After-Image: ‘The Shining’ (1980)

After-Image looks at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This week: Space, the final frontier of fear.

Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This time: Space, the final frontier of fear.

I don’t like getting lost.

In our family unit, I’m the guy with the decent sense of direction; stick me in a blindfold, spin me round a few times and I’ll come out pointing North. Luckily, movies are designed for people like me. As a 2D representation of a 3D volume, a lot of the grammar of films that has developed over the years has been to do with ensuring the audience understands where everyone is in relation to everyone else and to the surrounding space. If you’ve never thought about this, I really recommend checking out Walter Murch’s rules of editing and the idea of the 180 degree rule and you’ll see what I mean. If the director or editor messes up it can seriously throw an audience off – a good example of this is the car chase at the top of Quantum of Solace which is so badly constructed it’s difficult to work out what in the name of Moore is going on. A lot of the bad press that movie has got over the years is due to audience disengaging early on because they simply can’t follow the action; which car is where, how far the cars are from each other, who’s doing what. As a result, they never really buy back into the rest of the movie.

But what if you’re a bona fide genius who knows all these rules, know the importance of them to keep an audience comfortable and watching and then decide to break them anyway?

Today’s shot is this:

It’s nothing special, really; the framing is central which allows the man behind the desk to dominate the scene and emphasises the less powerful position of the two guys sitting in front of him. The mise en scene is resolutely bland; there’s no Ridley Scott style visual information overload or Spielberg stripped down narrative focus here. Verisimilitude is the order of the day. We’re supposed to look at this office and see the ordinary, the usual, the normal. Yet this frame is something very interesting. This frame is Stanley Kubrick screwing with you with all the verve of Hannibal Lecter dissecting Clarice’s psyche before breakfast.

The film is, of course, The Shining; filmed entirely on a massive soundstage, the interior of the Overlook hotel was constructed as a single, almost contiguous environment. All the lighting equipment was hidden and controlled off camera to give the illusion of natural light and to let Kubrick send his brand-new Steadicam toy prowling the corridors unfettered. This is the scene where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, at this point in the film only overacting to the tune of 0.3 Shatners*) is being interviewed for the caretaker’s job. The man in the position of power is Ullman, the manager, and we are in Ullman’s office.

An interesting  note is that Jack is discomfited in this scene for reasons we can’t quite identify; his confidence is brittle. When we see the reverse shot of him, his face is washed out by the light from the window, foreshadowing the look we see later in the film when he watches Wendy and Danny in the snow as a vacant, empty shell being filled by the echoes of the Overlook.

We are discomfited as well, for reasons we can’t identify. This scene feels wrong, forced, somehow and we can’t work out why. The reason is the same as Jack.

This is an impossible space.

Watch the scene again; it’s available in Youtube. Ullman leads Jack through the Colorado lounge via the corridors that run around the back and into his office. The only problem is that Ullman’s office is an internal space; behind the back wall where that bright, numinous window sits is a corridor. Likewise above is the second floor of the hotel. There cannot be a skylight there.

As people who have been weaned on visual grammar as established by a hundred years of cinema we know that this space is wrong on a visceral level even if we can’t identify why. Kubrick is using our experience and knowledge against us without us even realising it. In case you’re wondering if this is a fluke, it isn’t. We see a lovely aerial shot of the Overlook and the exterior as constructed in the Soundstage follows it exactly. If the building looks like that then the Gold Room – that vast hall where Jack gets a drink from a ghostly bartender and finds himself in a flappers-era ball – simply cannot fit. Again, our subconscious rebels. It gets worse, of course; there are a lot of times where Kubrick introduces deliberate continuity errors. In the scene when Wendy is talking to jack in the Colorado lounge, watch the chairs in the background – they keep moving. This happens a lot and always in the background, always with small details that the audience will not consciously notice but which unbalances and discomforts us.

Because of Kubrick’s repeated little tricks like this throughout The Shining, a cottage industry of conspiracy theories has sprung up around it in recent years; there are some who will tell you it is a coded admission from Kubrick that he faked the moon landings; that it is a coded treatise on the genocide of the native American peoples; that it is a coded examination of the Holocaust. All of these close readings may or may not be true (apart from the Moon landing one, that’s just insane) but they are all equally irrelevant.

The fact is that Kubrick has pulled two tricks; first, by creating these impossible visual spaces and arrangements of objects in space that do not abide by the rules of cinema he has created the only truly haunted space in the history of cinema. The environment itself is a character and it is malignant, making us uncomfortable and unbalancing us is the same way the Overlook does Jack. Secondly, by creating a fractal level of detail he’s created a maze to entrap those who would look too closely into the fabric of the film; you’ll disappear down the rabbit hole and find yourself trapped inside your own reading like Jack ends up in the photograph from 1921.

All of that from a simple, balanced shot of an office? That’s why Kubrick was Kubrick and why The Shining can still unnerve, even after all these years.

* by the final shot of him sitting cross-legged and cross-eyed in the snow he’s topped out at 3.6 Shatners, an amount of ham proven by scientists to be able to stun a fully grown Brian Blessed at fifty yards.

Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial

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