All Work and No Play (originally published in AArchitecture 21)
13 February 2014
Architectural Association, London
Mark Campbell, Intermediate 1 Unit Master, writes about the mediative capacity of writing in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’
Curious at the results of her husband’s solitary industry, Wendy Torrance finally steals a glance at the manuscript of his new ‘writing project’. Horrified, she begins to read, laid bare against the page with malevolent intent, the same perfect sentence, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, All work and no play . . .’ repeated obsessively over several hundred pages of close typed manuscript. A labour, one might say, of love.
Of course this is an infamous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining (1980), adapted from the novel of the same name by the horror writer Stephen King. As King noted, part of his ambition for this work lay in the desire to write a book about writers or, more accurately, about the torments of writing, about the violence and contempt of the blank page. A failing writer, Jack Torrance faces this abyss with unwarranted bravado, rebutting his employer’s concerns by noting how the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel would afford him the quiet isolation necessary ‘to write’.
Despite his obvious interest, Kubrick’s annotations on his copy of King’s manuscript frequently denigrated the writer’s conception as ‘stupid’. (‘Idiotic’ was another typical comment.) The animosity between the pair was unsparing. Kubrick rightly considered King a hack and, for his part, King found the director’s adaptation of his gothic novel ‘maddening, perverse and disappointing’. (He also thought Kubrick’s torturing of Shelly Duval, the actor who played Wendy Torrance, reduced her role to that of a misogynistic caricature.) The critic Pauline Kael, a frequent Kubrick-detractor, simply found the finished film ‘dumb’, expressing the prevailing critical dismay that an auteur like Kubrick could preoccupy himself for almost two years shooting a ghost story which would take a B-grade director less than two months to make.
Screen grab from Stanley Kubrick dir., The Shining
Image credit: Peregrine Productions / Warner Bros., 1980
So what is there, amidst all this character assassination, overacting and dumbness to say about writing? Or, by extension, what is there to say, however briefly, about paper as a medium for writing, suggested by the creased sheets of Torrance’s manuscript?
For me, Kubrick’s Shining illustrates the inherently mediative capacity of writing. Mediative in the sense of facilitating an – albeit insane – absorption in concentrated thought, ‘All work and no play’, while also insisting on the primacy of the act of writing, which comes before all others. (Prefiguring, as Jacques Derrida reminds us, all other forms of language and certainly any mode of drawing.) Set in these terms, I am interested less in the capacity of a sheet of paper for endless invention, than I am in the capacity of that page for singular inscription. For fixing, arresting and, in a kind of foreclosing of extension, opening up the possibilities of reading.
Naturally, one form of this foreclosure lies in the gravity of sheer volume, with the weightiness of Torrance’s manuscript suggesting that all possibilities of invention, variation, and scale have been incorporated within it. (As Roger Luckhurst has recently noted, in this sense it resembles nothing so much as a proto-modernist masterpiece.) Another, perhaps even more interesting characteristic, lies in its repetition, which –through its constant restatement – becomes impossible to erase, or to change. In this way, the compulsion to repeat ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ complicates the suggestion that the mediation could actually bring about a reconciliation or resolution, producing only open-ended variations. As Kubrick suggests in his Shining, this repetition not only produces familial distress, but is also enacted through architecture.
In another famous scene, the Torrance’s psychically-gifted son, Danny, walks across his parents’ bedroom carrying a butcher’s knife in one hand and red lipstick in the other to write the word ‘REDRUM’ the bathroom door. (With Kubrick’s direction, the D and R in REDRUM are reversed to further complicate its initial reading.) Chanting, trying to establish the meaning of ‘REDRUM’ through its repeated incantation, he wakes his mother who looks over Danny’s shoulder to see, reflected in the dressing table mirror, the single word ‘MURDER’. While his actions illustrate how the building has become the surface on which to write, replacing the sheet of paper in conveying an even more essential message, her scream, which emanates from this reflected acknowledgement, also demonstrates how the Outlook Hotel provides the spatial and cinematic means to manifest its own murderous intent. (Again, words before actions.)
This exposition differs significantly from King’s novel, which described a nightmarish ‘blackness where one sinister word flashed in red: REDRUM’. Dragging this sentiment out of the darkness, Kubrick mirrors it in the most domestic of the hotel’s interiors, the Torrances’ ‘homey’ caretaker’s apartment, lit with the tawdry banality of the everyday. (The director’s note for the design of this apartment wryly observed, ‘the rooms they occupy have to be interesting and useful . . . a lot happens there’.) The final mirror-shot in a film full of mirror-shots, this masterstroke reminds us that Kubrick was an entirely different kind of hack. One whose elaborate and often maddening cinematic constructs, assembled as much through the proto-Demandian paper models used to conceive the hotel’s labyrinthine interiors as through any revisions to the script, encompass us all in their beauty, leaving us with a series of images that are incised into our memories with the perverse sting of a paper cut.
For more information:
Intermediate 1 Unit Brief
Paradise Lost Research Cluster
Mark Campbell writing about Paradise Lost for AA Conversations