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Shining Books
– Feb. 26, 2015

What I want to do here is mostly point out a curiosity I noticed with Kubrick's The Shining as regarding books. It's nothing groundbreaking; mostly a curiosity. Though, with Kubrick's well known attention to detail I think it is safe to go beyond mere curiosity: these are not accidents within the film, but designed and attended to details. How successfully you can read something out of these details is a matter of what it is you want read out of them. I myself will intend only safe steps.

For me, I think there are three such places to go. First, there is the simple issue of visual effect. Second, there is a relationship between books and the characters of the movie. Third, I believe that relationship works if but as one piece of evidence (and not a terribly important one at that) to disrupting what I believe is a false idea about the Overlook Hotel: that is, I believe most people want to read the movie as a haunted house film, that there is something inherently evil about the hotel. I do not read the movie as such: I read it that while there may be evil within the hotel (room 237 is most definitely a negatively defined place), the hotel itself is, as a whole, neutral. Yes, as Halloran says, the Overlook shines. But shining is not in itself evil. Perhaps, to use a theme not absent from The Shining, the Overlook's shine is like a mirror: you get out of it greatly what you put into it.

What I am concerned with is not the specific books in the film (i.e., their titles, etc.). Rather, it is with their alignment. The primary point being how with the Torrences, the books – and if you pay attention in the early scenes, they have a lot of books – books are almost always askew on the shelves or piled up in disorganized stacks. For example, consider the books around the Torrence's apartment in the opening scenes.

(An aside: can this moment be seen, in coupling with Jack's comment in the car on the way to the Overlook, as speaking of a war between Jack and television and, by extension, pop culture?)

This is the first shot of the Torrence place. Notice how the books are kept. Those on the shelves are all aslant. Those on the TV are stacked up willy-nilly.

As said above, there are two ways to go with this: the visual and the ideational. The visual lies in the effect that the diagonal lines have on the scene: it generates energy in its break from the stability of horizontal-vertical axes. I noticed this effect put to use recently (i.e., in a film that is otherwise staged to be realistic) in Michael Haneke's English language remake of Funny Games. (I have not yet seen the original.) I saw over and over where there were props set unnecessarily at an angle, or where elements of set design had isolated lines at angles. The effect on the viewer would be simply to create energy in the visuals.

Here are two related still from Funny Games which I culled from the net.

(Another aside: give one thought to that still and you cannot but see a phallic opposition, which to me is the primary conflict of Funny Games. For all their wealth and comfort, the family is essentially powerless, phallus-less.)

Notice the second one how the dark fishing poles break a dominatingly vertical (and otherwise visually bland) scene. A simple disruption creating psychical energies. I think the same goes for The Shining, cued not only by the diagonal lines but that the shelves (and stacks) look messy.

In The Shining there is also an ideational aspect at play. (Though I am not eliminating such from Funny Games.) That is, whether the books are askew or aright depends upon the person involved and the scene. For example, there is the scene where Wendy is talking with the Doctor after Danny's preminatory episode in the bathroom. The scene alternates between Wendy and the Doctor. Here, the wide view of Wendy:

There is a degree of disorder all about the kitchen, but the books cannot be missed. They are opposed in the sequence of the conversation to the one place you see books in order in the Torrence apartment:

Above the Doctor's head.

Now, should this be read as creating a positive/negative comparison between the Doctor and Wendy (and the Torrences as a whole)? I think that is an over-simplification, and an example of that jump to the good-evil opposition that most people want to read into the film. What is known about the Torrences is, using Halloran's phrasing, that all three of them "shine." The only reason any of them see things in the Overlook is because they all shine, and they each see in the manner of their psyches. Without going into every instance: Jack's alcoholism (and sense of change in the family dynamic after his injuring Danny) brings out from the Overlook the ballroom and Lloyd the bartender. Wendy's horror-movie fandom brings out horror movie style visuals. Danny, whose shine is the most powerful, is in full conversation with the Overlook. Thus, his visions are more intimate, and both preminatory and historical. (The two girls are creepy as can be, but are they negative? Or are they just the imprints of two girls who would like to play with Danny? It is that Danny can see beyond the two girls, both toward the violence that happened to them and the violence to come, and for Danny they are the same, that instills in the the girls the sense of dread. Would they be as creepy at the start if we had not already seen the blood pouring out of the elevators? if we had not shared in Danny's premonition?)

I think the slanting of the books around the Torrences speaks to the interrelated aspects of that the Torrences all shine and that they are all creative and/or intelligent to one degree or another. (Notice later how Wendy pretty much runs the whole of the Overlook. When given the chance she transforms from the waifish mother in the beginning to an overall-wearing worker, as seen when she's checking the boilers.) For the Doctor the books are straight: she's there for an analytic purpose, not a creative one. (And she does not, despite the glowing window, shine.)

