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Schmidt shining

Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema
(Above) Scatman Crothers in 1980's "The Shining." (Below) Jack Nicholson in 2002's "About Schmidt."
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Sometime in late 2000 or early 2001, I was on a real Alexander Payne kick, watching and rewatching his early films Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1998).

It was around this time that I learned that Payne, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, who set his films in his hometown, was beginning to film in Omaha once again. This time, it was a film, starring Jack Nicholson, and based on the 1996 Louis Begley novel About Schmidt.

When I learned of this, something told me I had to work to be an extra in Payne’s film. I bought and read Begley’s book (meh!) and I sent my picture and bio to a talent agency in Omaha and crossed my fingers. (I had last been in Omaha in 1991, trying out for College Jeopardy. Note that Alex Trebek, who has been fighting cancer, is also in the news this week).

Needless to say, I never heard back from anyone. I was in Louisiana at the time and so why should they hire me when there were plenty of locals in Omaha ready to serve Nicholson’s character - 66-year-old retired insurance actuary Warren Schmidt – a vodka gimlet in a bar or a Blizzard at a Dairy Queen – than have some no-name reporter down south drive up and maybe appear as an extra in the film.

I loved 2004’s Academy Award-winning film Sideways – his first not filmed in Nebraska – but it was About Schmidt, and Nicholson’s sublime performance as Warren Schmidt, a man seemingly lost in his twilight years, that always interested me.

I rewatched About Schmidt recently, after rewatching Nicholson in The Shining and – shocker! – finally reading Stephen King’s novel of the same name. Yes, I admit to putting it off for all of these years, reading The Shining. Why? I always had a thing about Stephen King. He was too popular. Growing up, his horror novels were everywhere. And every non-reader I knew seemed to have a copy or two of one of his paperbacks on a shelf somewhere. Early in my life, I decided Stephen King was not for me. I admit to reading the short story “The Body,” in the Different Seasons collection from 1982, because the film Stand By Me was based on it. And I would later read his short story “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” due to some syncs I was experiencing at the time.

But, like the original Ghostbusters – a film I refused to watch until about 20 years after its initial release, much for the same reason I avoided Stephen King novels – I realized I really liked Ghostbusters. And reading The Shining, I decided I really liked his writing style, character development and themes, set in supernatural surroundings. I'm a contrarian by nature, I guess.

Again, considering the numerous times I have written about and/or referenced Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant, cinematic interpretation of The Shining, it was imperative I read the novel to get a better understanding of King’s concerns about Kubrick’s film and a deeper understanding of the characters and the overall story of Danny, Jack and Wendy Torrance and their time in the deeply haunted and sinister Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Or, as Jack notes, in his mind, on page 227 of King’s novel: “… this shining, glowing Overlook …”

Yes, Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary Room 237 set the ball rolling, and like the Grady “twins” in The Shining, the ball they roll down to hall to Danny – in his Apollo 11 sweater – The Shining ball seems to roll “forever and ever”  …

I really believe that King unwittingly wrote The Shining so that Stanley Kubrick could later find it – following the limited interest in Barry Lyndon (or is that “Bury” Lyndon – as in Lyndon B. Johnson, the former president who dies in 1973, the same year that production on Barry Lyndon began).

THE LAST WALTZ, Cont.

My last three Dust Devil Dreams articles – “Workin’ on a mystery” (Oct. 31, 2019); “I scream (Overlooked)” (Nov. 6, 2019); and “The last waltz” (Nov. 8, 2019) – have in some way or another referenced The Shining and/or The Band, the latter referring to the American/Canadian roots-rock quintet, primarily led by Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, who are known for their hits “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up On Cripple Creek.”

It’s that last song, “Up On Cripple Creek” that really got my attention.  It is performed early on in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s film that is considered the rock doc. The song syncs well with The Shining. References to "Bessie" (Hallorann's Cadillac), "Spike Jones," a (likely) Colorado setting, betting on the horses and so forth. It's frankly very weird. 

The Band’s Robbie Robertson – who appeared in my dream in late October, as the subject of a book with a red cover (like Carl Jung’s The Red Book inexplicably laying on Stuart Ullman’s desk in the Overlook Hotel’s manager’s office in The Shining) – that looked like similar to the cover of a posthumously-released Christopher Hitchens collection of essays titled And yet … from 2016. Same font, color and appearance. And yet ... 

