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February 8, 2011

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DVD of the Week – Disc Commentary Track for The Shining (1980)

by NIR SHALEV

I’ve chosen to dedicate my first review of a commentary track in 2011 to a Stanley Kubrick classic. The Shining is one of the greatest horror films of all times; a film that revolutionized the use of the steadicam and one that has masterful compositions showing Kubrick’s vision and genius as a filmmaker.

The story, very loosely based on the popular Stephen King novel is about a husband, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd). We watch as they all eventually go insane due to supernatural forces and good ol’ fashioned seclusion.

When Jack accepts a job at a winter ski resort/hotel as a janitor he relocates there with his family for the entire winter season, and the reason he’d taken the job is because he’d been working on a novel and believes that the quiet would help him to write it. Wendy and Danny walk the premises daily and enjoy the size of the hotel, the gigantic hedge maze on the outside, the humongous lobbies, and the tons and tons of food that is in storage.

Danny has the psychic ability of hearing people’s thoughts and also transferring his own thoughts to others with the same gift; it is known as the shining. Before the hotel was emptied, its main caretaker Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), also carrying the gift of the shining, speaks to Danny regarding the telepathy and explains to him that if anything should go wrong, that they could contact each other using the shining. And before long, Jack begins to lose his marbles.

In King’s source novel, the hotel was built over an Indian burial ground giving rise to supernatural occurrences, ghosts, giant topiary animals that walk about (instead of the giant hedge maze), and other such weirdness. When Kubrick had read the book, he’d almost immediately gotten rid of most of the supernatural aspects, especially the giant walking topiary; he preferred to work on the psychological aspects of the effects of seclusion on three separate people. Jack goes crazy just because, Wendy has to endure Jack’s anger problems and his eventual turn to psychosis against her, and Danny begins having visions of the hotel’s past (its previous caretaker from the 1920s had apparently also gone berserk and mutilated his children and wife, afterward killing himself).

Now here’s the good stuff: Kubrick had composed almost every shot in the film placing its characters in the center of the frame. When showcasing a one shot (a single person in frame), the actor is in the center of the frame, isolating them from the confines of standard film/photo compositions and true three dimensional space. When using a two shot (two people in the frame), no actor occupies the center of the frame, disjointing the audience.

And instead of using the classic horror film style of shooting the actors in close up as to keep the dangers out of frame, adding tension to the scene by focusing on the performances and not on the horrific images, Kubrick went the exact opposite way. His compositions, using extreme wide-angle lenses show the hotel for what it is; the height of the ceilings, the lengths of the corridors, the awkward aesthetic colors of the 1980s, and the silence of the empty hotel evoke a fear in the audience because we can see everything there is to see, and because we know that something is wrong we feel scared. We feel Jack’s isolation because Kubrick uses large empty spaces instead of cramped corridors, and the more the audience can see, the more we notice that everything that is scary is hiding in plain sight, always reminding us that psychological horror is far more effective that visceral or gory violence.

And the film rarely uses “gotcha!” moments because it’s the creeping fear that envelops us; it’s not about the villain waiting to pounce on its victims.

The above mentioned is detailed in the film’s commentary track which contains Garret Brown, the creator of the steadicam, and Stanley Kubrick biographer John Baxter. I’d mentioned that the film contains revolutionary use of the steadicam. The way the steadicam works is that a shaft protrudes from the bottom of the camera and at its base is a counter weight that provides the camera with buoyancy, eliminating the effects of jagged edges like those seen when a person walks with a camcorder. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976) and Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976) are among the first few films to be shot with the steadicam and nowadays most movies utilize it for its effectiveness. The Shining used it in almost every single scene and it is most notably in use during the “Danny riding his tricycle in the hallways” scenes and the “hedge-maze chase” at the end of the film.

Also, as noted by Garret Brown, the film was almost entirely shot on sound stages in England and for snow they used salt; thousands of tons of salt which destroyed many a shoe. And for fog they used a type of oily material that is by today’s standards, deemed unhealthy.

The commentary also reveals that the film was in pre-production for five months and then shooting the film took more than 200 days. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) were in line to use the studios after Kubrick and had apparently waited a good half a year longer than they were supposed to. Kubrick was a man with a vision, a stern and vivid vision in which he took years to produce what he really wanted. He knew all of the technical aspects of filmmaking, including over and under exposing and color tinting the film as it is being processed in the labs, and his vision made one of the greatest and scariest films to date.

His judgment was sound in changing the source novel drastically (apparently even until today Stephen King hates Kubrick’s film version), and watching it on a 42″ plasma TV only enhances the terrifying feeling of being there. I still refuse to visit the lodge in the future, the idea is rather frightening because the film was convincing. But hopefully the owners had removed all of the Indian art from the walls and carpeting. That was Kubrick’s magic touch and this film will never lose its nerve because it takes a genius to make something last through the ages.

New releases this week: For Colored Girls, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Life As We Know It, My Soul to Take, Paranormal Activity 2, You Again


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. May 19 2011

    this is ART!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Eric
    Sep 7 2013

    Yes, I enjoyed the commentary track. However, my respect for Kubrick biographer John Baxter went down a notch with his comments during the scene when Jack talks to his son in the bedroom. Baxter looked at it as a rather touching moment: showing the loving father coming through. Terrible misreading! To me this is one of the most disturbing (and darkly humorous) scenes in the entire movie. See Nicholson’s crazed eyes and iconic menacing smiles during his assurances to his son that he would ever harm him. This is one of my favorite scenes in terms of Nicholson’s performance. He totally nails it with just the right vocal tone and physical nuances. If Mr. Baxter didn’t get this, I totally mistrust his ability to assess Kubrick’s sensibilities in general. If I read a Kubrick book, it will be someone else’s.

  3. Sep 9 2013

    I hear ya. The Jack that we see in that scene is the crazed Jack that’s developed all throughout the film. And the words that are coming out of his mouth, although belonging entirely to how Jack really feels about Danny deep down inside are entirely fraudulent. He’s crazy and is going to murder Danny (and Wendy); he’s just playing it same for now. Playing the “role” of the caring father.

    Yeah, it’s damn creepy and his performance should have at least garnered him an Oscar nom.

    And to think that Kubrick was nominated for a Razzie as Worst Director… something was definitely rotten in the state of Denmark.

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