Monday, December 30, 2013

The Shining directed by Stanley Kubrick


I’ve been engaged in a little Stephen King project inspired by the wonderful documentary Room 237 about people who are obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of The Shining.  I’ve already re-read The Shining, and I plan on reading the new sequel to it, Doctor. Sleep as soon as it’s my turn at my local library’s copy.  

For Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of The Shining I thought it might be fun to do a “live blog” sort of thing.   So I sat down with a bottle of wine and some crackers and cheese;  opened up a new file on Google Docs and clicked play on my DVD.  What follows is an edited version of the notes I made while watching The Shining for the first time in some 25 years.  I’m assuming you’ve already seen the movie, so there will be spoilers.

First glass of wine:

The opening shots are beautiful, what with the helicopter following that little yellow car up the mountains.  The music is creepy low French horns, maybe tubas.  Those instruments to do not get much work these days.

Starting with Jack’s job interview  makes a lot of exposition possible.  A lot of exposition. The hotel manager  has amazing hair.  Nicholson’s hair is not great.  The movie has just started and he already looks insane.

First shot of the famed elevator of blood opening.  It’s a vivid image, not scary, kind of pretty in a way and puzzling.  

Danny sees the twin girls for the first time.  Creepy.  Nothing happens, but it's creepy.  Maybe it’s their blue dresses with the white socks.  One little girl  in a blue dress with white socks suggests Alice in Wonderland, but two of them in the same dress is creepy.  

More exposition.    

Second glass of wine:

More exposition.  

Scatman Crothers is pretty good.   

So far there has been only brief mention  of Jack’s drinking.  From the movie we think that he got  too physical with Danny once, but we don’t know the extent of the damage his drinking has caused his family.  This movie is a haunted hotel movie; the book was about the effects of alcoholism.

Long tracking shots showing off the hotel set.  

Here’s the Big Wheel.  This is the part of the movie I liked the best the first time I saw it.  The sound of the big wheel going on and off of the rugs--how did they do that with a whole camera crew following him?  

It’s a good thing there’s creepy music during the creepy parts, otherwise we’d just be bored watching Shelly Duvall and Danny walk through the maze for the first time.  

More Big Wheel stuff. Danny is wearing the same outfit he wore the first time. Maybe he has Big Wheel clothes the way some of us used to have play clothes.   

I used to have a Big Wheel when I was a kid.  Riding it around a massive empty hotel would have been so cool.  

I think this is the worst Jack Nicholson performance I’ve ever seen.  He’s comical, like a bad SNL parody of Jack Nicholson.  Duvall is trying to do her best with some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard.  Who wrote this?  They really just should have stuck with King’s dialogue.  It was better than this.  

Nicholson has yet to interact with Danny in a way that would lead you to think he was a decent father. In the book, he loved Danny, and Danny was devoted to him.  Even though he was a problematic father at best, you could see why Danny loved him.

First look at crazy Jack face.  Was that supposed to scare me?  The music was intense.  

Duvall is trying  to make a call but the lines are all down.  She talks over the radio with an attractive young park ranger.  He has good hair too but not nearly as good as the hotel manager in the opening scenes.  Besides the amazing set, the period haircuts are best thing in the movie so far.   

More Big Wheel.  He’s wearing a different outfit.  There's the twin sisters.  Creepy.  

They speak

“Hello Danny. Would you like to play with us?”

Run kid run run run run.

He’s just breathing heavily, quick shot of the twins bloody with axe on the floor.  

Okay, that was scary.  

Third glass of wine.
I think this would be a better movie if they edited Jack out of more scenes.  I’ve a feeling that if I were watching this with friends we’d all be laughing every time he speaks.  

The scenes with the kid are kind of creepy, and would be even without the music telling us they are supposed to be creepy.  

Danny shows up with bruises on his neck and Duvall accuses  Jack of doing it.  Genuinely scary.  Nicholson heads for the bar.  The music is becoming earsplitting so I know the next part will be really scary.  Lloyd the bartender appears.  Not really that scary.  Just puzzling. Can't trust the music, I guess.

Cut to Miami where we find Scatman Crothers with a really amazing poster of a nude black woman with the biggest afro anyone has ever seen. There is some intense hair in this movie.

