Kubrick And ‘The Shining’ – by P. L. Titterington [Sight & Sound]

P.L. Titterington discusses the evolution of Kubrick’s style and the language of his ideas.

by P. L. Titterington

‘Only a few film directors possess a conceptual talent — that is, a talent to crystallise every film they make into a cinematic concept . . . It transcends the need to find a good subject, an absorbing story, or an extraordinary premise to build on. Essentially, it is the talent to construct a form that will exhibit the maker’s vision in an unexpected way, often a way that seems to have been the only possible one when the film is finally finished. It is this conceptual talent that distinguishes Stanley Kubrick.’

The idea represented by these opening words of Alexander Walker’s book on Kubrick seems to have played little part in the critical response to The Shining. David Robinson in The Times, while maintaining that Kubrick is one of the most gifted and ambitious film-makers in the world, talked of the ‘sad mystery’ of his latest film. Derek Malcolm felt that the Stephen King novel finally cheapens and distorts Kubrick’s vision, and in the view of Alan Brien, Kubrick ‘as so often’ has become ‘so infatuated with his own baroque visual effects as to neglect story or character.’

One can certainly feel sympathy for these reactions. Judged simply as a horror film, or even a thriller, The Shining appears an odd exercise. Any knowledge of King’s novel creates an impression of remnants of the original surviving in what is otherwise a completely different kind of script, full of loose ends and with the story presented in little more than a schematic manner. There appears to be no serious attempt at tracing the psychological regression involved in Torrance’s breakdown and in its later stages it seems to possess little psychological subtlety. A missing 25 minutes from the American version initially suggests that possibly drastic cutting has taken place, destroying crucial links in the stages both of the story and the breakdown. Judged as a thriller, it is at times extraordinarily slow. The signposting of developments long before they occur sacrifices suspense (even Kubrick’s choice of poster demonstrates how much he is prepared to reveal in advance), and the building of tension is often deliberately short-circuited. And always there is the nagging awareness of the huge amounts of time and money, and all Kubrick’s perfectionism, being devoted to this. David Robinson made the comment that Carpenter or De Palma could have come up with a passably comparable film in a couple of months, but a more disquieting comparison is that this is precisely the sort of story Corman used to make in a couple of days. The years of work seem inexplicable. Great labour seems to have been devoted to an essentially trivial project that collapses under the weight of the attention it receives.

So blatant are many of these features on one’s first impression that a single question comes to have precedence over all the others raised by the film: either something has gone very wrong indeed, or something very different from what one had expected is being attempted. A possibly typical first reaction is one of bafflement and disappointment; but within hours of the screening, it can happen that the sequences and the experiences begin to rearrange themselves and a completely different way of looking at the film starts to emerge.

It would appear to be no coincidence that first reactions to The Shining have much in common with those to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This too opened to a baffled press, and it took a number of months before critics began to revise their original assessments. It is arguable that 2001 is still not properly understood, and the films Kubrick has made in the 70s, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, have not helped, in any simple way, to clarify what new direction he was there attempting. But what seems clear is that The Shining has more in common with 2001 than any other film Kubrick has made, and the type of cinema being attempted by 2001 is crucial in understanding the new film. Most of the British critics have been unable to recognise any of the main ideas being explored in The Shining, the themes that cast light on why the film has taken the particular form that it has. One of the very few reviews to give a hint as to what these might be was Nick Roddick’s brief notice in the Times Literary Supplement. Roddick saw an unmistakable pattern: ‘In 2001, Kubrick turned his actors into machines (or his machines into actors); in A Clockwork Orange he turned them into animals; and in Barry Lyndon they ended up somewhere between paintings and literary conceits. In The Shining he turns them into a house.’

