I once saw an interview with Steven Spielberg during which he confessed that the first time he saw Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” he didn’t like it at all, but since then he’s watched it at least 25 times.
I can’t remember the first time I saw “The Shining.” It’s one of those movies that’s just always been around in my life, sort of like how Jack Torrance has always been the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. I do remember as a kid going to our local fireman’s carnival and winning a “Here’s Johnny!” T-shirt emblazoned with Jack Nicholson’s face grinning through the splintered bathroom door. (My mother hated that shirt and used to hide it from me every time it went through the wash. Years later, when I was in high school, she’d do the same with the “Blue Velvet” tee I’d bought boasting Frank Booth’s unprintable catch-phrase.)
I videotaped “The Shining” during one of its frequent airings on Boston’s old UHF channel 56, whose broadcast standards generously used to leave in all the violence and swear words, but drew the line at nudity and blurred it out. For a long time I thought the woman in Room 237 took a shower so hot that the steam clouds conveniently covered up her naughty bits.
I must have watched that tape at least a dozen times, but I never saw “The Shining” on a big screen until last Saturday night at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Being surrounded by 16-inch snowdrifts on an 8-degree evening seemed like ideal viewing conditions, and after spending half the week housebound because of this cursed weather, I was suffering Torrance-levels of cabin fever myself. “The Shining” has taken up residency for the month of January at the Coolidge, screening every Saturday night in a change of pace for the theater’s After Midnite series, which typically sticks to one-off showings. Programmer Mark Anastasio joked during his introduction that there’s something about the movie’s haunting repetitions that made him consider keeping it around for a while.
For a picture I thought I’d seen countless times, turns out I hadn’t really seen “The Shining” at all. It’s an entirely different experience on an enormous screen with a terrified crowd, the eerie symmetry of Kubrick’s careful compositions and the droning sound design conjuring an almost hypnotic trance. The film’s succession of endlessly roving Steadicam shots — whether in the hotel itself our outside in the topiary maze — become Möbius strips of movement, circling around and around in the same lulling patterns while never really getting anywhere.
That’s the whole thing with “The Shining,” isn’t it? You never really do get anywhere with it, and yet the movie leaves you wanting to come back for more. (Were it not for other obligations I’d probably be at every screening this month.) It is a film that feels tantalizingly incomplete, missing just a few crucial pieces that you feel certain you’re bound to catch the next time around. Every time I watch “The Shining” I’m pretty sure I’ve got it almost all figured out and then the whole thing just kinda gets away from me, like the way terrible nightmares dissolve in the morning light.
No wonder people hated it in 1980. During the second half of his career, Kubrick’s movies were generally greeted as disappointments only to years later be reconsidered masterpieces, and “The Shining” garnered him a nomination for Worst Director and a nod for Shelley Duvall as Worst Actress at the first annual Razzie Awards. (They competed with Brian De Palma and Nancy Allen, both nominated for the magnificent “Dressed to Kill,” just in case there was any doubt the Razzies had terrible taste from their inception and that the whole organization should be fired out of a cannon into the sun.)
Of course the guy who famously hates this movie most is the source material’s original author Stephen King, who eventually went and penned his own dreadful television adaption in 1997 that hewed more closely to his novel and even added an unintentionally hilarious epilogue during which the ghost of Jack Torrance appears, blowing kisses and saying “I love you” at his son Danny’s high school graduation. For real.
We really shouldn’t be too hard on King, as he’s made no secrets about this story’s autobiographical origins, with Jack the blocked writer’s battle against the demons urging him to kill his wife and son being a fairly transparent stand-in for the author’s own struggles with his rather legendary alcoholism and cocaine addiction. In King’s book Jack Torrance is redeemed, whereas in Kubrick’s movie he remains a monster to the bitterly chilly end. Indeed, the most common criticism of the film is that Nicholson’s Jack doesn’t seem to really even like his nagging wife and creepy kid in the first place, so the demons at the Overlook don’t need to do all that much to set him off.
Thanks to the internet, you can lose entire days going down wild rabbit holes of various interpretations of Kubrick’s adaptation. Rodney Ascher’s crazily entertaining 2012 documentary “Room 237” features a variety of tinfoil hat types explaining that “The Shining” is either about the Holocaust, the Native American genocide or (my favorite crackpot theory) Kubrick’s coded apology for helping NASA fake the Apollo moon landing footage. This tale of madness appears to inspire a similar condition in its viewers.
And why wouldn’t it? “The Shining” is an intensely claustrophobic movie set within a gigantic space. It’s a Gothic horror film with almost no shadows or darkness whatsoever, casting everything in a disturbingly even winter light. Kubrick was such a famously fastidious filmmaker that all the movie’s weird continuity blurps and subliminal strangeness simply must be well-reasoned and intentional.
So why is Jack reading a Playgirl magazine at his job interview? How come the hotel’s iconic rug pattern reverses itself between shots of Danny playing on it with his toy cars? And perhaps most importantly, what’s up with that guy in the bear costume performing fellatio on another ghost?
I’m this close to answering all of these questions about “The Shining.” I just need to watch it a few more times.
“The Shining” is playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Jan. 13, 20 and 27.