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DFI Film Review: The Shining

Mar 03, 2013

By Alexander Wood
Water as smooth as glass reflects the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, dwarfing a yellow Volkswagen as it carves its way through a meandering landscape. The haunting sounds of trumpets resonate through the canyons, echoing the wails of an unknown woman that fill the first sequence and persists throughout the film.

The image of that car on the mountain pass sets into motion the idea of the maze; one that viewers and characters are forced to explore, emerging on the other side. However, some do not leave the maze, they are trapped inside unable to find their way out and reenter the world. The opening sequence of ‘The Shining’ is extremely iconic and captures Stanley Kubrick’s unique way of instantly foreshadowing events to come.

Pivotal to this shot is the use of a wide-angle lens to magnify the scope of the landscape and introduce us to the isolation of the natural environment. Framing the landscape in this way, creates a feeling of being lost, overwhelmed by the labyrinth like structure of nature. This tension between people and nature is alluded to when Jack (Jack Nicholson) and Wendy Torrance’s (Shelley Duvall) discuss the Donner party who were exposed to the elements and resorted to cannibalism. The idea of being lost or trapped in a maze is a key element throughout the film both in the external and internal atmosphere of the Outlook Hotel. There is even a point within the film when Wendy states that the hotel is very much like a maze—a statement that is proven throughout the film as Jack becomes lost in the history and hallways of the Overlook.

Kubrick creates an unintelligible internal landscape that few can escape through the use of steady-cam shots that take the viewer through the seemingly endless halls and corridors. The use of reflections and shooting through mirrors adds to the distortion of audiences’ mental map of the Overlook and ability to link key locations to one another. The use of this technique is pivotal in fostering fear; a feeling of terror as an elevator opens releasing a slow-motion flashflood of blood that drowns the camera. Often the viewer follows Danny on his big wheel, sharply turning corners and discovering the unexpected; be it an open door or the ghosts of the murdered twins. Unable to imagine or predict what is around the next corner, we cannot brace ourselves for the images to come. We become as trapped as Wendy, Danny (Danny Lloyd) and Jack.

Just outside the reach of the hotel is an intricate hedge maze that plays host to the final scenes of the film and further depicts nature as a complex and ruthless entity. One of the particularly telling scenes within the film shows Jack looming over a model of the maze within the hotel; the camera zooms into the model and then dissolves to the same scene outside with Wendy and Danny at the centre of this treed labyrinth. Paralleling the natural landscape with the interior makes the hedge maze as unforgiving as the hotel itself. This interplay between the characters, nature and the hotel suggests that the Outlook becomes a character, a battery that holds the memories of those who call it home. It is this landscape that allows Jack to enter two very different yet connected worlds. One minute he is enjoying a drink in the bar with the apparition of Lloyd the bartender, next he is consoling Wendy about the attack on Danny by a strange woman in room 237. As Jack starts to take his orders from ghosts at the hotel, the lighting shifts from brightly lit shots with lots of colour to washed-out scenes tinted with blue light; an element that is recurring and visually depicts Jack being consumed by the history of the hotel.

As Jack is hunched over his typewriter for the first time, the viewer sees a scrapbook at the edge of the frame. Within Stephen King’s novel, from which the film was derived, the scrapbook is a large part of the narrative as it is a visual record of the hotel. However within the film, the viewer is not privy to such information, thus might miss the significance of the first scene when Jack hides his work from Wendy and tells her to never enter the room when he is writing. From this moment on, the typewriter shows Jack’s descent into a supernatural world that he does not control. As he continues to understand and document the history of the Overlook, he becomes more and more consumed, to the point that his work is just a repetition; a mantra that is calling him to come ‘play’ with those trapped within the hotel.

The progression of time within the film mirrors Jack’s writing, and how each additional page symbolises how he is becoming less and less attached to the real world. The use of black title cards throughout the film begin with ‘The Interview’ and increase with intensity and focus as they show ‘Closing Day’ at the hotel, ‘A Month Later’ and the subsequent days. From ‘Tuesday’ when Jack is sitting at his typewriter to the next ‘Wednesday’ we see that time is accelerated and so are Jack’s murderous tendencies. The introduction of Jack writing at his typewriter and exploring the hotel’s scrapbook seems to set into motion the climax of the film. It could be the combination of his attempts to record and interpret the Overlook’s violent past that makes him vulnerable to become a part of it.

Part of the beauty of ‘The Shining’ is that it allows viewers and critics to speculate and develop countless arguments and theories regarding the meanings behind Kubrick’s masterpiece. These theories range from the genocide of American Indians to a commentary on the moon landing and the Cold War. ‘The Shining’ offers so much visually and throughout the narrative that it is the focus of a recently documentary film. ‘Room 237’ has been entitled ‘one the best films about film’ as it digs deep into the meanings behind Kubrick’s film, which have remained unexplored for decades. Weaving together interviews, footage and testimonials, the film provides a window into ‘The Shining’ that will stay with you forever, and ever, and ever. Supporting the film as fodder for creative analysis has Kubrick’s tight-lipped nature. By remaining vague when discussing elements of ‘The Shining’, Kubrick left the meaning of the film for audiences to decipher, explaining why it endures as a haunting piece of cinema 30 years after its creation.

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