Sunday, March 3, 2013

Snowbound with The Shining, or How Stanley Lost Stephen in a Maze of Mixed Metaphors (Part II)

The Native-American holocaust strikes back - or does it? - in an iconic image from The Shining.

There has been a long delay in my return to The Shining - and sorry for the tease; it has largely been due to my responsibilities to review local performances.  But I know by now from Facebook pokes that there are a lot of people out there who rarely read the Hub Review, and don't give a damn about Boston culture, but who are dying to read my full exegesis of a thirty-year-old movie that has loomed larger in their movie-going lives than perhaps it should. So here, at last, is Snowbound with The Shining, Part II.

But to recap: I spent the last blizzard holed up with Stanley Kubrick's paranoid 1980 opus - it seemed the ideal picture for white-out conditions - and I gradually worked out, as the wind howled around me, exactly what I think is wrong with it.  Now there's no bigger Kubrick fan out there than me (or I!) but I've noticed something funny about the worshippers at the altar of the Divine Stanley: the hardcore Kubrick crowd places The Shining well down the list of his achievements; but the pop contingent of the congregation worships it wildly. Indeed, there's something like an interpretive cottage industry on the Internet devoted entirely to The Shining - there's even a movie about the interpretation of this movie, featuring avid partisans of such possible explanations for the film's many lacunae as the Native-American Holocaust Thesis and the Apollo 11 Hoax Theory.

But in a word - why?

Alas, I think one reason there's so much interpretive activity around The Shining is that, to put it bluntly - it doesn't really work.  Or rather, parts of it work terrifically well, while other parts utterly fail.  And what we see on the Internet is an unconscious response to that dichotomy.  Much of The Shining is so indelible that for the faithful it simply has to be great in its entirety, and thus - there must be some way to explain the rest of it.

By "the rest of it" I mean its middle - or more specifically, its third quarter, the long, drifting section from the unseen attack on Danny in Room 237 to the moment Jack picks up that iconic axe.  After a long preamble that's calmly banal on the surface (in the manner of much of Kubrick) but shot through with portents of doom, the movie effectively stalls, just when it should begin to accelerate - and tellingly, its momentum dies at the very moment Kubrick diverges thematically from Stephen King's source novel.

But it's easy to understand Kubrick's motive in abandoning King.  As I pointed out in the first part of this series, the Divine Stanley's career is marked by a long exploration of genre; but he approaches every subject in essentially the same way, by limning within it a buried contradiction.  Thus in 2001, the line between man and machine becomes resonantly blurry; in A Clockwork Orange, Alex's violence comes as the flip-side of his freedom; and in Eyes Wide Shut, the question of whether sex represents a force of love or death floats hauntingly in the balance.

But there's no such contradiction in Stephen King's The Shining.  The Overlook Hotel is Evil.  Jack Torrance is weak.  The Overlook possesses him.  That's it.  I don't mean this as a slight directed at King, but in The Shining, everything is concrete and compartmentalized in the usual manner of successful genre fiction.  There's nothing remotely Kubrickean about the situation.

Don't look now, but twins are everywhere in The Shining.
So Stanley went to work, seemingly determined to engineer a maze of ambiguity for the Overlook even if he had to drag King into it kicking and screaming.  This of course wasn't the first time he had subverted his source, and it wouldn't be the last. He and Terry Southern pushed Peter George's Red Alert through the looking-glass  for Dr. Strangelove. And did co-author Arthur C. Clarke ever appreciate the poetry of 2001? (2010 would seem to indicate he didn't.) And didn't Anthony Burgess actually add a chapter to A Clockwork Orange that left Alex at peace with the world?  (Yes, he did.) Clearly by 1980 Kubrick was used to ignoring, and thus transcending, his sources.  Indeed, you could argue that Barry Lyndon fails partly because Kubrick couldn't unify Thackeray's rambling narrative (despite a valiant attempt with a dueling motif).

