The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick, was released in 1980 to near universal derision. In the eyes of most reviewers, the film was a brash exercise in directorial narcissism that was notably unfaithful to the source material – the novel The Shining, by horror master Steven King (which is why King is vociferous in his dislike of Kubrick’s film version and was compelled to do his own version of the novel, as a miniseries, in 1999).
The film received no Academy Award nominations, which is astounding given that Kubrick was an acknowledged master, an auteur known for his meticulous productions, who had already directed films that were already, shortly after their release, considered classics. He had also been nominated for Best Director for his four previous films.
Kubrick did receive the dubious honor of being nominated for a Razzie for directing The Shining. The Razzie is a joke award given to the worst directorial or acting performances (Shelley Duvall, who plays Wendy Torrance in the film, was also nominated for a Razzie).
Like a good wine (and unlike the old woman in Room 237), the film has aged well. In some critical quarters, The Shining is a classic, one-of-a-kind horror film and a great artistic accomplishment. Academics now write papers and book chapters about the film, and it is slowly, inexorably, climbing the “best ever” lists of film critics. The Shining comes in at 112 in the 2002 Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time (the Sight and Sound poll is the best known and most respected critics survey in the world). It didn’t even make the list in 2002, the last time the poll was taken. (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is #6 in both 2002 and 2012).
There are many things that critics now single out for praise in the film. The modernist score and innovative soundtrack have been discussed by a number of film scholars (according to a WordCat search). The brilliant cinematography, particularly the early use of the Steadicam (invented by Garrett Brown), is also noted by critics. But it’s Kubrick’s mise-en-scène – his utilization of setting, human figure placement, lighting, and composition – that we are focusing on this week.
I mentioned in class that The Shining has attracted more than its share of conspiratorial interpretations, and that most of these interpretations are based on visual details in the mise-en-scène. I will be posting another entry on these interpretations, but here I will look more generally at how Kubrick’s mise-en-scène works in The Shining.
Quite a few critics and reviews note that the setting is an essential element of the film. I mentioned in class how the opening “swoop” shot of the film, combined with the ominous music, makes the beautiful Rocky Mountain environs seem frightening, even horrific.
The dread is increased when we actually get to the Overlook Hotel itself, in an isolated mountainous region. For much of the film, the Overlook, particularly in night shots, appears in the frame like a hulking beast. Like the camera itself, it “overlooks” the human beings with an impersonal, cold, clinical, uncaring eye. In the same way, the maze alongside the hotel is not a fun place for human beings; in fact, it’s a trap for humans.
When we are taken inside the hotel, we enter another maze, equally unfriendly to humans. Peter Bradshaw remarks that
Instead of the cramped darkness and panicky quick editing of the standard-issue scary movie, Kubrick gives us the eerie, colossal, brilliantly lit spaces of the Overlook Hotel (created in Elstree Studios, Hertfordshire), shot with amplitude and calm.
Part of the unique, uncanny effect of Kubrick’s hotel setting is that, as Bradshaw mentions, instead of a dark and dreary setting – typical of most horror movies – the Overlook is generally well-lit, even garishly so. In this sense, it reflects the mad electricity, the exploding synapses, of Jack Torrance’s increasingly insane mind.
Ian Nathan makes a similar observation. He writes:
Every frame of the film brims with Kubrick’s genius for implying psychological purpose in setting: the hotel’s tight, sinister labyrinth of corridors; its cold, sterile bathrooms; the lavish, illusionary ballroom. This was horror of the mind transposed to place (or, indeed, vice versa).
Some critics claim that the Overlook represents Hell, and Jack the Devil, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that the Overlook, particularly in its interiors, represents the Hell that is Jack’s haunted and deranged mind.
Richard T. Jameson also discusses the ways in which setting is used not just to evoke the feeling of dread and horror, but to illuminate character.
The Overlook’s spaces mirror Jack’s bankruptcy. The sterility of its vastness, the spaces that proliferate yet really connect with each other in a continuum that encloses rather than releases, frustrates rather than liberates – all this becomes an extension of his own barrenness of mind and spirit.
But it’s also an extension of the barrenness of the modern world, an expression of existential angst. This seems to be what Jameson means when he writes:
Virtually every shot in the film (whether the setting be The Overlook or not) is built around a central hole, a vacancy, a tear in the membrane of reality: a door that would lead us down another hallway, a panel of bright color that somehow seems more permeable than the surrounding dark tones, an infinite white glow beyond a central closeup face, a mirror, a TV screen . . . a photograph. From the moment we lose the consoling sense of focus and destination supplied by that island picturesquely centered in the lake, we are careening through space.
As one of you mentioned in class, the vastness and emptiness of the space in the film is an important aspect of the setting. Often times, in the film, Kubrick uses doorways as portals to larger and more frightening empty spaces, spaces that open up to the vastness of all time and all space. These doorways lead to supernatural space, as ominous and frightening as the film’s natural space (the mountains, the isolated hotel, the snow).
