherently opposed incarnations of the same narrative.
Kubrick's The Shining depicts aspiring writer Jack Torrance's (Jack Nicholson) employment as caretaker at Colorado's remote Overlook Hotel while it is closed over the winter months. Jack hopes to be able to focus on his writing during this time, but instead the isolation and supernatural forces within the hotel set him on a murderous rampage, which his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their psychically active son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), barely survive. The film begins with a towering helicopter shot moving over water, ominous music dominating the soundscape, the sky reflected from below in an image as arresting as any in this acclaimed visual stylist's works, and the first of many instances of doubling that occur throughout the film. Kubrick's subtle subversion of audience expectations begins from the first moment of the film, as the credits scroll past like end credits, something that is strangely out of place at the opening of the film. As the aerial camera follows Jack's Volkswagen Beetle through mountainous terrain, the extreme wide shot dwarfs the tiny car into insignificance, while the enormity of the natural setting renders it a literal bug--a speck on the surface of the vast Earth. (2) The forward motion of this roving camera is a key visual characteristic that Kubrick will employ throughout the film, foreshadowing the film's climactic chase through the Overlook's hedge maze. In the shots that follow, Kubrick, always fond of technical innovation, employed the still-new Steadicam technology. As with the special-effects work on 2001 and the pioneering low-light shooting on Barry Lyndon, Kubrick created a distinctive new visual sensibility with his use of Steadicam in The Shining. Cinematographer John Alcott's wide-angle lens combines with the frantic camera movement to create a kinetic sense of headlong forward movement, allowing the audience to traverse laterally through the physical space of the hotel as Danny explores its impossibly convoluted labyrinthine interior, the contours of the carpet patterning offering mazes within mazes. The audience will later uncomfortably follow Jack on his murderous spree through the same space, the camera moving at a menacing prowl.
The metaphor of the maze is central to the entire film. One of the most celebrated cuts in Kubrick's work is in 2001, in which a graphic match aligns a bone being tossed in the air with a satellite gliding through space, spanning thousands of years in a single cut. He achieves an equally dazzling, albeit more subtle, transition in The Shining, in the scene in which Jack gazes down on a model of the Overlook's maze. The subsequent shot is fixed overhead, looking directly down on the maze. Likely the viewer assumes that the overhead shot of the maze is taken from Jack's point of view. However, as the camera zooms in, the figures of Wendy and Danny become visible moving through the labyrinth, rendering a literal association with Jack's viewpoint impossible. How, then, do we understand the relationship between these two shots? In his landmark study of Kubrick and other seminal filmmakers, A Cinema of Loneliness, Robert Phillip Kolker positions this sequence as symptomatic of Jack's 'attempts to maintain control by the very power of the patriarchal gaze', as 'the two spaces [...] merge under the controlling gaze of the father, who attempts to exercise godlike power over his family until that power makes him mad'. (3) Kubrick's withdrawal of certainty as to whose point of view we are inhabiting is one way in which he creates unease in the viewer. This happens throughout the film: Danny's lapse into unconsciousness after his vision of the Overlook at the start of the American cut of the film prompts an ellipsis in the narrative. (4) The same occurs much later in the film, when Wendy knocks out Jack on the stairs of the Colorado Lounge, and we rejoin Jack as he regains consciousness in the hotel's kitchen. Kubrick is even more ambitious with the Room 237 sequence in the middle of the film. After Wendy discovers the strangulation wounds on Danny's neck that he got when first exploring the forbidden room from which the hotel's evil emanates, Jack asks Wendy, 'Which room was it?', which is followed by a disorienting cut to a close-up shot of a television set reporting Miami news. A slow zoom out reveals that this is a subjective shot from Dick Hallorann's (Scatman Crothers) point of view, a long way from the Overlook. Subsequent cuts to a point-of-view Steadicam shot travelling through Room 237 initially suggest that Dick is psychically projecting himself into the room, but this shot is later revealed to be from Jack's point of view as he explores the room on Wendy's urging. It is unclear if we have shifted wholesale from Dick's vision to Jack's subjectivity, or whether we are observing Jack's actions through Dick's psychic projection. This uncertainty is further compounded by cutaways to Danny in his room, apparently in the throes of a seizure. Is Danny experiencing the same psychic vision as Dick, or is the entirety of this sequence a psychic message sent from Danny to Dick? Luckhurst observes that as Kubrick repeatedly allows the subjectivity of perspective to shift throughout this sequence, the 'fluid transpositions actually dissolve the singular point of view for a sense of mobile and shared subjectivity'. (5) In the midst of these many shifts, as 'the sequence impossibly intertwines the psychic lives of Wendy, Danny, Hallorann, Jack and the hotel', the power of perception splinters, and the viewer is deprived of interpretive mastery over the film. (6)
This ambiguous yet oft-unidentifiable air of horror pervades Kubrick's The Shining, and is a major point of difference from King's novel. This shift is most explicit in Kubrick's excision of King's topiary animals that come to life and menace the Torrances, replaced in the film by the monolithic and implacable labyrinth. It is easy to understand why King was aggrieved by Kubrick's adaptation. (7) There are clearly autobiographical traces in King's Jack Torrance, the struggling writer battling with alcoholism, much as King did himself throughout his early career. King's novel offers a possibility of redemption for Jack, as he regains control of himself for long enough during his murderous rampage to sabotage the hotel boiler, incinerating himself in the process, and causing the Overlook to burn to the ground. (8) Jack's fiery self-sacrifice at the conclusion of King's novel is replaced in the film by Nicholson's pathetic, hunched, incoherent figure, staggering through the confines of the maze in which he will literally freeze to death, while the hotel stands triumphant. The final shot of the film reveals Jack's impossible presence in a photo at the hotel dated 1921, the same period from which the spectral forces that drive him to madness emanate. With this concluding image, which does not appear in King's novel, Kubrick collapses cinematic time in a similar manner to the way he concludes 2001, suggesting the inevitability of the cycle of insanity and violence continuing to play out within the hotel's walls. For Kolker, the image of Jack 'confirms the notion of an eternity of despair, of oppressive systems created by people who allow those systems to destroy them'. (9)
King's dissatisfaction with Kubrick and his co-screenwriter Diane Johnson shifting the moral sentiment of the text raise valid questions about who retains authorship during the adaptation process. There is an obvious tension between the creative milieus inhabited by the two men, with Kubrick, as New York intellectual, attempting to bring a European art cinema sensibility to King's unabashedly populist source material. Kubrick employs a variety of cinematic techniques to emphasise the sense of horror, betraying the influence of the Italian giallo film. This legacy is visible in the film's bold colour palette, the sudden inserts of shocking images, and his contrasting use of zooms, which slowly, inexorably draw closer to a subject, heightening the sense of psychological tension, or crash suddenly into images of violence and gore. The liberal use of cross-fades suggests the passage into some kind of surreal dream state, while the camera whips back and forth with each stroke of Jack's axe, viscerally emphasising the savagery as he chops down a door. Kubrick uses mirrors throughout the film to create sinister doublings, as when Danny is pinned between a menacing Jack and his reflected visage in a shot midway through the film. Intertitles chronicling the passage of the days continually condense durational time with increasing regularity and specificity, heightening tension as we are brought ever closer to Jack's descent into madness.