King's novel had problems of a different kind: it was too simplistic rather than too complex.  But how to complicate it?  Where to begin with developing some thematic intrigue? Well, the book had one looming gap, right at its center: the unconvincing motivation of its climactic horror. The Overlook seems to want Danny dead - well, just because, okay?  And as for Jack Torrance - the murder of one's own child (with a mallet, no less, in the book) is the kind of crime that garden-variety possession wouldn't normally cover. Thus The Shining lacks the clean psychological punch of Carrie (whose final frenzy is completely comprehensible to any humiliated adolescent).  Indeed, perhaps sensing this problem, King had his Jack Torrance "recover" briefly from the hotel's influence at the finale, and assist his son in his eventual escape.

Kubrick was having none of that - and he zeroed in (rightly or wrongly) on Jack's possession, which is simply a given in the book, as the source of the ambiguity he craved.  Thus the middle section of his and Diane Johnson's script - Jack's "seduction," if you will - devolved into a complicated labyrinth of aborted gambits, some of them hinting at the hotel's evil as a motivation, others hinting at evils within Jack himself - and some of them so subtle I missed them entirely the first time I saw the movie.  Still, like most viewers, I was powerfully aware of a weird de-stabilization in the narrative that's almost unique in Hollywood product, and is probably the source of the strange hold The Shining has over some people.  

The narrative structure of The Shining.
Indeed, as if to compensate for the flat affect of the novel, in the film version just about everything is strangely indeterminate.  Even though, seemingly to throw us off the scent of this strategy, Kubrick bombards us with precise title cards  denoting the time - often with an announcing gong, no less (Tuesday! 4 PM!).

Yet oddly, we become less and less sure what time it actually is as the story unfolds. This parallels the film's suddenly indeterminate point-of-view; we see Jack's encounter with the ghost of Room 237, for instance, seemingly from within Danny's mind - but then Jack himself denies it ever happened.  So who's right?  Did it happen - or didn't it? What seemed an omniscient perspective  has become vaguely personalized and unreliable - just as, in a famous shot, Kubrick switches from Jack's overview (or overlook?) of a model of the maze to a vertiginous, seemingly "omniscient" view of the thing itself (above).  Indeed, by the time we reach the climax of the movie, we're not only unsure of what time it is, but we aren't sure who's telling this story anymore, or even what the story itself is.  In the first part of this series, I mentioned that Kubrick's characters often operate in near or total ignorance; in The Shining, the director extends this conceit out to the audience itself.

But alas, if The Shining is confusing, it's rarely ambiguous; no, its contradictory gambits don't overlap resonantly, or undermine each other - they just nestle against each other in a confusing knot of dead ends, like the byways of the Overlook's hedge maze (which does have a curious resonance, but only with the structure of the movie itself!).

Part of the problem is that we become too aware of a literal double-ness in the movie's tropes.  In the King novel, for instance, the little girls killed by the previous caretaker were merely sisters; Kubrick makes them twins (and Diane Arbus twins, at that).  And once they're introduced, The Shining is overrun with doppelg√§ngers; it's as if the Overlook is being stalked by ambiguity personified.  Danny, of course, has Tony, "the little boy who lives in his mouth."  Jack, we discover in the film's final shot, had a look-alike who partied at the Overlook some sixty years before.  The maze of the hotel's corridors is doubled by the hedge maze outside; the "elevator of blood" is one of a pair.  Even that murderous previous caretaker has a twin among the hotel's ghosts, who only shares part of his name (he's "Delbert" rather than "Charles" Grady) but who seems to have access to most of his memories.

Jack gazes into his own reflection in The Shining.
You could argue, then, that these aren't "twins" so much as twisted, partial reflections - partly different, but partly the same; and indeed, mirrors pop up in almost every supernatural scene in the movie: Danny is gazing into a mirror when he has his first vision of the Overlook, and mirrors figure prominently in Room 237, as well as the ballroom and bathroom where Jack succumbs to his demons (at right).  Indeed, Tony writes his famous warning, "Redrum," so that it only makes sense when read in a mirror.

But where does all this complicated duplication get us?  I'm afraid I'd have to argue - not very far, as I'll demonstrate in the concluding segment of this (now) three-part series.

Related reading:

(Snowbound with The Shining, Part 1)

More on Kubrick from The Hub Review - The Paulettes Bury Kubrick - Again!

1 comment:

  1. I just glanced at some of the Shining conspiracy theories you link to - hilarious!!