Bright Lights Film Journal

Kubrick and the Coen Brothers Again: The Shining and Fargo

The Shining and Fargo share a view of a society “stupefied by its hypothetical aspirations”

1. The Two Jacks

At the end of Jack Torrence’s interview, he informs Mr. Ullman that Wendy is “a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.” Such addicts (starting with Stephen King) have found fault with Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), for treating the horror genre ambivalently and being unable to frighten the audience. There are echoes from The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Exorcist (1972), as well as the necessary shock waves from Psycho (1960), but Kubrick uses the genre instead of giving himself over to it. Other critics have fixed on the very characterization of the film’s “monster,” Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson). Is he not already demented before the interview? Doesn’t the film’s final frame, Jack in a photograph from 1921, indicate that he is destined to take a murderous path? In both cases, criticism has been based on accepted modes of depicting horror and personality rather than understanding the film’s mode. The Shining‘s editing and pacing subvert the audience’s anticipated titillations. If Kubrick means to scare us, it is not by means of monsters or ghosts or supernatural psychopaths. Instead, we descend into the labyrinth of a mentally constipated, maritally frustrated man. Jack’s case history, so to speak, is by no means clear; indeed, it looks as if some information we are given is deliberately distorted. When did he go on the wagon?1 How old was Danny when his shoulder was separated by Jack? When Jack says that isolation and solitude are exactly what he needs, we know immediately his family is getting into big trouble. The Shining rejects conventional character development, eschewing the notion of “inner” and “outer.” Jack’s psyche, if you will, the degeneration of his psyche, unfolds via images and scenes, most notably in the enigmatic episode in Room 237, which brilliantly illustrates Kubrick’s manipulation of the horror genre to show us who Jack is.

Jack enters the bathroom in Room 237 and sees a woman draw back the bathroom curtain. She rises, naked, and glides toward the increasingly delighted Jack. They stand, stare, taking each other in, embrace, and mash their mouths together. The scene is unerotic, and the woman becomes decreasingly un-beautiful without being ugly. In the film’s terms, Jack is experiencing a “shining” or imaging of the woman, which momentarily recalls Jack reading a Playboy when he first arrived at the Overlook. A sexual fantasy has come to life, although within a minute a new image crosses his mind. Jack glances into a mirror behind the woman and finds himself (be)holding a bruised and decayed hag. Kubrick and Nicholson must have been aware of one of Nicholson’s early films, The Terror (1963), a Roger Corman’s quickie, starring Boris Karloff. In this film’s final scene, Nicholson, playing a French officer and veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, lay beneath a tree with a woman in his arms, he kisses her long and hard, suddenly she transforms into a rotting corpse. An American International travesty disrupts Jack’s Playboy ecstasy. Director and actor have transposed the events in Room 237 into the substance of Jack’s madness. Cinematic reflexiveness and narcissism complement Torrence’s own: the melding of the two Jacks. We see the latent side of Torrence’s mind, “the ghost story and horror film” side, which reveals the same quality he mocked his wife for having. Then, immune to knowing why the fantasy dissolves, he internalizes another defeat. The Shining catalogs his other failures as teacher, father, provider, writer, and now dreamer. For most of these he blames his family. Wendy breaks his concentration, his son scatters his papers, and teaching got in the way of his writing.

Do his failures alone incline him to kill Wendy and Danny? Or has society (patriarchal, capitalistic, or the latest whipping boy) put too much pressure on him? Or has he seen too many horror films? No answer seems adequate. Jack remains inscrutable if we stick with standard explanations. I have suggested one way to penetrate him. His possession by the hotel spirits, the dementia gripping him until his eyeballs pop, is not the standard horror film apparatus unrelentingly imposed on an otherwise nice guy. Jack remains horrible and horribly isolated, possessed really by himself, a self-made Minotaur.

