The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980)

shiningIt is difficult to know what to say about The Shining, especially as so much has already been said, some of it of dubious merit.

Like Stephen King, I am baffled as to why people find it so scary; unlike him, I rate it way more highly than his original novel (and the miniseries does not even get a look in).

It is a film I never used to like much, although I always admired its soundtrack and steadicam (Kubrick is so very effective when tracking-in that you can forgive him for his lesser parallel tracking, but, to be fair, Jean-Luc Godard’s not as good at the former as he is at the latter). And I have always been a little taken by the simple tricks Kubrick deploys – an omission here, an ambiguity there, and what Michel Chion describes as his ‘commutative editing’ – to make his films seem enigmatic and profound.

This time round, the film grew on me. I have no idea if this is because I finally watched the 25 minute longer US cut (although some months ago Roger Luckhurst predicted such an outcome, and I learned a long time ago he is usually right about stuff). I was struck very forcefully this time round by the visual and aural resonances with 2001 – and partway through the job interview scene, I stopped hearing the dialogue as being badly-delivered and started hearing it as a development of the earlier film’s depiction of linguistic thinning and debasement. Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) channels the performance of sincerity and the platitudinous corporate drone of Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), and everyone sounds like they are delivering lines because that is what so much of human identity and interaction consists of – performativity.

When I recently read King’s novel, I posted about its proleptic depiction of precarious, disciplined neo-liberal labour. This is developed in Kubrick’s film. The Overlook itself, despite it age, resembles one of the non-places of hypermodernity described by Marc Augé: those spaces that are the opposite of utopia because they exist and do not contain any organic society. For all the historical markers we see on display – from those big cans of kosher dill pickles in a hotel that would once have been restricted, to the Native American designs and images on the walls, to the very 1970s purple penis carpet – it is oddly dehistoricised. It is a space that might even confound Steve Buscemi’s5609791_std CHET! in its obscure blurring of ‘trans’ and ‘res’. The Torrance family, that signifier of a private realm outside the world of work and exchange, that gesture towards organic society, is destroyed by the relentless demands of the Overlook, which is only concerned with Jack as labour-power.

The Shining shows the coming proletarianisation of the American middle class, or perhaps merely charts the delusion of social mobility at the core of the American Dream. This is Jack – the terrorised and terrorising, self-surveilling, self-disciplining and other-discipling sadomasochistic subject of a monstrous power. Just the way capital likes it.

shiningAnd management doesn’t care for one moment that he has produced the treatise on work-life balance. To the Overlook, it’s just a paper trail to prove the staff have been consulted at.


Room 237 (Rodney Ascher 2012)

large_7EDxLdQ8bBG8YC2JAnhvoVhTe3This is easily the most fun and interesting, and least time-consuming, of the various associated texts I’m working through in preparation for teaching The Shining as a cult movie (King’s novel, the miniseries, and Doctor Sleep, which should be done soon). It is a documentary in which five people explain what they think the film is really about: the Native American genocide; the Holocaust; Kubrick’s faking of the Moon landing film; the legend of the minotaur; and the dark violent sexual nature of human beings. (The latter two are the sketchiest, so it is hard to be certain what their central claims are, or if they actually have central claims – and I am sure I must have missed something about the last one since that’s hardly unusual material for a horror movie.)

Students anxious about analysing films often frame their suggestions with a nervous ‘I’m probably reading too much into it, but…’, while also seeming to assume that the process of analysing a film is to dig down and find a secret hidden meaning. Their development as critics usually involves learning to think differently about the nature of texts and the processes by which meanings are made. Meanings aren’t hidden deep within, like pirate treasure, but are the product of engaging with the details of the film in relation to various contexts. There is no ‘reading into’, there is just ‘reading’, because all the information is there on the surface to see and hear.

