The 'making of featurette' has become one of the more common (and, frankly, increasingly dull) elements of the home viewing experience. DVD technology has ensured that the viewer/consumer is often so swamped by film-maker commentaries, production stills, deleted scenes, publicity materials, interviews and behind the scenes footage, that they threaten to supersede the actual viewing of the film itself. Very often, such 'special features' merely serve to mask the fact that the films they are supporting are essentially worthless (the DVD edition of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001) achieves this on a mind-boggling scale). Nevertheless, every so often, a behind the scenes documentary may provide precious, tantalizing scraps of evidence of the personal and creative essence of its subject. The recent DVD re-issue of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), complete with a fascinating short film about it's production, proves an interesting case in point.
The myths and deification that have arisen around Stanley Kubrick and his legendary secrecy would probably present the ultimate challenge to any 'behind the scenes' documentarian. Vivian Kubrick's documentary, Making The Shining (1980), while unparalleled in its visual access to her late father's working methods, proves as frustrating for what is left unexplored as it is fascinating for its moments of revelation. Indeed, for all of its historical value, throughout this short peek into the court of one of the century's most elusive film-makers one is invariably left contemplating the gaps in the jigsaw that outnumber the pieces present and correct. On the other hand, it is worth remembering that Ms. Kubrick was just 17 years old (and, in her own words, "lacking credibility") when she made the film. It is perhaps a little too much to ask a film-maker barely out of school that she provide a penetrating insight into the working methods of one of the cinema's most enigmatic figures.
While the documentary does nothing to betray Kubrick's attraction to, or affiliation with, The Shining's array of sub-textual riddles, it portrays a film-maker beset with sheer workaday routines and frustrations. Far from presenting a bearded demi-god wielding a Panaflex (as many on-set photographs do), the film captures a director suddenly exposed (albeit briefly) as all too human by his daughter's impassive lens. In this age of electronic press kits designed to assure the viewer that everyone on set got along just famously, Ms. Kubrick's film is striking in the way her illustrious and publicity shy father appears quite unfazed by coming across as an insensitive and ruthless didact. This is exemplified by the moment in which an increasingly harassed Shelley Duvall misses her cue to open a door and is greeted by a volley of abuse from the director. This itself is the culmination of a series of confrontations during which Kubrick admonishes his crew not to sympathise with Duvall, mocking her gripes that she has lost chunks of hair trying to climb through a window frame. Given such bullying and coercion, one is almost tempted to imagine Duvall in her Olive Oil guise with Kubrick as the brutish Bluto. It certainly seemed to work - Duvall's performance is, I believe, the best in the film.
Despite such moments, the film retains an intimacy without being too revealing. Shot using one camera and sound source (by Ms. Kubrick herself) it combines lengthy, unbroken shots of the rehearsal and filming of familiar moments from the final film with backstage footage and a series of talking head interviews (carried out mostly by critic Iain Johnstone and Leon Vitali, Kubrick's long-time assistant). Jack Nicholson is jokey and avuncular, hamming it up for Ms. Kubrick as happily as he did for her father. He often addresses the camera directly, at one stage revealing how he learned to mark his script from Boris Karloff, while at another playfully unzipping his fly to reveal a tape recorder concealed in his pants. In contrast to Duvall, Nicholson displays great patience with Kubrick and there is an apparent bond between them that eerily solidifies David Thomson's suggestion that Kubrick may have been living through the character of Jack Torrance. It would certainly go some way to explaining his repeated frustrations with Duvall and her struggle to fit into his creative masterplan.
Unlike his stars, Kubrick never talks directly to the camera and herein lies a major frustration. We never learn anything about the demons that drive a film-maker to subject his actors and crew to marathon shooting schedules and repeated takes of seemingly simple shots, a reputation that was enhanced considerably on this very set. On the contrary, Kubrick's repeated expressions of impatience counter the famed meticulousness and suggest a man keen to get the job done as quickly as possible. There is never a sense, even in his most heated moments, that Kubrick has been caught off guard and his frequent sideways glances into the camera betray an acute awareness of the prying lens. Indeed, at a couple of points, Kubrick directs his stars off camera to "have a chat" in another room and one can only guess that the true character of the man was revealed in these lost, private moments.