2. Herrrrrrre’s Jerry

Had Jack Torrence maintained his teaching job, his marriage probably would have grown into the type Jerry Lundegaard’s (William H. Macy) has in the Coen Brothers Fargo (1996). Although Jack and Jerry have different jobs and unequal cultural depths (as a car salesman Jerry cannot descend much lower in the white collar world), the emotional temperature of their respective marriages is close to permafrost, and their wives overprotect their sons. Jerry, however, must live in proximity to his in-laws. Their marriages appear to be alive and, in America, virtue is often assigned to appearances (the happiness/optimism axis of drivel). When the Torrences retreat from society’s circulation by spending a winter at the Overlook, the regular interactions break down and, increasingly on his own, Jack broods and becomes susceptible to the hotel’s (really his own)2 ghosts. In isolation, from society and then from his wife and child, he devolves into a killer. Jack no more meant to do this than Jerry means for his wife to be killed.

Jack and Jerry juxtaposed most resemble the other in the sheer vanity of their dreams. Jack wants to write a. . . interestingly, he doesn’t say he is writing a book but “outlining a writing project,” which are prophetic words, given his eventual output — and finds the right place to do it. What happens? He gets writer’s block. He has too much time and finds too many distractions, the greatest of them being having too much space in both time and place to concentrate firmly on his project. Jerry’s situation at the bottom of the cultural ethos is exacerbated by the presence of a successful father-in-law. Jerry apparently has little to worry about financially, which puts him in a position analogous to Jack. The lack of pressure to be a meaningful provider gives Jerry time to embark on his own project: to engage in a high-stakes capital venture. He wants but does not expect his father-in-law to back him. Hence, he concocts a secondary project to finance the first: namely, kidnaping his wife for a large ransom. If Jack wants to write the Great American Novel, Jerry’s project ultimately features a notable but less mentioned aspect of the American Dream: getting out from the weight of the in-laws. Jerry’s wimpish appearance and attitude belie a slick schemer (remember, he is a car salesman) who will try to pull a fast one on his co-conspirators, Carl and Gaear.

At no point does Jerry’s judgment impress us, and little evidence is given of his ability to act on the knowledge of his own limitations. His frustration, like Jack’s, at becoming increasingly ineffectual if not a joke to the world perpetuates a plan of action that goes askew before it starts. When he meets the kidnappers in a bar in Fargo, they claim Jerry arrived an hour late. Jerry disagrees. Regardless, Carl and Gaear persistently ignore or contradict everything Jerry says. A sensible person, no matter how desperate, would have stopped there.

3. Disjunctions and Connections

Much of Fargo‘s content, starting with the film’s title, seems displaced, literally so when we consider the title. Only the first episode, when Jerry meets his co-conspirators in a bar, takes place in Fargo, North Dakota, the remainder in Minnesota (save for Jerry’s capture in Bismarck). Yet, even before the film starts, we read a disclaimer that asserts that what we are going to watch is a “true story.” Are we inclined to believe this assertion? If so, how does it affect our reception of the contents? Do Jerry’s actions seem more real and typical of human folly because of it? And how will the eventual truth — the film not being a true story — affect our feeling toward the human folly Fargo depicts? Probably very little. Perhaps, the film’s grossest incongruity, and a motif that becomes the spiritual heart of the film’s disjunction, is the way most of the characters infamously speak: English with a Swedish accent. Never, it seems, has the way people spoken stood out so prominently and absurdly in a film.3 Within the use of the Swedish accents are the more humorous anomalies: Shep Proudfoot’s Native American, Mike Yanagita’s Japanese, and Gaear Grimsrud’s sociopathic versions.