The Overlook Hotel stands at the centre of The Shining, dwarfing the characters and their human tragedy, and possibly the principal cause of the events that occur. Throughout, the disproportion between the human action and the vast scale of the surroundings that contain it is a source of unease. And gradually, in the course of the film, the hotel becomes its central dominant image, one that is finally to be elaborated by myth and by associations drawn from the past history of the cinema. The image is that of the huge, empty, opulent hotel as an embodiment of a luxurious society and high civilisation, now deserted, and haunted by its dark and violent past that lives on to destroy those who come after. This central image that comes to unify all the film’s many concerns draws on the associations of myth, and in particular the myth of the Labyrinth, with the Minotaur roaming its corridors. There are two principal mazes in The Shining, the garden maze outside the hotel where Torrance’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) find their way to its centre (finding it ‘beautiful’) and where the possessed Torrance (Jack Nicholson) later pursues his son with an axe, and the maze of the hotel itself, its endless winding corridors explored by Kubrick’s camera and its Steadicam system. As Nicholson becomes possessed, he becomes a Minotaur figure, lurking in the corridors of the labyrinth, half man, half beast, not horned but with an axe. These corridors are brilliantly lit, virtually without shadow, but in this film about ‘coldness’ and the losing of direction, they suggest a different kind of darkness.

The giant hotel acquires a very specific application in the film. One of the major themes of The Shining is America. As Altman used a single city as a microcosm in Nashville, and Coppola the behaviour of America in Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, so Kubrick presents his view of America through the image of the haunted luxury hotel. Indeed, of recent films, it is Coppola’s that has most in common with The Shining, just as the latter in one sense can be seen as Kubrick’s Apocalypse Now. In Coppola’s film, through a style that attempts to combine both highly naturalistic and poetic modes of presentation, different images of American life are given surreal force by being isolated before a background of primeval jungle. What once was the genre of the ‘condition of England’ novel now finds its nearest contemporary counterpart in a number of ambitious films being made by some of the most experimentally minded of American directors.

The Shining works primarily through elements that evoke America’s past history and the present state of its society. The huge opening helicopter shots suggest an openness of space before the claustrophobia of the story sets in. But they also evoke the vast spaces the pioneers had to cross in the founding of America. The helicopter shots suggest the exhilaration of a new found continent and a new life, the energy and hope and promise of the pioneering experience; but as we focus on Torrance’s car far below in the forests and by the side of lakes, there is also the sense of the dwarfing of the pioneer, the danger of isolation and of being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the landscape. The dark side of the American experience is paramount in the film. The early exhilaration is soon lost and the contrast starkly made between the open spaces and the hotel surrounded by the freezing cold, the two faces of America, the early hopeful past marred by inhumanity and the luxurious present that has inherited that legacy.

As we follow the family up to the hotel to begin the winter caretaking job, Torrance talks about the wagon train that was stranded in the mountains over the winter and the pioneers resorting to cannibalism (‘They had to,’ says Torrance, ‘to survive’). We hear that the Overlook Hotel has been built on an Indian burial ground, an evocation of the guilt associated with the American destruction of the Indians and their way of life, the violation of what they held sacred. The hotel manager describes the recent tragedy when a winter caretaker went mad and hacked his family to death in terms of ‘cabin fever’: the danger for early settlers of being cooped up together over winter in a log cabin. As Chaplin used the notion of ‘cabin fever’ as the source of comedy in The Gold Rush, so Kubrick presents an ironic modern equivalent, not in a cabin but in a hotel where it is not the confinement but the vast emptiness that is the threat. The film is full of such evocations, images and myths, many appearing in dark and perverted forms, virtually at a subliminal level. One person coming from the cinema, without knowing why, talked of being continually reminded of the story of George Washington’s boyhood in the image of Torrance with his axe, and of a horrific parody of the Lincoln Memorial in the grotesque image of the dead Torrance at the end, frozen in death and staring before him with dead eyes.

In intimate relationship with these evocations and deeply buried associations with the American past, Kubrick presents a whole series of images drawn from the American present, and in particular those images most associated with it in the popular imagination: the family car outing, the game of ball, the nude pin-ups, the TV news, the job interview, the Independence Day celebrations. Insignia of different kinds are used on jerseys and T shirts: the American Eagle, ‘Apollo USA’, Mickey Mouse. The Shining incorporates all these images and references, but perhaps the most important are those connected with marriage and the family: the loss of contact between individuals, the suppressed frustration, hostility and violence, in the early stages glimpsed in Torrance’s irritability, sometimes flaring up into anger and abuse, in the latter stages turning to murderous aggression. By attempting to write a novel, Torrance seems to be desperately trying to give meaning to his life, after a past of routine jobs and heavy drinking. The whole relationship becomes a gruesome parody of a marriage, including its details of black humour (Torrance’s ‘Honey, I’m home’ as the axe smashes through the door), the burlesque of the language of romantic love — ‘light of my life’ — and the parody of the bedtime story as Torrance tries to force the door behind which his wife and son are hiding, with Torrance himself as the ‘big bad wolf’.