In the dream, the “red book” noted Robertson’s death, although the famed singer/songwriter is still very much alive and very active as we speak, with current and future projects providing music for longtime friend Martin Scorsese’s films – The Irishman and next year’s Oklahoma-set Killers of the Flower Moon.

Robertson has been in the news a lot lately. Just a couple of days ago, in a piece headlined "Four Decades Later, 'The Last Waltz' Gets a Spiritual Prequel." It's about the new film Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band. And just as the Overlook goes up in flames at the end of The Shining, Robertson says this of his time with The Band: "What we built was a beautiful thing. So beautiful, it went up in flames." And just as Jack Torrance listens to the waltzes and Big Band music by the Overlook's house orchestra, dancing a "last waltz" himself, before turning into "Jack Frost" in the hedge maze, The Band - with Scorsese's help - gives us a gift with The Last Waltz, a film about the passing of an era, with the help of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and many others. King notes "The Blue Danube" being played by the ghostly orchestra in The Shining. Kubrick highlights it in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Metaphors abound in this particular sync piece, it would seem. 

Ironically, while Stephen King highlights the Overlook’s Room 217 as the room of evil, the one Dick Hallorann warns Danny to avoid, it is switched to Room 237 in Kubrick’s film and Ascher’s Room 237 delves into some possibilities as to why a change was made. Perhaps Kubrick – as contributor Jay Weidner suggests – had worked with NASA in creating fake moon landing footage for the 1969-72 Apollo moon missions. Why 237? Because the Moon is roughly 237,000 miles from Earth. Or note that 2 times 3 times 7 equals 42, a number that appears a number of times in the film.

It is certainly something to consider. I have, for nearly a decade now. But the theory about Kubrick making The Shining to highlight the genocide of the Native Americans, while also addressing the Holocaust during World War II, grab me on a deeper level.

But the Scorsese/Last Waltz/Shining really got my attention on – synchromystically speaking – Page 237 of The Shining novel!

"MOB" MENTALITY?

This is when the Overlook Hotel “entity” provides Jack Torrance with documents, files and newspaper clippings about all of the bad things that had happened in the famed Colorado hotel, including a mid-60’s newspaper clipping by an investigative reporter who wrote an article headlined “Mafia Free-Zone Colorado?” In orange pen I wrote next to this “Scorsese link”? And by that, I mean Scorsese’s long-earned reputation as the go-to guy for films involving the Mafia, films like Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, the last one featuring Jack Nicholson, of course.

The takeover of the Overlook by gangsters and criminals seems to make sense. The energy in the hotel seemed to thrive on evil and vice of every kind, and this manifests in both the film and the novel. However, the gangster angle is not explored by Kubrick. It is one of many things ignored by Kubrick in relation to King’s novel.

For instance, when a female doctor comes to examine Danny in his family’s apartment in Boulder, Colorado, you see a picture propped against the bare-white walls featuring cartoonish animals – particularly a dog and a lion. These animals are the hedge animals that come alive in the novel.

After she examines Danny and concludes nothing is wrong, the doctor and Wendy, his mother, go out into the living room (passing by the picture of railroad tracks and (perhaps) a train) before settling into the messy living room where newspapers are scattered about. Two, in particular, are New York Review of Books. One is a January 26, 1978 issue where Susan Sontag writes about “ILLNESS AS METAPHOR.” That would make sense in light of the doctor visiting Danny. A boy who is not physically sick, but is troubled by bad things swirling around him. Kubrick always had a keen eye for detail.

Interestingly, I discovered that in that same 1/26/78 issue, writer Martin Gardner contributed an article titled “The Third Coming,” about Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film I reference in my aforementioned sync piece “The last waltz.”

More clearly seen is a May 18, 1978 issue of the New York Review of Books (sitting on top of a Denver Post issue where “nuclear” issues are addressed!?!?) where the bold headline reads “THE CARTER COLLAPSE.” This issue addresses two books on then-President Jimmy Carter and the notion that this Georgia peanut farmer and one-term governor could inexplicably become president of the United States, seemed crazy at that time. But as the writer, Marshall Frady notes, “All the retrospective conspiracy theories of subterranean machinations by such interests as the Trilateral Commission are propositions which, in Carter’s case, must necessarily approach the hallucinatory." I would agree. Just look at the unlikely case of Donald J. Trump, a man, who – at least on the surface – is despised by the so-called “secret societies” that purportedly pick the person to be the next U.S. president.