Yet, Ms. Kubrick has included a few decidedly home movie moments which go some way to contrasting her father's domineering on-set manner. At one amusing juncture he is seen in conversation with his mother and Jack Nicholson on the finer points of coloured script pages. In another sequence, a bemused looking Kubrick stands by politely as he and Nicholson are introduced to what appears to be James Mason's (who happened to be shooting on the adjacent soundstage) entire family. As if to further underline the Kubrick/Torrance symbiosis theory, Kubrick is caught at one point composing an unidentified message on a typewriter- the irresistible thought is that it just might read "all work and no play makes Jack (or is that Stan?) a dull boy".
It is through the interview footage that other scraps of information are proffered on the director. Scatman Crothers is reduced to tears as he thanks the Lord for his chance to work with such "beautiful people". Duvall, despite all evidence to the contrary, professes a great liking and respect for Kubrick, commenting that she learned more on this film in one year than she did in all her other films combined. Given her previous fruitful collaborations with Robert Altman this would appear to be some accomplishment on Kubrick's part. In contrast to Altman's famed predilection for improvisation, maybe Stanley got it right and she just needed to be roughed up a little. Nicholson on the other hand, contrary to their onscreen pals act, hints at creative frictions with Kubrick that he is nevertheless willing to concede serve the greater good of the film. Both actors are seemingly good humoured enough to, at separate points in the film, roll their eyeballs at the camera in playful bemusement at their master. Jack's celebrity becomes a key theme of both his and Duvall's talking points, again disappointing those seeking out examples of Kubrick's work methods. Such reflections only reflect tangentially on the making of Kubrick's film, and while some may find immense pleasure in a sneak around Jack's dressing room toilet, this viewer was left wanting more of the on-set tensions, the multiple takes and the clashing neuroses.
Of course, this only reveals my own hunger to discover more about Kubrick, the quintessential anti-celebrity film-maker, and is perhaps a peculiar form of star worship in itself. None of the recent biographies (or even Jan Harlan's documentary A Life In Pictures), as meticulously researched as they were, could quite compete with this little collection of moving snap shots. Brief as they are, the moments in which Kubrick is captured on film reveal at least some semblance of the legend he inspired. To actually see him engaged in the processes of creating this contemporary classic is a privilege only film can bestow. If the film confirms Kubrick's intense desire to get the job done his way, it also reveals a collection of collaborators willing to be swept along. Nicholson comments that he doesn't always want a film to become "predictably my work", stating that through Kubrick he found the perfect arbiter for his need to lose control. The chief shame of Ms. Kubrick's film is that, perhaps in deference to Dad, it sometimes almost does become Jack's work through the repeated emphasis upon his on-set shenanigans and camera asides. Indeed, to the committed Kubrick aficionado there is perhaps just a little too much Jack the Lad. In his introduction to a recent BBC2 screening of the film in the UK, Alan Yentob described how Kubrick attempted (unsuccessfully) to remove as much of himself as possible from the final cut. While I'm grateful that Ms. Kubrick won her right to creative control there is the gnawing feeling that Kubrick's reticence exerts its influence regardless.
After Kubrick checked into the great Overlook in the sky, his close associates and family went to some lengths to dispel many of the myths that had grown around him. Nevertheless, this rare piece of solid documentary evidence will remain extremely valuable. Given the obsessive secrecy surrounding Kubrick's final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and his death only days after completion, it is still unclear whether anybody was allowed to shoot just a few moments of the director at work on his swan song. At the same time, in this age of media overload, it was quite liberating to view Kubrick's final work and have no sense of having half-experienced a major Hollywood film months before you even take your seat in the auditorium. With Kubrick's passing and by partly sidestepping his famed elusiveness, Making The Shining has a slightly ethereal quality, a sense that his daughter was given special privilege to extract a few valuable chunks from the myth while never actually betraying its greatest secrets. That it was left to his own progeny to provide the most comprehensive document of his working methods adds a neatly ironic twist. Of all those who attempted to reveal the essence of the enigmatic artist (among them, Alexander Walker, Michel Ciment and Frederic Raphael), it was his own little girl who went the closest. The film will remain a rare and valuable testament to one of the few truly individual figures to emerge from the cinema's first century.
Reviewed by Neil Jackson
Reader comments about Making The Shining
david friedman, seattle wa (agent monkey (at) eatpeople (dot) com) writes:
Just finished the DVD w/ documentary discussed above, and the sterling, unnerving 'the shining.' beautiful stuff...Neil, you're right on, in that Vivian captured integral pieces of mr K. that other documentaries/documentarians might have neglected. the 'making of' by Vivian might be almost as rewatchable as the flick itself...i might just indulge myself again later today, if only to see the odd glances Stanley sometimes makes towards his daughter as she grabs her shots.
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