Friday, February 15, 2013

Snowbound with The Shining, or how Stephen King beat Stanley Kubrick at his own game (Part I)

What the heck is going on in this movie? Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Posting has been a bit light of late, I know, basically because many of last weekend's performances were washed out by the blizzard.  Which is also why I spent much of Saturday hunkered down with some favorite movies, among them Stanley Kubrick's celebrated 1980 horror extravaganza, The Shining.

Actually, I'm not sure The Shining is one of my favorite movies; I watched it again at the suggestion of Facebook friends who insisted it was the perfect film for a snowed-in Saturday night.  (It beat out Doctor Zhivago, but maybe it shouldn't have!)

I'm in disagreement on that point with the general public, however, which has enshrined The Shining as "one of the greatest horror movies ever made" after an uncertain embrace on its release (the movie was a minor hit, though, and saved Kubrick's commercial reputation from the blow delivered by Barry Lyndon).

Now it's not that The Shining doesn't intrigue me.  Stanley Kubrick never made a less than fascinating movie; the so-called "trilogy" of Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange may comprise the height of his achievement (and, you could argue, the height of intellectual pop cinema in general) - and perhaps nothing else in his oeuvre matches them.  Still, his "second tier" - Paths of Glory, Lolita, and Full Metal Jacket - would be the envy of almost any other filmmaker, and Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut are all intriguing to various degrees.

I'd actually put The Shining at the bottom of that last tier, however; only it takes a little 'splainin' to define why - and also why the public thinks differently.

But first, some background.  The work of auteurs who enjoy long careers can generally be divided into three phases (with Welles as the exception that proves the rule).  The first phase consists of small-scale grappling with the apparatus of commercial filmmaking, and the search for voice and theme.  Kubrick's initial phase is quite short - Paths of Glory, a huge leap in his achievement, was only his third full feature. (Compare to Hitchcock's silent phase, which despite strong hints of his eventual direction, took a dozen films to coalesce; Bergman arguably took nine; in contrast, Lean only took two, and Fellini, like Welles, spoke in his own voice in his first film; but both had worked as editors or assistant directors for years).

The second phase is generally longer, and builds from a commercial breakthrough (Paths of Glory , for instance, connected Kubrick with Kirk Douglas, who tapped him to take over Spartacus).  Suddenly larger resources and a fresh sense of the artistic self are both available to the auteur, and a kind of long extrapolation begins; his or her distinctive language and perspective (and often the core team that helped develop it) are applied to a series of projects that slowly define - sometimes in rambling fits and starts - an over-arching statement.  Sometimes, as with Lean, this phase boils down to a series of leaps in scale.  Occasionally, as with Coppola, the auteur's talent is too dependent on certain collaborators or circumstances, and his arc devolves into slow collapse. With Kubrick, this extrapolation took the form of an ongoing exploration of differing genres, and covered almost all his remaining career; only in Eyes Wide Shut did he begin what I would call a retrospective phase, in which he self-consciously began to re-examine his means and methods (compare with Hitchcock, whose first retrospective film is probably Vertigo, followed by North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, and Frenzy - indeed, all his classic late pictures are retrospective in their essence, although sometimes radical in their technique).

What has all this got to do with The Shining?  A good question - and the answer is that in the rear view mirror, it's obvious that often the extrapolation phase of an auteur's career is beset by unresolved or buried conflicts in the artist's method or personality (or both).  In Hitchcock this issue could be summed up as the limits of anxiety and fetish; in Fellini the problem became a self-consciousness that concealed a deeper self-doubt (indeed, his retrospective phase probably began as early as La Dolce Vita).

Kubrick's extrapolation phase, in contrast, was troubled less by what many saw as his pop short-comings (the clinical tone and chess-player pace) and more - and more - by clear, if undiscussed, conflicts with his source material.

Narratives that end in "twinned" concepts - the concrete version in The Shining.

Which is hardly surprising, as Kubrick's movies are marked by thematic consistency, despite their differing sources and superficial variety (war picture, black comedy, science fiction, costume drama, horror).  In every Kubrick film, isolation plays a leading role; the characters are always trapped in a harsh or even inhuman environment (a battleground, or outer space, or a blizzard) - and what's more, they move through it in ignorance.  I think ignorance (and specifically moral action in a state of ignorance) has rarely been given the consideration in Kubrick's work that is its proper due, especially as (curiously enough) it may be his most basic theme.  His first full-length films were noir variants, and all his movies have a sublimated hint of that genre's sense of mystery.  The desperate military brass of Dr. Strangelove spend most of the movie trying to figure out what General Ripper has been up to;  Dave and Frank have no idea why they're going to Jupiter; Alex agrees to the Ludovico technique with no knowledge of its effects; the list goes on and on.  Everyone is flying blind in Kubrick.

But beneath this lies a different kind of interest, in something even deeper than ignorance; call it un-knowability, for lack of a better word. For Kubrick was obsessed with the contradictory nature of human experience - the places were logic stops, where we suddenly realize our bedrock mental concepts conceal their own antitheses; and many of his best films deconstruct such archetypes to limn their embedded, twin-like oppositions.  The symbiosis of man and machine in 2001 is the most obvious example; but connections between sex and death drive Eyes Wide Shut, and Full Metal Jacket turns on the complex relationship between aggression and fraternity. Indeed, Kubrick was at his best when he could tease from a simple pop trope a hauntingly resonant contradiction; he conjured HAL, the "white hotel room," the monolith, and all of 2001, for example, from the slim premise of Arthur C. Clarke's story The Sentinel.

Yet as I sat through The Shining last weekend (as my house, like the Overlook, was slowly buried in snow), I began to realize how often Kubrick actually failed in this ongoing project.  Try as he might, he couldn't work his magic on all his sources. Certainly in Barry Lyndon his duel with Thackeray ended in a draw; and I'd argue that in The Shining, his similar showdown with Stephen King led only to frustration, and a concealed defeat.   Which I will consider more fully in the second half of this two-part series.

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