Inside Room 237 and whoever designed the carpets for this hotel should be shot.  The camera moves in slowly towards the bathroom.  The bathroom door slowly opens to reveal a very nice green bathroom with a very large tub.  Jack is there too frightened to approach the woman in the tub.  There are a lot of very problematic woman issues with this movie.  Seriously.  Jack is smiling now because the woman in the tube is naked and is standing up.  She’s much more attractive than he is.  She steps out of the tub showing more George W. than I’d really like to see.  She approaches Jack in slow motion or maybe she just really walks slow when she’s naked. The floor could be slippery and she did just step out of the tub. The music is getting really scary.  They stare at each other before she touches Jack. She may be about to take his clothes off.  It’s really slow motion or slow movement. She has her hands around his head he takes her in his arms and moves in for a kiss.  The music is telling me that this is a scary scene but I’m basically confused.  Jack opens his eyes to see that she  is a decaying corpse in the reflection of the mirror. She’s an old lady laughing and walking towards him then floating in the tub, Jack backs up while she laughs and walks towards him and gets out of the tub. Jack stumbles out of the door and locks it leaving a naked old lady/decaying corpse laughing inside.  

Jack tells Duvall that there was nothing in the room.  She is understandably upset.

Fourth glass of wine.  Empty bottle.


“You’re the caretaker, you’ve always been the caretaker. I should know I’ve always been here.”

Second genuinely scary moment when Jack meets Grady in the red bathroom.

“Danny’s not here Mrs. Torrance!”

Scatman Carutthers has no hair, by the way. I just noticed.  He’s on his way up to the hotel which will prove to be a mistake on his part.  He lived in the book.  Killing him here is really just mean on Kubrick's part.

Duvall finds the pages Nicholson has typed which say “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again for hundreds of pages.  I can’t help but wonder how much those pages would fetch on eBay.  But I remember this was a scary moment when I first saw the movie.  It’s scary this time around too.  

I read that Stephen King really hated the Duvall character  in this movie, but I think she’s much better than Nicholson’s character. He’s just a man gone insane for no reason that we can see, while she’s a mother and a wife trying to keep it all together in spite of how far gone her life and her husband both are.  Why is it that the killer gets so much credit for his performance while the victim never does?

This movie is really long.  The book was long too, but it didn’t feel as long as this movie does.  There were only a few pages in the book that I would have cut, but I could take 30 minutes out of this movie easy and not hurt it at all.  

Kathy Bates would have broken Jack’s ankles, Duvall locks him in the pantry.  It’s a big pantry mind you with a steel door, but his ankles are intact.

I think you could play this soundtrack with it’s creepy music over just about any movie you can name and you’d have a film just as scary as this one is.  

Red rum red rum red rum.

Danny picks up a knife at his mother’s bedside and pricks his finger on it. He walks across the room really slowly like the naked woman in room 237 did.  Takes a lipstick and writes redrum on the door.  He’s screaming REDRUM now and wakes up his mother who was inexplicably sleeping. She sees the word murder in the mirror and we all go Duh.  

Jack is taking his ax to the door now to try and chop his way into the room.  If the ghost of Grady could unlock the pantry why not bathroom doors?

I do like how the camera stays focused on the ax while he chops the door.

“Wendy, I’m home” and “Here’s Johnny” are silly lines.  These silly lines were not in the book. behind the door screaming her head off while the ax begins to break through the door is really scary, very effective. Too bad they took the camera off of her and put it on Jack again and again.   This is why I appreciate a good script doctor. This would have been a much better scene had this movie been openly about the Duvall character.  The book was much more evenly divided between the three main characters.

Scatman gets the ax which really shocked me the first time around because the creepy music wasn’t playing so I was surprised.  Jack is chasing everyone with an ax in hand, he’s limping too for some reason.  

Danny and Jack are off to the hedge maze to chase each other in the snow.  I can’t wait for this scene because  it means the movie is almost over.  
This really is a pretty good chase scene, but it would have been better if Jack weren’t shouting so much.  Just the visual and the creepy music would have done the trick.  Less is more, people.  less is more.

Duvall goes into a lobby and sees a bunch of skeletons covered in cobwebs which is just pointless.  Get back to the maze.

Danny does back steps in his own footprints which is just what I would have done in his situation.  

Jack is really limping and clutching his heart now. Maybe he’ll die soon and the movie will end.  

He is confused and angered by Danny’s footprint trick.  He runs off into the maze in the wrong direction so Danny can escape.  

