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Thursday, May 02, 2013

Straying From the Party Line # 6: The Shining


As I pointed out yesterday, this movie sort of shreds the checklist...
  • Deviations: If Jack is the “hero”, then he’s sorely lacking: he isn’t working the hardest to solve the problem, isn’t the only person who can solve the problem, doesn’t have a moment of humanity, doesn’t have rules he lives by, doesn’t have strengths, etc…
  • The Potential Problem: If he’s not the hero, who is?  Danny?  Wendy? Halloran?  The problem is that no one character does very well on the checklist.  Whose movie is it?  Does it matter? 
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Let’s get into it:
There are various types of the movie in which the hero is the bad guy: There are tragedies, like Citizen Kane or The Godfather, in which we watch and empathize with the rise and fall of an anti-hero. There are shock twist endings, like Fight Club or All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, where we only find out at the end. …And then there are movie like this one, where the hero becomes a flat-out villain and another character steps up to become the hero.  (I’m trying to think of others… maybe Chronicle?)

When I tried to apply the checklist to this movie, assuming that Jack was an anti-hero, I found that I was answering “no” to almost every question.  Not only does he fail, he basically never tries.  I soon realized that Danny was the true hero, but even that is problematic because he then becomes catatonic for so long.  Finally I realized that this is the ultimate tag-team movie, as the baton is handed off several times:
  1. At first, Jack himself is the hero, as he seems committed to finishing his novel, re-connecting with his family, and fighting his demons, but as soon as he arrives at the hotel, he pretty much gives up.  Even on the drive up, he has nothing but contempt for his family.  Later, it seems that he never typed any actual pages.
  2. So then Danny must step up and become the hero.  Shortly after arriving, he begins investigating the danger of the hotel, but after he enters Room 237, he becomes catatonic, and almost complete disappears from the movie for almost an hour, so the baton is passed to…
  3. Jack again, who briefly decides to try to investigate what’s wrong (“I’m the kind of guy who wants to know who’s buying his drinks”), but he quickly gives up and succumbs to the wishes of the house again, passing the baton to...
  4. …his wife Wendy, who finally stops being an enabler and doormat, and stands up for herself and her son admirably.  She prepares for her confrontation by bringing a bat, knocks Jack out, hobbles him with a twisted ankle, and imprisons him effectively, but she gets shut down by the disabling of the radio and the Sno-Cat, and has no plan after that.  Now the baton is passed to…
  5. …Halloran, the only one who can save them.  After getting Danny’s psychic summons, he goes to great lengths, calling over and over, then flying across the country and renting a new sno-cat to come out, but he gets killed…
  6. …which causes Danny to finally snap out of his catatonic state and become the true hero of the movie, cleverly outwitting his dad and killing him.  Wendy and Danny reunite and flee in Halloran’s sno-cat.     
So does it all work in the end?  Yes.  This is a very unusual movie, but it pulls it off beautifully.  We identify with each hero (or anti-hero) when they’re in charge of the movie, then our allegiance and identification shifts effortlessly to the next hero.  None of them are complete enough to hold the whole movie, but between the four of them, we remain riveted.

4 comments:

Paul Clarke said...

The hero turns into the villain in the star wars prequels. - Not that they're very good writing example of anything.

j.s. said...

Ensemble films like RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION hand off the role of protagonist relay-style from one story or POV to the next. Some of the characters stick around and become the antagonists in others' arcs.

Then there are the kind of Hitchcockian shifts of perspective whereby the protagonist of PSYCHO is killed suddenly and, depending on the way you look at it, Norman Bates becomes the new anti-heroic protagonist or Marion's sister and the detective fill in for her when they come searching for her whereabouts. You can see an excellent fresh take on this kind of abrupt and shocking narrative shift of a protagonist in Park Chan Wook's SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE.

The way Matt describes the shifts in THE SHINING feels more like a novel (where we follow a different character each chapter) or even like an artier European chamber drama, the way that characters in Bergman's films hand off the lead -- in a kind of psychic and metaphysical power exchange -- especially obvious in films like SHAME and PERSONA.

I think Kubrick used this kind of approach repeatedly throughout his career. 2001 is a good example. But it's possible to argue that there's no single hero throughout the whole of FULL METAL JACKET, THE KILLING, DR. STRANGELOVE and even BARRY LYNDON, where the world of the supporting characters is often foregrounded at the expensive of the ostensible protagonist.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, but I think movies like this and Psycho are different from standard multiple-protagonist movies like Pulp Fiction in that there's just one problem and each hero takes up the baton only when the other hero fails, so that, for the viewer, we have a very typical experience, only rooting for one person at a time, because at each moment there's only one person who can solve the one problem.

It's more like a relay race than a team sport. It could be that this happens all the time, but I'd never noticed it before.

j.s. said...

PULP FICTION is an exception because there are clearly separate stories. But RESERVOIR DOGS is also a pretty good example of films with a central narrative or thematic problem where different characters take center stage and try and tackle it from their POV in alternating sequences. It's blatantly novelistic in this regard, starting off each chapter with a title card that bears the hero's name.