Things I Read Off the Screen in “The Shining”

To Edinburgh Filmhouse (last week) to see ROOM 237: BEING AN INQUIRY INTO THE SHINING IN 9 PARTS. Rodney Ascher’s essay film is a perpetual joy, cunningly assembled from (sometimes manipulated) bit of Kubrick movies and other (tangentially) related films. Six obsessives describe their theories about the “true” meaning of Kubrick’s horrorshow, which range from “secret, encoded study of the Holocaust” to “secret, encoded meditation on the genocide of the American Indians” to “secret, encoded confession to a role in faking the Apollo moon landing footage.” Despite the eccentricity of some of the claims, the evidence the offscreen voices cite is really there, and most of it seems to be there on purpose to signify something. My only problem was, “If THE SHINING is ‘really’ about the moon landings, why does it have all this stuff about the Holocaust? And if it’s ‘really’ about the Holocaust, why does it have all this stuff about the Indians?”

Each of the film-analysts is focussing very selectively, and each of them is somewhat guilty of the intentional fallacy, assuming they can read Kubrick’s intent, although one does helpfully acknowledge this fallacy and admit that what Kubrick may have intended is unknowable to critics and doesn’t, ultimately, matter.

While one commentator was talking about the partially occluded Indian heads on the cans of Calumet baking soda in this scene, I started scanning the other containers in the b/g to see if I could find anything else of interest. I did!


All these references to “pieces” and “slices” are deliciously pointed, considering that Jack is working up to trying to dismember his family (which we already know because of the example of caretaker Grady before him). And that is likely the reason the Indian heads are all chopped up by the composition — think also of the spectral party guest with the split head — and rogue English accent. In fact, why are the 1920s flashback/visions populated with Englishmen (Grady himself is the very British Philip Stone)? Only Lloyd the bartender is a red-blooded American. Since Kubrick is shooting in England but dragging Albion up as Colorado, it seems odd that he should so nakedly display the falsity of the premise — but it’s in keeping with the various ways in which the insistently real, textured banality of the hotel set is made to behave in an unreal, Escher-like way, folding in on itself with dream geography so that little Danny can cycle round a corner and find himself one story up.

One interesting lacuna not addressed by any of the commenters, but noted by the mighty Michel Ciment in his Kubrick book, is that Grady the waiter/caretaker has two names to go with his two jobs: we’re told about a Charles Grady, but then he gives his name as Delbert Grady. Why? Maybe it’s part of duality (“You know, the Jungian thing?”) — two names, two jobs, two daughters…

The most obvious things to read in THE SHINING are the titles, in a typical Kubrick sans-serif font, but with a glowing, modern look that suggests sci-fi rather than Gothic (which is apt: the film’s denial of dark shadows miffed Pauline Kael). And then there’s the intertitles, which start explicatory and wind up pretty confusing, another random element hurled in to throw us off-balance — they more closely resemble the title cards of early Bunuel, which make perfectly sensible statements like “Sixteen years ago” and “In Spring,” yet become darkly funny and absurd because of the context they’re spliced into.

Then there’s Jack’s novel, which some poor bastard had to type up — it matters that this doesn’t look photocopied, every page is different, complete with typos — “All work and no play makes Jack a dull bot.” “All work and no play makes Jack a dull bog.” “All work and no play makes Jack adult boy.”

Students of the life of John Barrymore will recognize where Stephen King got the inspiration for this freaky revelation. It also reminds me of a plot point from Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme, which sadly never made it into Robert Fuest’s tasty film. One of the novel’s MacGuffins is a book written by the American astronaut who spent the longest time in space. When finally obtained, the voluminous manuscript turns out to consist of the single word “ha” repeated a great many times.

“That madman business” — Shelley Duvall is reading The Catcher in the Rye, favourite reading material of crazed loners. Also, the book, favoured by John Lennon’s killer (and later by Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassin) takes its title from a Mondegreen, the lead character’s misapprehension of a song lyric. Stephen King took the title for The Shining from the lyric “And we all shine on” from the John Lennon song Instant Karma.

In the background of the Torrance kitchen we can see a bottle of Joy. The fact that advertisers chose to name a cleaning product “joy” displays baldly the sheer blistering contempt they held for housewives.

Off to the Overlook!

The KEEP THIS AREA CLEAN sign is darkly amusing, in context.


