"The Shining"

A rare look at Stanley Kubrick's work habits. Plus: Why Jack Nicholson's dental hygiene is so good.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 7, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"The Shining"
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers
Warner Home Video; full-screen (1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of documentary by Vivian Kubrick

If "The Shining" is a horror film it's one that, for all its violence and intensity, pretty much ignores the conventions of the genre. In some ways the first hour is scarier than the second, since we can tell from the film's first few moments that aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic Jack (Jack Nicholson) is a murderous maniac wrapped in a thin and fragile membrane of normalcy. (Only Nicholson can say the line "It's cozy!" with a subtext of blood lust.) Then there's Jack's precocious son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), who's getting ominous messages from the little boy who lives inside his mouth, and waifish wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), who smokes, pulls her stringy hair and follows her husband into disaster with the blithe self-deception of abused women everywhere. Stephen King reportedly loathed the liberties Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson took with his story, but King's ur-villain, the emasculated husband from hell, has never been more clearly presented on-screen.

On some level, I may not get "The Shining" or its odd, abrupt conclusion any better than I did 20 years ago, but its astonishing craft draws me in every time. There's the camera, at a subtly disturbing distance from the characters, leading or pursuing them down the corridors of the deserted Overlook Hotel. Then there's the extraordinary music by Bartók, Penderecki and Ligeti. And there's the final chase through the snow-shrouded hedge maze, with its otherworldly light. Is the movie, as some have claimed, a specific allegory about the genocide of Native Americans? What is the final image, of Jack in a photo taken at the Overlook in 1921, supposed to tell us?

No answers to these questions are to be found in "Making 'The Shining,'" the behind-the-scenes documentary by Kubrick's daughter Vivian that was made for British television and has rarely been seen since. But it's worthwhile if only to see the legendary recluse as a working artist, coaxing Nicholson into looking at the camera during one take or losing his temper when Duvall spaces a cue. Vivian's conversations with the loquacious Nicholson make it clear that Kubrick encouraged his over-the-top hamming; the director's response to a more low-key portrayal was, Nicholson says, that "it may be real but it isn't interesting." We also learn how exhausting it is to be a star and why Nicholson brushes his teeth right before going on the set. ("Consideration for my co-workers," he says with that "I will kill you" leer.) Especially in the Spartan, extras-free world of Warner's nine-disc, seven-film Stanley Kubrick Collection, Vivian's film is a treasure-trove for fans.

Lastly, as the director's adherents are only too aware, the Kubrick DVD collection has occasioned endless controversy over technical issues that ordinary viewers are unlikely to notice. "The Shining" heads the list of complaints, along with "Full Metal Jacket," since both films were released in the same full-screen format that has repeatedly been shown on broadcast TV; there's no digital remastering, no widescreen version, no stereo sound. Kubrick apparently wanted it this way. Warner engineers have said that Kubrick, a technophile and notorious control freak, liked the full-screen version of "The Shining" and insisted it be the only one available on home video. (If you really want to get technical, Kubrick's post-"2001" films were not shot in true widescreen format anyway; the original aspect ratio of "The Shining" was approximately 1.66:1, so relatively little of the image area is lost here.) Sure, it might have been nice to get a remastered print and a full menu of extras. But you've got to love the guy for making one last grumpy effort, from beyond the grave, to shake free of his cult and defy orthodoxy.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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