Human Figure Placement
I just wrote about the relationship of setting to character. More might be said along these lines, particularly in regards to the placement of the human figure in the film. Last week I described figure placement as a way the director uses the actors as props, as something to move around like game-board pieces to achieve a certain effect, to communicate a certain meaning. Some directors are more obvious about this than others. Kubrick is a case in point.
Like many other critics, Jameson finds Kubrick to be an aloof, even impersonal, director, who inhabits the Olympian heights of genius with a chilly regard (or disregard) for the human figure, unconcerned with human feelings. Jameson writes:
Now it can be told: The Shining is a horror movie only in the sense that all Kubrick’s mature work has been horror movies – films that constitute a Swiftian vision of inscrutable cosmic order, and of “the most pernicious race of little vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”
I mentioned above about the opening “swoop” shot in the film, and how, combined with the soundtrack, it generates a feeling of dread in the audience. Things do not get much warmer or fuzzier when, a cut later, we see from far above a tiny car snaking its way along a road undulating through the wilderness. The camera follows this car for quite a while; it begins to zoom and when it finally comes close to the car, it swoops away in another direction.
All this is important and intended by Kubrick: the people seen from far above and, even after a zoom, still not seen up close. The shot highlights the insignificance of the people in the vastness of the setting. It also highlights, to some degree, the insignificance of the people in the eyes of the director. Kubrick might be clinical and impersonal towards humans in this film, but it works quite well in a horror movie in which humans are the playthings of fate, of natural and supernatural forces.
Another scene that shows the insignificance of the human figure is when a crazed Jack looks directly down upon a model of the Overlook’s maze and sees the tiny figures of Wendy and Danny Torrance moving about. The camera, high above, takes on Jack’s point of view, which seems much like the director’s. The people are as tiny and as significant as insects, which matches Jack’s attitude at that moment, and indicates the lack of human feeling that will allow Jack to murder Dick Halloran, and attack with murderous intent his wife and child.
Jameson addresses some of the issues regarding the relationship of the setting to character, and the placement of the human figure, in this scene:
What is the scale here? Are we looking at the table model, or down at the actual Maze? If the actual Maze, those figures are simply Wendy and Danny foreshortened from a great height, as in the opening aerial views of the film; perhaps Kubrick reverted to his fond, God’s-eye view that turns the world into a chessboard. If the scale model, then those figures are grotesque projections of Wendy and Danny – but projected by Jack’s imagination, or somehow appallingly duplicated in demonic, child’s-toy accessory of the hotel. Or is the actual Maze rightly enough, the real Wendy and Danny diminished by distance, being seen by Jack in sympathetic phase with the hovering spirit of the “Overlook” itself? We can’t be sure.
Jameson goes on to say that Kubrick is a “hush-hush contriver of Skinner boxes for the contemplation of his fellow creatures, or his idea of them.” The “Skinner boxes” that Jameson refers to were an invention of the behaviorist B. F. Skinner, who used them to study the behavior of his own children. They have been used to caricature Skinner as an uncaring clinician. Kubrick might not agree with Jameson’s damnation of Kubrick by association, but he might agree that the maze in The Shining is indeed very much like a Skinner box, with Jack, in this scene, as the uncaring, impersonal, almost clinical sociopath.
The fact that the human figure is nearly microscopic on the screen does not mean that the human figure is unimportant in the mise-en-scène. Rather, the very insignificance of the human figure, the sense that the humans are dwarfed by mountains and hotels and mazes, is integral to the horror and to the visual look of The Shining.
The insignificance of the human figure in The Shining might seem counter-intuitive when considering mise-en-scène. In the same way, the fact that in the film there are not a lot of shadows, or much chiaroscuro lighting, might seem counter-intuitive, especially since we’re watching a horror movie. I would like to argue, again, that this is only seemingly counter-intuitive; it is actually an essential part of Kubrick’s vision for the film, and a key aspect of the horror.
Killian Fox alludes to the “luridly coloured bedrooms and bathrooms” in The Shining. Perhaps it’s not that illogical for Kubrick to fill his haunted hotel with light – the film is called The Shining, after all. I’ve been using this word a lot and I will use it again: the lighting is clinical, in the sense that it is sterile and impersonal.
I mentioned above that the lighting could represent the mad electricity of Jack’s insane brain. This is particularly true of one of the most well-lit scenes in the film, when Jack first encounters Lloyd the barman in the Gold Lounge (But is it the first? The film begs the question). On the ceiling, we see lights that run in diagonals towards the far right corner of the room. The perspective of the shot seemingly leads us to an infinity of emptiness, a horrific horizon.
There is also a lot of light on the wall behind the bar. It resembles the light of the blinding snowstorm outside (another important use of light in the film), suggesting a frightening emptiness, another portal to the inhuman, supernatural world. The light on the bar itself lights Jack’s face from below, making him look even more crazed as he converses with the apparition of Lloyd.