The Shining‘s own program of anomalies develops in several ways. Jack believes isolation is exactly what he needs. He rants to Wendy about his responsibilities to his employer, yet she does most of the caretaker work at the Overlook. Jack appears to be writing many pages, but all the pages repeat a single line. Perhaps foremost is the picture of Jack in the July 4, 1921, photograph at the movie’s end. This last image suggests something that cannot be: Jack has always been at the Overlook. Does it change our entire perspective of the film? Like the statement prefacing Fargo about it being a true story, could Kubrick have ended his horror film with an extraneous revelation that completely changes the film’s perspective? This ending also refracts many filmmaking “mistakes” that may have been continuity errors or deliberate mischief or both. Most prominently, we never know why Jack’s wallet is “temporarily light” the first time he meets Lloyd but the second time it furnishes “two tens and two twenties.” Also, two different times are given for Danny’s separated shoulder: when Jack stopped drinking six months before coming to Colorado and “three goddamn years ago.” There’s no confusion, however, when we see Jack break open one panel of the bathroom door and only seconds later we see two panels open. And how does the paper reappear in Jack’s typewriter after he tells Wendy to get the fuck out of his writing den?4 Kubrick is daring us to disbelieve. In what seems the most self-conscious attempt to disrupt our expectations, Wendy brings Jack his breakfast and they speak to one another on the bed when half the scene is shot in the mirror. Only when the shot cuts to them on the bed do they speak about their strange feelings about the hotel, especially when Jack tells her about his deja vu. But that’s the problem with deja vu: it is difficult to remember clearly what one has experienced. Danny’s precognition abilities are innately disjointed because, as he says to Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), Tony shows him things but when Danny awakes he cannot remember anything clearly. Lastly, at the point when Wendy tells Jack that there’s a crazy woman in one of the rooms, the film abruptly cuts to a television set showing the evening news in Miami with Hallorann spread out on the bed watching. This jarring transition eventually unfolds into the most intense demonstration of “shining,” but Kubrick has undermined genre expectations by building and disrupting the suspense at the same time.

By aligning Fargo with Kubrick’s film, the Coens clearly establish that they understand The Shining‘s elemental structure. Jack and Jerry are visually merged in one brief shot in Jerry’s office of a wall with pictures of the salesmen of the month, which are lined up in rows exactly like those in The Shining‘s last shot. We then see a single picture of Jerry. This particular shot suggests, with Jerry being in the picture alone, that he is lost and anonymous amid the other pictures; Jerry’s anonymity remains intact despite the achievement. Jack is similarly lost, although within the July 4, 1921, photo he stands out with his arms spread. Jerry understands something Jack could never consciously feel: he’s a cipher. Making a big score — taking an enormous risk — seems to Jerry the only way to negate his nothingness. I put it this way because, after thinking about his scheme, one has difficulty seeing what advantages he actually creates for himself. The ghosts of the Overlook, which may only be figments of Jack’s consciousness, play upon his oppressed feelings and essentially get him to believe that by killing his family he will have accomplished something. Talk about negating the negativity!

The Shining‘s most familiar line occurs just as Jack breaks down the bathroom door’s panel before he intends to kill Wendy. “Here’s Johnny!” In fact, the video package cover shows Jack scrunched up to the open panel. The meek Jerry Lundegaard has no such moment, but the instruments of his heinous actions, Carl and Gaear, act out an analogous scenario. The two stop in Brainard to eat pancakes and get laid. We see them briefly screwing two prostitutes, then there is a brief fade to black and we return to the room where the four are watching television. The ghost light from the screen shines on them as we hear Ed McMahon announcing The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Then the next day, Carl and Gaear break into the Lundegaard’s house while Jean is watching a morning show. She bites Gaear’s hand and draws blood (an echo of Wendy slashing Jack’s hand), escaping to the bathroom. She glances at the window which, as it was for Wendy, is too small to wriggle out of.5 Cinching the link to The Shining, the kidnappers enter Brainard and pass a statue of Paul Bunyan wielding an axe. The Coen Brothers use of “Here’s Johnny” certifies their film’s ethos, just as they had used the P.O.E graffiti in Raising Arizona (1987), which signaled a connection to Dr. Strangelove (1964).6

4. Animal Status

In both films, The Tonight Show transmits the status of the respective marriages, in particular, how each has moved to another emotional climate. The marriages have grown cold after raising a child, and the men and women feel little for one another except for what marriage inertia dictates. The emotional climate of Fargo finds its analogue not only in the frigidity of Minnesota’s winter but especially from the pervasive use of the Swedish-American accents. Talking about the weather or the murder of three innocent bystanders, nothing registers in the characters’ voices any modification of their emotional engagement.

