The Shining
April 10, 2011 8:13 AM   Subscribe

I was recently watching The Shining and I was struck by what an amazing movie it is. I'm not very well versed in film theory, so I was wondering if someone who knows film can tell me, from a critical perspective, what makes it such a great movie.

Or if you don't like it, maybe explain why. I've been trying to become better at understanding and talking about film recently, and I thought that The Shining might be a good place to start.
posted by codacorolla to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
 
Start here
posted by The Whelk at 8:15 AM on April 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


More.
posted by The Whelk at 8:18 AM on April 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


I also like this article.
posted by HeroZero at 8:19 AM on April 10, 2011


Tim Kreider does some excellent stuff on Kubrick - This breakdown of Eyes Wide Shut mentions The Shining a lot,
posted by The Whelk at 8:19 AM on April 10, 2011


Gah, Whelk! Jinx.
posted by HeroZero at 8:20 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


My own impression - The Shiing works because everything is off balance. When you watch a movie, you are entering into a contract with the movie, I expect certain things to happen in a certain way and you will deliver it. The Shining *almost* gives you what you expect, but it keeps breakinf the rules all over the place, there's no main character, nothing happens for an *hour*, the evenets are all viewed from a child's understanding and simple practical stuff like staging and pacing and blocking are all just *off* in such a way that the breakdown of reality at the end is almost a relief.
posted by The Whelk at 8:22 AM on April 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's long, but Rob Ager has the best analysis on The Shining (and other films) that I've seen.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:24 AM on April 10, 2011


Ah how did I forget Rob Ager. Yeah his concept of "Unannounced Dream Sequences" is, I think, a big part as to why The Shining feels so strange and upsetting.
posted by The Whelk at 8:27 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great source material has something to do with it. That's not to say that the book and the movie aren't very different--they are--but the book fairly firmly establishes the movie's movement from dreary mundane routine to terror.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:28 AM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I hate Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining. I understand that I'm mostly alone in this.

For me, it is a poor representation of Stephen King's work. My main problem with it is Jack Nicholson. Jack Torrance is not really a good person, he has his flaws (alcoholism, namely,) but he is a normal guy in the book. Nicholson exudes crazy throughout the movie, and it isn't particularly striking when he then actually goes crazy. The made-for-TV movie is, I think, vastly superior in this. Torrance is a normal guy with normal problems until absolutely BATSHIT. The change in him strikes me much, much more in the TV version (which was actually directed by King, by the way) because it such a marked difference.

That, to me, is much more terrifying than Jack Nicholson, but then, I just don't like Nicholson anyhow.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:29 AM on April 10, 2011 [10 favorites]


Another thing to remember is that Stanley Kubrick was meticulous in his attention to detail - bordering on obsessive, so every little detail in the movie was well thought out and planned; there is meaning in things that might at first strike viewers as meaningless.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:29 AM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Until he goes absolutely BATSHIT," that is.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:30 AM on April 10, 2011


I hate Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining. I understand that I'm mostly alone in this.

Stephen King hated it too.

I see exactly what you mean re: book vs. movie. In terms of staying really true to the tone of the book (which is one of the three scariest things I've ever read), the movie maybe could have done better. But as a stand-alone film, it's brilliant.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:32 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another thing to remember is that Stanley Kubrick was meticulous in his attention to detail - bordering on obsessive, so every little detail in the movie was well thought out and planned; there is meaning in things that might at first strike viewers as meaningless.

This is why Kubrick is a good director to get started on Film crit with, he's accessible, readily available, and everything in a scene was done for a reason, nothing is an accident, and he kept very detailed notes on his process.
posted by The Whelk at 8:35 AM on April 10, 2011


InsanePenguin - I think the tv miniseries is a far superior adaptation of the book, but that the kubrick movie is a better film.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:41 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's long, but Rob Ager has the best analysis on The Shining (and other films) that I've seen.

