Director Stanley Kubrick = Dad
As a director, Kubrick seemed to be practicing tough parenting.
In these troubled and extraordinary times, I think it helps to turn to Stanley Kubrick, a director known for exploring the baseness of humanity in his films. Will and I are pretty sure we wouldn’t have pegged any Kubrick film as a dad movie, but we’re no longer surprised by the movies dads tell us they love (perhaps it’s too soon for me to make this claim).
Episode IV is going to be a little different from our previous episodes, because we’re recording it sans a dad guest star. But Will and I polled some dads on social media and IRL to find out which Stanley Kubrick film is their favorite, and it was pretty clear which one they wanted us to talk about: the 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.
The Shining might be one of Kubrick’s least controversial films. Compared to the controversy surrounding the 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and the 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, The Shining had less ardent pushback from producers, studios, and audiences. Audiences and critics didn’t initially care for the film — they complained the pacing was too slow for a horror movie, which is true when you compare The Shining to other horror movies of the 70s and 80s — and it was even nominated for Worst Actress (Shelley Duvall) and Worst Director (Kubrick) Razzies at the first ever presentation of these awards. But like many Kubrick films, The Shining received further critical analysis as the years went on, and is now considered one of the finest horror films ever made. Kubrick was a director well ahead of his time.
It was Kubrick’s interest in ESP and the paranormal that drew him to Stephen King’s story about a school teacher moving his family into a secluded mountain hotel for the winter so he could work on his novel. What makes The Shining so good is that, for most of the film, we’re led to believe that paranormal events that take place in the Overlook Hotel are only hallucinations that stem from Jack Torrance’s (Nicholson) descent into madness. As Kubrick put it, he thought the balance between the psychological and supernatural in the story “lead you to think the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological… This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing.”
Analytical and Conspiratorial theories now surround both Kubrick and his horror film. In the documentary Room 237, little-known film makers and conspiracy theorists discuss some of the hidden meanings in The Shining. One theory cultivated by news correspondent Bill Blakemore is that the film is about the genocide of Native Americans, which he claims is confirmed by the fact that the Overlook was built on an Indian burial ground (one of the many liberties Kubrick took with King’s novel). The hotel is also decorated with Native American motifs that are even featured in the background of key scenes. And Blakemore takes this observation even further: “The Shining is also explicitly about America’s general inability to admit the gravity of the genocide of the Indians — or, more exactly, it’s ability to overlook that genocide.”
I can sort of buy into the idea that Wendy and Danny Torrance represent the victims of genocide and other atrocities, but Blakemore and the other voices featured in Room 237 seem to only examine scenes and details that could be distorted to support their theories. At times, it felt like I was watching a documentary by Alex Jones, only a little less unhinged. (Conspiracy theories are dangerous rabbit holes, but I highly recommend reading up on the role Kubrick supposedly played in the “Moon Landing Conspiracy.”)
What I find most interesting from my research on Stanley Kubrick are the relationships he formed with the actors he worked with. Interviews with actors like Nicholson and Duvall in Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures suggest that they viewed Kubrick as a difficult to please parent; a father they could never get, try as they might, to say “I love you.” Malcolm McDowell (Alex in A Clockwork Orange) describes his relationship with Kubrick during filming as intense, and he assumed they had developed a long-lasting friendship. But once filming wrapped, Kubrick cut him off.
Other actors described similarly intense working relationships where they did everything they could to get a word of praise out of Kubrick. In interviews, Shelley Duvall frames her relationship with Kubrick on the set of The Shining as being nicer than behind-the-scenes footage reveals it to be, saying that Kubrick always pushed her to do her best. I guess forcing her to do 127 takes of a single scene was just an expression of fatherly love. But an amateur documentary about the making of The Shining, shot by Kubrick’s then 18-year-old daughter Vivian, reveals a very different relationship.
Kubrick was patronizing toward Duvall and seemed to treat Nicholson like a prodigy. In one interview, Duvall mentions that she was sometimes jealous of Nicholson because of the attention he received on set. She still defends the way Kubrick treated her, calling it “necessary turmoil,” but her feelings about the treatment she received on set are clearly difficult to mask. The way Kubrick treats Duvall, it seems he didn’t actually want her for the part.
Maybe Duvall is right about Kubrick, though. Maybe he wouldn’t have become such a great director if he didn’t push everyone he worked with to their breaking point. As a director, he was controlling. As a director, he seemed to be practicing tough parenting.