Pauline Kael's appreciative but skeptical review of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining", The New Yorker, 1980
The Shining - Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson)

by Pauline Kael

If Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is about anything that you can be sure of, it’s tracking: Kubrick loves the ultra-smooth travelling shots made possible by the Steadicam. This marvellous invention—an apparatus that stabilizes the camera so that the camera operator’s body substitutes for a dolly—was used to dramatic effect in Rocky (the sequence of the triumphal leaping run up the steps) and in Bound for Glory (the tour of the migrant workers’ camp), but it has probably never been used so much or so insistently as it has been in The Shining. In at least one sequence Kubrick uses it spectacularly: we glide behind Danny (Danny Lloyd), the boy in peril (he looks about five), who is at the center of the film, as he pedals his low-rider tricycle up and down the corridors of the huge Overlook Hotel, where most of the action takes place. Some of us in the audience may want to laugh with pleasure at the visual feat, and it is joined to an aural one: the sounds of the wheels moving from rug to wood are uncannily exact. We almost want to applaud. Yet though we may admire the effects, we’re never drawn in by them, mesmerized. When we see a flash of bloody cadavers or observe a torrent of blood pouring from an elevator, we’re not frightened, because Kubrick’s absorption in film technology distances us. Each shot seems rigorously calculated, meticulous, and he keeps the scenes going for so long that any suspense dissipates. Kubrick’s involvement in film technology led to the awesomely impressive effects of 2001, and to the tableau style of Barry Lyndon, which some people found hypnotic, but it works against him here. Over and over, the camera tracks the characters, and by the climax, when we’re running around in the hedge maze on the hotel grounds, the rhythmic sameness has worn us down. It’s like watching a skater do figure eights all night, or at least for two hours and twenty-six minutes. (Less two minutes of highly expendable footage that the director cut after the film’s opening.)

The story, loosely adapted from a pulp gothic by Stephen King, is about a former teacher, Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson), who wants to write; he takes the job of winter caretaker at an isolated hotel in Colorado that was built on Indian burial ground, and moves in with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and Danny, their son. The child is already somewhat traumatized, because of an episode in the past when his father—drunk at the time and in a violent temper—grabbed him and dislocated his shoulder. Since that injury, Danny has had a psychic sensitivity—“the shining”—and he has visions that make him afraid of the hotel, especially of Room 237. The hotel’s departing black cook, Halloran (Scatman Crothers), who also “shines,” explains to him that events in the past leave traces that can be dangerous to those with “the gift,” and cautions him to avoid that room. However, Torrance, though he has been warned that a previous caretaker got “cabin fever” and slaughtered his two small daughters and his wife before taking his own life, is elated about the place; it gives him a happy sense of déjà vu. So the Torrances are left alone for the winter, to be snowbound in what is quite obviously a haunted hotel.

It took nerve, or maybe something more like hubris, for Kubrick to go against all convention and shoot most of this gothic in broad daylight. Probably he liked the idea of our waking into a nightmare instead of falling asleep into one. And, having used so many night shots in A Clockwork Orange and so much romantic lighting in Barry Lyndon, he may have wanted the technical challenge of the most glaring kind of brightness. The hotel sets, which were built on the sound stages at the EMI-Elstree Studios, outside London, have enormous windows; the elegant, simple interiors are decorated in something like a blend of Navajo and Art Deco, and flooded with simulated sunshine. There isn’t a dark comer anywhere; even the kitchen storerooms have a fluorescent boldness. But the conventions of gothics are fun. Who wants to see evil in daylight, through a wide-angle lens? We go to The Shining hoping for nasty scare effects and for an appeal to our giddiest nighttime fears—vaporous figures, shadowy places. What we get doesn’t tease the imagination. Visually, the movie often feels like a cheat, because most of the horror images are not integrated into the travelling shots; the horrors involved in the hotel’s bloody past usually appear in inserts that flash on like the pictures in a slide show. In addition, there are long, static dialogues between Torrance and two demonic characters—a bartender and a waiter—who are clearly his demons: they are personified temptations, as in a medieval mystery play, and they en courage him in his worst impulses. (They also look as substantial as he does.) The taciturn bartender (played by Joe Turkel, who was Private Arnaud in Paths of Glory) is lighted to look satanic; he offers Torrance free drinks. The loathsome, snobbish English waiter (Philip Stone) goads Torrance to maintain his authority over his wife and child by force. During these lengthy conversations, we seem to be in a hotel in Hell. It’s a very talky movie (a Hell for some movie-lovers). Clearly, Stanley Kubrick isn’t primarily interested in the horror film as scary fun or for the mysterious beauty that directors such as Dreyer and Murnau have brought to it. Kubrick is a virtuoso technician, and that is part of the excitement that is generated by a new Kubrick film. But he isn’t just a virtuoso technician; he’s also, God help us, a deadly-serious metaphysician.