Just a note that I think there's some good stuff in Ager's analysis, but looking back over it, I think he often overreaches--he attributes things like the infinitesimal movement of a chair a few inches (and no matter how obsessive Kubrick is, these kinds of gaffs are really unavoidable in movie making) to "represent[ing] the hordes of slave workers whose manual labor historically built the United States, and who worked behind the scenes to provide a plush lifestyle for the nation's ruling class."

Again, not to say that you won't find anything useful there, but I'm not sure if that sort of microanalysis really gets to the point of the question of what makes the movie great.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:06 AM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I love the book and the movie both and I think one of the reasons that the film is so exceptional (beyond being just a beautifully and fantastically executed film from end to end) is that it exhibits, so brilliantly, how two people can tell the *exact* same story in terms of details but mean almost completely different things.

There's a host (as other folks have linked to) of things that make the film incredible from a technical perspective. The pace is flawless, the camera shots are breathtaking, the editing is amazing, the performances are wrenching.

In my opinion the thing that really makes the movie is the payoff of the scene where Shelly Duvall is backing up on the stairs while Jack Nicholson terrorizes her, and she slowly, bravely and desperately crosses over from trying to keep the reality of the situation at uncomfortable arm's length (by appeasing him when he gets scary and/or distant), to finally giving in to it and accepting it, fighting back as best as she can, even if she might not win. While the book is a heartbreaking story of a family falling apart, that scene in the film portrays one person's descent into madness and evil, and another person's defeated but brave decision to slowly but steadily escape from it so brilliantly. It's painful and captivating to watch.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:10 AM on April 10, 2011


most films are shot at a 4:1 ratio...that is, for a 2 hour film you shoot ~8 hrs of footage...the shining was shot at a 200(!):1 ratio and kubrick had to develop some special computer software just to keep track of all the subtle variations.

the thing that really makes it for me though is an anecdote i read about the film back in art school...lord only knows how true it actually is...anyway, you know the scene where jack nicholson is hacking down the bathroom door with an axe and shelly duvall is just flipping out? well the reason that she's flipping out is that she's actually flipping out. apparently, they shot that scene for THREE WEEKS, often without film in the camera (not that they told miss duvall this), going through hundreds of bathroom doors, and slowly driving her to a near-perpetual state of hysteria. to this day she won't talk about the making of the film.

also this post from the blue about the trailer actually being the movie and vice versa, and this one about the use of steadicam in the film.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:16 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have a Walter Murch book, where he was discussing editing Apocalypse Now, which he said had a 95:1 ratio, and to compare he gave 20:1 as the average ratio for a feature film. The Shining I know was still well above average but I think I'm allowed to be pedantic about 10 times the average vs. 50 times the average.
posted by RobotHero at 10:36 AM on April 10, 2011




It's all about the steadicam for me. The feeling that you the audience are the eerie presence in that hotel.
posted by jenniferteeter at 10:53 AM on April 10, 2011


I have an extensive background in film theory and criticism, and for me, The Shining isn't particularly good or bad. It's just one of those movies (like most Kubrick films) that people who are interested in film /really want you to have an opinion about/.

In my experience, film theory can give you insight into why /you/ like a particular film, but it can't (and really shouldn't) try to tell you whether a film is "good" or not.

If you enjoyed it, then it is a "good" movie for you. I second the impulses of the people above who point to articles discussing specifics of the film, because that can help you identify other movies you might like (based on technique and narrative style, etc).
posted by Temeraria at 11:39 AM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


i can actually attest from working in film that 20:1 is def. above average, unless you're talking about (maybe) something with a bunch of special effects shots (which i haven't really done) or say food commercials (which i have worked on a few) with lots of product shots (dripping chocolate,etc) ...200:1 is def insanely above average
posted by sexyrobot at 12:15 PM on April 10, 2011


From what I remember, Stephen King hated the Kubrick movie mainly for (but amongst other things) watering down the book's message about alcoholism which was quite personal for King... but Kubrick turned the underlying meaning to his own ends.
posted by Bwithh at 12:52 PM on April 10, 2011


I liked this guy's comments on it.
posted by zombieman000 at 1:35 PM on April 10, 2011


I agree that the film and the book tell two completely different stories. Films of Stephen King's works IMO are better, because the two-hour restriction forces the writers to jettison the dead weight.