The theme of America is however most pervasively present in the elaborate colour scheme of the film, using a red, white and blue base, the colours of the American flag. Flags appear in a number of early scenes, and their colours are gradually taken up into the colour pattern itself. (One can compare a similar use, relying on a discordant red-blue base, in Schrader’s American Gigolo.) Red and blue are persistently present in many of the clothes of the film, especially Torrance’s, with the white being picked up from either the snow background or the white light of the hotel. Often only two of the colours will be present at the beginning of a scene, allaying our recognition of the colour base, with the third being added in the course of the action: the blue and white of chef Hallorann’s flat, with the red introduced by the telephone as he tries to contact the hotel; the red and white of the men’s room, with the blue added by Torrance’s jeans as he enters; the blue of the snow at night, punctuated by the white and flashing red of the snowmobile’s lights.

There is also a pattern of alternating scenes, with those based on the predominant red, white and blue scheme preceding and following scenes making use of an entirely different colour base, such as green and light beige. In the course of the action, Kubrick and his cameraman John Alcott make dramatic use of the colour base by drawing out particular associations of individual colours in opposing directions. The red becomes progressively associated with violence and is often present in shots in the form of blood. The blue is increasingly associated with one of the film’s central notions, the growing cold. The light comes to seem icy and blue-tinged, and is dramatically linked with the coldness in relationships and the retreat into the isolation of madness, in contrast with the more neutral earlier uses of white and blue of snow and sky (and opening credits). The red, white and blue colour base is introduced gradually, before dominating the film, and is set off against the earlier, comforting use of yellow, in the autumnal colours of nature, and the less comforting ‘happy’ associations of yellow, the surface cheerfulness of the American ideal, in the bright yellows of Torrance’s car and his wife’s pinafore.

At the centre of The Shining‘s portrayal of the American experience, and a major theme in its own right, is the key notion of communication. We are presented with a situation in human life where the entire middle range of what is customarily thought of as communication has broken down. Characters can no longer speak to one another. (The scene that becomes the epitome of this is the largely meaningless and clumsy conversation between Wendy and the radio operator, interrupted by the word ‘over’.) Conversations between Torrance and his wife are fraught with hostility, and mother and son at the beginning have only limited contact. The isolation of figures runs throughout the film: the boy with the psychic powers with no one to play with, talking to an inner voice, ‘Tony’, and moving his finger like a ventriloquist’s dummy, the parody of human communication that never breaks out of the circle of the self; the old chef Hallorann alone in his Miami room watching television; Torrance talking to ‘Lloyd’, a barman from his memory, and slipping into the isolation of madness. (In one long, sad scene, Torrance, feeling the onset of madness, tries to talk to his son but is finally reduced to holding him in his arms.) Much of the dialogue is deliberately banal, as in 2001, and conveys little of meaning — in contrast to the single moment of lyrical beauty of Hallorann’s ‘those that shine can see’ – and at the level of spoken communication the job interview, with its specious friendliness and assumed warmth, represents the degraded level to which people talking to one another has been reduced. Written communication has similarly broken down: Torrance’s novel writing becomes a psychotic repetition of a single sentence, another closed circle in a film of closed circles.

Instead, in one of its most dramatic effects, The Shining confronts the two extremes on the scale of human communication across the total breakdown of the middle range — on the one hand, Torrance’s isolation; on the other, in the psychic powers of the child, one of the most subtle and intimate forms of communication imaginable. The ‘shining’ is a mode of awareness that bypasses language, establishes direct telepathic contact between minds, ‘sees’ past and future, and understands the nature of the present through graphic symbolic images, the most spectacular being the hotel corridors awash with blood. (The direct way the boy ‘sees’ images of past and future is conveyed in the unnerving scene where he plays with the knife and repeatedly mutters ‘Redrum’, the word murder’ that he himself will write on a door, the image of which he saw in a mirror, and the letter order of which he repeats without understanding.)

