Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten great movies #5: The Shining

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For most of the past decade, the Kubrick film on this list would have been Eyes Wide Shut, and while my love for that movie remains undiminished—I think it’s Kubrick’s most humane and emotionally complex work, and endlessly inventive in ways that most viewers tend to underestimate—it’s clear now that The Shining is more central to my experience of the movies. I realized this only recently, after seeing it at midnight earlier this year at the Music Box in Chicago, but this is still a film that has been growing in my estimation for a long time. The crucial factor, perhaps unsurprisingly, was my decision to become a writer. Because while there have been a lot of movies about novelists, The Shining is by far our greatest storehouse of images about the inside of a writer’s head. “You’ve always been the caretaker,” Grady’s ghost says to blocked writer Jack Torrance, and his personality suffuses every frame of the movie whose uneasy center he occupies.

The visual, aural, and visceral experience of The Shining is so overwhelming that there’s no need to describe it here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the performances, which are the richest that Kubrick—often underrated in his handling of actors—ever managed to elicit. At one point, I thought that the film’s only major flaw is that it was impossible to imagine Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a married couple, but I’m no longer sure about this: there are marriages this strange and mismatched, and the glimpses of their relationship early in the movie are depressingly plausible. As David Thomson was among the first to point out, Nicholson is great when he plays crazy, but he’s also strangely tender in his few quiet scenes with his son. And Duvall gives what is simply one of the major female performances in the history of movies, even if we suspect, after hearing of the hundreds of takes she was forced to endure, that something more than mere acting was involved.

Tomorrow: The triumph of the studio system.

Written by nevalalee

December 5, 2011 at 10:00 am

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