However, on listening to the (admittedly fragmented) presentation of Room 237’s five featured exegeses, I began to think that maybe I was wrong – that maybe there is such a thing as ‘reading into’ a text.

room-237-1And I admit, when the NASA conspiracy guy explained that the letters on the key tag, ROOM No 237, were able to spell just two words, ROOM and MOON, I did blurt out ‘moron’.

But that is a little unfair.

Room 237 gives us a fascinating if largely unwitting exploration of textual heuristics, epistemological limits and the uneven distribution of cultural capital.

sh_monarchTake, for example, Juli Kearns’ claim that the image of a skier on a poster is actually the silhouette of a minotaur. It does not look like one to me, but when she explained what she sees I understood what she meant. It is more convincing than someone else’s claim that the clouds in the opening titles contain an image of Kubrick, but it is still utterly unconvincing. The disproportionate bull-like upper torso is very obviously a hunched figure in a bulky ski jacket.

But perhaps she does not mean it is actually a picture of a minotaur, merely that it was deliberately chosen because it resembled one.

On the opposite side of the doorway, she notes, is a picture of a cowboy on horseback. A centaur, you might think, but no. Her point is that it is a mirror image: a cowboy opposite a bull-man. And it seems that it was only after noticing this ‘picture of a minotaur’ that she began to notice all the labyrinth imagery in the film: the maze, the model of the maze, the corridors and sometimes contradictory layout of the Overlook. What remains not just unclear but downright mystifying is why she needs to build her argument on a questionable interpretation of the skier poster rather than on, say, the film’s obvious and undeniabe labyrinths – and why she never seems to ask why Kubrick organised his version of the story around mazes, corridors and horizontality.

Part of the answer to the constricted nature of these five interpretations lies in the suggestion made by one of the exegetes that Kubrick was a bored genius who he decided to fill The Shining with puzzles and/or clues. A disappearing chair, the disappearing Dopey sticker, a mid-sequence costume change, an apparent reversal of the pattern in the carpet, all of which can be explained as continuity errors, are suddenly transformed into acts of conscious intent. Which enables you to continue believing in Kubrick as a genius who controlled absolutely everything that appears in his films. Which in turn separates from the dull herd those viewers who can pieces together his clues. Which brings the elect into the sacred presence of the author-genius, who slays ambiguity, guarantees meaning and dispenses certainty.

However, the whole proposition that this is what a genius would choose to do suggests a poor understanding of genius, and of creative endeavour. Kubrick ceases to be a person and becomes like that magical autistic guy in Cube (1997), able to do really hard maths without any of the visible effort the female character must put into calculating primes and primes of primes. Kubrick becomes a black box, a monolith, and only some primates get uplifted. Understanding how texts generate meanings is transformed into a paranoid-autistic hermeneutics, like in The Da Vinci Code, with one true meaning to be unearthed. Or, as Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) says to Danny (Danny Lloyd), this is ‘not [about] things that anyone can notice but things that people that can shine can see’.

Like when one of the exegetes argues that the recurrence of the number 42, the fact that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) uses a German-made typewriter and the graphic match evident in the dissolve from  a pile of luggage to a group of guests is more than enough to prove the film is about the Holocaust.

The paranoid aspect of this spills out beyond the film when the NASA conspiracy guy claims that he is under state surveillance and that he fully expects an IRS audit next year. (Intriguingly, he insists that the Moon-landing itself was not faked, just the Moon-landing footage, but he never explains why NASA would do this – although he does dismiss someone else’s claim that it was to keep us from seeing the towering alien city in the Sea of Tranquillity.)

vlcsnap-2012-11-03-17h36m26s183While watching Room 237, I could not resist constructing my own version of its real secret meaning which is also clearly bullshit. The exegete who sees the film as being about the genocide of Native Americans makes much of the prominence afforded to cans of Calumet baking powder. However, he completely misses the genuinely prominent placing of packets of Oreos – next to Jack when he wakes up on the sacks of salt, and then on the extreme left of this shot, clearly mis-shelved behind Jack and the baking powder cans (misdirection!). ‘Oreo’ is slang for a middle class African American, who might look black on the inside but is really white on the inside. Such conservative figures, who align themselves with white culture, function to conceal the supposed threat to white hegemony – especially white masculinity – posed by African Americans.