At the level of the story, communication systems of all kinds are featured in the action and referred to in the dialogue. On the TV news, we hear of air, road and rail transport being blocked by snow; and the notion of ‘coldness’ bringing to a halt all forms of communication plays an important part in the film. In the story itself, this theme is kept before us in the central dramatic situation of the danger of becoming ‘cut off’ in the hotel, in both literal and deeper senses, and the fragility of lines of communication with the outside world. The telephone system fails early on; the radio is disabled by Torrance; finally the snowmobile is rendered useless. With all normal communications destroyed, the one remaining link is the old chef hundreds of miles away who shares with Danny the power of ‘shining’, and in his fear the boy attempts something it appears he has never done before: a telepathic message is sent over the huge distance that separates them. As one set of communications is destroyed, another is put in motion. With mother and son now trapped in the hotel with the insane Torrance, Hallorann begins the journey to reach them, through telephone, aeroplane, car and snowmobile, and it is his snowmobile that becomes the hope for mother and son after Hallorann himself has been murdered. The isolation of the hotel becomes the analogue of Torrance’s madness as the last links with outer reality are severed, the maze of its corridors the maze of his psychotic mind. Any outside contact becomes a threat, and Torrance kills Hallorann and then attempts to kill his son for bringing him there.

Total breakdown of communication, in each of its different senses, is the main dramatic thread in the film’s complex themes, and the notion of ‘communication’ plays a role parallel to that of ‘intelligence’ in 2001. By the end, sequences and images of total isolation predominate. As Wendy and Danny escape, their growing relationship the one thing of value to emerge from the tragedy, Torrance is left alone in the snow-covered maze and the maze of his own madness. His animal cries are one of the last sounds we take away from the film, and the shot of his dark, hunched figure shambling down the corridor of snow into the blinding light becomes an image of total desolation, and ultimately an image of death.

In presenting his main themes, Kubrick employs metaphors of different kinds and draws on the history of cinema. One of the most important metaphors is that of ‘coldness’, here playing a role parallel to the use of night and darkness in the classic film noir. (One can also compare Penn’s metaphor of being ‘under water’ and the notion of drowning in the greatly underrated Night Moves.) ‘Coldness’ becomes. the central metaphor for what Kubrick sees as happening to modern life — in the film, the coldness in the loveless marriage, the isolation of the self, the breaking down of the warmth of human contact. At the end, both traditions, that of ‘night’ in the film noir and ‘coldness’ as developed here, combine in the sequence of the hotel covered by snow with the coming of night. The contrast made is between Miami and Colorado: one where life continues under the guise of normality in the warmth of the sun, the other where what lies beneath the surface is revealed by the cold (as Lawrence uses the symbolic geography of the ‘snow world’ of Switzerland in Women in Love). The energy previously celebrated in American cinema has become a source of fear, and in Kubrick’s film, as in the films of Sam Fuller, that energy and extreme individualism is under threat of assuming psychotic forms. The last stages of The Shining, where that manic energy will finally be reduced to total inactivity, frozen in death, concern the ultimate end, of the descent of that energy into madness as explored by Fuller.

This notion is also present in the film’s use of the metaphor of the closed circle. The energy and seeming purposefulness of the forward-moving tracking shots is undermined by the final circular movement of the camera within the corridors. The different mazes in the film all carry the suggestion of the closed circle of much contemporary American life, a vicious circle with no way out, with the linked associations of the closed circle of the self in isolation and the closed circle of madness. (Another such circle is present in the film’s very last image, the photograph with its hint of reincarnation.) The shot of Torrance looking down at the model maze suggests a mirror image: the maze without a reflection of that within, the maze of the human personality as formed in contemporary society (with the immediately following shot, of the real maze from above and the minute figures of his wife and son, becoming an image of their role in Torrance’s tortuous obsessions).