Then there is the color aspect of lighting (discussed by the textbook authors, in Chapter 5). In this scene, the light accentuates the red color scheme in the Gold Lounge. Many of the furnishings, some of the walls, Lloyd’s jacket, Jack’s jacket and face – all are red, meant to suggest rubicund associations, of blood and murder, or “redrum.”
There are some instances of more, traditional, dark gothic horror-story lighting in the film, which shows the continuing influence of German Expressionism on the horror genre, which Kubrick is unable to completely eliminate. On a couple of occasions, we see Jack in silhouette, a hunkering and threatening black shadow; we also see some chiaroscuro lighting in the climactic chase through the maze. But, in general, Kubrick uses the lighting to define setting (a bar) character (Jack), and theme (the clinical and impersonal attitude of the supernatural towards the human world), rather than to locate the film within a genre (the typically shadowy horror movie).
Some things I’ve mentioned in my analysis of the scene above refer to the composition of the shot (the diagonals, the lighting, the color scheme). A lot of what our textbook authors consider as composition is really setting, figure placement, and lighting, with some cinematography thrown in. I will deal with cinematography next week. But it might be easier to consider composition in terms of the visual details in the shot. When discussing mise-en-scène, I often tell students that when it comes to the visual details in a film, nothing is an accident.
I typically focus on what hangs on the walls when trying to explain film composition. The Shining gives us much to work with in this regard. Take, for instance, the short scene in Dick Halloran’s apartment. In terms of lighting, the cool blue color palette in this night-time scene is in contrast with the garish lighting of the hotel that Halloran sees in his “shining” vision.
But more significant are the paintings on Halloran’s walls. Above the television of Halloran, a black man, we see a scantily-clad black woman with a huge afro. Later, in a reverse shot, we see another scantily-clad black woman with afro.
It probably goes without saying that Kubrick does not mean to titillate us with these paintings. Instead, he is trying to define setting and character. Such paintings were popular during the 1970s, when the film is set.
The fact that Halloran has such paintings hanging on his wall says a good deal about him. Though an older man, he still appreciates a sexually-alluring woman. It also makes Halloran warmer, more approachable, as a person, and more sympathetic as a character. In this sense, the paintings help distinguish Halloran from characters like Jack, who is more surreptitious and warped in his sexual predilections.
Jameson remarks that the photographs seen on the wall of the hotel are almost characters themselves, and that they serve as portals to other times and places. The most famous photograph in the film is the one we see at the end, placing Jack at the Overlook in 1921.
We only see this framed photo up close, but we naturally wonder if Jack appears in other photos on the wall. In any case, the shot suggests that the photo with Jack was there all along, hanging in plain sight for anyone to see – but no one saw it. Not the characters, Kubrick insinuates, and not the audience of the film. The idea is that the uncanny is all around us, if we would only notice. But then we don’t want to notice. We don’t want to be the overlookers.
I’ve mentioned doorways and photographs as portals to other worlds, other realities. This is also true of mirrors in the film. Often times directors play around with mirrors, as a way to expand the space and to blur the line between what is real is what is artificial.
Next week, when you watch Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, you will see some very provocative mirror shots, particularly the “infinite regression” shot near the end of the film (“infinite regression” refers to the visual illusion of an image within a mirror reflected in another mirror which is reflected in another mirror, etc., to the point of infinity).
According to Jameson, Kubrick also plays around with the idea of infinite regression. He writes:
Kubrick makes limited, straightforward use of the standard reality-illusion device of mirrors in The Shining; but, as narrative details, the bits and pieces of many different Overlook stories, accumulate, and as the editorial design of the film becomes increasingly oblique and suggestive, more and more one feels trapped in an infinity of facing mirrors.
This feeling of entrapment is a very important part of the existential horror of The Shining. But it goes beyond entrapment. We are meant to question what is real and what is reflection (the backwards lettering and superimpositions in the film are part of this).
We are also meant to feel disoriented. A good example of this in the film is when we get a shot of Jack sleeping in his bedroom at the Overlook.
It isn’t until Wendy comes in with the breakfast cart, with the camera tracking backwards, that we see that what we’ve been seeing is Jack in the mirror (the reversed lettering on Jack’s shirt accentuates the effect). In that moment, the viewer is temporarily confused as to what is reflection and what is real. This feeling becomes more pronounced as the film continues. It poses deeper philosophical questions, such as “What is real and what is merely an image of reality?” and “What is true and how doe we know it’s true?”
In summary, The Shining is a great example of the power and potential of mise-en-scène, but it is not in anyway typical. Kubrick does use mise-en-scène to define setting and character, but he also uses it counter-intuitively to challenge the preconceptions of the viewing audience, and to pose philosophical questions about the nature of the universe and the role of humans within it, as well as the role of the film director in “overlooking” or directing the gaze of the viewer.
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Peter Bradshaw, “The Shining – review”, The Guardian (November 1, 2012).
Killian Fox, “The Shining – review,” The Observer (November 3, 2012).
Richard T. Jameson, “Kubrick’s Shining”, filmcomment (July/August 1980).
Ian Nathan, “The Shining – ‘Heeeere’s Johnny!'”, Empire (online).