Where else are there straight books? The phone room for one.

Which is probably not saying anything astonishing. So how about Ullman's office:

(If you haven't figured it out, clicking on the pictures gives you a larger image.) Notice, particulary, the second row down, because that one changes when Ullman is no longer in control of the Overlook:

And more clearly:

There are two other places where straight books can be found. One is in Danny's room in the Overlook suite, before the Torrence's move in:

If I wanted to read something out of that it would again be for evidence that the Overlook is not in itself evil. It simply is. What is most curious about Danny's room for me is that Jack is never inside it. In fact, the only other moment of engagement between Jack and the room is a duplication of that first glance in (occuring after Jack comes back from room 237):

Curious how Jack seems unwilling (or afraid?) to go into Danny's room. Also, it's an interesting opposition created between the light and the dark. Danny, at this point, has been attacked by the woman in 237.

Finally, there are the books in the main hall.

They're not really visible until this final sequence walking through the hall. And, they are mostly bundled up inside their cabinets. I would not really want to read anything into them except perhaps in looking at Jack's work area as it changes over time. First time we see it, it is a mess:

Magazines are all over the place. And the items on the desk are fall-as-they-may. By the time of room 237, this changes:

The magazine mess is gone. So also is the couch: there's now a huge empty space in front of the table-turned-desk. And the items on the desk have found a bit of strictness in their placement. Notice the scrapbook is closed. There's nothing in the film that gives the scrapbook its significance or identification. You have to know its presence and meaning from King's book. But earlier in the film, it is open on the desk. Here, and to the end, it is closed. But then Jack is in the process of becoming isolated from the Danny-Wendy pair and of wholly buttoning up, psychically. The magazines are gone; the scrapbook is closed. The books in the room around him stay shut in their cabinets (in great opposition to the books at war with the television). And he is writing a book that is a single sentence repeated over and over again. (For ever and ever – there the cyclicality.)

Going back earlier, there is another instance that could possibly speak to the relationship between books and the plot actions: back at the apartment, in Danny's room after his first episode:

Perhaps the weakest demonstration, but the books there are almost flat, though in no way stacked. The shelves are chaos. There is another moment far later that might give some strength to putting significance to this moment. That is at the point where Wendy is leaving Danny to go find Jack, this after Danny has retreated wholly into the Tony persona. The shot of Danny and Wendy on the bed, similar to the shot of the Doctor earlier, is marked with books.

The books are on their side. Again, I would not call that the strongest demonstration of the theme by any means.

The only other time we see books in the Overlook suite is in the final sequence, when Jack is on the rampage and Wendy is hiding.

I think it would be safe to also say that the books – especially in their visual effect – speak also of the chaos that exists within the Torrence family dynamic. Though, I think ending that line of thought there is would create a false idea. You have three creative/intelligent people that shine: there would always be with them the chaos of the dark of the unconscious, which, like the Overlook, is neither positive nor negative in character, neither good nor evil in itself.

Which I think pretty much covers the survey. For completeness sake – and to give me a closing moment – we can take a look at Halloran's place. There are no books there. (A couple magazines.) But there are lps.

As neatly organized as lps can be, as is the whole of his place (without it being obsessive). Which speaks to why Halloran, who also shines powerfully (though not as strongly as Danny) has no problems working at the Overlook Hotel. I have some thought that, if one wanted to, one could pull out of the sexuality of the pictures in Halloran's bedroom a theme that relates to the Torrences as well. There is obviously tension (if sublimated) between Wendy and Jack. And the famous bedroom scene during Wendy's run through the hotel would speak of sexuality that is lurking within the mind of that otherwise knitted-up woman. There is also how Danny is emerging into his awareness of his shining, a kind of psychic puberty; which can be compared to how Halloran, who can exist at peace in the Overlook, speaks in his bedroom, non-repressed, mature sexuality. But I will leave that for another day.


There is one more note worth making, a general comment on the validity of ideational readings of events in films (and literature). Not everything in a film has to have ideational value beyond unspecified psychic energy. Sometimes it has only such visual value. So I believe, generally, with the slants in Funny Games; though, it could be argued that the slants could speak of the darkness that is unavoidable in even the perfect, white-walled manor. And there are those moments, as with that pointed above. But sometimes in a film a visual event exists for technical and not ideational reasons. For example, look at the main hall. (This is an imperfect frame, but a good down the line, overhead view.)

See how the furniture is overly weighted to one side? That is not a readjustment by Jack. That is how it is from the beginning (though, a thin, coffee table in front of the left sofa is missing). Why is it out of balance? Because there cannot be any furniture on that side of the room if you want this shot:

Or its opposite, already seen, above:

(To me, one of the creeper moments of the film: Wendy's slow turning of her head, the only motion in an otherwise huge and still visual area.)