The privilege of genius

Last weekend I saw Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining for the first time. Two nights later I saw it for the second time. I’ve also done some reading on the Internet about this movie and how it was made, as well as biographical information about Kubrick.

I’ve seen about half of the movies Kubrick made, and I’d like to see the rest, except for maybe his earliest work. Kubrick is acknowledged a genius in the making of movies, with classics such as Spartacus and 2001: Space Odyssey to his credit. He is famous for shooting each scene dozens of times to achieve the best possible result; also, he is famous for detailed and meticulous planning of his filming, so that everything in each frame contributes to the story that the movie is depicting.

For example, in one of his movies, two characters are having dinner, and they are seen from various angles while they eat and drink. Yet the amount of food and wine in front of them fluctuate irregularly rather than disappearing steadily, as one would expect during a meal. Any other director would have been accused of continuity errors, but Kubrick says that he mangled the continuity purposely to make viewers share the feeling of disorientation that the main character was feeling.

The Shining has similar distortions of continuity which Kubrick’s fans consider deliberate and meaningful. During one conversation, Jack pulls a sheet of paper out of his typewriter and rips it to pieces; minutes later he is typing again—paper is in the typewriter, even though he never added another sheet. In the same conversation a chair is seen behind Jack at first, but it has disappeared later. In the pantry cans of food appear mid-scene on shelves that were previously emptier. In other scenes items are rearranged from moment to moment without ever being touched. Even light switches and electrical outlets appear and disappear during the course of the movie.

One might assume that all these distortions are simply continuity errors, but with Kubrick’s reputation for genius and for meticulous planning, his fans are certain that every one of these distortions was done for a reason. Because The Shining is about haunting and supernatural abilities, some viewers assume that moving chairs and lamps reveal telekinetic abilities of the characters. Others think that the hotel itself is inhabited by malignant spirits that steal light switches and provide paper for Jack’s typewriter. Because the cans of food which appear out of nowhere have a Native American as their logo, some viewers think that the entire movie contains a message about Native Americans.

Of course it is also possible that by filming each scene dozens of times, Kubrick left himself vulnerable to continuity errors. Maybe after filming the conversation five or six times, Kubrick decided he didn’t like the chairs behind Jack and had them moved, but when he edited the footage he found that Jack’s best delivery of a certain line happened before the chairs had been taken out of the set. Perhaps he rearranged props in the pantry, not to make a point about Native Americans, but to achieve a certain proportion of shape and color in the background. Since the light switches and outlets were props, perhaps they were installed after some scenes had already been filmed.

Stanley Kubrick was a genius. Therefore, what would be a mistake for any other director is part of his deliberate plan to film a masterpiece. People have tried to make maps of the Overlook Hotel, the setting for The Shining, only to discover that the layout seen in the movie is impossible. Interior and exterior windows do not match, interior rooms have windows that show outdoor scenes, stairways lead to dead ends, and journeys through the passageways are inconsistent from scene to scene. Of course the movie was filmed on a group of sets, not in an actual hotel. Other directors would have been blamed for these inconsistencies, but Kubrick is assumed to have created an impossible hotel for dramatic purposes.

The privilege of genius is that mistakes don’t happen. A good explanation can be found for everything a genius does, even if it looks like a mistake. Of course people study the work of geniuses far more carefully than the work of average people—most movies set in a hotel don’t compel viewers to draw maps of the hotel. Ordinary people make ordinary mistakes that most of us don’t even notice. Only geniuses can make what seems to be a mistake and send people searching for its meaning.

By the way, the thought that Stanley Kubrick made The Shining to confess that he helped fake film footage of Apollo 11’s trip to the moon is ridiculous. J.

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10 thoughts on “The privilege of genius

    • Full Metal Jacket is on my list of movies to see. I don’t generally enjoy war movies, apart from the old classics (Bridge Over River Kwai, Sink the Bismarck, etc.) But I’m sure Kubrick’s portrayal is far different from those of, say, Oliver Stone. J.

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      • Ha! I loved Sink the Bismark! Gosh, haven’t seen it in 40 years either. I was just a kid when I watched it last. Oliver Stone’s stuff some wasn’t bad, but he sure has an agenda LOL.

        Full Metal Jacket is surely not typical. But, what would one expect, right?

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      • In the classroom I compare Stone’s JFK and Nixon to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Whatever dramatic virtues the works may possess, they are missing the mark in historical accuracy. J.

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  1. Great film. I guess you’ve encountered the project which superimposed the film from end to beginning over the forward-running. Kubrick created the film with such internal integrity that images, themes and motifs actually match this way.

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    • I have read about that internal integrity, but I have also read that Kubrick cut the last scene of the film one week after it was released to the theaters. I wonder how both of those items can be true. J.

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      • According to internet sites, the original final scene showed Wendy and Danny in a hospital. They are visited by the hotel manager, who hands Danny the same tennis ball that figured in earlier scenes. Kubrick deleted that scene because the thought the 1921 photograph made a stronger last impression. J.

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  2. What fun! The Shining is my all time favorite, although it still really creeps me out. I think the genius in it is the unpredictability, we know something is off in each scene which is disorienting, disconcerting, but also hits you subliminally so you aren’t quite aware of why you’re feeling the way you do. Alfred Hitchcock was pretty good at that too, he’d have us all terrified of a crow, knowing perfectly well the crow really had nothing to do with the story.

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    • Hitchcock was a master of the horror genre, and he scared us by having us use our brains, not just by jumping out and saying “Boo!” But Kubrick mastered so many genres–the war movie, the science fiction movie, the epic tale movie, and whatever kind of movie “Eyes Wide Shut” is. J.

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