That said, we would be remiss if we did not note Jimmy Carter’s current appearance in the news. The 95-year old has had several falls and – as I write this – is undergoing surgery in Atlanta in hopes of relieving pressure on his brain. (The Carter collapse?) We wish this wonderful man and humanitarian and former president a speedy recovery.

So, where is this all going? What About Schmidt?!?!?

Rewatching the Payne film and I began to see the director’s deep appreciation of Jack Nicholson’s face and posture and air. In the opening scene, of a cloudy day over downtown Omaha, a train whistle is heard. We see varying close-up shots of the Woodmen of the World tower, where Schmidt works – or worked. He has retired this particular day and awaits the 5 o’clock hour to leave his office. Not a second earlier.

SILVER CLOUDS

But like the overcast skies, a dark cloud (like the one in the promo poster for the film) hangs over Warren Schmidt. While Schmidt listens to AM talk radio, right-wing host Rush Limbaugh is heard talking about the Democrats seeing a "dark line in a silver cloud" (??)

At a steakhouse, a retirement party is held, as Jack and his nagging wife Helen sit at the main table, behind them a mural representing the best of Omaha – a Native American in headdress, varying industries and – most notably, for me at least, cornstalks. This stunned me.

Why? Because I had a dream in August 2014 that I wrote about in a piece titled “Dopey little tykes …,” where “a male voice said: ‘Dopey little tykes, the stalks.’ I also could see Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick in the dream, connected to this phrase somehow.

Here’s where it gets weirder. In Room 237, it is noted that a cartoon sticker of the Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs character “Dopey” is seen on Danny’s bedroom door when he begins communicating with “Tony,” his “imaginary friend” who is trying to warn him about the dangers of the Overlook Hotel.

Later, when the doctor comes to Danny’s room, the Dopey sticker is gone. I wrote in my piece, “What happened to Dopey? As is suggested in Room 237, this is Kubrick telling us that because Danny ‘shines’ and has become aware of the evil in the world, he is no longer blind or ‘dopey’ to the evil the world (contains).”

Continuing, I then write: “Perhaps I now need to read Dr. Sleep, the follow-up to The Shining that King wrote. Perhaps I’ll find some clues in there?” I then suggest that the “stalks” are references to “cornstalks” as in King’s Children of the Corn. Crazily, Fritz Kiersch, who directed the film version of Children of the Corn, lives locally and will teaches at Oklahoma City University, where I will begin a master’s program in creative writing beginning in January.

And seeing those cornstalks behind Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt, reminded me of the subtle links between The Shining and About Schmidt (which came out in 2002).

Here we are, over five years later, and I finally read The Shining and have just started Doctor Sleep, which has also been released as a film starring Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance as an adult dealing with his “shining” abilities. Jack Nicholson "approved" the making of Doctor Sleep, but does not appear in the film, just as Burt Reynolds had planned to appear in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood this year, but died before his scenes were shot. It would be Bruce Dern (a former "Young Turk" who palled with Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and the rest of the Laurel Canyon crew back in the day) who would take his place in the film, an actor who worked with Alexander Payne in the film Nebraska, and whose daughter Laura Dern appeared in Payne's first film, Citizen Ruth -with Burt Reynolds, incredibly enough!

But as for the whole “tykes” thing, on page 471 of The Shining, Dick Hallorann is recalling the weird things that went on the Overlook property, specifically recalling the hedge animals, with King writing: “That dog would seem to change from his sitting-up posture to a slightly crouched one, and the lions seemed to move forward, as if menacing the little tykes on the playground.”

At the end of the book, when Hallorann reaches the snowed-in Overlook in the midst of a blizzard he is attacked by these “menacing” hedge animals that come to life.

Speaking of blizzards, recall that Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt character stops at a Dairy Queen to order a “Blizzard” frozen treat while his wife Helen is back home and suffers from a blood clot in the brain (allusions to Jimmy Carter’s “collapse”?) and dies on the kitchen floor while cleaning a mess. Warren notes that he and his wife had been married 42 years. He is 66, which syncs with me, personally, due to my recent book on the music of 1966 and my license plate, which reads: SYNC66.

Hallorann is the chef of the Overlook. Key scenes in The Shining film take place in the kitchen.

In the film Hallorann is killed by Jack Torrance. In the novel, he lives – to help Danny as he grows up and becomes more aware of his “special talent.”

Like Jack Torrance, Nicholson’s Schmidt is weary of his wife. But he is also mad at himself for accomplishing so little. This is also Jack Torrance’s dilemma. He cannot seem to advance in his writing career and takes his frustrations out on his family, something the demonic Overlook uses to its advantage when trying to lure Danny into its clutches.

In About Schmidt, at the retirement party at the steakhouse, Warren excuses himself from the festivities (that he is clearly not enjoying) and glumly walks into the restaurant’s bar and orders a vodka gimlet. He looks as glum and as ready for an alcoholic beverage as Jack Torrance does in The Shining.

Even Warren’s desk has those small American flags that are featured in Stuart Ullman’s office in The Shining.  While driving in his car to the retirement party, it is raining. And Payne captures Nicholson’s character in a very Kubrick-like driving posture, with a bluish hue around him. It is similar to the way Jack Torrance looks in his VW Bug and how Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) looks while driving through the aforementioned blizzard up to the Overlook to save Danny and his mother.

What I also thought of was that in About Schmidt, following his wife's death, he takes a road trip in a Winnebago, driving from Omaha to Denver, Colorado to see his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who is determined to marry a doofus waterbed salesman whose mother (Kathy Bates), tries to make the moves on this widower from Nebraska. 

Before I drag this out any further, I made an amazing discovery right before beginning this article. It turns out that Jack Nicholson and Robbie Robertson appear in a 1995 drama, written and directed by Sean Penn, titled The Crossing Guard.

I never saw this indie film, which was critically hailed, but little seen by the wider public. But Robertson and Nicholson do appear, with Anjelica Huston (her father, John Huston, is, of course, with Nicholson in Chinatown), in a scene where Nicholson’s character confronts and attacks Robertson’s character, “Roger,” in their kitchen. Again, with the kitchen, a key scene takes place, as in both The Shining and About Schmidt.

COVERED-WAGON TIMES

There is much more to delve into regarding the syncs between The Shining and About Schmidt. I think it has a lot to do with Jack Nicholson himself. The guy has always had gravitas and intensity. He commands the screen and expects you to watch his every move. His every smile. His every arched eyebrow. 

It is also a sync experience that keeps highlighting the passage of time. A lot of these actors, musicians ... they are much older now. Nicholson is essentially retired, like Gene Hackman. Robbie Robertson is still out there, thankfully. I want him to live to a ripe old age because I so admire his craft as a singer and a songwriter. I wish he would do more, in fact. 

Oh, one other thing. I knew this deep down, somehow. Recall in The Shining - both in the novel and the film - that references are made to the doomed Donner Party, pioneers who were snowed in in the Sierra Mountains in the winter of 1846-47 and resorted to cannibalism. In the novel, King notes how in the mid-70's, when he wrote The Shining, that the story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed in the remote Andes Mountains in South America, was well known as it was the one where the rugby team members that survived had to resort to cannibalism to survive. King notes bumper stickers on cars in Boulder sporting ghoulish joke statements about how rugby players eat their own and so forth. In fact, Wendy keeps having a fear of getting in the Overlook elevator and worrying that it will get stuck and they will resort to eating one another to survive. 

Well, I knew deep down there was another connection to The Shining enigma. It was actor Danny Lloyd, who plays Danny Torrance in the film and lives a quiet life in Kentucky working as a teacher. His birthday is October 13, 1972. The date of Lloyd's birth in Illinois is the very same day that plane crashed in the Andes mountains. The survivors would not be discovered for over two months! The story was made into a motion picture in 1993, Alive, starring Ethan Hawke. The screenplay, it is interesting to note, was written by John Patrick Shanley, the mysterious figure who directed Joe Versus the Volcano a few years earlier, a film that is quite syncworthy here at Dust Devil Dreams. 

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About the Author

Andrew W. Griffin

Editor & Owner.

Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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