Classic Catchup: The Shining (1980) and Room 237 (2012)

Nobody has seen all the classic films that they are supposed to have watched but there’s always time to catch up.

A recent podcast made me realise that I’d never actually seen The Shining, so man, like for fuck’s sake, let’s watch this thing (and write my second catchup article about a Kubrik film).

The trouble with never having seen The Shining is that that doesn’t mean you haven’t seen clips of almost every important plot point, parodies, rehashes and homages that make you feel that you actually have seen this before.

Writing about it then is comparing two films, the film that you thought it was against the film that it is. Most strikingly, the tone of the film is altogether quite surprising and not what I expected. I expected that we would see a mild mannered Jack slowly tormented and maddened into a dark twisted figure but that really isn’t how the film plays out.

The peril in this movie runs from the very beginning right until the very last scene. The opening scenes are a ghostly aerial glide to a dark, pressurised soundtrack and the pressure never lets up. Rather than cranking the suspense up throughout the film, it seemed much more to be Kubrick’s aim to hit a high level of unease very early on and to try to keep the viewer there for over two hours. Like a version of the Ludovico technique, we want to find some respite but short of looking away, there really isn’t any. In this film, even well meaning characters are creepy and the whole world seems out of whack, with a tangible evil and dread existing not just in shadows but in blazing open sunlight, something that seems very influential.

Jack Torrence is a creep from the beginning, a wild eyed drunk, violent to his traumatised son and uncaring towards his pushover wife. We never see Jack at his best and though we see that he has a sense of humour, there’s really no evidence that he was ever a good man, a good husband or a good father. In fact, it’s easy to imagine that there could be even more abuse in the family that we don’t know about. Nevertheless, rather than turning the story into a characture of pure evil, the viewer automatically takes on the role of looking for the humanity in Jack and I certainly was able to read into some of the scenes a glimmer of hope, a sliver of his potential to be a good man and to care for his family. Kubrick has a reputation from his meticulousness of leading his audiences by the nose in a sort of hypnosis but that really isn’t the case here. Jack is a man irredeemable and lost but he still functions as an ambiguous character, someone we can wonder about, try to empathise with and overlay our own ideas onto. Still too, whatever we think of him, Kubrick’s changes to King’s narrative mean that he is someone who bears the responsibility for his own crimes and we avoid the tiresome cycle by which the supernatural element absolves everyone of blame for human evil (see the Spiderman franchise). While the overlook transforms Jack into something more demonic, his own darkness is the root cause and their relationship seems more symbiotic than anything else. Kubrick implies that this symbiotic link is long standing, through Jack’s initial behavior, through the “manuscript” that Jack writes throughout his time at the hotel (presumably from the very beginning of his stay there) and through the final shot of the film.

The supernatural elements are handled in a way that other films have found hard to replicate by also offering us a sliver of ambiguity. While the hotel itself seems to be a prominent character, it’s hard to really pin down how much of what happens is real and how much is mere hallucination. It certainly seems that the ghosts of the hotel have the agency to free Jack from the storage locker and it certainly seems that they reveal their true nature to Wendy in the final acts but other than this, the reality of the rest of the film is down to interpretation and perspective. The supernatural element seems both real and figurative, and ratchets up the menace during these key scenes where the lines blur and the psychological bursts into the real, corrupting the laws of nature.

The supernatural ability of Danny, the Shining itself, features (and Halloran seems like a trustworthy source) but is downplayed and is incidental to the plot. Producing a cut of the movie where Danny’s implied telepathy does not feature would take seconds. Instead, far more time is devoted to the idea that Danny is a troubled, traumatised child and his strange behaviour is far more attributable to this than his “talents”.

Overall, it’s hard to deny what an incredible vision and unique pressurised, traumatic mode of horror storytelling that the film is. By making such iconic, characterful images, Kubrick is able to get away with King’s more hackneyed horror elements and turn them into strengths. By flirting with the questionable reality of the supernatural, common all-garden horror images are cast anew, even the skeletal remains sequence seemed to fit right at home to my eyes. Whilst watching, the viewer can’t help but twitch and itch at the constant unease and can’t help but try to scrutinise the layout of the hotel and it’s malevolent spirit. There’s probably never been a location in a film that is communicated in such detail that we know it intimately as if we paced it ourselves.

I’m not going to spend long on the fan film that is Room 237. It’s really really terrible. What comes to mind is that crusty old men who run television channels trying to come up with old media formats for stuff they found on youtube. It’s just not possible to cut and paste blogs into a film. It’s fundamentally uncinematic and has no narrative.

What we have is a bunch of whack jobs with crazy conspiracy theories about the film. I mean, maybe Kubrick faked the moon landing and maybe he didn’t but extrapolating background props in one of his movies to prove the theorem is the kind of crazy that leads to you fedexing all of your savings to a Nigerian prince. While this sounds quite interesting, it’s very much not. The interesting thing of course would be the characters of those involved, how they came to be so obsessed by the film, what their theories reflect about them and their own lives and whether or not they can confront the idea that they could be wrong. It could enter into the line where Kubrik crosses from being merely an extremely meticulous filmmaker into being a character from the Da Vinci code, dropping hints about the true history of the world into popcorn films for major studios. However, the makers of the film show no courage and allow the conspiracists to structure their own arguments as talking heads. There is no dialogue and no questioning. There’s no arc in the film and no struggle. The theorists must feel that nobody believes them but the fact is rarely acknowleged, so the film seems to tacitly grant their theories a kind of implied false credence.

And yet, it’s still a freak show. If the film was mostly serious analysis with some crazy thrown it, it would get away with it. The film is certainly deep and detailed and several elements deserve detailed analysis and discussion. However, the filmmakers don’t follow up on anything credible. Their mission statement is clear – Hey look, crazy people say crazy things about a film! Aren’t they funny? The condescension being silent doesn’t make it uncondescending. To question and interact would at least treat them credibly.

The talking heads just aren’t interesting and sadly neither are the visuals, which are collages of scenes from other Kubrick films. There are no unifying images, no unique flourishes. Everything is photocopied and stolen, nothing original or interesting. It seems like an artist testing the boundaries of how little originality can be used. I love collage films made from archives and feel that they can be just as original and interesting as freshly filmed works. This isn’t one of those, however. Back to film school with this ‘un.

Taking an analysis of something as interesting as the shining and making something this boring is an achievement. Forget your bear suit blow jobs, now that really is perverse.

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