The Tonight Show reference also draws us closer to another motif in the films. If “Here’s Johnny” is the emotional code for these films, television itself appears continuously in The Shining and Fargo. In The Shining we hear a Roadrunner cartoon and, later, see Jack’s hapless attempts to kill his family take on Wile E. Coyote dimension: he chases Danny into the maze and essentially has him cornered, only to end up freezing to death himself. Earlier, after Wendy accuses Jack of abusing Danny, he sits in his chair contemplating the charges, unable to believe he could have done it, all the while postured in the chair as if he is staring mindlessly at a television (a state I have often caught myself in while channel surfing). Whereas Fargo‘s characters seem glued to the television. Jean Lundegaard turns from the television screen to her porch windows and sees Carl and Gaear breaking into the house. She watches as if the men in masks are not real and doesn’t move until the glass is broken. Jerry’s father-in-law stares intensely at a hockey game on the set. At work, Jerry briefly leaves customers to talk to his boss about knocking down the price of a car when in fact all he does is look into a room where one of the salesmen is watching a sporting event. Gaear most likely kills Jean because she was screeching while he watched his favorite soap opera. Lastly, we have two scenes in which Norm and Marge half-asleep watch a Nature show about the life cycle of a bark beetle. The choice of content is very appropriate.

In an article in Film/Literature, Steven Carter relates the Coens’ use of television to animals: “Like that of television, the function of the film’s animal motif is to erase conventional moral boundaries between normal and abnormal and good and evil.”7 He lists many references to animals, including: the kidnappers staying at the Blue Ox Motel; one of the hookers says “Go, Bears” when she tells Marge where she’s from; Gaear finds a porcelain pig when searching for unguent; references to badgers and gophers as university mascots; etc.8 Television and animals merge in The Shining during the aforementioned Roadrunner cartoon, as well as when Jack calls out to Wendy and Danny in the bathroom: “Little pigs, little pigs, won’t you come out. Well, by the hair on my chinny chin chin, I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”

Carter also shows how Fargo constructs the animal-television motif to envelop all the characters, erasing the line between the good, Marge, and the bad, Jerry and Gaear. When Marge talks to Gaear in the police car, she lectures him on the terrible nature of his deeds, oblivious to how far gone Gaear is from observing a traditional moral code. We cannot help thinking how unaware she (as is Gaear) of the larger stakes Jerry and Carl were playing for. And as bathrooms show up in both films, we cannot avoid mentioning the staring eyes and crows above Norman Bates when he speaks to Marion Crane in the den. The original bathroom killer literally becomes a predator, reducing his human victim to a thing that must destroyed.9 Jack and Jerry (the latter via Carl and Gaear) have become predators when they lose themselves and cannot see beyond their own gratifications. We recall Jack in the food locker, promising the Overlook’s ghosts to do their bidding; and hearing he will have to use the harshest measures against Wendy and Danny, that is, kill them, he replies, “Nothing would give me greater pleasure.” Jerry does not reach this point. He seems incapable of experiencing pleasure. He abducts his wife in a reckless maneuver to survive. The world subsequently collapses on him. Everyone he touches: the kidnappers, Shep, his wife, his father-in-law, and, by extension, the cop who stopped the kidnappers’ car, the people who passed by the kidnappers car after the cop was shot — they are all dead or will be imprisoned.10

Jack, who only killed Hallorann, should envy Jerry’s latent power. In fact, I think of Jack as being ambitious. One scene, after playing wall ball against the Hopi motifs, he drifts toward the model of the hedge labyrinth and stares at it. In an incredible sequence, we seamlessly make the transition from the model to the real maze where Danny and Wendy are walking. It is Jack’s first time “shining.” Ultimately, here is a man attempting to range over his world mentally. Just as he wants to complete a writing project, he wants to be the archetypal provider, of which he has a full mental image. But as the brief view of his book shows, he has mastered forms and structures but not content.11

