To Stanley Kubrick—formalist artist, literate spiritualist, inveterate chess player, and cinematic explorer at the intersection of society, government, and technology—machines had the capacity for meaningful interaction with humans, the promise of a creative, productive synergy that manages, to this day, to be underutilized and overestimated in equal measures. And despite the director’s cinematic warnings that it would all somehow go wrong (think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey  and the Slim Pickens-strapped bomb from Dr. Strangelove ), Kubrick cultivated a warm fascination with and masterful command over every technical aspect of the film camera and its lenses throughout the breadth of his career. It was a mutually beneficial partnership that produced some of the most lionized and analyzed films of our time. It’s not surprising, then, that he came to rely heavily on the use of the moving camera in his films—floating, fluid tracking shots and zooms of varying speeds and thematic intensity—entrusting it to alternately assist and propel the narrative, making it as important, and perhaps more prescient, a character as any human in his filmography.
Kubrick’s cinematic style often found the director producing, essentially, two films at once: on one plane was the above-ground story and plot, frequently derived from previously written material, yet on another was Kubrick’s subtextual—sometimes urgently personal—conveyance of a philosophical and spiritual diegesis, concurrently playing out alongside the more accessible images and themes of the movie. Explored here, then, is the narrative significance of Kubrick’s moving camera in 1980’s The Shining (playing around Boston in the lead-up to Halloween, including the Coolidge Corner Theatre) and how its function shifts and morphs depending on the film’s psychic terrain; in particular, focus will be paid to the aggregate presence of the tracking shot as Greek chorus, guardian phantom, and visually emotive principal character.
In The Shining, Kubrick’s balletic moving camera may have reached its thematic zenith. Narratively, the camera evokes the haunting presence within the Overlook Hotel, a cavernous spook house with hallways and corridors that simultaneously free the sailing, swooping camera from its previously earthbound incarnation and imprison its human characters. The story, according to Bruce Kawin in his book, How Movies Work, “is all a labyrinth, a telepathic trap”; the tracking and zoom shots employed by Kubrick serve as a deft navigator of the mise-en-scene’s space, a ghostly commentator and a spiritual scout, just ahead or behind the characters and action, but always remaining central to exploration.
“It’s not knowing what’s around the next corner, it’s pushing into [the character’s] kind of reality…” —Garrett Brown, creator of the Steadicam, on its function in The Shining.
Brown’s mechanically evolutionary innovation, a mounted camera that uses a hydraulic harness strapped to the cameraman in order to execute smooth, orienting movements, was used to great effect in the film and introduced the audience to a kind of cinematic point of view that had heretofore gone unseen. The opening aerial tracking shots, soaring over majestic, foreboding mountain cliffs and rivers as it follows the Torrances’ insignificant speck of a car (a mere insect—a Volkswagen Bettle, no less), suggest an omniscient, hovering spirit. Perhaps it’s followed the relocating family from their origin point, attempting to warn them of the doom that awaits. Or is it one of the Overlook’s spirits, resurrected from the desecrated indigenous burial ground that lies deep beneath the hotel’s foundation, who beckons instead of dissuades? In either interpretation, “the vertiginous, forward-moving aerial shots…set the tone for the film”, bending around the face of the mountain just a second behind the film’s protagonists, delaying our expectations of what lies in wait. We’ll see this viewpoint threaded consistently throughout the film. As the tracking shots continue to unveil space and mood, the Torrances—Jack, Wendy, and young Danny (played by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd, respectively)—are not only at the mercy of whatever the Overlook Hotel has in store, but of Kubrick’s technical and narrative style, the roving camera his most compelling foot soldier.
Brown describes the camera as “penetrating space” in the film and it’s an apt declaration—if the camera is a ghost, guiding and toying with the Torrances, Danny especially, it’s moving deeper and deeper into the heart of the Overlook, cajoling the family to follow. The sympathy that the camera affords Danny, though, is evident within the myriad sequences of the young boy barreling through the hotel’s corridors on a Big Wheel-style pedal bike. The shots in these scenes track forward, trailing just behind the boy and his machine, gently prodding him as a father would a son first learning to ride a bike. It’s a display of tenderness that dad Jack—long in blithe malevolence and physically abusive mode—can not muster. More importantly, the camera’s low-angle position—better to engage a child at his level—announces the camera’s intention to help Danny, to lay bare the Overlook’s geography and supply him with the necessary elements to eventually make an escape. Despite writer Falsetto’s assertions that these low-angle shots and the walled-in nature of the frame (the camera is tracking through limited hallway space, after all) indicate that Danny “will have difficulty escaping this environment”, he does just that in the film’s snowy maze finale. In it, the movement of the camera starts and stops alongside Danny, whispering to him where to backtrack, where to leap to the safety of an alcove, supplying him with a calming logic and means of endurance and deception, the likes of which feel as if they’re welling up from the audience’s own psychic stress and empathy. We become the protecting camera in this instance, it is us who become the chorus. This phantom seeks to dispense sage guidance, akin to how Mary Poppins or, more appropriately, the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi function in their specific narratives.
Watch 1957’s Paths of Glory or 1971’s A Clockwork Orange for further proof of the tracking shot’s relevance in Kubrick cinema. Garrett Brown, in his commentary for The Shining’s Blu-ray edition, describes the film as having a “three-dimensional quality when the camera moves” and the same could be said for many of Stanley Kubrick’s films. The camera in these pictures inhabits the specific actions of something that feels alive, even if not incorporeal form. It explores and trailblazes, observes and empathizes, and, in the process, charts the vast and often indomitable space that the director’s onscreen worlds open up. His moving camera is akin to the Great Spirit of Native American lore and wisdom—it’s everywhere.