The Shining part 6: 8am
For 30 years, the act structure of The Shining has eluded me — there are no clear, classic act breaks, there is no classic end-of-Act-II-low-point, there are no irreversible climaxes in obvious places, etc. This seeming lack of structure all stems from Kubrick’s choice of giving the movie an invisible protagonist: it’s hard to tell how the protagonist’s journey is going if you can’t see the protagonist.
Instead of an act structure, the movie is divided into 10 irregular sections: “The Interview,” “Closing Day,” “One Month Later,” “Tuesday,” “Thursday,” “Saturday,” “Monday,” “Wednesday,” “8am” and “4pm.” Only after lining those title cards up in a row like that do I see that there are three distinct time frames illustrated. “The Interview,” “Closing Day” and “One Month Later” all take place in the space of a month and change, the next five sections all take place in the space of a week, and the last two take place in the span of a day.
And there are the three acts! A month, a week, a day. What does that reveal about act structure? Well, at the end of “One Month Later,” Danny and Wendy successfully navigate the Overlook’s hedge maze which is an important plot element, but what’s the protagonist up to at that point? The protagonist has succeeded in getting under Jack’s skin. Jack is unable to write, and he’s watching the maze model while Danny and Wendy are actually inside it. One could even say that Jack learns the maze in his head while Danny learns it with his body — a crucial distinction that will, again, pay off in Act III.
At the beginning of “Tuesday,” Jack is now suddenly writing! No longer playing catch with the hotel, but sitting down and typing stuff. So that’s an indication that the protagonist has snagged Jack — he’s no longer blocked (or blocking), he’s let the hotel in.
At the end of “Wednesday,” Jack has gotten his marching orders from Grady and has set his plan for killing Wendy and Danny into motion. (Remember, the thing that had been holding him back up to this point was Danny : he kind of likes Danny, and that’s kept him from killing Wendy all this time. Grady is the one who convinces him that Danny needs to be killed as well.) This would be a second-act low-point only if Danny is the protagonist, which I don’t think he is.
What that means is that the Act II low point happens very late into the movie, during the “8am” section, when Wendy, improbably, gets the better of Jack, clubs him and imprisons him in the pantry. At that point, the protagonist’s goal is out of reach — it must turn things around, and fast, if it’s going to get what it wants, which is for Jack to kill his family.
All of which means, I guess, that, apart from the sense of steadily escalating action, I still don’t know for sure how Kubrick saw his structure.
In any case, at the beginning of “8am” Dick Hallorann is on his way from his swinging bachelor pad in Miami to the forbidding, snowy climes of Colorado. The feeling certainly has a “beginning of Act III” feel to it, since Hallorann is behaving like the cavalry coming to the rescue.
Now then: in order for a protagonist/antagonist dyad to work dramatically, the protagonist must be aware that the antagonist exists, and is acting upon things, and vice versa. This is why Danny has psychic powers, and why the hotel can do pretty much any damn thing it wants, and why fantasy stories always have magical characters who can see the future and know what’s going on in distant lands — because otherwise, the protagonist and antagonist would never know that the other exists. If Gandalf is just some guy who tells Frodo to throw the ring into a volcano and Frodo says “okay” and sets out, there is no drama to Lord of the Rings. It must be that Gandalf is a wizard and that Frodo can have visions when he puts on the ring and that Sarumon has a magic ball that sees things, or else everybody is just kind of doing things. I’m sorry, but that’s how it works — the requirements of the drama dictate the magical powers, not the other way around. When the device of magic powers is done well, it’s well-integrated and encompassing and lends the drama a sense of wonder and completeness. When it’s not, the audience knows it’s a plot contrivance.
In any case, Hallorann knows that Danny is in trouble because Danny and Hallorann have magic powers, and, more importantly, the hotel knows that Danny has magic powers, and it knows that Danny has called Hallorann to come to the rescue, hence the hotel’s efforts to step up Jack’s murdering schedule, and therefore the escalation of drama.
While Hallorann heads to Denver, Jack types. This seems like an odd choice, given that Jack’s job is to kill Wendy and Danny. He’s already sabotaged the radio and the snow-cat, why is he going back to writing? The answer, it seems, is that the writing is also part of Jack’s “work.” Although the real reason we see him writing when he should be murdering, I think, will be revealed later.