The same exegete notes that the five o’clock shadow of Bill Watson (Barry Dennen) makes him look mixed race, but quite ludicrously suggests that this aligns him with the native American, when clearly his major domo status – which includes walking behind hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), being expected to sit quietly to one side, and being ordered to perform menial tasks – positions him as an African American servant, like the butlers played by Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.

6336382_f260But the task of  looking after Danny, The Shining‘s Shirley Temple equivalent, is displaced on to Hallorann. Significantly, it is only after Danny – who, like Hallorann and Hallorann’s grandmother can, ‘shine’ – states his preference for ‘chocolate’ ice cream that Hallorann calls him ‘son’. No wonder Grady, in the red bathroom, warns Jack about this ‘nigger’ interloper, coming to replace him as Danny’s ‘real’ father. (And since ‘the shining’ seems to skip a generation, Hallorann is simultaneously positioned as Danny’s grandfather – that is, Jack’s father.) No wonder Kubrick replaces Jack’s light-coloured typewriter, a symbol of paternal authority and of entry into the Lacanian symbolic order, with a darker model partway through the film…

1350845502845114This explains also Kubrick’s decision about the final images of the film. White masculinity, frozen out of the picture, stuck in a lost past.

This is – of course – not remotely what the film is about. And I really hope no-one takes it seriously, but y’know how the internet is…

The Shining (Mick Garris 1997)

Stephen_King's_THE_SHINING_(mini-series_intertitle)Stephen King just won’t let it go.

There is an ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of Doctor Sleep (2013) that, under the guise of clarifying that it is a sequel-by-popular-demand to his 1977 novel rather than to Kubrick’s 1980 film of The Shining, says of the latter: ‘many seem to remember [it] – for reasons I have never quite understood – as one of the scariest movies they have ever seen’ (483). The next paragraph does not proclaim the TV miniseries King himself adapted as superior to the movie, but it does sing the praises of his more-or-less-reliable-hack director Mick Garris’s Psycho IV, as if to trump Kubrick with a Hitchcock.

It is coyly done, as if King knows it is not at all convincing.

But anyway, as part of my ongoing preparation for teaching Kubrick’s film as a cult movie, after reading the novel I watched the miniseries over several nights. I would have got through it sooner, but after episode one my ever-patient housemate cried no más, and scheduling became an issue – poor thing missed out completely on the slightly less terrible second and third episodes…

The main problems with the miniseries are its plodding adherence to the novel and the deadening literalness of its treatment of the supernatural elements. All it takes is that first glimpse of Danny’s (Courtland Mead) imaginary friend Tony (Wil Horneff) bobbing about in the air to realise quite how brilliant Kubrick was to have Danny (Danny Lloyd) talking to his finger instead. (Probably didn’t help that it immediately took me back to being thirteen and watching Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979) miniseries and bursting out laughing at the supposedly scary bit when the fat vampire kid taps on the window.)

These two intertwined problems began to fill me with dread when the first episode started obsessing about the topiary animals, trying to make them ominous. Will they be brought to life as badly as the cgi hosepipe? How could the bush-animal attack sequences – presumably originally inspired by Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Veldt’ (1950) – possibly work?

I generally find Bradbury overrated, but even I must concede the novel’s reworking of this material makes make him seem subtle.

Screen shot 2012-02-29 at 13.50.16Garris very sensibly, if not very effectively, relies on camera movements, editing and switching-in props to bring the topiary lions to life. Until the ‘cliffhanger’ ending of episode two, the final shot of which shows Danny being stalked unaware by three cgi shrubs. (They do not appear again except fleetingly in the climax of episode three. Thankfully.) To be clear, this is not ragging on the special effects because they are bad, but because they are badly chosen.