Oddly aggressive tone to this notice, don’t you think? Why is my cup garbage?

During this scene, where the chair behind Jack playfully vanishes and returns between reverse angles, the scrapbook in front of Jack also executes a neat unseen page-turn, although it maintains perfect continuity during the vanishing chair sequence — which is intriguing, because if we try to explain the missing chair by suggesting one of those shots was a pick-up, filmed weeks later, it’s hardly likely that the scrapbook continuity would match so perfectly. The scrapbook calmly bides its time until a wide shot gives it the opportunity to flip on a page or two.

The scrapbook is significant — Jack is researching the Overlook’s past, and when he meets Grady he recognizes him from his picture. I think there’s more of this in the book, whereas at least in the UK edit it’s unlikely anybody would notice the book and understand what it was there for.


Kubrick filmed this shot with the newly developed “ScatCam.”

Weirdly, the show is announced as “Newswatch 10” but the title just says “Newswatch.” Then anchorman Glenn Rinker is introduced, and the caption says “10 Glenn Rinker” which is just weird. It does actually seem like a moronic mistake, as if the captions guy had a scrap of paper with “Newswatch 10 Glenn Rinker” scrawled on it and he decided to break it up in the wrong place. Although it may be a veiled reference to Professor Ten Brinken from Hanns Heinz Ewers’ horror classic Alraune (filmed twice with Brigitte Helm).

The shorter UK edit (prepared by Kubrick himself after the American release) omits all the cartoons viewed by Danny, but we still have numerous cartoon characters in the form of stickers (with the vanishing Dopey), the Bugs Bunny-derived nicknamed “Doc,” and the presence of Scatman Crothers — but everybody is too polite to say “Weren’t you Hong Kong Fooey”?

In ROOM 237, much is made of Kubrick’s slow dissolves, particularly an early crossfade from hotel exterior to interior in which a stepladder echoes the point of the hotel’s roof. I agree that this is deliberate, and I think it may also be a tribute to Max Ophuls, who tracks past a stepladder in a hotel lobby at the start of THE RECKLESS MOMENT (another stepladder pops up earlier in Ophuls’ DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO — I think he liked stepladders). Kubrick admired Ophuls and dedicated a shot in PATHS OF GLORY to the German director, on the day he learned of his death.

Fiona pointed out that in a later dissolve, Jack on his writing “throne” seems to acquire a matching “crown,” actually a light fitting bleeding through from the incoming scene. Again, this seems deliberate.

Kubrick insists, here and in EYES WIDE SHUT, that it is possible to perform oral sex through a full-face mask. “How much sex did Kubrick have?” pondered Fiona. Still, this is an impressive early appearance by “furries,” those creepy sex fetishists who get off on dressing up like cartoon animals. But it’s not the earliest!

This is SUPERBITCH, aka SI PUO ESSERE PIU BASTARDI DELL’ISPETTORE CLIFF? with Stephanie Beacham as a high-class escort giving the five-star treatment to a rich perv. I guess the furry fetish probably originated with fancy dress parties — alcohol, dancing, dressing up, can sex be far away? Then again, for some the connection may stem from early sexual fantasies being formed in childhood, while surrounded by cute imagery of talking chipmunks.

BTW, sorry my SHINING stills are 4:3. That’s the format Kubrick insisted on when his films first had their DVD release. Perfectionist, my ass!

“I don’t particularly like writing on the screen.” ~ Stanley Kubrick.

15 Responses to “Things I Read Off the Screen in “The Shining””

  1. Kubrick was a great admirer of Ophuls, but the film he liked most was La Ronde. One can sense its influence on both Paths of Glory and Lolita (Sarris called it it the “Look ma no walls!” style.

    Kubrick read Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle” when he was young. Making it was what they call a “Passion Project.” But by the time he did he decided not to go for period but make something contemporary instead. What’s fascinating about Eyes Wide Shut is raw unfettered agression just beneath its “polite surface.”

    As for The Shining what fascinates is the way Kubrick took a Stephen King novel and made it entirely his own . King doesn’t like the film at all. Thats why he undertook a made-for-TV remake. Obviously it didn’t stand a chance next to Stanley.

  2. King objected to the lack of forceful shocks, but nothing he could write would have the film’s labyrinthine strangeness.

    Kubrick also ghost-walked through walls a lot in The Killing, which doesn’t feel Ophulsian but totally is.

