So…final papers continue to be imminent, and I continue to break for a frequent, intense, scene by scene examination of The Shining, my all-time favorite horror film directed by the one and only Stanley Kubrick. My intent, when I started writing, was to write a couple posts. But, this is segment number four in the series, and Jack isn’t even (completely) crazy yet. As such, I think I’ll continue. If you’d like to read my first three blog posts, which cover about the first half hour of the movie, you can check out the first, second, or third!
In my third (most recent) post, I started trying to make sense of the vast, imposing kitchen of The Overlook, where Dick Hallorann and Danny have a conversation about what it means to shine. While I paid much attention to the scenery and its significance, what I left overlooked (no pun intended…maybe) was the actual conversation that Dick has with Danny. It should be noticed, first, that Dick is remarkably adept at talking to children. We see him later in a single orange bedroom surrounded by nude photos of beautiful women, which doesn’t indicate much except for the fact that he’s probably not a family man (unless his wife is cool with the décor, which seems unlikely). But he approaches Danny – and talks to him about a remarkably difficult, unusual concept – like a school counselor who’s having a conversation with the tenth kid he’s seen that day.
Dick realizes shortly after encountering Danny that Danny has the shining, the ability to communicate with his mind and, sometimes, to see things others can’t see. Of course, Dick shines too, which is how he senses Danny’s gift, and his presumptive task is (at the very least) to pre-emptively help Danny deal with the ghastly, disturbing images that his powers will allow him to see at The Overlook Hotel. We learn, in this conversation – and the film is so canonical we probably knew it already – that The Overlook Hotel shines, that the most violent traces of its secretly bloody history resonate suddenly and loudly to those with the power to pierce its elegant, unassuming exterior. Dick knows this because he works at the hotel, so when he tells Danny that anything frightening he might see in the hotel is like “pictures in a book,” we can infer that Dick’s seen his own variety of unpleasant ghost-spectacles.
While this point may be ancillary, Dick’s conversation, in which he preps Danny to witness the stuff of nightmares in a secluded hotel in the winter, may ask the astute viewer why Dick works at The Overlook. After all, Dick tells us that some buildings shine, and some don’t. And of the buildings that do shine, presumably, they don’t all have the same ugly backstories that The Overlook has. The viewer can imagine that Dick comes face to face with traces – with images of the undead, like Danny has seen and will continue to see – on a regular basis, when he could cook at any more benign hotel in the country. He chooses to work at a place where he sees unpleasant “pictures in a book” on a daily basis, and he seems to encounter these things with relative peace of mind.
All of this raises another important point: Dick’s decision to work at The Overlook may be premised on the assumption that its demonic denizens are really as harmless as he tells Danny they are. After all, Dick – with or without knowing it – is giving Danny a tremendous amount of misinformation when he says the ghosts in The Overlook can’t hurt him. Not only does the ghost of former caretaker Grady actively campaign to have Jack kill Danny and Wendy, but the infamous and odious “shower lady” in room 237 physically abuses Danny when curiosity and an open door lure him into the room. Spirits – in conjunction with one another and the hotel as a whole – have a tremendous amount of agency in this film. While I’ve been calling the ghosts “traces” – Dick Hallorann describes their existence as akin to the burning smell that lingers after you burn toast – this word is perhaps misleading insofar as at least many of the ghosts aren’t static, passive remnants of what was; they’re active agents, perhaps even working together, to consume – in some way or another – the new caretaker and his family over the winter. While examining exactly how these specters interact to achieve their end will come much later in the series, it’s safe to assume that these ghosts don’t just have physical agency; they are, to some extent, calculating. Against these odds, young, only partially suspecting Danny doesn’t seem to stand much of a chance, and this is a reality that Dick Hallorann never tells him, if he knows it himself. The charades at The Overlook, arguably, becomes sort of a timed, planned, production over the winter. It is the clever serial killer of hotels, to that end, with a host of ghoulish victims who band together to destroy the Torrances.
So all Dick tells Danny is to look away when he sees something unpleasant, and that sometimes, when bad things happen in a place, the badness lingers like the stench of burnt toast. Through brilliant subtlety, we get some indication of what Danny’s reaction to this conversation is, even if he’s a young man of few words. Danny asks, as Dick starts telling him about how The Overlook shines, “Mr. Hallorann, are you scared of this place?” Again, with remarkably simple words, Danny’s statement builds suspense, indicates that Danny has at least some slight understanding of what he’s up against, and positions The Overlook to be a place to be afraid of. Dick’s quick “no” response seems perhaps too quick, and so his courage becomes less believable, and we again wonder what exactly he’s seen. This scene also has another stark effect after viewing the film once. As a viewer, I clung to it, desperately, knowing it was the last scene not addled with anxiety and foreboding.
