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Kubrick, The Shining & Eating My Cinematic Greens…

I always feel a slight pang of guilt whenever I find myself discussing the work of Stanley Kubrick. Don’t get me wrong – I have a massive amount of respect for the director. I think he’s one of the very finest cinematic minds of his generation, a very shrewd and sophisticated cinematic intelligence who carefully constructed a series of masterpieces that exemplify some of the finest aspects of the medium. However, I always feel a slight hint of shame when asked to name my favourite Stanley Kubrick film. I’ll try to deflect, but if the matter is pressed I’ll answer honestly: The Shining is the Stanley Kubrick film that I love the most.

It feels like a bit of a cheat, a bit of an evasion. As much as people like The Shining – and people do adore the film – I feel a pang of guilt that I immediately go to the most populist film on Kubrick’s filmography. The Shining is saturated with meaning and depth, as is all of Kubrick’s work, but it seems like the most shallow or the least profound work in the Kubrick canon. And yet I love it more than Kubrick’s more philosophical, bolder, more challenging pieces of work.

I feel vaguely like I’m skimping on my cinematic greens.

Don’t get me wrong. The Shining is an exemplary piece of cinema. Of course I’m going to say that, because I’m a huge fan of it, but most commentators would agree that there’s a considerable amount of depth and sophistication to the film. A lot of people would consider it one of the finest horror films ever made. The superb Room 237 demonstrates that there are quite a few people who think that is even more than that.

However, despite being generally agreed to be one of the finest films ever made, it’s still regarded as something of a lesser Kubrick film. 2001: A Space Odyssey is more profound and broader in its scope. Barry Lyndon was filmed using neat technical innovations that allowed Kubrick to film scenes by candle-light. A Clockwork Orange is an exploration of individuality and society. Dr. Strangelove is perhaps the bleakest (and funniest) exploration of nuclear armageddon ever produced. Full Metal Jacket is widely considered one of the boldest statements ever made about the Vietnam war. Virtually the only film in the Kubrick canon that is held in lower esteem than The Shining is Eyes Wide Shut. And even that is undergoing something of a rehabilitation.

The Shining was critically mauled on initial release. Variety, the industry bible, famously suggested, “The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric.” Although, to be fair, it isn’t alone among Kubrick’s films in that regard – many of his films were only evaluated as classic long after their release. However, I think The Shining did come under heavier contemporary fire than most of Kubrick’s other films:

This was reflected in The Shining becoming the only one of Kubrick’s post 1960s films not to receive a single Oscar or Golden Globe nomination in any category. In fact, The Shining’s most significant piece of contemporary recognition was to earn the filmmaker a nomination for Worst Director at the inaugural Golden Raspberry Awards in 1981.

I also think that it’s rehabilitation hasn’t been quite as thorough as Kubrick’s other work. Even Barry Lyndon, I would suggest, has gained a higher standing as a more sophisticated piece of cinema. It was almost immediately the source of an attempted re-evaluation and even the centre-piece of a recent BFI celebration of Kubrick’s work, with Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” retrospective opening, “Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, received indifferently in 1975, has grown in stature in the years since and is now widely regarded as one of the master’s best.”

On the other hand, the discourse over The Shining in the (engrossing and fascinating) Room 237 finds the hotel’s history, geography and thematic attributes are lumped together with the theory that Stanley Kubrick faked the moo- landing. Or, at least, the footage of the moon-landing. I can’t help but suspect that the film occupies a respected second-tier among Kubrick’s work because it is an admittedly populist work in the admittedly populist horror  genre. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an entry in the equally oft-ignored science-fiction genre, but it’s also more overt in its philosophy and more ambitious in its scope.

However, this cuts to the nub of my relationship with Kubrick as a film maker. I feel the need to be very careful about how I word this, because I don’t want to sound dismissive, or adversarial, or confrontational. I don’t want it to seem like I don’t have a massive amount of respect for Kubrick, or that I don’t recognise his contributions to cinema, or even that I don’t like his work. I think that anybody with even a passing interest in film should have a run through a significant portion of Kubrick’s impressive filmography.

However, most of Kubrick’s films impress me far more than they engage me. I am aware of the craft and skill that went into them, and I am awed by them – but I often feel slightly disconnected from them. I feel almost like that’s a shameful confession, and it’s time that I pack up this blog and start doing something else. If I can’t truly love Stanley Kubrick’s work as much as I respect him, then I clearly don’t care about film as a medium. Confessing it publicly like this is just reckless arrogance – I should at least have the wherewithal to suffer my shame in private. I feel as if I’m violating some unspoken edict by airing this view, and I have some sort of serious problem when it comes to appreciating or discussing film.

It’s interesting how many of us approach “classic” film. There seems to be a popular idea that there’s a certain amount of respect inherently due to certain films and directors in lieu of their massive contributions to the shaping of the medium – and I respect that. I am not suggesting for an instant that this respect has not been earned in Kubrick’s case. That said, while I respect and appreciate technical craft and skilled construction, my relationship with film is typically less intellectual and more visceral. And I often feel a sense of shame in admitting that, as if my critical faculties aren’t quite as honed as they should be.

I can appreciate the skill involved in doing something, or in pulling off a particular trick – whether it’s purely technical or in plot construction or in the way the movie is filmed – but I don’t tend to resonate with such things. Perhaps it is a failure of my own critical faculties that I tend to favour emotional connection rather than intellectual stimulation. And that’s not to suggest that Kubrick’s films are entirely “cold.” I just think they are more fascinating and stimulating intellectually than on a more visceral level.

