You’ve Always Been Here: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)

Some directors excel in a genre and stick to it for life; our last two in this series, Alfred Hitchcock in suspense and Dario Argento in the uniquely Italian slasher/mystery hybrid known as giallo, chose such a path. Others, like this week’s featured director Stanley Kubrick, find genres to be constrictive, in a certain sense, and seek to embrace the rules they impose only to wind up breaking them. Still others attempt to innovate while remaining squarely within generic confines, consciously toying with the audience’s own expectations and by turns satisfying and subverting them. But that’s for Rob Reiner next week.
Kubrick and crew took over 200 days to film The Shining, more than double the original production schedule; in that time they are said to have taken and retaken nearly every shot in the film dozens, if not hundreds of times until Kubrick, ever the perfectionist, was satisfied. A typical work day on the set lasted at least 12 hours, and star Jack Nicholson was known to have taken script changes directly from courier to garbage can, knowing that his dialogue was likely to change again by the time he had memorized it. Production difficulties aside, Kubrick, at this point over 25 years into his filmmaking career, proved himself able to transcend his source material and create something wholly unique; just as Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky had transformed Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s simple and quick sci-fi parable Roadside Picnic into the most trenchant, poignant cross-examination of humanity ever committed to celluloid with Stalker the year before, Kubrick made over Stephen King’s simple ghost story into one of the English-speaking world’s greatest and most profound tales of isolation, familial relations, and eternal recurrence.
Having acquitted himself admirably in every genre from the sports drama (Killer’s Kiss [1955]), to the heist film (The Killing [1956]), to the sci-fi epic (2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]), and the darkly comic political satire (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [1964] and A Clockwork Orange [1971]), Kubrick’s shot at horror was a logical next step in the trailblazing director’s heterogeneous career. In a meta-referential context, author Stephen King objected to the casting of Jack Nicholson as struggling writer Jack Torrance, fearing that the actor, just a few years removed from an Oscar win for Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), would lend his character an air of instability from the outset and transform the Overlook Hotel from a haunted house that could drive crazy anyone unlucky enough to enter it into a cranked-up amplifier of our worst natures, a cinematic oracle that challenges the viewer to “know thyself,” and explore the dark parts where “all work and no play,” truly, “makes Jack a dull boy.”
While King may have been proven right, changing Jack from a corrupted innocent to a full-fledged deviant finally given the space to display his true nature gave Kubrick the latitude to comment on the extremes of a variety of topics, from fatherhood and American machismo, to celebrity, to death itself; the brilliance and endurance of The Shining lies not in its universality, especially in our current pandemic era when many have been closed off with loved ones for longer than is comfortable, but in its specificity, with Kubrick demanding that we see beyond what is physically on the screen and into the depths of our own souls. The Shining remains required viewing over 40 years after its release because, eschewing the confines of the literary genre from which it sprang, the horror of this cinematic experience comes not from the metaphorical ghosts that seek to drag us into the abyss of the past, but the very real phantoms of fear, trauma, and doubt that would conspire to hold us in one place forever and kill anything that offered the chance to move past them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: