A few weeks ago, Shay from Jerusalem wrote in:

I’m researching about Big Fish’s textual references to other auteurs or to the film canon in general. At first, I noticed the 8½ style ending, then the freeze scene reminded me of Scolla’s “We loved each other so much” exposition. Further more I thought Calloway’s character interestingly resembles a crossbreed between Dr Caligari and the Tramp.

Also lots of visual cues of circles which it think refer to Chaplin’s “The Circus”, that do not appear in the final script.

Have I overestimated your script/Burton’s directing? Blindly missed?

I don’t know if “overestimating” is a polite way to put it, but no, none of those references were in my head for Big Fish. And while I never spoke with Tim about the specifics on how he chose to shoot things, I’d be very surprised if those other films were conscious aspects of his process.

Academia teaches us to ask questions like Shay’s — and generally, to answer them ourselves. So we find parallels and influences that make sense on paper without worrying too much about whether they’re actually true.

To his credit, Shay tracked me down and asked his questions. I probably ruined the thesis of his research paper by answering honestly.

I was reminded of my email exchange with Shay by a video Daring Fireball linked to this morning:

The Shining — spatial awareness and set design.

(The video continues in part two.)

Rob Ager’s analysis of spatial impossibilities in The Shining is entertaining but naive, the video equivalent of Shay’s unwritten paper:

These blatant design anomalies would not have occurred by accident. Set designers would have noticed them and brought them to Stanley’s attention at the blueprint stage. The only way they could occur is if Stanley wanted them there.

I’m sure there is a more official name, but let’s call this situation the genius fallacy. We start with a god-like figure such as Stanley Kubrick, well-known for his exacting attention to detail.

Ager’s thesis seem to be: Since Kubrick was a perfectionist, anything that seems like an error in Kubrick’s work must not be an error, but must instead be a deliberate choice.

Yes, that sounds like fundamentalism.

Ager does have logic to support his narrative. After all, the Overlook Hotel is meant to be vast and confusing. The movie features a hedge maze as a major component. Kubrick is clearly playing with themes of disorientation, both physically and mentally. So it makes sense his choices would emphasize these aspects.

But –

The windows are there for light.

The walls are placed to best frame the scenes.

The big hedge map was moved because he didn’t want it in the shot. (Or, more likely, it was moved into the shot when he wanted it.)

In his analysis of cinematic geography, Ager is ignoring a tremendous amount of silent evidence. Namely, every movie ever made. Any film subjected to the kind of scrutiny applied here will reveal moments of spatial impossibility.

Here are just three reasons why:

Cinematic geography is largely transient. The audience pays attention to where things are within a scene, which is why we worry about camera direction and crossing the line. But the minute you cut to another scene, our brains safely discard the perceived geography.

Sets are designed to do things real locations can’t. Walls move, giving the director the choice (and decision) how much to bend reality in order to position a camera where it couldn’t physically be.

Even when movies use real locations, they are often assembled from various pieces. The exterior of the Overlook Hotel is actually The Timberline Lodge in Oregon. And yes: the rooflines and windows don’t match closely with Kubrick’s sets.

But what would Ager have Kubrick do? Should an infallible genius director build a new exterior to match his vision of the interior, or should he alter his vision of the interior to match the realities of the exterior?

The fact is, Kubrick doesn’t have to do either. Audiences easily accept that the two locations are the same, not because Kubrick has perfected some form of cinematic spatial disorientation, but because that’s how movies work.

When Shelley Duvall is crawling out the window, what matters that we believe it’s the same window inside and outside — not whether it’s a corner apartment. Kubrick isn’t performing some amazing psychological trick here.

He’s getting away with cheating a location. That’s what directors do.

Filmmaking is essentially the art of sustaining the suspension of disbelief: from shot to shot, scene to scene. On location scouts, we talk about “selling” and “buying” and “reading.”

DIRECTOR

I’m not buying this as an upscale Miami restaurant. It’s reading very Dennys-in-Topeka.

FIRST A.D.

It fits on the schedule. We can’t change the schedule.

LINE PRODUCER

Bring in some white tablecloths, some palm trees to sell Florida. Done.

DIRECTOR

Maybe a flamingo could walk through the shot.

LINE PRODUCER

We can’t afford animals.

DIRECTOR

I was being sarcastic.

LINE PRODUCER

We can’t afford that either.

The Shining is a great movie. Kubrick was a great director. At the end of the second video, Ager focuses on a few points well worth highlighting, because they are very deliberate and very effective demonstrations of Kubrick’s skills.

Notice how the camera tracks Danny as his tricycle loops around the hallways — and how that ties into the final set piece in the maze.

Observe how Kubrick isolates his characters by placing them in vast sets and landscapes.

But don’t obsess about which way the freezer door swings. By making too much of too little, you miss out the bigger picture.