I appreciate the technique in Full Metal Jacket, but I am still far more likely to cite Platoon or Apocalypse Now as my favourite films about the Vietnam War. I’ll concede that Full Metal Jacket is probably better put together than Platoon as a piece of cinema, but it felt just a little but too passive and disengaged. While Platoon was much more subjective and personal, Full Metal Jacket was more thoughtful and a little broader. It also felt a step removed from the madness that Apocalypse Now embraced in earnest.

There are, of course, films that can be both intellectually and emotionally stimulating – I love The Godfather both as an outstanding example of craft, but also as a classic and affecting story. However, with many of the classical directors, I’m far more likely to favour the more emotional stuff over the more disconnected work, even if the disconnected story is more technically impressive. I am a big fan of Sergio Leone. I watched Once Upon a Time in America once, and I quite liked it. However, I’m likely to watch The Good, The Bad & The Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West about once a year.

I’ll concede that – taken on its objective merits – Once Upon a Time in America is probably just as strong as (if not stronger than) The Good, The Bad & The Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West. However, I’m much less likely to return to it. And, I suppose, that means I am much less likely to find new stuff in it, or to dig into it. I certainly don’t regret watching it, and I would recommend it to any fan of epic drama. I think it stands as an example of Leone’s work as a master film maker. However, I’d feel just a little bit disingenuous if I tried to argue that I liked it as much as the other two films mentioned.

The same is true of Kubrick’s work. I recognised his skill, and I really like his work. A box set of Kubrick’s films will be arriving in my door soon. I bought it when I released I wouldn’t have time to make it to the cinema to see the re-released American cut (or, as my better half quipped, “chop”) of The Shining. I am very much looking forward to cracking it open. However, I find myself more excited at the notion of the Alfred Hitchcock collection I ordered at the same time. While both are great autuers, I just enjoy Hitchcock’s work more.

I feel a bit guilty confessing this, as if I am a petulant little child refusing to eat his cinematic greens. It is, the voice inside my head suggests, okay to appreciate the populist cinema, of course, but one must be careful not to confuse it with real art. When I name The Shining as my favourite Kubrick film, I feel like I’m committing some massive cinematic faux pas, opting for the hamburger and chips when the menu offers so many other more rewarding dishes. And yet, 2001: A Space Odyssey is really the only other Kubrick film I would see myself returning to on a regular basis.

I just engage with the Torrence family more than I do with any of Kubrick’s other protagonists, and there’s something more emotionally engaging about the whole movie than most of Kubrick’s films – something more primal and intimate than in a lot of his other work. And I just respond to that more than to the bolder or broader philosophical, moral or intellectual questions posed elsewhere in his work. That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate them – it just means that I appreciate the personal connection more.

11 Responses

  1. A *Fantastic* read to get me into my weekend – thank-you for that sir.

    I wouldn’t say that choosing THE SHINING as one’s favorite Kubrick is taking the populist way out, and even if it was, what’s wrong with that? There are some who do consider “Satisfaction” their favorite Rolling Stones song. I think the key is that even though THE SHINING is populist, that it still comes with a great deal of craft.

    As for not “liking” Kubrick, I hassle people about that, but do understand your position. I respect and admire Mozart, but you won’t find any of his work on my iPod. To me what counts is that you recognize the craft in what Kubrick did, as opposed to many film lovers I know who just can’t get into his work on any level.

    Great post!

    • Thanks Ryan, I know you’re a Kubrick enthusiast, so that’s high praise indeed!

      And I definitely respect Kubrick’s work, even if I don’t necessarily respond to all of it – if that makes sense?

  2. Most films are covertly fascist or play to fascist sensibilities, while Kubrick questions and undermines drives. That’s why he appeals to thinkers and is dismissed by people who more broadly “like films for how those films make them feel”

    • Fair point, Corey.

      Although fascist does seem a bit like a loaded term to use in context – maybe “direct” or “targeted”? I get that most films are designed to reinforce their own world view and to convince the audience of their position – that’s why “I never connected with the characters” or “it doesn’t feel real” are biting criticism – but fascist is always something I took to be a lot more aggressive. We might describe certain films as “bombastic” or “forceful”, but I don’t think that the vast majority of films are so strongly dedicated to overwhelming their audience.

      But I think I see what you’re getting at, and perhaps it’s a valid arguement. Although I’m not convinced that that Kubrick’s appeal is exclusive to “thinkers” or that any “thinker” is going to automatically respond to Kubrick.

  3. Great article – and you shouldn’t be ashamed to call The Shining your favorite Kubrick film, it is incredibly deep, even deceptively so, and the steadicam work alone is unmatched.
    I still need to see Room 237, though.

  4. Don’t apologize for loving The Shining. I hold Kubrick in cinematic reverence and I still go back to the Shining more than his other films. The popularity of it doesn’t take away any of my love for the film, because, as you so pointedly stated, it strikes me as more personal. What lies beneath the exterior personality of the family as individuals basically shapes how they will deal with their struggles at the outlook. Their character, strengths and weakness’ are ultimately revealed by the Outlook Hotel. Keep up the good work! And don’t even hint at apologizing for what you love!

    • Thanks Freddy. I really appreciate that. I do still feel a pang of “guilt” when I hold an opinion that is so far outside accepted thinking, as if I don’t “get” it, or something as ridiculous.

  5. This is the first I’ve heard of The Shining being regarded as below-average for Kubrick. In my experience, both critics and casual moviegoers consistently rank it among his top four, with only 2001, Doctor Strangelove, and occasionally Clockwork Orange being more esteemed.

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