It is said that an audience will always give a movie the benefit of the doubt for the first half hour; at The Shining, I think we give it longer than that—from forty-five minutes to an hour. For one thing, it has a wonderful opening sequence that promises the kind of movie we are hoping it will be— ominous horn music with synthesized sounds of snake rattles and bird trills which suggest cosmic terror, and helicopter views of a car seen from high above, like a caterpillar being observed by God, as Torrance drives up the mountain roads for his job interview at the Overlook. And then there’s Nicholson himself. He has a way of making us feel that we’re in on a joke—that we’re reading the dirty, resentful thoughts behind his affable shark grins— and he gives the first hour of the film its buzz. But Kubrick uses Nicholson in the most obvious way. The character of Jack Torrance—a man in a rage about his own inadequacy, the sort of man who plays genius to his wife, tells her that she has wrecked his life, jeers at her, and makes her unsure of him, unsure of herself—fits Nicholson all too snugly, and his performance begins to seem cramped, slightly robotized. There’s no surprise in anything he does, no feeling of invention. This is true of everyone in the film—the actors appear to be merely Kubrick’s tools, and you get the feeling that they have been denied any free will. Nicholson’s acting, though, suffers the most, because there are so many shots of him looking diabolic—his eyebrows like twin Mt. Fujis hovering in his forehead—and so many echoes of his other freaks, in Carnal Knowledge and The Fortune and Goin’ South. There’s nothing he can do with the role except express the gleaming-eyed hostile undercurrents of incipient madness while waiting to go whole-hog crazy. It’s a long wait, in an underpopulated movie. (Once the Torrances are isolated for the winter, we have nothing but quickly glimpsed horrors and those moral-temptation demons for diversion.) And when Torrance does turn violent and attempts to reenact the crimes of the earlier caretaker, the tone of Nicholson’s performance seems too grinningly rabid for the movie he’s in: axe in hand and slavering, with his tongue darting about in his mouth, he seems to have stumbled in from an old A.I.P. picture. He’s borderline funny—which he isn’t meant to be—and finally, in spite of his great talent, tiresome, a mixture of Richard III and the Big Bad Wolf huffing and puffing.

The family theme—that is, a boy child’s primal fears that his father will hurt his mother and him—doesn’t jell: we don’t feel the give-and-take of familial stresses, we don’t feel that Jack and Wendy Torrance are married or that Danny is their child. When the three are together in the car driving to the hotel and we could get some sense of how they interact, Kubrick and his co­scenarist, the novelist and critic Diane Johnson, use the scene instead to have Jack answer the boy’s question about what the Donner Party was. (In case we didn’t know that the mystery in this movie is the higher mystery. The Donner Party has become the literary person’s equivalent of such National Enquirer stories as “My Mother Ate My Child.”) The little boy who plays Danny has a clear face and a grave, unchildish voice; he has a lovely calm, trancelike quality. But each scene in the movie is so carefully structured to serve a purpose and he performs so precisely that he begins to seem like a puppet, and we don’t feel anxious about his fate, as we would with a child whose terror wasn’t so muted. Wendy, the drudge who does the work at the hotel while Jack sits at his typewriter, is a woebegone, victim role until this woman, who has been driven into hysteria, must pull herself out in order to protect her child. Though at the start Shelley Duvall seems not quite there, as if her lines were being spoken by someone else in another room, she becomes much stronger. We can feel that she’s held down; she usually brings a more radiant eccentricity to her parts. But she looks more like a Modigliani than ever, and even in this role, which requires her to have tears welling in her Raggedy Ann eyes almost constantly, she has her amazing directness and her odd, flip gallantry. There’s a remarkable moment when Wendy picks up her child and screams at her husband. And in what is probably the most daringly sustained series of shots Wendy, who is carrying a baseball bat in case she needs it with Jack, backs away as he moves toward her; he keeps advancing, she brandishes the bat as she backs away across a room and up a staircase, finally swinging the bat in front of her to keep him at a distance. It’s a ghoulish parody of a courtship dance, staged with hairbreadth timing (though overextended), and Duvall is superbly simple even when Wendy is palsied with terror. Yet Duvall isn’t entirely convincing as a mother; she’s more like a very conscientious nurse.

