The Clenched Fist of Jack Torrance (Kubrick's films run rampant with easily overlooked peculiarities and this is another one of them)

Go to Table of Contents of the analysis (which has also a statement on purpose and manner of analysis and a disclaimer as to caveat emptor and my knowing anything authoritatively, which I do not, but I do try to not know earnestly, with some discretion, and considerable thought).

The most important thing which must be kept in mind with Kubrick's films is there is the surface or principle story and then the internal or sub-story. In many of his films, if we're really paying attention, set elements pretty much immediately destroy the surface naturalism. One may not notice this destruction the first, second or third time one watches the film. Through constructive disorientation and disconnectedness, and sleight of hand as to where our eye focuses, Kubrick, the magician, intentionally obfuscates these elements that destroy the overt and naturalistic story line. The surface story lines are the principle ones, and this is maintained and supported by the intentional obfuscation of the deconstructive elements which keep them sub rosa. At the same time, these deconstructive elements are plainly there, alongside his tremendous effort to make things look real and believable, and once we bypass the disorientation and his purposeful refocusing they become a puzzle, annihilating the sense of reality. This destruction of the film's naturalistic story line is difficult enough to conceive of and accept that most people stop at this point and decide these puzzling aspects of Kubrick's films are errors when they are not. They are part of the art of a director cleverly designing the overt story line to be unimpeded by an internal story that tears it apart. Indeed, the sub rosa elements of the internal story may be discreet but they are enough in evidence to complicate the surface story with an aura of attractive, indefinable mystery, which is one of the reasons viewers return to Kubrick again and again. To work with the "reason" and "why of the internal story line is to try to settle into Kubrick's sensibility, examining how these internal stories form a dialogue in his oeuvre with repeating themes and ideas, elaborated upon from film to film. The internal stories haven't a "plot"; they aren't that kind of story. Instead, you have to be willing to deal with comprehending the themes and ideas represented in them as instead ultimately forming a different terrain for the setting of the surface story, guiding and interacting with the overt story and giving it a new form.


Danny has fled back outside after Dick's death. In pursuit, hampered by his limp, Jack makes his way to the far entrance/exit of The Overlook, both hands always wielding his axe, as has been the case since we first saw him with it, the exception being when he reached in through the hole in the caretaker's apartment door with his left hand and grasped for the doorknob. Here we see him in the entryway.

Despite the fact having been made, during Wendy's excursion to check on the disabled Snowcat, that snow so blocked the doors she was barely able to open even one of them...

Despite the situation not having changed with the arrival of Dick...

The doors stand wide open in waiting for Jack, and perhaps they had for Danny as well, but Kubrick chose not to show Danny exiting so we don't know. Of what we can be confident is little Danny could not have opened both doors wide if neither Wendy nor Dick were able. But never mind this, I'm instead concerned with another oddity.

There follow a few shots of Jack scanning the dark outside the Overlook for Danny, and Danny hiding behind the Snowcat. Jack releases his right hand from the axe to cut on the outside lamps and we see the entrance to the maze has moved 90 degrees.

Danny abandons the Snowcat to make a run for the maze. Jack follows, and as we can see he has both hands on the axe again. By my reckoning this is shot 600. Kubrick cuts away before Jack passes the Snowcat. This is the last moment before the cut.

In shot 601 Danny is seen running up the hill to the maze and entering it.

Shot 602 picks up Jack passing the Snowcat. With Danny having entered the maze, Jack has released his right hand from the axe and now instead clutches his jacket shut with it.

Now, this appears to be entirely natural. It's damn cold out there in the snowbound mountains, right? Why give Jack clutching shut that jacket a second thought?

Because Jack, from now on, never releases his right clenched fist from his jacket. His hand remains clenched shut, holding the jacket, from the moment Danny entered the maze. How many days or weeks of shooting did that entail with Jack stumbling through the maze with that fist clenched?

Kubrick cuts back to Danny running through the maze and falling (shot 603), then Jack following him. Cut to Wendy in the scene in which she finds Dick dead and encounters the "great party" man. Cut back to Danny in the maze and Jack pursuing with that right clenched fist. Then back to Wendy running down a now dark Gold Room hall toward the lobby where she will look at it from an opposite perspective, 180 degrees reversed from her previous view, Dick is gone and she sees instead skeletons in the chairs. Cut back to Danny having reached the center of the maze, retracing his steps and concealing himself, as Jack pursues still clutching his jacket. Return to Wendy now in the red hall and coming upon the bloody elevators (the doors of which are reversed once the blood starts flowing). Back now to Jack having reached the center of the maze

sh_jackifollowsthefootsteps

Jack passes over Danny and Danny flees back toward the maze's entrance. We see Wendy outside the hotel running toward the Snowcat. Cut back to Danny falling in the maze (645). Suddenly he's at the entrance (647). Wendy helps hims into the Snowcat.