Hallorann makes his way through snowy Colorado to acquire a snow-cat at Durkin’s Garage. Why it’s important to painstakingly illustrate Hallorann’s journey from Miami to the Overlook eludes me: we see him on an airplane, then we see him at the airport, calling Durkin, then we see him driving to Durkin’s, then we see him driving his snow-cat up the mountain. All these scenes had to be written and staged, some of them quite expensively. For instance, the shot of the tractor-trailer jackknifed on top of the Volkswagen required covering a landscape with fake snow, and demolishing a tractor-trailer and a Volkswagen, for a shot that lasts only a few seconds. Why did that shot need to exist? I have no clear answer, but it’s worth noting that Jack drives a yellow Volkswagen, and that, in the novel, his Volkswagen is, in fact, red, as is the ball he uses to play catch. Kubrick changed the color of both Jack’s car and Jack’s ball. I have no proof of this, but it seems to me that the tractor-trailer squishing the red VW must be a metaphor for something, what I don’t know.
(It’s also worth noting that after the movie was released, Kubrick drastically re-edited it for European release, cutting out a half hour of the movie, largely from the Hallorann-goes-to-Colorado sequences. I have no idea how the movie plays without these scenes. What they do for me is dramatize Hallorann’s steadfastness and honor — he’s going to brave insane conditions to get to Danny because he knows Danny is good. He’s a white knight charging to the defense of the damsel in the dragon’s lair. Kubrick, I think, takes the time to dramatize each step of Hallorann’s perilous journey so that we know that his efforts must pay off. Which, of course, they resolutely don’t.)
(The knight-to-the-rescue metaphor is not chosen lightly — as mentioned before, fairy-tale structures and devices inform a lot of narrative decisions in The Shining.)
Meanwhile, back at the hotel, Wendy and Danny watch Roadrunner cartoons. Is there a symbol there? Maybe, I don’t know. Big Bad Wolf Jack will soon chase Danny, and he will fail like the Coyote, but I can’t help but think that Kubrick chose the Roadrunner because the music sounds completely ridiculous in the context of the oppressive, claustrophobic horror that infuses the act. That, and the Roadrunner is owned by Warner Bros, so he didn’t have to clear it. In any case, Wendy tells Danny that she’s going to “talk to Daddy,” but Danny does not answer — Tony does, because Danny’s personality has been shattered for the moment.
(I wonder if Tony enjoys Roadrunner cartoons, or if he’s just going through the motions to make Wendy feel better.)
Wendy takes a baseball bat downstairs to talk to Jack, and the bat certainly does the most effective talking in the following sequence. And this is why, I think, Jack is shown writing when he really should be murdering — because Kubrick had an idea for a great scene, one of the greatest in horror-movie history, where Wendy finds Jack’s “work” and discovers that it’s complete gibberish. Actually, it’s worse than complete gibberish, because complete gibberish could still be published. Rather, it’s the work of an obsessive-compulsive maniac. (Nicholson, who had just won an Oscar for playing crazy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, would later go on to play an OCD guy in As Good As It Gets.) This is brilliant stuff, and, again, dramatizes the essentially psychological nature of the horror in The Shining — the really scary stuff is going on in Jack’s mind, not in the corridors of the Overlook.
(One of my favorite factoids regarding the movie is that Kubrick didn’t just have a ream of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed up, no — he had reams and reams typed up, in different languages, one for every major territory the movie would play in — Spanish, Italian, French, German, etc., all with a regional phrase specific to the territory. Production Assistant on a Kubrick movie must have been the worst job available in show business.)
Jack comes along to startle Wendy, which leads to the Big Scene On The Staircase, where Jack threatens to bash Wendy’s brains in. Danny, because of his magic powers, can hear everything they’re saying, and his visions of “Redrum” occur again.
The thrust of Jack’s argument is: “And are you concerned about me?” Which, of course, is only a ploy. Jack knows everything he needs to know about Wendy, he knows exactly what she wants and how she intends to get it. The idea that she would actually come and tell Jack about her plans instead of fleeing in terror shows how weak she is — she needs to ask permission of a murderous creep before acting. Jack has overturned his wedding contract with Wendy and his paternal contract with Danny in favor of his contract with the “employers” at the Overlook. His “employers” could mean Ullman and Watson (and the mysterious people in Denver), but Jack, I think, really means the invisible protagonist, the one he made a contract with for his soul (for a glass of nonexistent bourbon — no wonder he was miffed when Grady spilled the advocaat in his drink, he sells his soul for the thing and then it gets ruined).
Wendy, surprisingly, gets to higher ground and manages to clock Jack on the noggin, which constitutes the Act II Low Point for the protagonist. Wendy locks Jack in the pantry and Jack attempts to work her from inside it, playing on her motherly concerns, but Wendy, it seems, is finally wising up.