Monday 22 May 2017

The Shining (USA/UK 1980: Dir Stanley Kubrick) - notes from an introduction to a screening at East Dulwich Picturehouse 21 May 2017

When Jack Nicholson was approached by director Stanley Kubrick for The Shining, the actor had just completed shooting the comedy western Goin' South, which he both directed and starred in. Filmed in 1977 and released the following year, it was, to use that old phrase, a ‘troubled production’ which received a critical mauling. A New York Times reporter, who made an on set visit, found Nicholson in a morose and misanthropic mood: possibly, one person suggested, the now 40 year old actor was finding it hard to balance his on set duties by day and his night time partying antics. Pauline Kael subsequently referred to Nicholson’s performance in the film as a ‘leering leprechaun’ who ‘talks as if he needed to blow his nose.” To what could she have been referring?

In Jack’s private life the production of Goin' South coincided with the truth about his parentage being made public – that June Nicholson, who he had always believed was his sister, was actually his mother. So in many ways it wasn’t a great time for him.

Kubrick had known Nicholson for many years and they had talked about working together since Jack’s Easy Rider days – in fact, a potential historical epic had been talked about, with Jack playing the part of Napoleon - this came to nothing, however.

Although Nicholson was Kubrick’s first choice for The Shining’s lead role of the caretaker, Jack Torrance, other actors were also tested, including Robert de Niro, Harrison Ford and Robin Williams.

Kubrick needed to make a movie with decent box office returns after the dismal failure of his previous film Barry Lyndon in 1975. Kubrick probably thought that a horror film would guarantee him a hit. According to one source he amassed a load of books in that genre, which he then shut himself away to read. He could be heard noisily discarding all of the books after a few pages, throwing them against a wall, before things quietened down after he picked up Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ which had been published in 1977. Of course Kubrick wasn’t interested in making a horror film per se – he’d already been offered and rejected director duties on The Exorcist and The Exorcist II - The Heretic – but the plot of the novel, about a writer with creative block who takes on the job of caretaker in a closed for the season – and haunted - mountain hotel, and the strange psychic power of his son Danny, afforded him lots of opportunities to make a horror movie with a difference. It also appealed to his interests in ESP and the paranormal.

The Shining went into production in the winter of 1978, at the same time that Goin' South was tanking at movie theatres. The long shot exteriors of the Overlook Hotel, where the action takes place, were filmed at an actual hotel in Oregon, but the close up exteriors and all the interiors were shot on meticulously designed and constructed sets at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The vast spaces of the hotel are navigated in breathtaking style by Garrett Brown’s revolutionary Steadicam set up.

Even people with only a slight knowledge of Stanley Kubrick will know of his legendary habit of multiple shot takes. The Shining was no exception. One scene, between Scatman Crothers playing Hallorann, and Danny Lloyd as Torrance’s son Danny, went to 148 takes and was only stopped when Crothers broke down and Nicholson intervened. 

As a result of this, the shooting timetable went way over schedule, turning from a 17 week shoot into a 46 week one. Two major films scheduled to start at Elstree, Warren Beatty’s Reds and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, were cued up but massively delayed. Matters became more complicated when most of the The Shining’s sets were destroyed in a studio fire in February 1979, before filming had completed. The final scenes were finished as in an adjacent studio The Empire Strikes Back was going into production.

Because of the extended shooting schedule – the length of which caused Nicholson to comment at one point that both he and Shelley Duvall, who plays Jack’s wife Wendy, wore the same costumes every day for a year – Jack ended up taking a rental house in Chelsea. Nicholson made himself pretty comfortable and by all accounts the house became party central. Jack was filming during the day, partying at night and fitting sleep in during the the car rides ferrying him from London to Elstree. Interestingly much of the film was shot in order – unusual in film making – and towards the end it was commented that Nicholson needed less and less makeup to turn him into the possessed, manic Jack Torrance.

The Shining met with a lot of critical hostility when it opened during the summer of 1980. It was also seen as too long - the original film ran to 144 minutes, but Kubrick reduced this to 118 for audiences outside the US – it’s this print that you’ll see this afternoon.

I saw it when it first came out and like a lot of people was impressed with the look of the film, but couldn’t get past Jack’s performance and also the fact that Kubrick had used King’s book - which was a favourite of mine - as a jumping off point to make his own rather idiosyncratic version of the story.  But like most of Kubrick’s films, it took a few re viewings of the film for its genius to sink in.

James Joyce once commented of his famous novel ‘Ulysses’ that there were enough traps and tricks in that book to keep critics guessing for years. And the same can be said for The Shining. Doing some research for this introduction I was amazed at the sheer volume of analysis – a lot of it quite bonkers – produced in reaction to the movie. Some of these theories were collected together in Rodney Ascher’s 2012 film Room 237, a conspiracy theory style documentary almost as extraordinary as the film that inspired it. And yet there are so many inconsistencies in the film, which add credence to some of these theories, and which surely could not have happened by accident with a director as scrupulous as Kubrick.

So whether it’s your first time or your twentieth viewing of the film, you’ll still find a lot to interest you. You may even have your own theories about what happens in the film, but I’d think carefully before committing them to the internet.

Enjoy the film.

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