Different notions of ‘haunting’ and ‘possession are being used in the film. Several traditions are invoked by Kubrick for understanding what is to happen in the hotel. Those already mentioned (‘cabin fever’ and the stranded wagon train) relate to the American past, but others involve the idea of a ‘ghost ship’, and Hallorann introduces the idea of past events leaving a trace behind. Torrance does not merely descend into madness; there is also the suggestion that he is ‘possessed’ by the evil that has occurred in the hotel. As in Polanski’s Repulsion, there is the question as to whether all the events are in the main character’s mind or not. Alan Brien saw as an ‘unforgiveable confusion’ events which occur that are not aspects of Torrance’s madness, but Kubrick is making it plain that the house has powers of its own. (The barman, Lloyd, talks of orders from the house’.) The door of the mysterious room is unlocked; a ball rolls towards Danny from an empty corridor, an invitation to play’ from the murdered girls; crucially, the store-room door is opened from the outside, releasing Torrance, after he has been speaking with the voice of the dead murderer who refers to ‘myself and others’. Although the conventions of ‘haunting’ and ‘possession’ are invoked from within the traditions of the ghost story and the horror film, the hotel as an embodiment of an entire society allows them to acquire much deeper associations. They themselves become metaphors for the intimate relationship between present life and the inherited past. In the way Torrance is literally taken over by the house, so that each is an aspect of the other, Kubrick has found means through which his ideas concerning the relationship between an individual and society can be directly presented in physical terms.

Within this framework of central metaphors, the notion of ‘shining’ also begins to take on different associations. In its primary sense, it is the form of subtle communication that the son shares with the old chef, the chief source of hope in the grim vision of the film, and the form of communication Torrance tries to destroy in the attempted murder of his son. (In his escape in the snow-covered maze, the slow retracing of his steps becomes one of the film’s most significant actions.) The title of The Shining also, however, takes on an ironic implication in a film that is about the darkness within individual minds and the darkness within societies. But the most subtle association is felt as we gradually understand the role of ‘shining’ in the film as a whole. As a nightmare portrayal of the American experience, Torrance’s withdrawal into madness is not hard to place, but what possibilities in human life are being portrayed in the young boy’s power to ‘shine’, that type of communication that works beyond the bounds of language when language is in danger of breaking down?

Gradually, the boy’s ‘shining’ becomes an extended metaphor for cinema itself, and an image of great beauty (just as the building of the cathedral spire in Golding’s The Spire also at one level becomes an extended metaphor for the writing of a novel). Cinema in American society — and by implication, art generally — becomes the hope of communication, going beyond the compromised resources of a language which has too often been manipulated by a corrupt society for the spreading of lies (a reaction to language shared by many European writers in the first half of this century). The experience of cinema is literally a ‘shining’, the turning on of the light of the projector, the brilliance of the screen in the darkness. It becomes the image of the hope of communication and the metaphor for exactly the kind of cinema Kubrick has been trying to create since 2001.

The Shining seems to have the whole history of film behind it, and as with major figures in French cinema such as Godard and Resnais, so increasingly with Kubrick we are aware of a sensibility primarily formed by cinema. As in much modernist literature, echoes and allusions to previous works and to the development of the medium are put to use in The Shining. (It is especially in this connection that one senses how personal a film this is, and with its fears and nightmares very much those that particularly face an artist, one begins to feel that if the haunted hotel is an image of America, it is at the same time an image of Hollywood.) Behind the Overlook Hotel stands the Old Dark House of American horror films, including Hitchcock’s Psycho. Similar conventions were drawn on in Resnais’ Providence, and Resnais’ own vast hotel of the memory and imagination and its lovers in L’Annee derniere a Marienbad plays its part in the presentation of the Overlook.

