Excerpts from
the New Yorker Review of The Shining

by Pauline Kael

From The New Yorker, June 9th, 1980
Copyright ©1980 The New Yorker Magazine, All Rights Reserved

...In at least one sequence Kubrick uses [the steadicam] spectacularly: we glide behind Danny (Danny Lloyd), the boy in peril (he looks about five), who is at the center of the film, as he pedals his low-rider tricycle up and down the corridors of the huge Overlook hotel, where most of the action takes place. Some of us in the audience may want to laugh with pleasure at the visual feat, and it is joined to an aural one: the sounds of the wheels moving from rug to wood are uncannily exact. We almost want to applaud. Yet though we may admire the effects, we're never drawn in by them, mesmerized. When we see a flash of bloody cadavers or observe a torrent of blood pouring from an elevator, we're not frightened, because Kubrick's absorption in film technology distances us.

It took nerve, or maybe something like hubris, for Kubrick to go against all convention and shoot most of the gothic in broad daylight. Probably he liked the idea of our waking into a nightmare instead of falling asleep into one. And, having used so many night shots in A Clockwork Orange and so much romantic lighting in Barry Lyndon, he may have wanted the technical challenge of the most glaring kind of brightness. . . . There isn't a dark corner anywhere; even the kitchen storerooms have a flourescent boldness. But the conventions of gothics are fun. Who wants to see evil in daylight, through a wide-angle lens? We go to The Shining hoping for nasty scare effects and for an appeal to our giddiest nighttime fears -- vaporous figures, shadowy places. What we get doesn't tease the imagination. Visually, the movie often feels like a cheat, because most of the horror images are not integrated into the travelling shots; the horrors involved in the hotel's bloody past usually appear in inserts that flash on like the pictures in a slide show. In addition, there are long, static dialogues between Torrence and two demonic characters -- a bartender and a waiter -- who are clearly -his- deamons: they are personified temptations, as in a medieval mystery play, and they encourage him in his worst impulses. (They also look as substantial as he does.) The taciturn bartender is lighted to look satanic; he offers Torrence free drinks. The loathsome, snobbish English waiter goads Torrence to maintain his authority over his wife and child by force. During these lengthy conversations, we seem to be in a hotel in Hell. It's a very talky movie (a Hell for movie-lovers). Clearly, Stanley Kubrick isn't primarily interested in the horror film as scary fun or for the mysterious beauty that directors such as Dreyer and Marnau have brought to it. Kubrick is a virtuoso technician, and that is part of the excitement that is generated by a new Kubrick film. But he isn't just a virtuoso technician; he's also, God help us, a deadly serious metaphysician.. . .

Do the tensions between father, mother, and son create the ghosts, or do the ghosts serve as catalysts to make those tensions erupt? It appears to be an intertwined process. Kubrick seems to be saying that rage, uncontrollable violence, and ghosts spawn each other -- that they are really the same thing. He's using Stephen King's hokum to make a metaphysical statement about immortality. The Torrences are his archetypes; they are the sources and victims of monsters that live on.