The Torrances don’t really seem to interest Kubrick anyway—not as individuals. At first, we get the impression that the horrors and demons are sim ply hallucinatory embodiments of Jack’s impulses to kill his wife and son, and that Danny, with his shining, is picking up warnings. When Danny shines, he often waggles his forefinger and talks in the guttural voice of an imaginary playmate, Tony, who, Danny says, “lives in my mouth”; Tony is given to croaking “Redrum,” in the manner of “Beware the ides of March.” Jack took a vow not to drink after the violent incident with his son, but when Wendy accuses him of mistreating the boy again, he begins to frequent the Gold Room of the hotel, where he gets high on (imaginary?) booze, has conversations with the (imaginary?) bartender, and mingles with the (imaginary?) guests at revels that suggest the twenties. He is almost seduced by a tall, slim nude who comes out of her bath in Room 237, but when they’re in each other’s arms kissing, he sees in the mirror that she’s a fat, rotting crone—and at the same instant she’s back in her tub yet still standing there laughing at him. Danny’s behavior and Jack’s activities all seem explainable by Jack’s madness. But Danny has been bruised on the neck, and he says that it was the crone, trying to strangle him, and after Jack has become crazily violent and is chasing Danny, even Wendy catches sight of a couple of depraved creatures in a bedroom. (Kubrick has an odd sense of morality: it’s meant to be a hideous debauch when she sees the two figures in the bedroom—one of them, wearing a pig costume, looks up at her while he or she is still bent over the genitals of a man in evening clothes on the bed.) Soon Wendy, like Danny, sees the blood pouring from the elevator, and other apparitions, and hears people chanting. Do the tensions between father, mother, and son create the ghosts, or do the ghosts serve as catalysts to make those tensions erupt? It appears to be an intertwined process. Kubrick seems to be saying that rage, uncontrollable violence, and ghosts spawn each other—that they are really the same thing. He’s using Stephen King’s hokum to make a metaphysical statement about immortality. The Torrances are his archetypes; they are the sources and victims of monsters that live on.

Kubrick mystifies us deliberately, much as Antonioni did in The Passenger, though for different purposes. The conversations between Jack and his demons are paced like the exposition in drawing-room melodramas of fifty years ago; you could drop stones into a river and watch the ripples between words. (In one of these scenes, with Jack and the waiter conversing in a men’s room, the movie comes to a dead halt, from which it never fully recovers.) Kubrick wants to disorient us. At a critical moment in the action, there’s an abrupt cut to the images on the TV news that Halloran, the cook, is watching in Florida, and the audience is bewildered—it’s as if the projectionist had made a mistake. In one scene, Jack, in bed, wears a sweatshirt; the lettering across it is reversed, so we assume we’re seeing a mirror image. But then Wendy enters the room and goes over to him, and we never move away to see the mirror. The Shining is also full of deliberate time dislocations. Two little sisters (who seem the deliberate re-creation of a Diane Arbus photograph) appear before Danny; we naturally assume that they are the butchered daughters of the earlier caretaker. But they are wearing twin party dresses of the twenties, and we have been told that the daughters were killed in the winter of 1970. Jack says that he injured Danny three years ago, and Wendy says that it happened five months ago. The waiter, whom Jack first meets at a twenties party, has the same name as the murderous caretaker of 1970. (There is no mention of who has taken care of the hotel the winters since then.) The film is punctuated with titles: suddenly there will be a black frame with “Tuesday” on it, or “3 o’clock,” or “Saturday”; after the first ones, the titles all refer to time, but in an almost arbitrary way. Jack says that he loves the hotel and wishes “we could stay here forever, ever, ever.” And at the very end there’s a heavy hint of reincarnation and the suggestion that Jack has been there forever, ever, ever. I hate to say it, but I think the central character of this movie is time itself, or, rather, timelessness.

Even the methodical use of tracking patterns is thematic—a visual representation of the repetitive, cyclical nature of experience. Probably Kubrick meant to draw us into the swirling movement from the start and make the evil palpable—and then, as we gradually became disoriented in time, we were supposed to accept the mystic inevitability of the ugly theme (the timelessness of murder). But since we are not drawn in, we’re not effectively disoriented—just fed up. We wait for revelations—the events that will connect the different types of parapsychological phenomena we’ve been observing— and since we don’t get those revelations, the picture seems not to make any sense. So when, at the very end, we’re hit over the head with reincarnation, it has no emotional resonance. It just seems like a dumb finish.

