Sunday, January 13, 2013

All Work and No Play

One of the most atmospheric and oddly stolid movies ever made, The Shining has a winter-light domestic-violence gloss to it that is more frightening than the intimations of gore Stanley Kubrick throws in for good measure.  It's meditative and grotesquely understated; the movie moves at a glacial pace, and yet has a narrative meanness to it, as if the storyteller is both pissed off and half-asleep.  By the end, when Jack Nicholson is chasing his own son with an ax in a frosty topiary maze you feel exhausted and somehow catapulted into a murky cranky dream.  In short, it's probably not a horror as much as a horror-movie tone-poem, running all the bases (there's even cob-webbed skeletons at the end, like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark) without touching any of them.  All head and no heart, but still the movie has a soul somehow:  it's intent on unnerving you, making you feel dread while also wrapping you in a trance. 
Shelly Duvall and Jack Nicholson are the leads, and they seem to have been cast as if Kubrick were trying to convey caricatures of horror:  the doe-eyed victim, the fang-toothed wolf.  Duvall plays it to the hilt, as does Nicholson:  victimization and predation are given iconic status.  But it isn't that scary really, just sort of over-archingly and outlandishly sad.   
Little did I know, until I watched the DVD of The Shining (I usually only caught it on cable, but the other day I got the urge to purchase it, $2.99 on Amazon), that Kubrick allowed his 17-year-old daughter Vivian to make a behind-the-scenes documentary.  It is a must-see companion to the movie, as it somehow humanizes Kubrick's shiny frieze of a movie, giving a backstory to the whole ominous enterprise.  In close-ups and jittery handheld pans we are witness to Nicholson getting primed to slam an ax into the bathroom door while just inside that doorway Duvall is screaming and holding a big butcher knife, the penultimate Shining setpiece.   The documentary de-glamorizes the whole thing, making the experience feel like some kind of sweet slightly blood-soaked quilting bee.  There's even an interview with Scatman Crothers that breaks your heart; he cries as he talks about how much he enjoyed making the movie.  Danny Lloyd, who plays the psychic little boy who likes to ride a Big Wheel around the haunted joint, is wonderfully not psychic and pale in his interviews.
The star of the documentary, however, is Duvall, who in interviews and behind-the-scenes activities shows why she was considered "difficult" by many of her co-stars.  Looking pale and sickly and sucking on cigarette after cigarette in the dim-lit little areas outside the soundstage, Duvall talks about how she's a little jealous of all the attention Nicholson gets, how she knows she's difficult but that's the process, and then there's one great moment when she complains about having to stick her head out an half-open window after Danny slides out to safety while Nicholson pounds that ax into the door.  It's in between takes, and she's sitting in that awful little bedroom the caretaking family shared in the movie.  She's pulling a little piece of hair from her head, and then says, "That window is taking chunks of my hair out."  She's just saying it to herself, but then she goes up to Kubrick and shows him the think wisps of hair she has, her evidence, and he just looks at her and then at the camera, baffled and a little pissed.  Then bam:  we're in the scene, Nicholson's face jumping through the hole his ax just made:  "Wendy, I'm home."
This whole Vivian-made documentary is like that, dreamlike and intimate in a way The Shining tried to be but couldn't quite make happen as Kubrick seems hellbent on making it "horrifying."  What's more complex and weird and funny is Vivian's take:  a bunch of kooky people, many who like tired hippies, standing around while Nicholson does jumping jacks and growls, trying to get into character right before he does the famous "All Work and No Play" scene with Duvall.  Vivian's movie allows you to see The Shining with peripheral vision, and it's a much better experience.
You can watch the whole thing for free here:  Vivian Kubrick's Making The Shining.