Duvall and Danny escape in Scatman’s snow cat while Jack screams incoherently in the maze where he’ll soon freeze to death, or will he.  

Cut to frozen Jack and then slow zoom on the July 4th ball  photograph where we find Jack’s face among the 1921 revellers.  

Roll credits. Time to put the wine bottle in the recycling.  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

This is a curious book.

The plot, what there is of it, concerns a group of European agents operating throughout post-colonial Africa. They share romantic ties, work for and against various African powers, fight and sometimes die.  But that's not what makes Alphabetical Africa a curious book.

Walter Abish has structured his novel around the alphabet.  It's a novel about Africa, but it's also a novel about language, the English language in particular.  He starts chapter one using only words that begin with the letter A.  Chapter two adds words starting with B.  Chapter three C. And so on.   By chapter five he is using words starting with A,B,C,D, and E.

Once the novel gets to Z, Abish begins removing letters until he has returned to a final chapter using only words that start with A again.

(Did you see what I did there?  A again?)

There are points in Alphabetical Africa where this language game works brilliantly well.  Take this paragraph from the first G chapter.  Letters A through G are used to offer up a wonderful satire of Germany's exploitation of Africa's resources  to develop it's own high culture.

Gustof's gastronomical gladness cannot conceal Gustaf's bloated belly, Germany's generals gloomily admit as gifted Gustaf entertains Alva at Gabon's best diner.  Good Gabon food.  But everyone at diner genuinely alarmed by German's great girth, by German's great appetite.  Gobbling gestopfte Gans, gobbling Gabelfruhstuck, gobbling goulash, gobbling Geschwind, Gesundheit, Gesundheit, gobbling Gurken, Guggelhupt, Gash Gash, Gish Gish, groaning, grunting, also complaining, chewing Grune Bohnen, Geschmacksach, as Germany grows greater.  Alarmed, Gabon grows additional food for Gustaf, and Gustaf's children, Gerda, Grete and Gerhart. Gifted Grosseres Germany consumes energy and guarantees greatness, get going, grow another Goethe, great guy, claims Gustaf, as all Grundit gramophones in Gabon, gently croon: Goethe, Goethe, Goethe.

I love how this paragraph about the uncontrolled  consumption of Africa's natural resources is so out of control itself, so full of food, and the eating of food, the hard G sounds repeating like a great creature smacking it's lips as it eats everything the diner/country can produce nonstop.  Even the name Goethe takes on a chewing sound through repetition.  Germany grows greater while Gabon grows food to feed it in the hopes that Germany will produce another mind as great at Goethe was.  Of course, the reader knows full well what Germany is capable of producing.

Alphabetical Africa is not an easy read.  Consider it advanced reading, for those of us who have made our way through the lower levels and are ready to face greater challenges.  I'll never understand why more readers don't read like that, the way gamers play video games.  Video gamers are never satisfied with simply mucking around levels one and two.  The whole point is to get to the next level, which is always more difficult.  Yet so many readers are contented to stay with material they find easy going.  Ask any gamer, the really  good stuff is always in the higher levels.

It is possible to follow the book's narrative, and Abish manages to develop a couple of pretty wonderful characters, but in the end, what I came away from the novel wondering about was not Africa but language.

The thing about the book that struck me most was how dramatically the addition of a single letter affected the language while the opposite was not at all true when letters were taken away.  Going into the book, the addition of each letter really opens up what the author can do.  Even a letter with a limited lexicon like Q dramatically affects a novel about Africa by allowing the entrance of a queen.  I was also struck by how unnatural the language sounded, how artificial it felt until 2/3's of the way through the alphabet.

However, taking letters away on the way out of the novel, didn't really affect the language much at all.  For the longest time, I didn't even notice it.  I knew we would soon have to say goodbye to the queen but I hardly noticed her absence.   How is it that adding the letter T, for example, had such a powerful affect, but taking it away didn't.   Of course, once the book reached a certain point, once enough letters had been removed to dramatically affect the language that was left, each letter was greatly missed.  I didn't notice it when T or S or M left the scene, but by the letter H I felt the effect of each new loss.

Does this apply to other things.  When we add a person, a new friend, to our lives they can certainly cause a dramatic change in our everyday world.  Should that friend move away, do our daily lives not change much or at least not change in ways that we notice until much later, once more friends have moved away.  

Alphabetical Africa has left me thinking about this question.

