Phantom Presence

experiencing filmmaker Kubrick’s ghostly camera

To Stanley Kubrickformalist artist, literate spiritualist, inveterate chess player, and cinematic explorer at the intersection of society, government, and technologymachines 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 directors cinematic warnings that it would all somehow go wrong (think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] and the Slim Pickens-strapped bomb from Dr. Strangelove [1964]), 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. Its not surprising, then, that he came to rely heavily on the use of the moving camera in his filmsfloating, fluid tracking shots and zooms of varying speeds and thematic intensityentrusting it to alternately assist and propel the narrative, making it as important, and perhaps more prescient, a character as any human in his filmography.

Film still: Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall); The Shining (1980); Hawk Films / Peregrine

Kubricks 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 Kubricks subtextualsometimes urgently personalconveyance 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 Kubricks moving camera in 1980s 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 films 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, Kubricks 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-scenes space, a ghostly commentator and a spiritual scout, just ahead or behind the characters and action, but always remaining central to exploration.

Its not knowing whats around the next corner, its pushing into [the characters] kind of reality…” —Garrett Brown, creator of the Steadicam, on its function in The Shining.

Browns 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 Torrancesinsignificant speck of a car (a mere insecta Volkswagen Bettle, no less), suggest an omniscient, hovering spirit. Perhaps its followed the relocating family from their origin point, attempting to warn them of the doom that awaits. Or is it one of the Overlooks spirits, resurrected from the desecrated indigenous burial ground that lies deep beneath the hotels foundation, who beckons instead of dissuades? In either interpretation, the vertiginous, forward-moving aerial shotsset the tone for the film, bending around the face of the mountain just a second behind the films protagonists, delaying our expectations of what lies in wait. Well see this viewpoint threaded consistently throughout the film. As the tracking shots continue to unveil space and mood, the TorrancesJack, 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 Kubricks technical and narrative style, the roving camera his most compelling foot soldier.

Film still: Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd); The Shining (1980); Hawk Films / Peregrine

Brown describes the camera as penetrating spacein the film and its an apt declarationif the camera is a ghost, guiding and toying with the Torrances, Danny especially, its 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 hotels 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. Its a display of tenderness that dad Jacklong in blithe malevolence and physically abusive mode—can not muster. More importantly, the cameras low-angle positionbetter to engage a child at his levelannounces the cameras intention to help Danny, to lay bare the Overlooks geography and supply him with the necessary elements to eventually make an escape. Despite writer Falsettos 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 films 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 theyre welling up from the audiences 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 1957s Paths of Glory or 1971s A Clockwork Orange for further proof of the tracking shots relevance in Kubrick cinema. Garrett Brown, in his commentary for The Shinings Blu-ray edition, describes the film as having a three-dimensional quality when the camera movesand the same could be said for many of Stanley Kubricks 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 directors onscreen worlds open up. His moving camera is akin to the Great Spirit of Native American lore and wisdomits everywhere.