What was billed as the last-ever screening of the 35mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining showed recently at a local independent theater here in Atlanta. In a move prompted by proliferating conversion to digital formats in theaters, as well as the diminishing livelihood of the film’s grade after years of wear and tear, Warner Brothers announced they would be pulling the editions from distribution thereafter; much of their archives were already in the process of being destroyed.
I’ve probably seen The Shining somewhere between 70-150 times over the past fifteenish years. I’ve found that no matter how many times I watch the film, even back to back, it never seems to get old; if anything, I find more about the film in repetition. Each time there are new edges, colors, sounds, overlappings, inconsistencies in the story, architecture, colors, references, emotions, textures, perhaps each depending on the my viewing setting and my mood. I was excited not only to get to watch it in massive, aging format, in a theater like the Plaza, whose mood and architecture befits something from midnight screenings in the late 70’s, but also with a large audience of strangers, in different dark.
After waiting for the theater to fill up, and following some dated previews, the opening shot hovering above blue water between mountains primed with the ploddingly ominous moog synth sound of Wendy Carlos claimed the air and we were on. Some of the immediate differences in viewing feel here will be obvious to those who have seen any older-run 35mm reel films. The frame looks a little more boxed in, less wide than the huge angle shots we have become used to. Having seen the film before and knowing what that looks like, it feels kind of like you’re peeping through a mask onto the version, restrained from certain edges. The colors in this print were heavily muted from what the DVD and Blu-ray prints contain; objects appear fuzzier, colors washy and tired, slightly as if out of focus. This added an archaic, almost campy element to the familiar introductory scenes. Whites were grayer, reds more thinning. A constantly shifting lick of wear lines and bubbles, phases of static, little faultline cracks and juts and sprays of disrupted color worked their way in flux over the images, constantly changing how the familiar image would appear. It looked, in many ways, less real, in the way that films by now seem to be judged against: we are clearly watching something trapped inside a view.
Though for the most part the image noise was subtle, and easy once you got used to watching to overlook, certain more affected areas would affect the image in more pronounced ways: as if the tape were eating up the scene. Sometimes, too, it seemed like different angles or longer takes of shots I’d always felt I knew very well were being used. The shift in colors made rooms feel different, shaded, and the acts inside them, then, seemed slightly off; inconsistencies in my experience of the inconsistencies, equally disorienting and compelling. I kept thinking of Bill Morrison’s film Decasia, where the stock had been allowed to degrade to such extent that the film itself took on a haunted, viral feel, whole scenes warped into new images. This wasn’t quite to that extent; the effect was much more subtle. A wash of gold pixels across Jack standing at the mouth of the hotel in the snow is one particular disruption I recall in which the noise began to rise out of itself and seem to want to dissolve through it, come between us and the film. Overall, the effect was pleasant, and added something arcane to the field, a new texture to consider when it made itself the most apparent, and overall riding in the context of the seeing, which made me wonder if, in the way we’re no longer allowing outside shapes in, how film itself seems more now than ever to want to be a thing we place firmly between ourselves and time.
Another major odd facet of this screening involved how having an audience around clashed with my previous experiences of the film. I was constantly surprised to find regular laughter at things I’d never found remotely humorous. Jack’s enthusiastic acceptance of his position in light of finding out about the murders that had occurred at the hands of previous caretakers, and especially at his volunteering his wife likewise enjoying the condition, inspired a round of knowing snickers, reveling in the allusion to the coming grief. Irony, and familiarity with the revelation of that irony, even in a context not gripped with the usual wink wink nod nod of such positions in the presentation to the viewer, really struck some of our audience as comic: a product simply of I-know-they-know-you-know, by their view dismissing a film I’d always found wholly ominous and sinister of its ecstatic terror and replacing it with camp.
This went on throughout the film, as did laughter at certain points I’d always associated with, if not horror, then something claustrophobic, muffled, charged. When Jack kills Dick Halloran with an axe to the chest, the only actual murder in the film, people burst into laughter, not, it seemed, out of surprise, but for something else about the minute; perhaps partially because since then we’ve seen so many hokey murders in horror movies than murder now, and the big beamed bright look in Dick’s eyes on impact, is forced into caricature, beyond drama. Even acts clearly meant to elicit textures of humor, such as the man in the bear costume giving a suited man a blowjob, or the portraits of afro’d women over Halloran’s bed, or Jack’s excitement at the young naked women in the tub who turns molding and old, were suddenly not just tickling in an ominous way, but slapstick. Even knowing American audience’s tendency to expel art in the name of easy jokes, the laughter gave yet another layer of dementia to my own viewing: what am I sitting in the midst of? Who are these people? What fills up the dark between us? What are we staring at, and what if it no longer was there? All sidelong ideas, surely, but still, the context changed the space, which in process inevitable seemed to change my understanding of this art object I’d encountered so many times before.
Something about these muted colors and the flecking and the laughter made me respond emotionally to the ongoings in ways I had not on prior views. Whereas most always I’d felt close to the vision-haunted Danny, to feel scared for him and what the hotel wanted in him destroyed, under these new shapes I found him annoying, almost evil in his own way. He seemed more sniveling, pathetic, small. The black presence in the hotel and in Jack seemed suddenly more natural, more nearby. The screen seemed sometimes very close or very far away. Different rooms set on familiar rooms, different people laid into forms I’d glimpsed before and now had been exposed in some way new.
By the time the film was over I felt as if I’d unlocked a certain set of feelings or textures I had never come across before.
Throughout the seeing of this film another way, there manifested an experience held inside my thinking for those minutes, and then thereafter in the residue of where those thoughts had sat, which clicked a way of feeling on the inside of me that thereafter, I believe, goes on inside me now, however subtle its influence; in the way a quick understanding of some dream’s logic can come over and make all the sense in the world, can be the world itself. Certain objects and experiences can only be unlocked from certain angles for certain moments, I believe, and the value there is not in the entertainment of the image or the time, but what is changed in you, like putting a code in. That might sound magnanimous in the context of watching a movie, but I believe it, and I believe it applies more widely, to all range of experiences conferred, even if I can’t say what there is to do with what you have thereafter but to go on; you remain open or reconstructed now in some slight way of small juxtaposition that might again allow another kind of object or experience to bump against you or enter in you in another way, causing strings or summations, alterations not necessary namable directly, but this is how our minds and memories are built. Even the most seemingly casual event, or even one aimed to be something more than that that both is and isn’t more on its face, fabricates some however minor context into how the air is now, and how it will be. It all accrues.
I’m not saying this viewing of this filmed changed me forever, anymore than I’m saying the walk to theater before the movie did, or the food I ate before that — though all of these things, I think, are true. If I hold onto anything about this experience beyond the above mentioned residues, it is in how different experiences of the same creation brought to you in different ways at different times can remind one of how in the creation itself there is a certain kind of immediacy and intimacy in the moment of the space being contained, though this is only the beginning of how the presence touches what it touches in transference, and what becomes of that creation is both a product of the web of other folds and folds in those folds, ways around it always unveiling, becoming invaded, aging, which is the flesh of the world itself.