After Dick’s conversation with Danny, we’re presented with a breathtaking panoramic of the entire front of The Overlook as we – and the characters – descend into the unforgiving winter the way Dante descends the levels of hell. And it seems surprisingly appropriate that Dante found the bottom of Hell frozen in the Inferno, because winter in The Shining essentially displaces the Torrances from society, severing their connection to life and safety, engulfing The Overlook in a sort of inescapable hell surrounded by snow. The snow does not abound in this scene, but the viewer – at least the viewer who’s seen the film before – may see The Overlook as a building personified. Akin to the eye-like windows of the famed house in Amityville Horror, the still shot of The Overlook – at least, to those who know its backstory – makes the hotel look at once like a location and an entity, giving it all the more power. It is a location that displaces the Torrances from society, and society – at least, in horror movies – gives us a sense of comfort and security. Like any edifice, it confines and restricts (with the help of a hellish winter) even as it connives and acts. Its stature is far more imposing than the stature of any one person, and with the help of its inhabitant ghosts, it can go anywhere and do practically anything. It has all the sturdiness of any large structure with all the flexibility and mobility of a human, making it especially menacing, and especially daunting to contend with.
Counter to all the impending doom that a glimpse of the structure provides the knowing viewer, the shot transitions into one of Wendy in a plaid bathrobe pushing a breakfast cart intended for Jack, who’s just rolling out of bed at 11:30 in the afternoon. This scene reifies her very evidently subordinate position to Jack, a subordination that’s contorted and manipulated in all sorts of unpleasant ways to develop Jack’s budding insanity and concomitant malice. I think this movie, made in 1980, is very self-aware of the gender roles it imposes on the characters, and Wendy’s persistent subordination to Jack characterizes him as – perhaps – a bit of a tyrant prior to his insanity, while leaving us with kind of an unsettling feeling in our gut. And it’s not just Wendy pushing a breakfast tray (or unknowingly moving into a haunted hotel after her alcoholic husband loses his teaching job) that wreaks of sexist discomfort; it’s the entire Jack-Wendy dynamic, the entire way Jack treats Wendy.
Wendy wheels the breakfast tray into Jack’s bedroom, and the scene automatically becomes a weird harbinger for some of the relationships and plot contortions we’ll see later in the film. First, we see Wendy wheel in a breakfast tray for Jack, but we don’t see her talk to Jack, per se. We see Jack’s reflection through a mirror facing us, and we see his reactions in the mirror as we hear Wendy’s voice talk to him. The mirror in the scene constructs an automatic barrier not only between Jack and Wendy (which is apropos, because there was, perhaps, always a barrier there, and we know The Overlook is already feeding off a potential void in their relationship), but a barrier between us and Jack. Whether or not we consciously realize it, like Wendy, we are fully aware that at this point in the film, we do not have complete access to the eccentric writer who wakes up at noon, dangles bacon above his mouth as he lays in bed, and examines the texture of his tongue in the mirror. There is the sense that Jack has always been, in part, somewhere else, and the hotel prays on his inherent displacement. He tells Wendy with intentional decisiveness that he loved The Overlook immediately and felt as if he’d been to it before. This may not mean much upon a first viewing, but after watching the film once and looking back at his descent into madness, we know, here, he is already descending; the hotel has already bewitched him.
What is remarkably more uncomfortable here – and relates to my points about the inherent sexism in the film – is how Jack treats Wendy during their breakfast-in-bed conversation. Similar to their conversation in the car, she is consistently, almost overwhelmingly and hyperbolically cheerful, interested in Jack’s well-being, and seeking his time and attention. Albeit subtly at this point, she’s met with rejection. I wrote a communicative analysis of an episode of The Office once in a linguistics class, and I think a communicative analysis of this scene would be especially interesting. Wendy asks Jack if he’s had any good writing ideas yet. He says something to the effect of: lots of ideas, just no good ones. Okay. Normal conversation. Things seem fine so far (although Wendy is noticeably more animated than her torpid husband).
