As tight as Kubrick

Justin disagrees with my taste in movies sometimes. And he invites me, who knows nothing, to discuss the following:

Last night we talked about the scene in The Shining where Wendy witnesses two men having sex, one of them in a bear costume. This scene makes no sense in the film; it is impossible to understand without having read the setup in the novel. Do you really think the inclusion of this scene constitutes tight editing? Separately, do you think that the star gate sequence in 2001 constitutes tight editing?!

Perhaps my use of the word “tight” in my previous writing about my first viewing of Paths of Glory isn’t quite right. I would probably prefer the word “perfect”, but that’s a word with less meaning in the context of something that requires subjective measurement. So, to broadly answer the questions as stated, I’d have to say yes and yes, but I suppose I need some just[in]ification for that position.

Even more than really intelligent movies, my favourites are the ones that have a strongly visceral affect on me while watching them. It’s not so much about the details, but about the feel.

More than any other Stanley Kubrick movie, The Shining dramatically improved for me with repeated viewing. I’m not sure why. When I first saw it, I wasn’t totally blown away. Shelley Duval’s acting might have been a bit of an influence in that, and the exaggerated accompanying score. But I think the more you watch a movie, the more you absorb the feeling of it as you pay less attention to the details in front of you (like the dialogue or the acting) because you’ve seen it before and you know what’s going on.

This particular idea was made especially clear to me after watching Amèlie a few times; I ended up not even reading the subtitles any more, despite speaking no French, and just went along for the ride.

Now, I find it a little strange to call The Shining out for the incoherency of its scenes, considering the subject matter of the film. I haven’t read the novel and I’ve got no idea what the significance behind the bear suit men having sex is. (1:41.54 into the movie, by the way.) But why is it being “impossible to understand” such a bad thing? I don’t really understand most of the weird stuff going on in the movie — and it doesn’t affect the feeling the movie has. I’m gratified that there is thought behind the madness, because it means that Kubrick didn’t just make up something random and stick it in. There is an internal consistency that might not be visible to the casual viewer but which ties everything together. I guess I often call that the “texture” of a movie.

(A film that exemplifies the whole idea of scenes not making sense but the whole movie having a big impact (and with its own internal consistency that is hard to find) is Mulholland Drive.)

So, is it “tight” for The Shining to have this scene that makes no sense? Conversely, would you say that it isn’t a good choice to leave that scene in there? In actual fact, it’s only the ending few seconds of scene, which could easily have been cut out. And there’s a scene a couple of minutes later with a similarly meaningless hallucination. Without going too much into trying to put words into the mouths of Kubrick and Stephen King, I’d say that cinematically the random appearances work to increase the scare factor (and internally to the film, to increase Shelley’s character’s bewilderment), and thematically to show that it’s not just Jack that’s gone crazy; there’s something weird about the whole place. If you took out the bear man sex (and the other random guy that turns up a few minutes later), you’d be losing a particular point that the movie was making at that point, in my opinion.

2001 is the previous argument magnified. The whole movie is essentially only about the feeling. And the climax of the film is the star gate sequence.

Here’s a quote from John Gruber, which he said on Hivelogic Radio earlier this year (six minutes in). He verbalised, and made me realise for the first time why I like long and slow movies:

The whole problem talking about [2001] is that the point of it isn’t something you just say “oh here’s the point”; the movie itself is the point: it’s the way that it makes you feel. That’s the way when I was a little kid that I used to feel about all the movies I watched that were movies for adults, movies that weren’t really just kid movies. I’d watch it and be like “ah, I don’t really get this, I don’t understand it, it just gives me a feeling”. I think that’s how 2001 works, even for an adult, it’s more about how it makes you feel.

Personally, the star gate sequence is an example of a cinematic element that I love, but I know that many people can’t stand. Where long scenes contain only abstract imagery and the sudden absence of narrative sends my mind into a reflection of everything I’ve just seen. I find it a unique experience when a movie has been filling my head for a couple of hours, and then abruptly stops, leaving my mind to coast along in the direction it’s been pushed. After trying to encompass the whole feeling of the movie in a protracted instant, my mind then empties and there’s nothing left to fill the gap.

Less slow-minded people probably get over it in about five seconds and then get bored, so I can understand the lack of universal appeal. I also don’t know if that’s what the film maker is trying to do; I should get someone who actually knows about film production and editing to tell me one day. This is the reason, also, that I like to watch movies until the end of the credits roll, but it doesn’t always work at emulating the experience I described above. Sometimes it does, particularly when the music has been well chosen, and it’s just as good provided my companions don’t then immediately stand up and walk out of the cinema.

Could the star gate sequence be half as long? Probably. Twice as long? That’d be an awfully long time. Could it be only ten seconds long? Probably not. There’s no way of pinning down an exactly period of time that such a scene should extend for, and given the very slow pace of the movie as a whole (it’s only 1/3 dialogue, after all), I think it’s appropriate as Kubrick cut it.

So we started talking about tight editing and ended up with a vague and possibly pretentious discussion about how movies make me feel. Did I answer your questions, Justin?