May 29, 1980 [The Shining]

Fran, my helpful cynic, insists that everything in The Shining is straight out of Jack Torrance’s head—and if it isn’t, then it’s not as good a picture as it could’ve been, because who cares about another ghost/possession movie? True enough: The Changeling worked just fine, George C. Scott recoiling in horror from a bouncing ball, the quietest terror since Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning Fair One” brushed her ghostly hair in the dark at the beginning of the century. Do we really need any more ghosts? Aren’t the ones that rise from the anguish of failed marriages and loves lost enough?

Kubrick disagrees, sort of--and he may be right, especially when he has Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall (still my favorite imaginary girlfriend, a post-Mod Maxfield Parrish sprite come to life)--with Scatman Crothers also shining, Chico and the Man somewhere off in the distance, of no help while the snow piles up.
This movie, which refuses so stubbornly to play by the rules, may be Kubrick’s masterpiece--if I can somehow forget 2001. The sheer effort to load every moment with doppelgangers must have been nerve-wracking, from characters to events to colors to sounds, a charnel-house harmony as perfect as the original “symphony of terror,” Murnau’s Nosferatu. I’ve gone back to see it three times already, just to make sure I wasn’t being my usual self, a sucker for the Gothic--and I am, but something else is happening here, the kind of domestic bad craziness that The Amityville Horror fooled around with last year; but The Shining denies its own genre:

--Wendy getting to shine and seeing cheesy William Castle skeletons and split-skull creepies;

--Jack never hiding from us, no BOO! To make us jump;

--the blackouts climaxing on nothing;

--the mood tensing like a panic-stricken muscle--but there’s always time for a peanut butter sandwich;

--and, while Jack is a monster, as my observant friend Jim pointed out, Jack’s evil is Hannah-Arendt banal, a petulant schoolteacher following orders. If it weren’t for that fire-ax--and OK, the haunted hotel itself--Jack would be just another loser giving in to bad habits and worse jokes.

Kubrick takes us all the way to his ubiquitous bathroom where personal stuff is voided in public. Even poor Dave in 2001 has to stand next to a toilet and watch himself become something else in the Ornate Room with porcelain fixtures. And yes, the Monster is us--which means that the corridor of blood (and wasn’t that a Karloff picture?) is something we’ve made, the haunted house we build, and into which we lock everyone we fear has let us down, so that we can “correct” them.

In the end, The Shining leaves me with nothing but a drunk, Nicholson playing Torrance three dirty sheets to the wind through most of the picture, wounded pride and rage and resentment, scared to death and scary as hell--leading to that last moment, the slow approach to the photo from 1929, Torrance grinning with no pleasure--I'm reminded of Wilfred Owens' "Dulce et Decorum Est," the gassed soldier with "his hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin." There it is: the fallen alcoholic whose "higher power" is the drink itself--and it traps him in the maze, with a frozen resolve never to change.


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