Yet Kubrick's The Shining implies the horrific possibility that Jack may have been insane even before taking up residence in the malevolent hotel, regardless of the 'orders from the house'--he is already jumping out of his skin in his interview at the hotel, and reveals his seething hostility in his subsequent telephone conversation with Wendy from the hotel lounge, and in his unhinged, superior attitude in the car ride back to the hotel with his family. There is a leering misogyny to Kubrick's The Shining, visible in Jack's hateful language (referring to Wendy as 'the old sperm bank"), his lecherous gaze when he discovers the naked woman in the bath in Room 237, and perhaps even in Kubrick's own on-set demeanour--see him berating Duvall in his daughter Vivian Kubrick's behind-the-scenes documentary Making 'The Shining' (1980). Nevertheless, Wendy offers the point of identification for most viewers, beholding the horrors that unfold before her, and Duvall's intense performance is perhaps the most memorable in the him. On the other hand, given his established superstar screen persona, there is no escaping that Jack is Jack, and his broad performance continually pushes the limits of caricature and self-parody. Although he'd displayed similar mania in passages from earlier films such as Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973), it is in The Shining that he truly goes off the wall in a sustained way that would become normalised in his subsequent screen persona. Given Nicholson's charisma and enormous star-power at the time of The Shining's release in 1980, it is worth pondering to what extent the film expects audiences to identify or sympathise with Jack as protagonist. In light of the timely discussion of domestic violence in current Australian popular discourse, this opens up the possibility of a larger discussion about the morality of exploiting such a controversial and potentially damaging subject in popular entertainment.
The search for redeeming moral value in Kubrick's The Shining may be a fraught one, as indeed may be the larger attempt to ascribe any definitive meaning to the work. Rodney Ascher's recent documentary Room 237 (2012) explores numerous readings of Kubrick's The Shining, including that the film is a metaphor for the Holocaust or for the genocidal underpinnings of the American mythos of 'manifest destiny', or a coded confession from Kubrick regarding his involvement in the staging of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The film cannot possibly sustain all of these meanings simultaneously, but Ascher presents each one with an equal degree of authority, calling the very process of interpretation into question by highlighting the malleability of meaning for different viewers. Ultimately, what remains is the chaos of Kubrick's cruel and irrational universe, in which the only certainty is of the horror repeating as we venture once more into the Overlook Hotel.
Nicholas Godfrey has recently completed his doctoral thesis on early 1970s Hollywood cinema in the Department of Screen and Media at Flinders University in South Australia, where he teaches. He is a programmer for the Adelaide Film Festival, and a regular contributor to Metro and Screen Education.
(1) Roger Luckhurst, The Shining, British Film Institute, London, 2013, pp. 20-1.
(2) Later, on his fatal journey back to the Overlook Hotel, Dick Hallorann will encounter another Volkswagen Beetle, crushed beneath a jackknifed semitrailer, an ominous precursor to the carnage that is yet to come.
(3) Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1988, p. 153. Indeed, this controlling power of vision is present in the hotel's very name: Overlook.
(4) A phenomenon that is rarely remarked on in discussions of The Shining is the very distinct differences between the initial American cut of the film (144 minutes), and the pared-back international cut (119 minutes). The international version of the film is considerably leaner and more abstract than the American cut. Much expository material about Jack's battle with alcoholism and his history of abuse towards Danny, and the emergence of Danny's traumatic split personality (Tony), is excised from the international cut, which means that the horrors that ensue do so with a good deal less contextualisation. The fact that both versions of the film remain available on home media in their respective markets, and that neither is considered the authoritative or director-approved version of the film, is yet another mirrored enigma to puzzle over. For clarity's sake, this article refers primarily to the international cut of the film, which is the version that appears on Australian video and DVD editions of The Shining.
(5) Luckhurst, op. cit., p. 57.
(6) ibid., p. 58.
(7) Stephen King, Danse Macabre, Hodder, London, 1981, p. 245.
(8) Dick survives King's The Shining, and helps to rescue Wendy and Danny.
(9) Kolker, op. cit., p. 157.