29 October 2010

The Shining

It was really gratifying watching this with my girlfriend since she had never seen it before (hello, Jen). I mean, I watched it to see how a master handles scary, and how a child's perspective (and performance) can carry a story of this magnitude, and on both fronts I was more than impressed, I was moved -- but having a brand new pair of eyes experiencing it all for the first time really showed how it remains legitimately one of the scariest and smartest films put together. It is scary, not just creepy, and it's intense, not just tense.

It's also got a lot going on, storywise, without ever getting too bogged down in the details. There are at least two kinds of "magic" at work here, and while Dick Halloran connects the mysteries of the Overlook to the power of the Shining, it's unclear if he's being literal or trying to help little Danny understand one by relating it to the other. Even if they're related, the spiritual presence of the hotel and its grip on Jack is not the same as the power that Danny, Dick and Dick's grandma share, but the story isn't bogged down by these separate conceits at all, and of course it's enriched by how they interact. (I know it's all based on the Stephen King novel and that even though a lot gets changed in the translation, I doubt either of those two elements changed... right?) It's interesting to look at at this from a script standpoint and wonder who the protagonist really is, because it's pretty unconventional in that sense, but tonight I wasn't looking at the script. I was looking at the sense of terror.

75% of that terror feels performance-based to me, and while I do think Jack Nicholson may be overacting (arguably, all three leads are, and Scatman Crothers isn't exactly a subtle actor either), but it's the specific way he's overacting which not just saves the performance but drives it out of the park. There's something willful and unpredictable in the directions Jack Torrance's manic reactions take during each scene. One example that stood out was, a hearty gulp of whiskey -- the man's first in five long, miserably dry months -- is greeted with a kind of deadpan slackjawed blankness, rather than the ecstatic joy you'd expect (which would also better suit his dialogue, which conveys a sort of ecstatic joy). Throughout, his reactions are brilliantly over the top in all the perfectly wrong ways, and it's unsettling to watch.

Another 20% or so of the terror in The Shining comes out of the editing, of course, especially when you consider that (unless I'm mistaken) child actor Danny Lloyd didn't fully understand the film he was making and never (at the time) saw a cut of the movie -- it's possible I read he's never, ever seen the actual movie. Still, his hammy-moppet reactions are perfect representations of the kind of overdone shock a child would feel when facing a quick flash of hacked-up little girls, or a tidal wave of blood bearing down on you; and his monologue scenes where he talks to Tony are pretty much pitch-perfect and impeccably timed, for just one child alone, talking to and reacting to his own voice. It was interesting to watch this and really think about what it would (will?) take to get the right performance from child actors in a story of this nature. I'm going to have to be bold. I think I can do it, but it'll be new territory for me.

Anyway, this isn't a blog about my projects, it's a blog about the films I watch. The Shining is a masterpiece, and one of my favorite films by one of the greatest filmmakers (possibly only second to Dr. Strangelove? and maybe, depending on my mood, 2001), and tonight all of that was confirmed.

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