As if to point out how Jack is determined not to unclench that right fist, towards the end of this scene, Danny escaping with his mother in the Snowcat, Kubrick has Jack fall on his right side (650). He takes a full out tumble on his right side and he never removes his hand from his jacket, never unclenching his fist.

When Danny fell, he used both hands and helped himself up with both hands. This is as it should be. When you fall, you are automatically going to reach out in order to try to protect yourself.

The automatic, natural thing for Jack to have done, as he began to fall to his right, would have been to release his coat and reach out with his right hand and attempt to thwart the fall by grabbing the hedge, or brace himself with his right hand as he fell into the snowbank. But Jack doesn't do that. The actor, Jack, doesn't do that, which means he has been instructed to keep that right hand always closed and holding his jacket. He had to fight the natural impulse to use that hand to protect himself from falling.

Even as Jack struggles to stand after the fall, he doesn't release his jacket. The natural thing to do would have been for him to use his right hand to help push himself back upright. But, no, the actor, Jack Nicholson, had to have been instructed to not unclench that fist, to keep a hold on the jacket.

Jack finally seats himself in the snow against a hedge wall and still his hand is clenched, holding his jacket.

The next shot of Jack has him in a different position from the previous, he is clearly seated away from the hedge wall, but I'm not concerned with that detail at the moment. He is frozen as still as, well, frozen as still as his figure would forever remain in a photo. We can tell he no longer is holding shut his jacket. So, what of that right hand which Kubrick wanted clenched shut from the moment Danny entered the maze?

This below shot of Jack from "The Overlook Hotel Tumblr" reveals that even in the production shot Jack's right fist is still shown clenched tight, resting atop the snow.

The holding the jacket shut has been, in a way, an excuse for Jack keeping that right hand closed fast. The holding the jacket shut against the cold was not the important thing. It was not why Jack's hand was clenched shut. Had he continued to hold his axe with that right hand as well as with his left, we would not have noted eventually that something had changed, seemingly in connection with Danny having entered the maze. Seeing Jack here in the snow, frozen, no longer holding his jacket shut, but that right hand still clenched tight, seals that Jack's clenched fist hadn't anything to do with having to hold shut his jacket shut. It's just that as long as he was holding his jacket shut with that clenched fist our attention was not immediately drawn to that clenched fist as peculiar, we thought his fist clenched over the jacket, holding it shut, was in response to the cold. Not so.

Now, the question is why must Jack keep his fist clenched shut? The little slip of paper he is revealed to be holding in his right hand in the ball room photo at the end of the film is the reason. He has it. This paper. He has not released it. That is what he had his hand clenched fast about, perhaps not literally, but symbolically at least. This paper was in that fist and he now displays it for us, what he had been holding as he chased Danny through the maze. The paper hasn't manifested out of nowhere at film's end, Jack had the paper in hand from the moment Danny entered the maze.

If one thinks back to the one previous entering of the maze in the film, when Danny was playing with his mother, involved was a race. Wendy had encouraged Danny with the threat that whoever lost would have to keep America clean. Danny made it to the maze first. A clear foreshadowing of Danny racing his father to the maze is had in that scene. Jack's hand clenching (at least symbolically) that paper from the moment Danny enters the maze, is Jack having to keep America clean as the caretaker, holding some bit of litter in his hand for the photo to see at film's end? Seems a rather lame punch line for the mystery of Jack and the revelation of the palmed piece of paper. And though I do think the two events tie together, it's not so simple. If we look to other films of Kubrick we find parallels. The little slip of paper Jack holds here links with the white handkerchief Bill takes out of his dresser when he is looking for his wallet at the beginning of Eyes Wide Shut. That handkerchief helps set up for the audience his later meeting with the two models, one of whom reminds Bill that he had come to her aid during a photo shoot in which she had gotten half of Fifth Avenue in her eye. He had loaned her his handkerchief, and as to that she makes the odd remark that she recollects the handkerchief was "clean". For this, being a person who works too hard and misses much (just as all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy), Bill is invited to the "end of the rainbow". That handkerchief again finds a parallel in the white napkin upon which Nick later writes the password "fidelio".

I've some more comments on this but will hold them for a later post. What a simply wanted to do here was show that Jack's clenched fist was purposeful, and that the reason for it was the slip of paper he reveals in the photo.


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