Sunday, August 17, 2014

Behind the Scenes: Scott Adlerberg on "The Shining"

Behind the Scenes is a weekly Sunday series that covers the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival presented by Bank of America. From food to films and traditions to (Airstream) trailers, we'll share secrets behind the Film Fest. Stick with us for all 10 weeks; by the end you'll be an expert! 

In this final installment of the 2014 Behind the Scenes series, resident film expert Scott Adlerberg, who hosts the Reel Talks discussions, shares his first experience viewing this week's film, The Shining (1980). 

Few movies have grown on me over the years as much as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has. I first saw it when I was seventeen years old, on its opening day – May 23, 1980.  Never had I been as excited to see a film. I’d read and loved the novel by Stephen King, which, to this day, I consider a horror masterpiece. Stanley Kubrick was already one of my favorite directors: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and even A Clockwork Orange (which I saw on HBO) were all movies I’d seen more than once.  When the news had come out that Kubrick was adapting King’s novel, I could barely believe it. The very idea of Kubrick doing a horror film, my favorite genre then, was thrilling, and that he would adapt my favorite horror novel seemed like something I’d dreamt. Then to hear that none other than Jack Nicholson would star in the lead role as Jack Torrance was the icing on the cake.  I knew, positively knew, this would be a film I would see, consider great, and instantly rank among my all-time favorites.

It didn’t quite happen that way. Kubrick’s film makes a number of key changes to King’s book, and when I first saw the movie, these alterations bothered me. I understood that film adaptations don’t have to follow their source material and sometimes improve upon their source material by making changes, but the book version of The Shining seemed so well-suited to be a movie, I wondered why Kubrick had changed it. Of course I also grasped that Kubrick was being himself, the inimitable and original Stanley K, and that he had chosen the book not to rehash King’s ideas of fear and horror but to develop his own.

There is plenty of light in the park so you won't be too scared during the horror film. For more information about the lighting during the Film Festival, check out this blog post

In a nutshell, one could say that King’s book goes for both psychological and visceral horror. The characters face emotional demons and physical threat. And you like and care for these people, including, up to a point, the tormented Jack Torrance, who transforms from troubled but loving husband and father into a homicidal raging monster trying to kill his wife and son. It’s the primal quality of that transformation – father as protector into father as monstrous destroyer – that carries power in the book, and as the story's tension grows, you are right there with the characters, feeling the conflicting emotions of each.

Kubrick, on the other hand, keeps you at a distance. He cast Shelly Duval as Jack’s wife Wendy in part because, superb actress though she is, she has a slightly eccentric quality that doesn’t make her “audience-friendly”. Even Danny Lloyd, who plays their son Danny, has an aloof manner. The film unfolds in a way that is more like a slow burn than a traditional horror thriller, and this rhythm, even as a Kubrick fan, annoyed me a bit. Added to which was the film’s ending, the last scene, something not in the book. While King resolves the novel with safety and closure, the horror finished (though there will be mental scars), Kubrick’s movie ends on an enigmatic note that left me frustrated. It didn’t seem necessary. Why couldn’t Kubrick, for once, just do things in a straightforward way? I asked myself. He had topnotch horror material yet he directed it to create conundrum upon conundrum, going for creepiness more than real horror. I’d enjoyed the sardonic notes in the film – vintage Kubrick (and Nicholson) – and especially liked the last forty five minutes, when Nicholson is in full psycho mode pursuing Danny and Wendy, but the lead up to that part and its aftermath left me feeling disappointed. Still, I couldn’t let it go at that.  This was a Stanley Kubrick film and nobody ever said Kubrick’s films are easy. You have to wrestle with them. You have to see them two or three times to do them justice. As I was leaving the theater, mulling over the film, I was certain I’d be seeing it again.

Thankfully the Looney Tunes cartoon that precedes every film screening in the Film Festival will help cut the tension before this Monday's horror film.
And I have. Many times since then, with an appreciation that grew and grew until now I see it as one of the great horror films. It does indeed build gradually, emphasizing eeriness and disorientation over shocks. It has an unnerving mood like no other film. True, you don’t get as emotionally attached to the characters as you do to King’s, but you watch with mounting dread as this small family unit, in chilling increments, implodes. There has never been a more disturbing portrayal of a writer blocked than Jack Nicholson in this movie, and the scene where Wendy discovers what he has been writing for weeks and weeks instead of his supposed novel is a definite classic. As with all Kubrick films, the music is effective - dissonant, jarring - and the famous Kubrick tracking shots make the Overlook Hotel seem at once huge and claustrophobic. By the time Nicholson’s character loses it and starts wielding an ax to kill his wife and son, you are mesmerized and on edge. The suspense of the last 45 minutes gets your pulse racing. You may sweat, but you also feel cold. You feel as if you’re trapped with Danny and Wendy in the snowbound hotel. And the riddles Kubrick poses, the multiple interpretations possible to explain everything that occurred? Now, to me, these only make the film seem richer – one reason I can see it over and over.

HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival
Mondays, June 16 through August 18
Lawn opens at 5pm
Films start 30 minutes after sunset

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