Similarly, television becomes a major example and metaphor for our society’s ambition to command the elements of life: age, health, pleasure, riches, education. Like the ghosts of the Overlook, television seduces anyone nearby who wants to take a shortcut to satisfy all desires. Fargo goes further than The Shining, if only to depict a society stupefied by its hypothetical aspirations. At the end, Marge and Norm stare at the nature show little realizing they are approaching nature’s fixity and flatness. Marge will feed the baby growing in her womb as the bark beetle fills itself, to give birth in the spring. A new generation will arrive. Any smarter or any better? The Coen Brothers appear more skeptical than Kubrick, if this seems possible, and I am not far behind.

  1. . The difference between the book (and King’s adaptation of it) is never clearer than in the degree to which each dwells on Jack’s drinking. The film avoids Jack’s “battle” with the bottle, which free his scenes with Lloyd from our built-in feelings toward alcoholism. []

  2. . When Jack speaks to Lloyd and Grady, he’s looking into mirrors. A mirror is also present in the bathroom with the naked woman/hag. []

  3. . One recent film comes to mind, Snatch (1999), but the accents are so thick or unintelligible (Brad Pitt’s gypsy) it is difficult to understand what anyone says, which is what one remembers more than the accents themselves. []

  4. . Some commentators say the hotel’s ghosts did it, just as they would let Jack out of the food locker, but never, especially in the latter case, is this explanation acceptable. []

  5. . In Blood Simple (1983), Frances McDormand hides in the bathroom and does escape through the window and swings over to a window of an adjacent room. When M. Emmet Walsh reaches to pry open the window, McDormand sticks a knife in his hand. In this case, the man had been hired to kill her by her husband. []

  6. . See “Recalling the Dream of Parenthood in Raising Arizona,” Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 37, August 2002. In fact, this is not the first time The Tonight Show has been invoked to comment on the state of marital relations. In Blake Edwards’ Blind Date (1987), the judge (William Daniels) and his wife are in bed watching Johnny Carson, with Bruce Willis under the bed. Blind Date‘s prominent theme, which abets the Carson reference, is the social domination men have over women. []

  7. . “‘Flare to White’: Fargo and the Postmodern Turn,” Steven Carter, Literature Film Quarterly, 1999, Vol. 27, issue 4, pp. 238-244. My commentary about Fargo owes much to this article. []

  8. . Ibid. []

  9. . In The Birds (1963), Hitchcock focuses on the vacant stares of his characters at moments when they feel most threatened, that is, when their worlds appear to be coming apart and, for a moment, they descend into survival mode. []

  10. . Jerry’s boy, Scottie, now without parents and grandparents, could be better off. []

  11. . “The quest for absolute self-knowledge has characteristic dangers associated with it, some of which arise from the fact that the pursuit of such knowledge is often simply a form of narcissistic self-absorption — the self’s attempt to know absolutely what it loves absolutely, with all the perils of suffocating self-enclosure that that implies.” John T. Irwin, The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 213. Irwin connects this pursuit to the story of Oedipus, the riddle solver, and Theseus (who gave shelter to the older, blind Oedipus), the labyrinth solver. Poe’s name briefly appears in Raising Arizona and is often on the mind of Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1962). Irwin suggests a couple pages later how that incest “dissolves the very notions of kinship, the sense of a clear network of relationships within which the self is located” (215). In The Shining and Fargo, the network of relationships in society is threatened by the narcissistic self, stimulated by the televisual media. Incest may not be committed but killing one’s family or kidnaping one’s wife serve as analogues for impending social disintegration. Irwin, again, talks about “the proliferation of self-destruction” in the Oedipus story “like a chain-reaction in a house of mirrors” (215). []