Film Analysis – The Shining: Brilliant Film or Narrative Mess?
Halloween season is well underway and with the holiday itself just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to share a brief analysis I wrote-up last year on what has become a modern classic: Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 thriller The Shining.
The Shining is one of those films that I hate to love. First, it still scares the living daylights out of me (there is nothing scarier than two little girls talking in unison) and second, while it is stylistically brilliant, Kubrick sacrifices narrative cohesion and complexity to present one fantastical (and improbable) visual after another.
There is no doubt that The Shining‘s star is its masterful use of editing and camera movement. Kubrick effectively uses lengthy tracking shots and subtle changes in shot size to establish the hotel as a separate entity; one with an active interest in conversations that take place in and about the hotel. Jack Torrence’s [Jack Nicholson] interview early in the film gives viewers a subtle hint at the hotel’s autonomy, when in the middle of the conversation the camera changes from the medium close-up shot-counter-shot sequence to a single long shot of the room. The volume of the conversation lowers, as though someone is standing in the doorway listening. Later in the film we see a similar series of shots during Jack and Wendy’s [Shelley Duval] conversation regarding her interrupting of his writing. Once their argument has drawn to a close, the shot abruptly changes from a series or medium close and close-ups to a long shot of the two, which slowly tracks back, as if the hotel has recognized that its interest in this particular exchange is done.
This scene between Jack and Wendy also utilizes subjective editing to place the viewer in the position of Jack, both physically and mentally. As mentioned, the scene uses traditional shot-counter-shot editing throughout the majority of the exchange (Shot 1 Jack’s face [Cut] Shot 2 Wendy’s face [Cut] Shot 3 Jack’s face, etc..), however Kubrick is able to transform this traditional Hollywood film convention to give viewers a glimpse into Jack’s psyche. When the camera cuts to Jack’s eyeline match of Wendy, it is positioned at a low angle and is significantly closer to her face. The low angle and close-up cause Wendy’s face to appear oversized and grotesque, indicating how irritating she is to Jack during this exchange and allowing the viewer to share in this with him.
Kubrick also utilizes the movement of the camera to convey the emotional state of the character it is following or to intentionally disorient the viewer. This type of subjective camera movement is particularly noticeable during the confrontation between Wendy and Jack on the stairs near the end of the film and during the film’s climax when Jack is chasing Danny [Danny Lloyd] through the hedge maze. The camera movement often seems unhinged and slightly off balance, giving the viewer the same uneasy sense that the characters are feeling. Kubrick further manipulates the editing and camera movement to increase viewer tension by intentionally limiting the scope of a shot to only what the character can see, particularly when characters are turning corners or entering large rooms. In normal films the camera would pan, tilt or track to reveal more details, but Kubrick keeps the camera attached to the character entering or exploring a new scene, refusing to move any further than what their eyes have taken in. This technique is used particularly well during Wendy and Danny’s exploration of the hedge maze early in the film; the camera even lags slightly behind the characters at times, which adds to the disorienting feel of the experience.
In several instances, Kubrick holds new revelations back from the audience to build anxiety. Wendy’s discovery of Jack’s “novel” (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”) is a prime example of this technique. The camera remains fixed on Wendy’s horrified face as she reads Jack’s latest writing, keeping the audience in suspense even slightly longer than the characters themselves. Kubrick utilizes this technique earlier in the film during Jack’s first visit to the Gold Room after Wendy accuses him of attacking Danny. With hands on his face, Jack professes that he would give his “soul for a beer”, shortly after which we see him look forward and smile and say hello to an unseen person he calls “Lloyd”. Kubrick refuses to cut to Jack’s eyeline match, leaving the viewer momentarily unsure if Jack is speaking to himself or an unseen, and presumably paranormal, presence.
However, despite these technical and artistic achievements, Kubrick’s film lacks a truly strong narrative, relying on the music and editing to unsettle and disturb the audience. Unlike the Jack Torrence of King’s novel, Jack Nicholson’s Torrence exhibits signs of annoyance and violence toward his wife and son at the beginning of the film. Their drive up to The Overlook is tense and unsettling, even topped off with a warm-hearted father-son lesson about the Donner Party, and effectively erases any resemblance to the “everyman” of King’s original story. His strange behavior begins almost immediately after they move into the hotel, which the uneven narrative assigns to two possible reasons: 1) A pre-existing animosity toward his family or 2) His “deja vu”/”past life” connection to The Overlook.
The main narrative problem with Kubrick’s version of The Shining is its lack of focus. Is the hotel really haunted? Is Jack truly possessed or merely pushed to act on his hidden impulses because of isolation and frustration? Kubrick’s use of mirrors or reflective surfaces in every scene in which Jack speaks with a “ghost” speaks to the latter: mirrors on the back wall of the bar in Gold Room; mirror in bathroom when he encounters the “old woman”; mirror in bathroom during conversation with Grady; reflective door of storage closet after Wendy locks him in.
Is Jack merely talking to himself? Are these spectral figures a manifestation of Jack’s subconscious urges to rid himself of his wife and child? The mise en scene seems to suggest this, however the last conversation between Jack and Grady through the storage room door directly contradicts this reading of the film, as the storage room door is opened from the outside by someone who is NOT Wendy or Danny, and is further complicated by Danny and Wendy seeing these paranormal apparitions at various times throughout the film.
Despite its narrative weaknesses, The Shining remains a classic of the horror genre and an excellent example of the possibilities of modern cinema, due largely to Kubrick’s masterful use of camera and editing techniques.
Much thanks to Striped Wall for helping me find all of the screencaps!