Generally, the physical effects work best, but there is something so amiss about the individual episodes’ and the series’  pacing that they too become a problem. The first couple of times a door opens or closes or an object moves mysteriously is fine, but you pretty quickly find yourself wondering whether it is always the same bloke hidden just out of shot pushing the door, how much he gets paid, what he had for lunch… Not so much ‘how did they do that?’ as ‘why?’ And it does make you wonder what exactly they spent the $25 million budget on.

I guess, in part, the format is the problem. Economics dictate that a network TV miniseries made in the 1990s can’t be too scary or unnerving or disturbing, so the supernatural horror has to be blandly by-the-numbers and the domestic abuse material has to be displaced as far as possible.

So I have a lot of sympathy for the cast.

Winifred Torrance is a badly underwritten character in the novel – all I can really remember is King banging on about her breasts – and she is no better served by a script that slaps on a bunch of embarrassing clichés. Garris does not seem to have any idea what to do with her, and Rebecca De Mornay struggles. Indeed, in episode one, she even seems to struggle to walk across rooms, although she does do one brilliant bit of almost indiscernible crabstepping down a hotel corridor that is simply not wide enough to accommodate three or four actors walking abreast.

Steve Weber, as Jack, has the easier job – do what Jack Nicholson did but not the way he did it. Even so, it is only when the later episodes allow Weber to ham it up that he becomes even remotely effective, and in the second half of episode theshining1997three, this is largely down to his make-up – which gives him the appearance of a beaten-up, tear-stained clown.

As Danny, basin-cut Courtland Mead clearly shares no genetic material with either of his parents. He looks like one of those profoundly unattractive children who used to get cast in Dallas or Dynasty for no reason other than that their dad was a producer on the show. His performance does get better in the later episodes, and his unexpected ‘I love snow’ song is a bizarre delight, but I kept finding myself wondering whether the alcoholic, physically abusive Jack ever used his son’s enormous teeth to open beer bottles.

Most of the time the three principals, especially De Mornay, have the air of people wondering how much longer they are going to have to keep this up for…

The decision to play Ullman (Elliot Gould) as a mincing lisper is a really poor choice, but not as badly judged as Stephen King’s cameo as bandleader Gage Creed – at least he didn’t black up for his terrible Cab Calloway impersonation. (There is a chummy array of horror-related cameos: Frank Darabont, Peter James, Richard Christian Matheson, David J. Schow – and Sam Raimi stealing the bread from his brother, Ted’s, mouth.)

Pat Hingle, as Pete Watson, is probably the only actor to escape with his dignity intact, professionally ploughing through this nonsense the same way he has done since the 1950s.

But it is Melvin Van Peebles, as Dick Halloran, who has the best line:

911 ain’t the answer, ma’am, only wish it was.

Good to know that baadasssss is still out there.


Stephen King, The Shining (1977)

1839lzdygndfmjpgFirst, the confession.

Until now, I have never read a Stephen King novel.

In my early teens, I just could not get into Christine (1983) or Carrie (1974) or, indeed, The Shining. Each time I gave up a few chapters in, and just figured he was not for me. Sure, I’ve read Danse Macabre (1981), his history of horror fiction, a couple of times, and have always cherished its description of Harold Robbins (he can’t tell the difference between a well-structured sentence and a shit-and-anchovy pizza). And I did read The Talisman (1984), King’s fat fantasy novel collaboration with Peter Straub, when it first came out – and since I enjoyed it, I attributed that to Straub (although not enough to actually read any of his solo novels).1 I even bought a copy of Dreamcatcher (2001) a couple of years ago, just to see if it is as hilariously inept as the William Goldman/Lawrence Kasdan film version, but gave it to a friend in the hope she would do the research for me. (She didn’t.)

But I am teaching the US cut of Kubrick’s movie this semester, so I figured alongside also watching Mick Garris’s 1997 King-scripted Shining miniseries and the Room 237 documentary, I should really give the novel another ago.