The final chapter, the return to only words starting with A, is a knockout.  It's a single paragraph, simply a list of things each prefaced with the word 'another' but this makes for a powerful statement.

Another abbreviation another abdomen another abduction another aberration another abhorrent ass another abnormal act another aboriginal another approach another absence..........another aviary another avoidance another avocation another avid avowal another awareness another awakening, another awesome age another axis another Alva another Alex another Allen another Alfred another Africa another alphabet.

I'll be keeping my copy of Alphabetical Africa.  I'm sure that I'll be reading it another time.  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Shining by Stephen King

I'm going to assume that you have already read Stephen King's The Shining.  Or if you haven't that you already know the story well enough.  A down-on-his-luck writer gets a job as winter care-taker of an isolated hotel in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.  He takes his wife and young son along with him.  Once the three are snowed in, he begins to lose his mind.  In the end he tries to kill his family.  His son has psychic abilities he is too young to understand.  The hotel is probably very haunted.

I admired the book when I first read it, three decades ago, and have long considered it to be one of Stephen King's best.  Re-reading it this time, I'd have to say the book is probably even better than I remembered.  If you've only heard about it and never read it, you should. Certainly if you're a fan of horror fiction.  It ranks alongside Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House in my opinion.

I'd like to talk about two things.  The first is how interested Stephen King is in dealing with people confined to small spaces.  He likes to get his characters under the microscope, to confine them and see what they are made of.  Here's the passage from The Shining when the Torrance family goes inside the hotel as the first serious winter snow storm hits:

So they went in together, leaving the wind to build the low-pitched scream that would go on all night--a sound they would get to know well. Flakes of snow swirled and danced across the porch.  The Overlook faced it as it had for nearly three-quarters of a century, its darkened windows now bearded with snow, indifferent to the fact that it was now cut off from the world. Or possibly it was pleased with the prospect. Inside its shell the three of them went about their early evening routine, like microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster.  (page 210-211)

I say this is terrific horror fiction writing.  Is the hotel indifferent, inatimate, or is it alive enough to be pleased?  The people inside are small, insignificant, already eaten by the monster who only has to digest them.   They don't even know what's already happened to them.

Once he has them tapped inside a small space, Stephen King can examine his characters to his heart's content.  The father's alcoholism, the mother's damaged relationship with her own parents, the young son's inability to understand the things he 'hears' are all the main subjects of the book's first half.  The haunted hotel won't really come into play until the last third of the book.

Stephen King would do this again and again in books like Cujo, Gerald's Game, Misery, Under the Dome, but he had already done it in his first novel when Carrie's mother locked her in the closet and when she locked her classmates in the high school gym in the books climatic final scenes.  There's something about being confined that is both fascinating and frightening.  The notion of being locked inside a great hotel is both appealing and unnerving.  Wouldn't it be great to have free run of the entire place?  Wouldn't be awfully spooky at the same time?  To be there all alone.

But The Shining is more than a classic haunted house story.  It's also a thorough portrait of an alcoholic.  In fact, for much of the novel's first half, it looks like Jack Torrance is really the victim of his own disease rather than that of whatever haunts The Overlook hotel.  Everything that has brought his family to the hotel is the result of Jack's drinking.  That they remain in the hotel, that he is so susceptible to the hotel's darker inhabitants are both due to his unresolved issues with drinking.

Because there is no alcohol in the hotel, Stephen King presents Jack as what my friends in AA call a dry drunk.  Jack doesn't drink anymore, but he has never been through the program, never come to terms with his condition.  This affects his wife and his son both.

While I have no first hand experience with these issues, thankfully, everyone I know in AA was in AA long before I met them, my sense is that Stephen King has done a remarkable job portraying what it's like to be an alcoholic who doesn't drink.  Take this passage, a scene shortly after Jack has been in the hotel bar and met Lloyd, the bartender.

All the same, a bitterly powerful wave of nostalgia swept over him, an the physical craving for a drink seemed to work itself up from his belly to his throat to his mouth and nose, shriveling and wrinkling the tissues as it went, making them cry out for something wet and long and cold. (page 238)

In The Shining, Stephen King must be working through his own issues with alcohol, his own issues with what he was like when he was drinking.  This adds a dimension to the story that helps build the overall tension and makes for a much more profound read.  This scary book has some things to say that many readers will recognize.

30 years after I first read it, you can still count me as a fan.