Then she says, kind of like a shy teenager trying to strike up a conversation with a boy she admires, “Well, I guess it’s just a matter of getting back into the habit of writing again.” I think, around this point, Jack dips some bacon in egg yolk, and Jack Nicholson’s brilliance as an actor shines luminously and inarguably in the following line: “Yep, that’s all it is,” he replies, in the weirdest possible tone. I would like to present the possibility that with this simple line, “Yep, that’s all it is,” we know Wendy and Danny are completely fucked. I mean, they’ll survive, of course, but it’s going to get really ugly before they do.
I remember reeling in my seat as a relatively young girl when I saw Wendy and Jack interact. And Jack’s detached condescension that will later transmute into anger and malice is perfectly encapsulated in his line, “Yep, that’s all it is.” If you’ve seen the film you know he doesn’t say this in a tone that suggests he agrees with Wendy. His detached response bears a combination of monotony and mockery, as if he has to enter the psyche of a second personality to put up with what he perceives to be her simple-minded small talk (and is really just her attempt to make a connection with her aloof husband). I try, as I write this, to imagine Michael responding to me like that when I make conversation. I really can’t, because Michael’s not slowly descending into insanity, but I imagine if he – or anyone close to me – responded to me the way Jack responds to Wendy during this interaction, that person would feel a million miles away, even if they were sitting next to me. To that extent, Jack Nicholson’s tone of voice, the forced dialogue, and the remove of the mirror all serve to distance Jack from Wendy – and from us – though on the surface he seems somewhat accessible and rational compared to the Jack we’ll see later in the film. Wendy also suggests that “maybe later” Jack take her for a walk, to which he says, “Well….I suppose I better try some writing first.” There is, contextually, a lot of rejection in this response, and we’re led to wonder whether it’s a typical component of their relationship or a byproduct of Jack’s response to the hotel. In any case, it is another attempt, on Wendy’s behalf, to connect, and another denial from Jack.
Before I conclude this segment of analysis, I’m going to consider Stephen King’s reaction for a minute. It’s no secret that Stephen King hated Kubrick’s version of his novel, and I believe I’ve read that one reason why he hated it was Jack’s characterization: In King’s text, Jack has his demons, but he’s a good guy on the whole, a normal guy, albeit an alcoholic, who’s possessed by the hotel. We really don’t ever get that side of Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s film; that’s not the Jack Torrance that Jack Nicholson – or Stanley Kubrick – creates for us. Jack seems, in Kubrick’s film, like he’s always been kind of a shady dude, and then, when he goes completely crazy, it’s like some element of his personality has pointed us in that direction all along.
It makes complete sense to me that King didn’t like this revision of Jack Torrance – or myriad other changes to his story that Kubrick made – but it has an interesting effect on the film. Technically, Jack is a sympathetic character. He attempts murder, yes, but only because he is possessed by the hotel, and in the end we may assume he’s been defeated by the hotel that manipulated him all winter. And yet, we never really connect with him or feel really bad for him despite the fact that he is, in part, a victim. He leaves a bad taste in our mouths (at least, he does, for me) even as we acknowledge that he’s in a shitty situation and doesn’t deserve his fate. We experience much of the film’s emotion through Wendy (which I’ll discuss later, when examining her facial expressions and startled reactions) and we empathize with Wendy’s pain deeply. Through our empathy and connection with Wendy, our tendency, I think, is to dislike Jack from the start, and I have to believe, despite Stephen King’s qualms, Kubrick would have it no other way. The film simply wouldn’t be as scary if we saw a truly endearing, downright human, relatable version of Jack Torrance. He must be, to some extent, a “bad guy” to scare us the way he does in the concluding scenes, and Kubrick knows why he’s doing what he does. This assertion is, of course, highly debatable, but worth considering as we continue to think of the movie.
What I intended to talk about but haven’t yet is Danny’s foreboding big-wheel ride through the hotel, another hallmark of the movie that makes us believe, literally, that there is something dangerous lurking around every hallway corner. Alas, I think I’ll save that for another day, as there could be many implications to Danny’s constant, circular big-wheel quest to nowhere. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on the film below!
2 thoughts on “A Tribute to The Shining: Let’s Not Overlook Anything, Part 4”
I finally watched the movie last night, thus I had to go back and re-read all your posts about the movie. It was a fantastic movie, and disturbing on many levels. It was interesting to piece together the parts I remember from scenes I had watched before into it’s entirety.
I think “disturbing on many levels” is a good way to describe it. I think it’s incredibly well-made, but it definitely stayed with me the first time I saw it…and still. A horror classic, but a very dark one…