And you know what?

It’s all right.

It isn’t scary or suspenseful in any way, which might be because I already know the story. The prose only rises above workmanlike for literally – and I do not mean figuratively – a couple of nicely-crafted short sentences (which I failed to mark in the text so I can’t tell you what they were and may never find them again). But it is interesting in the way it is such a seventies novel.

That ain't no monolith...
That ain’t no monolith…

First, and least significantly, the cook, Dick Hallorann, often talks and thinks as if blaxploitation movies were King’s only source for imagining an African-American man – a quality Kubrick suppressed by

...and neither is that
…and neither is that

casting Scatman Crothers in the role, but which returns in the paintings decorating Hallorann’s Florida apartment.

Second, The Shining has something of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s post-counterculture misogynistic whininess that pins the dissatisfactions of lower middle class white masculinity on women.2 Terri Garr’s performance in the margins of Spielberg’s movie can, if observed, prompt at least some sympathy for her character. But just as Spielberg is uninterested in Ronnie Neary, so King, despite giving Wendy Torrance some backstory, some viewpoint chapters and some noteworthy nipples, really could care less. Like Spielberg always, King here is obsessed with paternity and patrilineality, even using the word ‘patricide’ in the novel’s climax to describe Danny’s role in the destruction of the Overlook/Jack.

Third, and most intriguingly, The Shining anticipates neoliberalism’s particular intensification of demands on workers. Much as the novel is about the past – the ghosts of the Overlook hotel; the effect Jack and Wendy’s neglectful, manipulative and/or violent parents had on them; Jack’s alcoholism; Jack’s violence – haunting the present, it now also has an air of being haunted by the future. When one socio-economic structure subsumes another, it does not replace it completely but carries forward, mutatis mutandis, that which it needs, that which it can make use of, that which does not contradict its operation and expansion. Which is why early capitalism had its feudal robber barons, and why this social relation and the sociopaths it rewards are ever increasingly evident in the aftermath of 2008.

In the later stages of the novel, the Overlook is revealed as a kind of raging Old Testament god, cruelly demanding that Jack sacrifice his son. His reward will be acceptance into a great chain of being, presided over by this dark ancient power and populated by mobsters, killers, CEOs and other criminals. However, the contract underpinning his adoption by the hotel is repeatedly expressed in terms of climbing the corporate ladder, of Jack having to prove that he is management material. From caretaker to manager – the American Dream! – through subservience and self-abasement misdescribed as personal merit.3

But what is the nature of Jack’s actual job? It is not the mountain-top location that makes his employment so precarious. Unearned, it is within the gift of his millionaire ex-drinking-buddy, Al Shockley, who inherited his wealth; and, as Jack learns, if he steps out of line, Al will fire him without hesitation. It is a job that completely obliterates any line between work and not-work, between workplace and home. It relocates and dislocates his entire family, but will last only a few months, and if he is fired, they will all be homeless. It requires his constant presence, often in stand-by mode. It colonises his consciousness and creative human capacities, and subordinates him entirely to the extraction of his labour-power.

Jonathan Crary entitled his 2014 book on the ruinous human effects of contemporary capitalism and its attention economy 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep; I guess I will now have to read King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining to see whether it is just a coincidence that he called it Doctor Sleep.

PS Even after reading The Shining, I have still read more Guy N. Smith novels and seen more Lawnmower Man movies than I have read King novels.

1 I got bogged down in the early pages of Koko (1988) years ago, and still have an unread Shadowland (1980) in a box somewhere. But I did once stay in a hotel room next to Peter Straub at a conference in Florida, and was (admittedly unintentionally) a considerate neighbour, which surely must count for something.
2 You will be glad to hear this kind of silly whinging and contrafactual scapegoating is a thing of the past. Oh. No, wait. See  this. And this excellent response.
3 As satirised in Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and straightfacedly reiterated every day by all that bullshit about this being a meritocracy.