Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Shining (1980)

I have to confess that I'm not much of a Stanley Kubrick fan; that's film-critic heresy, but much of Kubrick's work strikes me as too aloof and closed off, and even the movies of his that I like I tend to appreciate more than enjoy. The Shining is a movie of immense technical achievement, but at heart I find it too cold. That kind of detachment is fine for certain stories, but Stephen King's work is almost always driven by emotion, and I think that's a major element lacking in Kubrick's film. At the same time, I was constantly impressed with Kubrick's ability to build tension in a sort of sadistic, dispassionate way, like a kid torturing a bug with magnifying glass. It's difficult to empathize with any of the characters in the movie, but the sense of dread that comes out of the imagery combined with the relentless score of modernist classical music will eat at you over time.

The Shining is also just an amazing movie to look at; it features one of the earliest uses of the Steadicam, and Kubrick's long tracking shots through the cavernous Overlook Hotel are mesmerizing, giving a sense of its enormity as well as its emptiness. The hotel itself was built entirely on soundstages, and it's a monumental achievement in production design. Kubrick's meticulousness comes through in the movie's use of color, the way each corridor and room is dominated by a particular hue, sometimes bold and bright, sometimes muted and pale, but always noticeable and always contributing to the sense of the characters being isolated and overwhelmed.

The characters themselves are another story, though. Despite Kubrick's legendary penchant for dozens of takes, the performances in The Shining don't quite work together, or with the movie's impeccable design sense. Jack Nicholson, as writer Jack Torrance, is plenty intense and scary, but the problem is that he plays Jack as essentially unhinged from the start, even before the Overlook starts to warp his mind. So even the early domestic scenes of Jack and his family, or his interview with the managers of the Overlook for the job of winter caretaker, come off as slightly unsettled and disturbing. While King's story is about Jack's descent into madness and his possession by the evil that resides in the hotel, the movie seems to present Jack as inherently unstable, and thus much of the humanity of the character is lost.

Shelley Duvall is irritatingly hysterical as Jack's wife Wendy, and Danny Lloyd is awkward and flat as their son Danny, although that sometimes contributes to the creepiness of his line readings. It's weird to say that the movie succeeds in spite of its characters, but that's a testament to Kubrick's abilities as a craftsman. It misses the point of King's novel, and it seems to have a misunderstanding of what's truly scary about the story, but it nevertheless manages that feeling of dull anxiety throughout, which is something that few King movies achieve. And of course, telling the story exactly as conceived in the novel isn't the best approach anyway; I may not love this movie, but I wouldn't hesitate to take it over the more literal King-penned TV adaptation from 1997. That one has the whole story, but almost none of the craft.

How far to Castle Rock: Kubrick is definitely not the type for cutesy references to other works, although at one point Jack does mention Portland, Maine.

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