Written by Diane Johnson and Stanley Kubrick based on the novel The Shining by Stephen King
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Directed by Stanley Kubrick
USA 1980 imdb
Quebec’s only documentary film festival, Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal – RIDM, starts Wednesday, November 7th. One of the most highly anticipated docs is Room 237, a film about the obsessive deep analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film, The Shining. Theories explored in the documentary range from the plausible (The Overlook Hotel was built on an Indian burial ground and the ghosts are manifestations of the dead Indians need for revenge on the White culture that killed them) to the implausible (the film is a Holocaust metaphor) to – well, that’s a stretch (the film is a meditation on the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth) to – wait WHAT? (the film is Kubrick’s coded confession that he faked the Apollo Moon landing) to downright Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz trippiness (the film was built by Kubrick so that certain sequences would synchronize if you watched the film forwards and backwards simultaneously).
I have always believed that a hallmark of a great film is the way that it sparks off great writing. Room 237 has already inspired great articles by Chuck Klosterman and Jim Emerson – who didn’t even need to see the film to be inspired! Here on Sound on Sight, it has inspired articles by Ricky D, Ty Landis and John McEntee, not to mention a Sordid Cinema Podcast.
The danger with Room 237 (I have been told) is that once you see it you can never watch The Shining the same way again. Fortunately Cineplex played The Shining this past Monday as part of their Most Wanted Mondays programming, so I took the rare opportunity to watch The Shining on the big screen before I went to watch Room 237.
Big surprise, The Shining is fantastic – especially on the big screen and especially in an environment where you can’t hit the pause button when you get too scared.
For those who haven’t seen it, The Shining is about alcoholic would-be novelist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) who accepts the job as winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado which effectively means that he and his wife Karen (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will be cut off from civilization once the snow falls. Ten years before, another caretaker at the hotel, “suffered some kind of a complete mental breakdown. He ran amuck and killed his family with an axe. Stacked them neatly in one of the rooms in the West wing and then he, he put both barrels of a shotgun in his mouth.” First Danny, then Jack and finally Wendy begin seeing visions in the hotel, leading to Jack trying to kill Wendy and Danny.
The film is built on the slowest of slow burns. One can almost imagine Ti West (born the year The Shining was released to theatres) taking notes in utero when his pregnant mother attended a screening.
What impresses is Kubrick’s restraint. And that restraint is exactly why the film lends itself to the deep analysis featured in the documentary. But even superficially, the visions could be malevolent ghosts or they could be a sign of mental illness. Danny could have some form of ESP or he could be epileptic. Jack could be suffering from a mental illness that leads his body to duplicate the effects of alcohol psychosomatically (when the hotel is closed for the winter all of the alcohol is removed) or he sold his soul to the demonic hotel for a drink. Wendy and Jack could both have a weak version of what the Overlook Hotel’s cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) calls “the Shining” or ESP which have combined in their son to become a “very great talent” or Wendy’s visions are simply her frayed mind falling prey to the suggestions planted in her head from what her son told her that he had seen. Dick Hallorann could have “the Shining” allowing him to be summoned from Florida to Colorado by a panicked Danny or he is simply an empathic old man worried about a young family trapped by the biggest Colorado snowstorm in 100 years. As Roger Ebert has pointed out, none of the four main characters are reliable narrators.
The other benefit to Kubrick’s restraint is the way that it magnifies the film’s transgressions into obscenity. The film features no cursing until Jack says “fuck” while yelling at Wendy for interrupting him while he is typing and the impact of that moment – of the introduction of that kind of language – is like an explosion. The same escalation happens when Jack offers out loud to sell his soul for a drink, leading to his first vision of ghostly bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel) and again when Jack goes to investigate Room 237 after Danny is strangled there by a “strange woman” and he finds a beautiful naked woman in the bathtub (Lia Beldam) who turns into a decaying crone (Billie Gibson). That sequence of full frontal nudity is the only hint of nudity in the film (barring the copy of Playgirl that Jack reads in the lobby of the Overlook Hotel while waiting for the final tour of the hotel). In the same way, there is only one moment of racism: the waiter ghost Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) calling Hallorann a “nigger cook”, one moment of non-lethal violence (before all hell breaks loose): Wendy hitting Jack down the stairs with the baseball bat and one murder: Jack killing Hallorann with the axe. Rather than saturating the film with cursing, nudity, violence and murder, Kubrick drops them in like isolated blood spots, which seem more monstrous in their solitude.
Like the five obsessive film critics featured in Room 237, I have my own pet theory about The Shining, although mine is much less ambitious than their theories. I believe that Jack is an undiagnosed diabetic. It is not uncommon for untreated diabetics to act like they were drunk and to smell like they were drinking without ever having had a drink. Other symptoms include: impaired judgement, rage, excessive sleeping and lethargy, automatic behavior (like typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” a quazillion times or bouncing a tennis ball off a wall for hours), seeing things that aren’t there, hunger (like scarfing down cookies, crackers and handfuls of peanut butter while trapped in the hotel’s storage locker), poor wound healing (the limp), difficulty speaking (in the maze) and paralysis. Not to say that hypothermia from exposure didn’t kill Jack, but being diabetic would have made him much more vulnerable to the cold and hastened his death.
And if Jack is a diabetic, it is possible that he passed on his disease to Danny who demonstrates his own symptoms: automatic behavior (like incessantly riding a tricycle around and around the hotel or chanting “Redrum” to his mother), and seizures (the episode while brushing his teeth and the injury suffered in Room 237).
This diagnosis neatly explains the behavior of both Jack and Danny as well as their visions. Wendy’s visions are more problematic, but she doesn’t see anything until after being terrorized and driven half-mad by Jack. Her exhaustion and hysteria could have led to a nervous breakdown – triggering visions suggested by things told to her by Danny. Of course that doesn’t explain the furry pig giving the blow-job to a long since dead hotel guest…
What makes The Shining a great film that rewards attentive rewatching is the way that Kubrick slowly builds tension and never lets up, offering no easy answers or explanations, because true horror can’t be explained away. Trying to do so leads to madness, obsession and Room 237.