But the house that stands immediately behind the hotel is the Xanadu of Citizen Kane, for Welles an image of American society in its wealth and power and greed, its vast spaces separating its lovers, Kane and his mistress, and presiding over the destruction of their relationship. So strong are the associations between Citizen Kane and The Shining that actual lines of dialogue from the former almost audibly make themselves heard in Kubrick’s film: as Hallorann takes the family round the food stores and a great catalogue of goods is built up, one can almost hear the line of commentary from Kane, ‘the loot of the world’, recalling another such catalogue. Many other conventions are being drawn on, including the figure of the axe murderer from horror films for the role of Torrance, as well as Quasimodo the hunchback, and in at least one instance the virtually direct ‘quote’ from Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques of the dead body rising from the bath. It is almost as if Kubrick is presenting the horrors that Torrance experiences through the memories of horror films Torrance himself has seen. The very conventions in film that The Shining draws upon, and the type of film it itself appears to be, themselves become part of its presentation of America.

I have suggested that Kubrick is attempting something very difficult and extremely ambitious in The Shining, but what has been said so far only partially indicates what this is. One useful point of comparison can perhaps be found in modern experimental theatre. One of the major possibilities explored has been that of fusing the many types of theatre into a single overall form, as preeminently achieved by Shakespeare, and there have been particular attempts to combine the theatre of Brecht, with its emphasis on intellectual scrutiny and alienation techniques designed to prevent indiscriminate emotional identification, with the theatre of total, overwhelming subjective emotional involvement conceived by Artaud. A major example of such a combination was Peter Brook’s 1964 production of Weiss’ Marat/Sade, and much of Brook’s work over the last ten years with his Paris theatre has been connected with this experiment.

Kubrick appears to be attempting something similar in film. As he contrasts the two extremes on the scale of communication as one of his principal themes in The Shining, so in the film’s style (as in 2001) he tries to work simultaneously through the two extreme and opposing modes of awareness in art, with the traditional middle ground of plot and psychological presentation severely, and possibly dangerously, restricted. The latter, including the use of dialogue, has now been reduced to little more than a functional level. Instead, the new, evolving, complex style works through opposing features. On one hand, much of what Kubrick wants to express is carried by the images, created with great precision and conveying more and more of the film’s information. (At the time of 2001, Kubrick talked of trying to create a predominantly visual experience where language would play a strictly subordinate role.) This side of the style employs all the technical resources of modern cinema, an equivalent of what Artaud wanted for his theatre, and is meant to work directly upon us, principally in nonrational ways, creating its effect through a majestic interplay of sound and image. Its purpose is to bypass our conscious critical awareness, involving us intuitively and emotionally through images that largely work subliminally, but with great subtlety and precision. The other side of the style corresponds much more to what Brecht wanted for his theatre. The functional story and restricted dialogue, in relation to the experience conveyed by the images, cannot in themselves explain what we are seeing; and while the latter works on us subjectively, we are forced at the same time to question and critically assess the experience. As with Brook, Kubrick seeks to create works that will engage the whole of our nature in our response.

Considerations of the type of cinema Kubrick is trying to create cannot be separated from its main thematic concerns, in particular the themes connected with his view of human nature and what is happening to human life in the present period of history. When we look at his work as a whole, now including The Shining, one of the principal concerns to emerge is with the boundary conditions of what it is to be human, and those extreme situations that reveal the limitations, and hence define the nature, of our humanity. In Spartacus, in those sequences where one feels Kubrick has most control over the film he was hired to direct, this is seen in the training of men as gladiators, to become killing machines, and what can survive of a man’s humanity in these circumstances. In Lolita it is explored through erotic obsession. In Paths of Glory the concern is presented through the horrifying experience of the First World War trenches, and the savage military orders that sacrifice lives for a futile objective and attempt to destroy any individual who disobeys. In Dr Strangelove the extreme experience is nuclear war; in 2001 the bounds of our humanity are defined on one hand through the encounter between man and the awesome technology of alien beings, and on the other through man’s own technology, in particular his creation of an artificial mind. In A Clockwork Orange the bounds are defined by evil and a reversion to an almost animal, amoral mode of existence, with the question of free will a central issue; in Barry Lyndon, the limits of what an individual does with his life are charted against the events and society of the period, which condition much of what his life becomes (one suspects that this would similarly be a major concern of Kubrick’s projected film about Napoleon). In The Shining, the determining conditions of human personality dictated by society, represented in Barry Lyndon by 18th century Europe, are explored in the context of 20th century America.

