The Shining & Psychosis of the Guidebook Author

Posted:  February 16th, 2011 by:  Rowan McKinnon comments:  24
theshining

I finished my guidebook research after four weeks in mile-high Denver and around Colorado’s southwest. That morning I’d come up from Durango and dumped the hire car back at Enterprise on Broadway in Denver. I made for Denver International Airport with my baggage in a taxi. I took one last long look at the Rockies’ Front Range, which you can see clearly from the airport taxi landing. You always have a moment of reflection leaving a place thinking that you may never come here again. Colorado was a total blast. The Rocky Mountains were incredible for an impressionable boy grown in Australia where there aren’t any proper mountains. Denver was a much cooler place than I expected. And hotter too, having stayed a month across mid-summer. The Denver’s midday temperatures can make any Australian blush.

I wore thongs for getting through the Department of Homeland security easier and had my luggage in a single wheelie-case and carry-on.  Air travellers at Denver airport get ferried to their terminals in weird driverless trains that bend through tubes in the underground like worms. It pumps cheesy cowboy guitar licks inside the standing-only carriages, and there’s a voice over that sounds like the announcer on Wheel of Fortune. I made my way to my gate – I like to be early – and set about reading and strolling and drinking coffee.

After some hours it became clear that I wouldn’t be flying to Los Angeles after all. Nor would I be travelling onward on my LA-Melbourne flight. My Denver-LA flight had been cancelled and those that I then was wait-listed on were filled with ticketed travellers. My wheelie-case had, it transpired, preceded me and was by this time in transit somewhere over the Pacific unaccompanied on a Qantas flight to Melbourne. The airline booked me on the morning flights and I was issued a voucher for accommodation in an airport hotel, a meal and transfers in a mini bus.

So it was that I found myself looking at the Rocky Mountains again from the vehicular landing waiting for the complimentary shuttle bus that would service my hotel, the Quality Inn Denver International Airport. Filthy, dishevelled and delirious with fatigue and the urge to get home, I laughed out loud at the irony. Others at the bus stop looked anxious and moved away. We drove to a depressing estate of airport hotels on a blank expanse of desolate flatlands – the Ramada, Days Inn, La Quinta and other the same. I had food and beer at a neon-lit sports bar that was a hundred metres from the door of my hotel. The menu was burgers and burritos, and I acquiesced, ate and left with a few takeaway beers to tap on my computer back in my room.

Back in Melbourne, when I had told friends I would be spending a month in Denver and Colorado working on a new first edition Colorado for Lonely Planet, the topic of conversation had inevitably led to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterwork film The Shining. At least it had for me, but I’m not sure if anyone was listening. The film (and the Stephen King book it’s based on) is set in the Colorado Rockies. I remember conjuring images of the opening title sequence – the helicopter shots of the lake and mountains, and the yellow VW Beetle driving through the firs and aspen trees.

I was wired on adrenaline and fatigue, agitating to get home, to see my partner and kids. Maybe it was long broad hallways in the Quality Inn and the motifs in the carpet – I began to have visions of young Danny riding his chopper-like tricycle through the hotel, the sound of whirring plastic wheels over the timber floor, deadened as he passed over a rug, and then thrumming on timber again. I looked for the sisters in their matching blue dresses as I rounded a corner and imagined a river of blood when the elevator doors opened.

Languishing alone in room 237 (that bit’s not true) in the same filthy clothes and underpants, unshaven and exhausted – still vibrating from one-thousand miles of Korean rental-car driving through the mountains in the days prior – I felt more empathy for Jack Nicholson’s unravelling character Jack Torrance than I might’ve thought. But the door didn’t have ‘redrum’ written in lipstick and the only sign reflected in the mirror read ‘gnikoms on’. Get a grip, I said to myself. Tony in my finger agreed. I turned on my computer and thought about Jack typing out hundreds of pages of ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ Copy and paste would be so much easier.

Time to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Shining hotel. Friends had said it was somewhere in the Colorado Rockies. Feeling woozy and vaguely homicidal, I decided to get the story straight. ‘Put down the axe,’ said Tony. With my laptop and Quality Inn wifi I decided to make the following inquiry.

The opening sequence of The Shining; was set to the eerie main title music by Wendy Carlos (born Walter Carlos and undergoing sex-reassignment surgery) and Rachel Elkind. Carlos played the Moog synthesizer and Elkind supplied the weird modulating vocals. The stunning helicopter tracking shots of the lake, mountains and VW Beetle were filmed in Montana at Glacier National Park by cameraman Greg MacGillivray.

The hotel that inspired the original Stephen King novel was the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, near Boulder. The Stanley Kubrick film used the Timberline Lodge on Mt Hood in Oregon for the exteriors of the fictional Overlook Hotel. The hotel interiors and rear were sets made at London’s Elstree Studios. The hedge maze was constructed on an airfield near Elstree Studios. The management of the Oregon Timberline Lodge asked Kubrick not to use the room number 217 (as in King’s novel) because it was felt that no-one would want to stay in the room ever again. So Kubrick used the non-existent room number 237.

Stephen King’s title for his novel – The Shining – was inspired by the Plastic Ono Band’s John Lennon song Instant Karma, and in particular, the line ‘We all shine on.’

The filming was scheduled for 17 weeks but took nearly a year. Its budget was $18 million. The Guinness Book of Records claims that the scene of Wendy walking backwards up the staircase swinging a baseball bat was shot 127 times – a world record. It was the first time Steadicam was used.

In one scene, young Danny wears a hand-knitted jumper (sweater) with a rocket knitted across its chest with the digits 2001 above it, reference to Kubrick’s 1968 masterwork. Danny was cast after more than 5000 boys were considered through searches in Denver, Kansas City and Chicago. Imaginary Tony talking through Danny’s finger was the actor’s own idea.

Shelley Duvall was emotionally pushed to the edge by Kubrick. She said later that Kubrick was trying to get the best performance out of her. She didn’t enjoy it. Jack Nicholson said in an interview with Empire magazine years later that her work was fantastic and that hers was ‘the toughest job of any actor that I’ve seen.’

For an outstanding discussion on The Shining and its meanings, see Bill Blakemore’s essay, first appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987, and widely reprinted on the internet, including here. Blakemore argues that the film is really about the annihilation of the Native Americans with the coming of Europeans, and points to the many Indian motifs and symbols – notice the cans of Calumet baking powder in the larders, with their Indian chief logos. He argues that Jack Torrance embodies the ‘weak male’ manipulated to commit atrocities and that the ‘overlook’ in the hotel’s name is contemporary America’s ambivalence and denial of the genocide.

Stephen King expressed his disappointment in the film in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1983.

The film has been discussed widely in cinema studies as well as on the internet. Some interesting links include: The Drummerman, the Internet Movie Database including an exhaustive trivia page, the Wikipedia page, a spoof trailer and The Shining in 30 Seconds Re-Enacted by Bunnies.

Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, was 17 at the time of the shoot and made a making-of documentary which is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall alternative view of the film – it can be seen here.

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  • 24 Comments

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    Nice Post, Rowan. My friend Taylor worked at the Stanley Hotel for years. Hope you enjoyed my one-time home state of Colorado. Boulder always reminded me of Brisbane, but with mountains.

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