Minutia Madness: The Shining
By Bret Dorman
(As always, SPOILERS! may apply to the movie in discussion.)Everyone knows what makes a movie good. Blurbs like “compelling”, “powerful”, and “explosive non stop thrill ride that will leave you on the edge of your seat!” are common place on movie posters. In reviews (including my own) people point out how the direction is “great”, how the writing is “awesome”, and how the acting is “wonderful”. Every once in a while you can find a really great essay from a smart film critic (a real one) or film maker that actually explains why a movie is good and helps you as a viewer become a better film watcher.
But what about those small moments that fall in between the cracks? I understand the need to talk about a movie in the broad sense, its the easiest most SPOILER! free way of saying if you liked or didn’t like a movie. I prefer people to talk in specifics, to actually know why something is good or bad. But this goes beyond all that. This is blowing the tiniest detail way out of proportion. This is what makes me a film nerd. This is Minutia Madness!!!
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson; Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The Shining, like Kubrick himself, is often considered in ‘best of’ conversations, most applicably ‘best of horror.’ Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, an arguably sane person at the start of the movie who becomes more and more crazy by the end. While this transformation happens before our very eyes, the real festering of these feelings occurred three years ago, involving an incident with his son. This incident is what caused Jack to sober up. This incident is also what caused Jack to hold resentment towards his family, resentment that The Overlook Hotel easily taps into. Watch Jack indulge in some drinking debauchery as he recalls the whole ordeal:
(The entire clip is good, but the part in discussion occurs around 2:36)
While I’ve never been a huge Nicholson fan, this scene is full of great detail. Tons of tiny character moments fill the empty spaces between his half-crazed half-psuedo-drunken ramblings. However, right at the end is the creme de la creme. “A momentary loss of muscular coordination” he innocently uses to describe his physical violence toward his son, contrasting his violent yanking motion he uses to re-enact the moment. At this point in the film, his descent into the hotel’s evil grasp can be summed up with the final gesture of the clip before his wife comes running in to him. The snap and dismissive wave. His entire frustrations are channelled into his hands as he tries to snap his responsibility away, then wave the gesture off in a “what can you do?” manner. While the performance is trademark Nicholson Over-The-Top, he shows complete Kubrick-like calculated control as he checks his empty surroundings and tucks away his wallet. This is how an actor creates a memorable performance, in the minute details.One thing that will always tickle my inner film critic, is movie characters. I mean, I can admire the three dimensional portrayal of realistic people on film. I like movies that have depth in characters and deeply profound performances. Yet, I can’t help but have a soft spot for those more theatrical and exaggerated performances. Yes, Nicholson gives a great performance, but ultimately his job is ‘to be crazy.’ Where some people might just shout a lot and give crazy eyes, Nicholson fully absorbs the role. He drinks it in like the (imaginary?) drink he gets from Lloyd. You can feel it tingle throughout his entire body. You can see him practically smirk at his own movements.
This scene seems more carefully choreographed than most “shaky-muddled” fight scenes in most Hollywood actioners. The intricate marriage of mind, body, and words comes through with exact precision. Nicholson transcends ‘the crazy guy’ to deliver one of the most memorable and iconic film roles. The snap and wave only cements this characters madness as he reflects on the one time he snapped, and thus waved off the next three years of his life to wife-nagging and forced guilt. Its not his fault his kid made a mess. Its not his fault there were a few extra foot-pounds of energy per second (per second). Its not his fault his wife won’t ever let him forget. But what can you do?The more Torrance tries to bottle up his rage the sweeter it is when he finally gives in the the bottle of booze. All those years of trying to forget the past and move on are released with evil anger as he is pushed over the edge. The snap and wave both simulate the snap judgement of anger and dismissive ness over the past three years as well as this moment being the straw that broke the camels back, and Nicholsons complete blasé attitude towards slaughtering his family.
While the movie has many big moments (“Here’s Johnny!”) and many, many interpretations (Moon Landing Admission?), the psychological horror Kubrick & Co. dream up is top notch. From creepy twins to bloody elevators to Scatman Crothers to toy tricycles to hedge mazes; The Shining is a movie that is bigger than life. So it only makes sense that today, we celebrate one tiny hand gesture that’s just as big as the rest of the film. This is how its done.
So what do you think? Have I psychically tapped into something greater? Or am I just “out of my fucking mind” for focusing on this minute detail?
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