I do think that The Shining has at least one serious flaw, which others have spotted. Jack Nicholson radiates crazy from the start. What is scary about alcoholics is that they are two different people. This comes through, albeit in a sentimental way, in King's novel. The most memorable scene is where Torrance and a friend are driving drunk, and they hit a tricycle in the road, and they spend time in a horrified search for the toddler they fear they hit before concluding that there was no toddler... they don't think... The tricycle is a clear warning to Torrance that he mustn't keep going down this road. I think that if this had been included in the film, it would have made the film's maze imagery (a better replacement for the topiary used in the book) that much more poignant.

Also, Torrance's memory of breaking Danny's arm is chillingly evoked. This is more successfully conveyed in the movie, with Shelley Duvall explaining it to the social worker in a very nervous way. But it would still have been more effective if we could have seen Torrance as a nice, loving Dad at that point. Because what's horrifying about the alcohol taking him over (or about him becoming more and more possessed) is not only that Dad is a monster, but that the monster is Dad.

Despite the lack of light and shade this still comes across in the movie, though. That part where Danny goes in to see Torrance after he's just woken up? Scariest. Fucking. Scene. Ever. You can actually smell the beer and the body odour. And every kid of an alcoholic knows the one thing, above all else, that you never do is bother them when they've just woken up. And yet Danny does. And nothing terrible happens. Then.

I tried re-watching the movie a while back and couldn't finish it. The unremitting darkness was just too oppressive and I didn't want to subject myself to it. Maybe an effect of getting older and accumulating more life experience. But I loved the movie when I was 20.
posted by tel3path at 3:28 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I didn't care for Kubrick's version either. Appreciated, but didn't like. He's so meticulous about every little detail that it feels suffocating, and I suppose that's the point, but .. to me, that isn't interesting. I suppose Fincher must be a big fan? It's the obsessiveness and lack of ambiguity that I dislike. The last time I saw it, it never crossed my mind at all that alcoholism was involved.

I guess what shows how well it's put together, for one, would be paying attention to how the shots are framed and selected, where the camera is placed, how long the take is - like long tracking shots with the camera right behind Danny - you see his perspective but it also feels kind of like something is watching/following him, and at the end when Jack is chasing him, it's that same perspective but now Jack is following. It is really well constructed visually but something feels flat.. the wife is alternately helpless and hysterical, Jack is always about to snap.. I wish it were more complicated than that.
posted by citron at 4:38 PM on April 10, 2011


I've been a Stephen King fan for most of my life, but I never read the book. I saw The Shining for the first time two years ago. I saw it in a theatre, and the print was so bad and red-tinted that the 'bloody elevator' scene barely made an impact.
I pretty much instantly fell in love with it, and I consider it my favorite movie. I think it's the cinematography. I'm not versed in the theory, but those shots in the hallway are perfect. The sense of unfamiliarity you get when going to a new place. The strangeness of a large house. The way it was shot was just perfect.

I like that Nicholson is crazy from the start because it makes you forget he's a Stephen King Stand In Protagonist. I didn't realize until a few months after the movie that the alcoholic writer at the centre of the film was probably based on King in the original book. Usually when I identify the Stephen King Stand In Protagonist it takes me out of the book a bit. Salem's Lot and The Body (filmed as Stand By Me) are two completely different books but they both feature Stephen King With A Different Name. I think part of the reason he hated it was because of that - would you like a director to think you're as crazy as Nicholson?

but that craziness keeps you off-balance, and makes it less 'cozy'. You're not in Maine, the King character is obviously nuts, the lead actress has been psychologically tortured, and there are long shots of this bizarre hotel. Nothing is every fully explained. Even the kid's psychic powers are muddled, and the ending is obscure and creepy.