Kubrick mystifies us deliberately, much as Antonioni did in The Passenger, though for different purposes. The conversations between Jack and his demons are paced like the exposition in drawing-room melodramas of fifty years ago; you could drop stones into a river and watch the ripples between words. (In one of those scenes, with Jack and the waiter conversing in a men's room, the movie comes to a dead halt, from which it never fully recovers.) Kubrick wants to disorient us. At a critical moment in the action, there's an abrupt cut to the images on the TV news that Halloran, the cook, is watching in Florida, and the audience is bewildered -- it's as if the projectionist made a mistake. In one scene, Jack, in bed, wears a sweatshirt; the lettering across it is reversed, so we assume we're seeing a mirror image. But then Wendy enters the room and goes over to him, and we never move away to see the mirror. [Kael is in error in her description of this cut. The mirror is quite noticable as framing during the beginning of the shot, but disappears out-of-frame during a slow dolly-in.] The Shining is also full of deliberate time dislocations. Two little sisters (who seem the deliberate recreation of a Diane Arbus photograph [!]) appear before Danny; we naturally assume that they are the butchered daughters of the earlier caretaker. But they are wearing twin party dresses of the twenties, and we have been told that the daughters where killed in the winter of 1970. Jack says that he injured Danny three years ago, and Wendy says that it happened five months ago. The waiter, whom Jack first meets at a twenties party, has the same name as the murderous caretaker of 1970. (There is no mention of who has taken care of the hotel in the winters since then.) The film is punctuated with titles: suddenly there will be a black frame with "Tuesday" on it, or "3 o'clock," or "Saturday;" after the first ones, the titles all refer to time, but in an almost arbitrary way [In fact, the titlecards are distinctly ordered in such a way as to indicate an increasing compression of time -- Ed.]. Jack says that he loves the hotel and wishes "we could stay here forever, and ever, and ever." And at the very end there's a heavy hint of reincarnation and the suggestion that Jack -has- been there forever, ever, ever. I hate to say it, but I think the central character of this movie is time itself, or, rather, timelessness. . . .

The clumsiest part of the movie involves a promise that is clearly broken. When Jack is becoming dangerous, Danny tries to get help in the only way he can, by sending psychic messages to Halloran. The film then crosscuts between the mother and child in their ordeal and Halloran in his apartment in Florida, Halloran trying to make contact with the hotel by phone, Halloran trying to have the Forest service make contact with the hotel by radio, Halloran flying to Denver, Halloran in the air, landing at the Denver airport, renting a car and driving to Boulder, tricking a friend in order to borrow a sno-cat, in the sno-cat driving (always seen in profile, looking like a sculptured Indian), approaching, finally arriving. He walks toward the entrance (with his dear, bowlegged gait), comes in the door, walks inside (still bowlegged), and calls out and calls out -- the scene is prolonged. And nothing decisive to the movie comes of all this. Halloran travelled all that way and we were subjected to all that laborious crosscutting (which destroyed any chance for a buildup of suspense back at the hotel) just to provide a sacrificial victim and a sno-cat? The awful suspicion pops into mind that since we don't want to see Wendy or Danny hurt and there's nobody else alive around for Jack to get at, he's given the black man. (Remember the scene in "Huckleburry Finn" when Huck tells Tom's Aunt Sally that he arrived on a steamboat and that a cylinder head had "blowed out." "Good gracious!" she says. "Anybody hurt?" "No'm. Killed a nigger." "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.") But, at the same time, Halloran is the only noble character in the movie. Too noble. Something doesn't sit right about the way the movie ascribes the gift of shining to the good black man and the innocent child (the insulted and the injured?), and having Halloran's Florida apartment decorated with big pictures of proud sexy black women gives the film an odor of sanctity. The waiter referred to Halloran as a "nigger cook;" the demons in this monvie are so vicious they're even racists.

The Shining seems to be about the quest for immortality -- the immortality of evil. Men are psychic murderers: they want to be free and creative, and can only take out their frustrations on their terrified wives and children. The movie appears to be a substitution story: The waiter denies that he was the caretaker, but there has always been a caretaker. And if the waiter is telling the truth, it's Jack who has always been the caretaker. Or maybe Jack is so mad that he has hatched this waiter, in which case Jack probably has always been the caretaker. Apparently, he lives forever, only to attack his family endlessly. It's what Kubrick said in 2001: Mankind began with the weapon and just went on from there. Redrum ("murder" backward). Kubrick is the man who thought it necessary to introduce a godlike force (the black slab) to account for evolution. It was the slab that told the apelike man to pick up the bone and use it as a weapon. This was a new version of original sin: man the killer acts on God's command. Somehow, Kubrick ducked out on the implications of his own foolishness when he gave 2001 its utopian, technological ending -- man, reborn out of science, as angelic, interplanetary fetus. Now he seems to have gone back to his view at the beginning of 2001: man is a murderer, throughout eternity. The bone that was high in the air has turned into Jack's axe, held aloft, and Jack, crouched over, making wild, inarticulate sounds as he staggers in the maze, has become the ape.