Welcome to the house of the spirits
What made Stanley Kubrick great? David Thomson analyses a celebrated scene from `The Shining', while, below, British actor Philip Stone, who was in it, recalls working with one of cinema's most enigmatic figures
Sunday 14 March 1999
The Shining is the Kubrick film I love the most, the one I like to watch at any time - because it is an enactment, a discovery, a thing of mysterious beauty, of which I never tire. And there are two key scenes in the film, moments which - while having an admitted air of the sinister - are far from the steep incline of horror or terror. I think of them as raptures, as that forlorn would-be novelist, Jack Torrance, suddenly discovers in his bare Overlook Hotel that fiction is everywhere. It is the emptiness, and the bright light. It's the shining.
The first scene comes after Jack has had a disagreeable time with Wendy, his "wife". He's at a loose end, grumbling to himself about life's pinched state. He enters the palatial but empty Gold Room and goes up to its abandoned bar. He covers his eyes, and summons all the dreaminess he can muster. And then there's Lloyd, the barman, tall, gaunt and chipper, death as a fixer-up, with, "What'll it be, Mr Torrance?"
Of course, Jack is a perilously reformed alcoholic, in the way we are all reformed something-or-others, hanging on, trying not to do the urgent thing. I do not minimise the disaster in life of booze, or all those other things. But maybe it's one disaster or another - don't reckon on getting away with it. If so, there's an ease and slippage, of giving in, as Jack sees Lloyd, that is one of the most lovely and lethal things on screen. It's a moment at which self-destruction slides into its own; and maybe, after all, self-destruction is our thing.
Leave that for the moment. Lloyd is the first decisive spirit of the house to appear in the film, the first welcome for Jack Torrance. As such, he is prelude to the magnificent Delbert Grady - played by Philip Stone. For a little later on, Jack goes down to the Gold Room again - it is crowded with patrons now, the haze of cigarette smoke, and the swoon of dance music. In fact, Jack takes a spin or two and that's what enables Grady, a drinks waiter, in black tie and tails, carrying advocaat on a tray, to bump into him. "It makes such a mess, sir," says Grady, dabbing at Jack's shabby windbreaker, and so he asks the soiled guest to accompany him to the gentlemen's room.
In the novel, Grady is a thug - not nearly as delicate or refined as Stone's man. He and Jack never retire. Thus, the Gentlemen's Room is Kubrick's creation, a furnace-bright room in blood-red and white enamel. The two men seem too large for it, and there are reverse angle two-shots of them poised and posed in the inane stance of dabber and dabbed. He says his name is Grady, and the owlish Jack works it out - for he knows that a Delbert Grady was the first caretaker at the Overlook, the man who got "cabin fever" and ran amok. Here he is, the perfect, deferential dumb waiter, as obedient to Jack's whim as Lloyd.
Jack is sliding, ebbing away from life, turning the corner, going round the bend - and he feels at ease for the first time in the movie. So, finally, he cannot resist asking: "Mr Grady, you were the caretaker here? You chopped your wife and daughters up in little bits. Then you blew your brains out." The lurid charge is turned into drawing-room small-talk by the exquisite, plaintive bafflement of Lock's answer: "That's strange, sir. I don't have any recollection of that at all."
Oh, it's frightening, I suppose, but everything we are seeing and hearing is so full of beauty - the vivid colouring of the bathroom; the nearly wavering statues of the two men; the dainty and the bloodthirsty joined in talk; and, above all, the lustrous feeling of descent into a world of fiction. No need to write now, Jack, for story is coming up to claim you, like warm water in a pool.
The "nightmare" is a kind of paradise. That's why The Shining is Kubrick's perfect film, the one in which he and his Jack are able to escape from such drab things as life, family, staying on the wagon, and being responsible, and glide into that frictionless form, the realistic fantasy of life-like pictures. For I don't think Kubrick was a warm or clubbable man. I suspect he felt disgust, or disappointment, with much of life. He wanted the reverie of art, the escape - that deep space. He wanted to be on holiday from life in his own Overlook, and in The Shining he wanted Nicholson to look like Stanley Kubrick.
Now, none of this is nice or cheering - it's as alarming as a deft drinks waiter turning into the master of the haunted house. There's no consolation, that thing art has allegedly bargained to give us. Of course, there is no bargain or contract. Kubrick was an early instance of the artist who had given up on life, doing your best, and humanism. So the meek, hugely skilled figure of Philip Stone was where Kubrick found his sword.
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