But it all comes down to those Danny Torrance POV shots.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:43 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


My own impression - The Shining works because everything is off balance.

there's a moment late in the movie that illustrates this perfectly. Jack's locked in the freezer. He hears the ghost. Up until this point, both Jack and the audience assume the ghosts work like 'other' ghosts - they can talk to you, but they can't touch anything.

Then the door opens.

It's not explained. Jack's as spooked as the audience.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:47 PM on April 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


I always thought it was a matter of scale, King's book, which I liked a lot, was about Alcoholism and the breakdown of the family unit.

Kubrick's movie is about the murder instinct, the rapacious angry baseline under civilization. The cause doesn't matter, the result is the same, people end up dead.

It fits with a lot of other analysis of Kubrick's stuff, the circumstances of a particular person's trouble aren't the point, be it infidelity or alcoholism or mourning, it's the larger forces that move them. I think since 2001, at least, the theme in all his movies are: Human Beings are killers, and despite all the encrusted civilization they put on top of it, they will always be murderers.
posted by The Whelk at 6:51 PM on April 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


I thought this was a pretty enlightening deconstruction (his other Kubrick reviews also tie it into a wider framework).
posted by p3on at 8:40 PM on April 10, 2011


I think since 2001, at least, the theme in all his movies are: Human Beings are killers, and despite all the encrusted civilization they put on top of it, they will always be murderers.

Having read more of Todd Alcott's Kubrick essays I'm starting to think of the Overlook as being like HAL 900 or the Doomsday Device in Dr Strangelove - a human device that turns on humanity.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:08 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


This askMeta prompted me to go watch the film. I have never watched in my 36 years of life, and all I want to know now is "FURRY SEX?!?!?!?"

I am scarred.

Great movie though, it really does mess with my head in truly frightful ways.

FURRY SEX?!?!?!?
posted by roboton666 at 12:24 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I spent a pleasent day reading essays on it. My head is in the Overlook now. The furry sex is less scary now that we can contextize and joke about it.
One of the characters in the Dark Tower books compares something to the Shining film. Confused me, but turned out to be intentional.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:01 AM on April 11, 2011


Story. As others have said, the original Stephen King story that was the source for the movie was excellent.
Of course, if you don't like it, you could always watch the feel good version.
posted by arcticseal at 6:41 AM on April 11, 2011


I'm not sure how to mark all of the best answers for this thread. Great replies, to everyone, I spent most of yesterday reading and watching criticism of The Shining and then watched Eyes Wide Shut (mixed feelings about that one, but liked it over all).

At first I read the Native American theory and was like "well, maybe..." but each critique that mentioned it showed how it's more and more likely. At the very least you can see Jack as representative of how average American males are used as fodder for an existing power structure to be turned in to murderous animals for the promise of a tiny bit of prestige and luxury.
posted by codacorolla at 7:36 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


He might dislike the film, but King talks alot about the 'haunted house' trope in Danse Macabre if you want to explore that route. He's obsessed with Shirly Jackson's 'The Haunting of Hill House'.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:05 PM on April 11, 2011


There's a new professionally proof-read essay about The Shining and Black Swan in Hero Complex this week by Kevin McLoad, who wrote a weird, long, cryptic, nearly undecipherable, but nonetheless fascinating (at least for me) analysis of The Shining on his own blog.
posted by jchgf at 9:08 PM on April 11, 2011


Kubrick as adaptor as ruthless analyst of the minds (and failings) of those he adapts: http://kitwhitfield.blogspot.com/2008/07/kubrick-and-adaptations.html
posted by lucien_reeve at 4:07 AM on August 10, 2011


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