Sunday, 7 September 2008

Sunday Night at the Movies - with Dallas and friends

I Must Admit, I've Taken a Shine To You

After almost two weeks of trying, Helen and I have FINALLY finished watching Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. We started the film on Monday the 25th of August and watched about 28 minutes of it. Each night between then and Thursday the 4th of September one thing or another kept us from finishing the film (let's be honest, Isabel takes most of the blame). But on Thursday we finally finished the film, and because it took such a monumental effort to watch The Shining in its entirety I have decided to review it for this week's post. I've also compiled five guilty pleasure films for this week's list. Have a great week!

Top Five Guilty Pleasures
  1. Rambo: First Blood Part II
  2. Billy Madison
  3. Rocky IV
  4. Predator
  5. Clash of the Titans

Mr. Nicholson Takes a Vacation
by Dallas

Based on the novel by Stephen King, The Shining, released in 1980, examines the story of Jack Torrance who is hired as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. Jack, with his wife Wendy and son Danny, relocate to the secluded mountain retreat where they are responsible for watching over the premises during the months of November to April. Mayhem ensues shortly after the Torrances arrive as Jack and his son Danny begin seeing visions of the hotels previous, deceased guests.

Kubrick, who's previous films include the dark comedic masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, the sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, and epic masterpiece Spartacus, tried his hand at the horror genre with The Shining. What results is certainly an atmospherically creepy film, but is certainly not as great a film as it should have been. In making his horror film, Kubrick put together several "scary" elements, threw them together, and expected to magically get a great horror movie. The Shining is filled with several strong flourishes, as if Kubrick is shouting at his audience that this is a great movie. Supposedly, overbearing music, a child in peril, creepy twin girls, haunting 1920s music, Shelley Duvall's face, a river of blood, and a man in a boar-suit all equal "great horror movie". But they do not.

The most frightening aspect of this story is that a family is completely isolated and the husband and father of this family slowly descends into madness. For a mother and child to place absolute trust in a man that slowly becomes so insane that he will stop at nothing to obliterate his family is a horrifying thought. But Jack's descent into madness, though terrifying, does not have the impact that it should. Jack Nicholson gives a virtuoso performance as a man in the throes of madness. But during the first half of the film, when Jack is not insane, Nicholson plays the character with a caustic arrogance. All of his actions seem fake and forced, and he shows no love for his wife and child. He seems a man already walking the edge of madness, so it really comes as no surprise when he takes up an ax and begins hacking down doors in an attempt to slaughter his family. Instead of being horrified that a good man has become a murderous madman, the audience expects this behavior of Jack, which lessens the tension.

Watching this film, I began to wonder if Stanley Kubrick had first-hand experience with abuse at the hands of a domineering father. The Shining, as a metaphor, works well as a way to exemplify a family in the clutches of a violent father. The isolation of the Overlook Hotel represents the marriage of Jack and Wendy. Jack is the vision of an abusive, power obsessed father. Consider the scene where Wendy has locked him in the storage locker. Jack is hunched over the camera, leaning his head against the door speaking to his wife. Although physically cut off from his wife and child he is framed in a position of power by the camera which shoots him from below as he towers over the frame. Jack has destroyed communication by dismantling the radio, and has cut off Wendy's escape by destroying the snow plow. Jack then affects a sympathetic voice in an attempt to persuade Wendy to open the door. Although cut off, he still wields an incredible amount of power.

As a counterpoint to Jack is his frail wife Wendy. Played by Shelley Duvall, Wendy is such a timid, powerless individual that she would probably fall over if Jack were to blow on her. She allows Jack to dominate the relationship, and takes all of his abuse. It is only when Jack appears capable of hurting Danny, and threatens Wendy with "bashing in her brains" that Wendy gets wise to his abusive nature and takes action.

The overall effect of The Shining is rather chilling, Jack Nicholson is great fun to watch, and the chase through the snow covered maze is a masterstroke. But I can not help but wonder how much more effective this film would have been if I'd truly cared for this family, and not just seen them as victims, or metaphors.

**1/2 Stars


booktapes said...

Hmmm... While I mostly agree with your observations, especially your analysis of the storage locker scene, I'm not sure all your observations necessarily fit in the "against" column in an argument about Kubrick's style. I think Kubrick was probably only using the horror genre as a backdrop to make a larger point, which of course is going to bum out horror purists who think the genre has virtues all its own and doesn't necessarily need to address "larger points." These purists could make the argument that if a horror movie doesn't work as horror, then the larger point the director was trying to make matters less. I would have a hard time believing that argument in this case, because a) I thought the Shining was actually a very scary movie, and b) I think it was probably made not for horror people but for art house people. Then again, maybe “being scary” isn’t the only, or the most important, criteria for a good horror movie.

As for what Kubrick’s larger point is: I think with all of his films, the extremely slow pacing and off-kilter performances are meant to make the viewer ask the question, "What am I really seeing here?" which, in turn, makes the viewer (maybe) think about the way he or she has seen it up to that point. I think certain kinds of material respond better to this over-analytical method than others. For example, I would argue that a space-station (2001), a boot camp (Full Metal Jacket), or a weird elite sex club (Eyes Wide Shut) makes a more interesting subject for Kubrick's style than the Torrance family has. But I still think that The Shining works to a point on that level. What about the Torrances is so very creepy? Probably Kubrick’s version of them itself, which treats even the most fabulous parts of the horror genre where their world exists as if it was a subject in his own personal laboratory.

A good example of Kubrick’s unflinchingly droll perspective as cast within the context of a traditionally more emotional genre is the “blood coming out of the elevator” scene. It’s simple, precise, almost boring. He shoots it almost like it’s a scene of a stock broker coming out of an elevator, rather than a thousand gallons of blood.

booktapes said...

Freakin jeez. I just reread that last comment. Sorry for sounding like I just crawled out of Harold Bloom's butt. I think that was written in the middle of a break from about five straight hours of reading literary criticism. Yay college!

dallas said...

i'm glad you picked up on it, because although i also thought you must have crawled out of harold bloom's butt (or pauline kael's), it wouldn't have been nice to say that to a friend. but you know i love you anyway.

it seems that we both have the same assessment of "the shining". but, where you find it exhilarating, i find it overly cerebral. i suppose when it comes to film, my first criteria is that it must entertain. films can also instruct, and horrify, and broaden our horizons, but nothing should mar the pure entertainment. i felt "the shining" has been marred a bit, by the sheer fact that i "know" i'm watching a movie, and not just enjoying it. i will always be critical of films that distort the pure entertainment factor.

there are many who will disagree with this, and tell me i'm wrong, or foolish; and that's okay. but when it comes to my film reviews, entertainment is the first criteria.

booktapes said...

I hear ya. But what's not entertaining about Jack Nicholson making the same face for three hours? "No, no, Jack," says Kubrick. "Let's do it again. This time lower your head more and look through your eyebrows all mean-like again. Okay Take 6,342...and...Action!"

Did you see the trailer for Milk? It looks like Philadelphia II. Seriously though, it looks good.