  3. Not that I buy any of those crackpot theories about THE SHINING, but they do connect up in obscure and roundabout ways. The massacre of the Native Americans was the USA’s very own version of the Holocaust (one reason I find most Westerns impossible to watch) and the Nazis, like the Nixon administration, had a fixation with the conquest of space.

    As for darling Stephanie, she’s immune to embarrassment and looks set (at her tender age) for a glittering career on DYNASTY, THE COLBYS and CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER. If only Kubrick had cast her in EYES WIDE SHUT, she might have added a spark of fun to that dour and funereal affair!

  4. Well, I suspect that was the last thing he wanted.

    The mask shop scene is fun, though.

  5. Kubrick? Fun?! Never?

    Even his alleged ‘comedy’ DR STRANGELOVE is oddly leaden in spirit. Ghastly man!

  6. As B Kite says in this terrific piece — — Kubrick doesn’t really do “light”. But I do find Strangelove and Lolita and even Clockwork Orange very funny in places.

    The Making of The Shining certainly suggests a man less than cuddly, and that’s without the fifteen minutes or so he made his daughter cut out of it. But his personal sins are pretty minor compared to those of most major film directors…

  7. The thing that still freaks me out about the film is something you mention above, and which is off the screen — the unfortunate individual who had to type up that entire book. I was completely taken out of the movie by the terrifying drudgery of such a task…

  8. It’s like the inverse of the infinite chimpanzees typing Hamlet or something.

    One could probably have asked several people to do a few pages each, but that wouldn’t be SK’s style.

  9. I’ve had my share of soul-deadening paperwork, but this was a whole different level. And as you say, with Kubrick’s rep it’s not hard to imagine some poor minion being tasked with the entire assignment. I hope he didn’t ask for too many takes.

  10. Surely to God they could just type a page or two…then photocopy the rest!

  11. No, if you check the film, there’s different layout and typos on every page. And we see dozens of pages, flicked through at random. Attention to detail, that’s what SK is all about. Which is what makes the vanishing chair so interesting.

  12. Ah, I found an earlier, more appropriate discussion in which to spout off about “The Shining”; I would have felt churlish in any further hijacking the “Ox-Bow Incident” discussion with wild talk about Kubrick.

    I like the joke you made there about “The Shining” being “a kind of blood-drenched Fawlty Towers” because it points to something curious about the movie that I think hasn’t been much noted: for all of Jack Torrance’s obsession with his “work” he’s never seen doing any work of any description. Rather as Polly’s the one who really keeps Fawlty Towers running, it’s Wendy who’s bustling about the kitchen and checking on the boilers while Jack’s sleeping at all hours and throwing a ball around. So the ultimate form of Jack’s madness is an especially bitter joke: clinging to the illusion of being the responsible and mature pants-wearer in the family he rants about how his worthless wife has no sense of “responsibility to his employers” or of “moral and ethical principle” even though Jack himself has shown scarcely a trace of concern for either responsibility or morality. Jack’s not the first character either who values cold social contracts over real human feelings: I think of Philip Stone in “A Clockwork Orange” justifying his decision to kick his son out of his flat in favor of Joe the Lodger because Joe’s doing a two-year contract and already paid his rent.

    You noticed the disappearing chair, Mr. Cairns, yet you didn’t note that Jack’s Adler spontaneously generates paper in that same scene: Jack makes a dramatic point of ripping his typescript out on Wendy’s approach but when Wendy goes he resumes typing without inserting another sheet. I’d like to believe that this was a deliberate touch of what H. P. Lovecraft called “the weird” but these days I don’t buy into the notion of Kubrick as an utterly flawless perfectionist any more than you do; I think he just screwed up the continuity the same way he forgot to crop out the edge of the stage in all that moon-landing footage.

  13. Great points!

    But the vanishing chair fascinates because it vanishes in different iterations of the exact same angle. So that somewhere around take 57 you have to imagine Kubrick saying “Eighty-six the chair, Fred,” and deliberately planning to use bits of a chair take and a non-chair take. There’s no reason to move the chair, and no sane reason to move it between takes.Something more (or less, but anyway other) than bad continuity is at work.

    Of course, it is possible that Jack has resumed typing on a sheet of paper that isn’t there. He’s mad, you know.

  14. Jean-Paul C. Rojas Says:

    Beacause i HAD to google those pimiento pieces i found this.
    Interesting commentary.

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