Much of the film appears to be structured in terms drawn from Freud’s essay TheUncanny.” (Danny’s creation of a double in order to protect himself, Jack’s immediate feeling of being at home in the hotel, the maze, etc.), but we don’t actually feel this psychological patterning; it doesn’t connect up subconsciously as we watch the movie. And what of the redrum blood pouring from that elevator? There isn’t any gothic, dream logic that we respond to when we see the bleeding elevator, and no one ever takes an elevator in this movie. Is it possible that Kubrick intends something as banal as rivers of blood running throughout time, rising and subsiding? Probably most of us go to a gothic eager to be manipulated by someone with finesse. But we don’t know how to read Kubrick’s signals; it may be that he simply doesn’t know us well enough anymore to manipulate us successfully. Again and again, the movie leads us to expect something—almost promises it—and then disappoints us. Why give us a tour of the vast hotel kitchen, with an inventory of the contents of the meat locker, when nothing much takes place there? (Couldn’t we at least have a touch of comic relief—Shelley Duvall, like a female Buster Keaton, covering miles in an area designed for the preparation of banquets in order to cook a meal for three?) At one point, the child escapes from the hedge maze and runs into his mother’s arms, and we’re afraid that his father is going to loom up just behind him—and then we see Jack in the middle of the maze. The clumsiest part of the movie involves a promise that is clearly broken. When Jack is becoming dangerous, Danny tries to get help in the only way he can, by sending psychic messages to Halloran. The film then crosscuts between the mother and child in their ordeal and Halloran in his apartment in Florida, Halloran trying to make contact with the hotel by phone, Halloran trying to have the Forest Service make contact with the hotel by radio, Halloran flying to Denver, Halloran in the air, landing at the Denver airport, renting a car and driving to Boulder, tricking a friend in order to borrow a Sno-Cat, in the Sno-Cat driving through a storm, driving, driving (always seen in profile, looking like a sculptured Indian), approaching, finally arriving. He walks toward the entrance (with his dear, bowlegged gait), comes in the door, walks inside (still bowlegged), and calls out and calls out—the scene is prolonged. And nothing decisive to the movie comes of all this. Halloran travelled all that way and we were subjected to all that laborious crosscutting (which destroyed any chance for a buildup of suspense back at the hotel) just to provide a sacrificial victim and a Sno-Cat? The awful suspicion pops into the mind that since we don’t want to see Wendy or Dan­ny hurt and there’s nobody else alive around for Jack to get at, he’s given the black man. (Remember the scene in Huckleberry Finn when Huck tells Tom’s Aunt Sally that he arrived on a steamboat and that a cylinder head had “blowed out.” “Good gracious!” she says. “Anybody hurt?” “No’m. Killed a nigger.” “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”) But, at the same time, Halloran is the only noble character in the movie. Too noble. Something doesn’t sit right about the way the movie ascribes the gift of shining to the good black man and the innocent child (the insulted and the injured?), and having Halloran’s Florida apartment decorated with big pictures of proud sexy black women gives the film an odor of sanctity. The waiter referred to Halloran as a “nigger cook”; the demons in this movie are so vicious they’re even racists.

The Shining seems to be about the quest for immortality—the immortality of evil. Men are psychic murderers: they want to be free and creative, and can only take out their frustrations on their terrified wives and children. The movie appears to be a substitution story: The waiter denies that he was the caretaker, but there has always been a caretaker. And if the waiter is telling the truth, it’s Jack who has always been the caretaker. Or maybe Jack is so mad that he has hatched this waiter, in which case Jack probably has always been the caretaker. Apparently, he lives forever, only to attack his family endlessly. It’s what Kubrick said in 2001. Mankind began with the weapon and just went on from there. Redrum (“murder” backward). Kubrick is the man who thought it necessary to introduce a godlike force (the black slab) to account for evolution. It was the slab that told the apelike man to pick up the bone and use it as a weapon. This was a new version of original sin: man the killer acts on God’s command. Somehow, Kubrick ducked out on the implications of his own foolishness when he gave 2001 its utopian, technological ending—man, reborn out of science, as angelic, interplanetary fetus. Now he seems to have gone back to his view at the beginning of 2001, man is a murderer, throughout eternity. The bone that was high in the air has turned into Jack’s axe, held aloft, and Jack, crouched over, making wild, inarticulate sounds as he staggers in the maze, has become the ape.

What’s increasingly missing from Kubrick’s work is the spontaneity, the instinct, the lightness that would make us respond intuitively. We’re starved for pleasure at this movie; when we finally get a couple of exterior nighttime shots with theatrical lighting, we’re pathetically grateful. As Wendy, trying to escape from Jack, opens a window and looks at the snowstorm outside, and then as she pushes Danny out and he slides down the snowbank, we experience, for a second or two, the spectral beauty we have been longing for. Earlier (in the film’s most imaginative, chilling scene), when Wendy looked at the pile of manuscript that her husband had been working on, she found only one sentence, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” typed over and over. Well, all work and no play makes Stanley a dull boy, too. He was locked up with this project for more than three years, and if ever there was a movie that expressed cabin fever, this is it.

The New Yorker, June 9, 1980, p. 130


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