As with Fuller and Godard, journeys of dubious meaning and purpose play important parts in this examination, the journeys themselves reflecting the extreme situations Kubrick seeks out. The whole of Paths of Glory has to do with a journey of several hundred yards that will cost thousands of lives. In Dr Strangelove, it is the journey of the bombers to destroy Moscow; in 2001, the different stages of the ultimate journey, the voyage out across the universe in search of alien intelligence. There is the importance of the repeated journey in A Clockwork Orange and the picaresque of Barry Lyndon. In The Shining we are concerned with a journey’s end, the point in human experience where all journeys come to a halt.

It is generally conceded that Kubrick has a grim view of modern life, but what has not been understood is the way this view has played a part in shaping the types of presentation he has developed, in areas that include story, treatment of character and the use of dialogue. In discussing his experimental work, Peter Brook has talked of 20th century man, through his ‘social and spiritual upbringing’, becoming ’emotionally constipated, temperamentally colourless, watered down in type and undramatic in manifestation.’ Such a view inherently raises problems for dramatisation; and the style Kubrick is developing is intimately linked to his view of what is happening to human character.

In 2001 he presents an extremely subtle portrait of human nature and of what modern life is becoming, with trends more pronounced by being projected thirty years into the future, but this is only partly found in behaviour and dialogue. What man is and what man has become is largely presented through what man has made, a bold extension of the technique of presenting character through an individual’s chosen possessions and surroundings. In 2001 an entire world of human technology is presented, in its character and actions — and in its malfunctions — an image of its maker. Man’s artefacts become the embodiment — that can be filmed — of his values, his understanding, the way he sees himself and the world. The technique is already being explored in Dr Strangelove, with its nuclear paraphernalia and huge war room; and by A Clockwork Orange, many aspects and values of contemporary life are being presented directly through architecture, design and the artefacts of pop art. In The Shining it is the hotel that becomes the ‘artefact’, through which the nature of modern life and the threats it poses is presented. Similarly, dialogue and acting styles assume unexpected forms. In The Shining and 2001 much of the dialogue is deliberately banal, carrying little of the main burden of what the films seek to convey, and suggesting rather a sadly impoverished way of life and understanding. 2001 suggests a superficially rational but emotionally restricted and almost dehumanised way of living, and the presentation of the Shelley Duvall character in the early stages of The Shining suggests not only simplicity but emptiness.

The Shining remains an extremely difficult film to assess. As with 2001, how successful one judges any particular technique to be largely depends on one’s judgment of the whole complex style. Kubrick’s search is for a language of film that will convey complex ideas directly and the cinema he is trying to create is very much a cinema of ideas. ‘Meta-physical’ is an adjective that has often been used to describe his films, and justifiably. It captures something very important in the work — the philosophical nature of the ideas explored and the way they are presented. But in the area of style it suggests too ‘one-dimensional’ an approach. It does not begin to do justice to the interplay Kubrick has been able to achieve between the simplest naturalistic scene (the job interview in The Shining; Haywood Floyd’s address to the moon station in 2001) and the resonance such a scene takes on in relation to the deeper levels of the film.

Nevertheless, the problems facing such a style are many. The most obvious is perhaps that of accessibility. It is becoming commonplace that a first viewing of a new Kubrick film is likely to be a baffling experience (of recent work, probably the only exception is A Clockwork Orange, and that only because it can more easily be understood at a simple plot level alone). Time has to be allowed for one to become familiar with such a complex style, and one would suspect that Kubrick (who suggested that two viewings of 2001 would probably be necessary) would also want to say that a lot depends on what is communicated directly and subconsciously, even if the audience cannot articulate what they have seen.

In its own way, Kubrick’s work since 2001 is every bit as difficult and as experimental as the cinema of Godard and Resnais, and yet created on huge budgets and meant for the widest possible distribution. The Shining is only properly understood when regarded in this way. Judgment at this stage still needs to be tentative, but it can be said that Kubrick is exploring an important direction open to modern cinema that no one else is investigating in quite the same way, and that success would lead to a significant extension of what film can do. In my judgment, he is succeeding.

Sight & Sound, Spring 1981


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