This is probably my favourite moment in a film full of unforgettable, classic scenes. Little Danny has just encountered the Grady girls for the second time, and seen the horrifying evidence of their fate. We cut to the rear view of his tricycle in the hallway, now empty and bloodless once more, and then back to his face. His voice quavers. “Tony… I’m scared…” (More so than in any other scene in the film, Danny is acting as a sort of audience surrogate and spokespiece. We’re scared too, kid.) And then “Tony” responds:
It’s just like pictures in a book, Danny. It isn’t real.
I love the idea of the Overlook Hotel apparitions being comparable to “pictures in a book” – or, to take the analogy to an even more self-referential level, to frames in a film. One of the great things about The Shining is how ambiguous the film is about whether the eerie goings on are inherent to the house in how it has retained shadows and echoes of its disturbing past, or whether it’s primarily in the heads of the tense and isolated Torrance family. But what is quite clear is that the two girls, the blood in the elevator, the inhabitant of room 237, etc. are just harkening back to past traumas (whether literally, in the case of the Gradys, or more metaphorically). They’re only images, and in a physical sense, they’re harmless.
And yet we don’t cut to the “Monday” title card right after Tony speaks. “It isn’t real”. But the look on that Danny gives the camera for the next three seconds is anything but reassured: He understands the nature of what he’s seen, but on some instinctual level, this five-year-old child also knows that even images, thoughts, and memories have deep implications and great power. What he’s seen may not be real, but his fear certainly is. Very few of Kubrick’s decisions, whether visual or editorial, are random or without significance. These three seconds serve to show us how Danny feels, but they also provide the scene with its deepest meaning. Danny’s expression completes the idea of which Tony’s line was only the first half.
I’m reminded of a line from another Kubrick film, courtesy of Anthony Burgess. In A Clockwork Orange, while Alex undergoes the Ludovico technique, Malcolm McDowell’s calm, literary voiceover tells us that “it’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” And albeit with a slightly different meaning, David Cronenberg said something similar in Videodrome: “Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.”
A film does not tell the factual truth. A film does not depict events in the way we physically experience them. In these respects, a film is not “real”. The Shining is a work of fiction. But, like all the greatest stories and works of art in any medium, The Shining frightens us, intrigues us, engages us, and moves us. If fictional, “unreal” things have no relavence and cannot affect us, than why tell stories at all?
Through this line and Danny’s reaction to it, Stanley Kubrick is acknowledging the artifice of fiction while simultaneously demonstrating its power. It is a beautiful little piece of self-reflexive commentry on what the audience experiences when we watch a film like this one. And on a very basic level, what Kubrick is communicating so simply and concisely is the idea behind the functionality and purpose of not only horror cinema, but of all art.
a few closing notes, something I’ll probably start including at the end of my shorter essays:
– I just love Danny Torrance so much. He’s such a sweet, tragic, unsettling character. And Danny Lloyd’s focused, intense, natural performance is even more impressive when you take into account that he didn’t really know what was going on. He didn’t even know he had made a horror film for a good ten years after production. My interest in the children of cinema isn’t so much a soft spot as it is a very intense, specific focus – I know that I want to work with kid as a filmmaker. Danny is one of my favourite examples of a compelling character created by a young actor who was still sheltered from the more disturbing aspects of the story he was helping to tell.
– A recent child performance that brought Danny Lloyd to mind is Pierce Gagnon in Rian Johnson’s Looper. (Which you should all see if you haven’t, by the way, because it’s awesome.) As Cid, Pierce had a similar intense, focused, emotive presence. There aren’t that many characters so young who are so convincingly eerie yet so genuinely unaffected and childlike. I really hope Gagnon continues acting, unlike Lloyd, because I want to see kids like him (and adults too, for that matter!) in the movies. Plus, doesn’t the 3′ 10″ height on his IMDB profile just melt your heart?
– I was prompted to write this post because I’m going to a 35mm screening of The Shining tomorrow night. Being near a rep cinema at the end of October is a wonderful thing. It’s my very first time seeing a Stanley Kubrick film in its natural, intended environment (hey, I was born in 1995!). Needless to say, I am SO excited.
– If you, like me, find detailed, thoughtful, scholarly deconstruction of The Shining to be the most fascinating thing EVER, you should check out Rob Ager’s 21-chapter analysis. I stumbled upon it by accident a while ago and devoured it in one night. I don’t neccessarily buy every single one of his interpretations – or rather, I don’t think his interpretations are the only valid reading of the film – but they’re all very logically, convincingly presented. (He does not bring up the infamous moon landing conspiracy, as far as I recall!) And many of his observations and deductions made me look at the film with an even deeper understanding and appreciation for what Kubrick and his team created.