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My previous post outlined my interpretation of The Shining’s plot after watching it for the very first time last weekend. I shall now expound on some other things that struck me about the film, based on notes I took while watching it.
I of course knew about the handful of iconic images this movie contains, though that list likely did not extend beyond the bit with the typewriter, and the bit with the door. I remember very well the delight I felt when I first discovered that Psycho, contrary to popular summary, wasn’t just about bathtime gone wrong, or that Romeo and Juliet had more to it than a conversation on a balcony followed sometime later by mutual suicide. I fully expected The Shining to open up for me similarly, and it did.
While I don’t feel a need to list everything the film contained that I didn’t expect, I will note the several very well-worn and much-parodied tropes which I heretofore had no idea began with this movie:
I would have guessed that the “haunted house was built on an Indian burial ground” business predated this, or at least belonged to a cornier horror picture, maybe pegging it on The Amityville Horror or Poltergeist (neither of which I’ve seen). Skimming Wikipedia articles suggests that the notion in its most succinct format did indeed get its start with the hotel manager’s throwaway line in The Shining.
And I do understand the line as throwaway, perhaps a red herring in the script. I feel confident in my read that the Overlook’s malevolent ghosts tore into existence via the mysterious 1921 party; beyond that one line, I saw no clues suggesting vengeful spirits of the wronged indigenous, even though other critics would disagree.
I must have laughed at the manager’s warning about the gruesome fate of Jack’s predecessor (and then Jack’s nonchalant dismissal of it), played absolutely straight. Surely I’ve seen this trope parodied a dozen times in various media produced since 1980, and I didn’t expect to see it presented without irony here.
The penultimate shot of Jack’s frozen body shocked me — remember I had no idea how this movie would end — but also confused me with a sense of recognition. Chasing a hunch just now, I performed a Google image-search for
frozen jack nicholson meme, and I see that various of my fellow New Englanders used the frame to editorialize on this past winter, every bit as brutal and isolating as the storm that traps the Torrences in the hotel.
I didn’t know the image came from The Shining, though. In fact, given the corpse’s somewhat goofy and cross-eyed expression, I may have assumed it a still from some wacky dad-comedy I’d never seen, portraying more a moment of oy, these kids will be the death of me than literal rigor mortis.
On the note of not knowing how the film would end: in retrospect, I realize I carried reluctance for years to watch this movie due to a conversation about it I overheard between two friends of mine long ago, maybe as long ago as my time in college. Either I misunderstood them, or they had somehow watched a defective cut of the film, because I recall them both expressing disappointment that the movie ended abruptly after Jack meets Dick with an axe to the chest. Thus, for years I’ve held the notion of The Shining as a film flawed by an unsatisfyingly incomplete ending.
And right up through my viewing of it on Saturday, I expected that disappointment. When the story kept going after that moment, I felt, dizzyingly, like I’d dropped into an alternate reality where The Shining miraculously didn’t have the famously broken ending my friends had complained about. I suspect that this bizarre and entirely subjective experience did much to make this movie feel especially eerie to me, somehow editing its own history through the act of my viewing it, and thus my own history as well. (Slow zoom on a class portrait in my college yearbook…)
I coped easily with the handful of ways the film dates itself, but for a particular phenomenon. In one pivotal scene, two characters casually utter a certain word which, when deployed by a white person to describe a black person, acts as an incendiary racial slur. They use it three times in this manner, and I found myself briefly blasted right out of the fiction, stunned at the scriptwriters’ careless word choice. The fact that the interlocutors included a man actively losing his mind and an objectively evil murder-ghost did not make the presence of this word seem less misplaced or jarring, and I had to pause to examine why I felt that way, since on the surface it seemed absurd. (Sure, Jack cleaves Dick in half, but he didn’t have to be racist about it!)
Certainly people of 1980 saw this word as an overtly racist signifier, and this movie’s script used it in that sense, showing another angle to the Overlook ghosts’ malevolence. I would assert that by the early twenty-first century it has evolved into something else, a singularly weaponized word whose mere utterance by a racial privilege-holder in all but the most controlled circumstances can cause perceived harm to the listener — even if the speaker is fictional and the listener real. Based on this, I would hypothesize that prevalence of the word in American cinema has declined sharply over the years, even if cinematic depictions of hateful people has not.
A PhD thesis lurks here, and perhaps it has already been written. If it hasn’t, go for it with my blessing.
Related: Jack, talking to Lloyd the spectral bartender for the first time, drops a crudely biological epithet regarding his wife that I’d never even heard before, outside of non-idiomatic usage. I’ve read enough King to suspect it as an invention of the author, in which case: full marks for creativity, I suppose!
Finally, I had no idea what the film’s soundtrack might have in store. I did not at all expect Wendy Carlos’s wonderfully menacing synthesizer score that accompanies the flying camera swooping over the lake and following Jack’s car in during the opening title sequence. I loved it.
Other than that, I found the soundtrack to alternate between very carefully applied music and extradiagetic sound effects that quite effectively helped to ratchet up the tension, and ridiculously bombastic orchestras threatening to saw their violins in half. At multiple points, the film pairs cymbal crashes with absurdly ordinary visuals; as Todd Alcott wrote, “I will never forget hearing audiences scream at the word ‘TUESDAY’.”
Previous post: My surface interpretation of Kubrick’s “The Shining”
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