Film Grains: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)

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Anticipation:  5/5    It’s Kubrick, Nicholson and Duvall!

Final Verdict:  5/5   It’s Kubrick, Nicholson and Duvall!

Today’s generation seems to have trouble accepting Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as a horror film. After all, the need for immediacy provided by technological advancement has also changed the attitudes of how audiences view and experience film. By no means am I a fan of horror pictures and based on my limited experience in watching horror films (the American remakes of The Ring, The Grudge, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, only to name a few) they seem to feed that need for immediate emotional payoff.  Contrary to to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the horror films I’ve watched seem to manufacture audience reaction, not in suspense, but in anticipation.  In most instances, they make you jump. They scare you and then let you calm down so they can build the fear up again. The Shining, on the other hand, refuses to cater to any sort of basic instinct generated by the initial response to fear. The Shining seeks to initiate fear as a slow rise that eventually settles into genuine haunting. I remember disliking The Shining the first time I watched it (which was 20 years ago). Like most people, I had accepted Kubrick as a phenomenal director, but I still had trouble understanding why he would have made a “horror” film that didn’t seem that horrifying. 2 years ago I had the chance to watch The Shining on the big screen and only then did I understand the implications of Kubrick’s masterpiece. The Shining isn’t just a horror film, it is a film about the nature of horror itself. Frederic Jameson explains that Jack Torrance, the main character, is a failed writer who “is possessed neither by evil as such nor by the “devil” or some analogous occult force, but rather simply by History, by the American past as it has left its sedimented traces in the corridors of dismembered suites.” Although American History is one that exemplifies veritable economic power, that power is drenched in the blood of sacrificed peoples. The Native American Genocide enabled the United States to progress and to gain land that they control to this day; the wealth accumulated during Slavery established the United States as an economical power; profiting from selling arms to warring countries and ignoring the extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II are at the heart of Kubrick’s film.  Watch carefully as the pictures on the walls of the hotel show Native American chieftains or how the Calumet Flour cans, whose emblem is a Native American, are strategically placed to subtly work their way into the audiences’ subconscious. The Overlook Hotel is built on a Native American burial ground, the long corridors serving as the timelines looking towards the past; corridors lined with closed doors that are concealing the horrors that took place along those timelines. Watch carefully as the twins in the corridors of the hotel mirror the twins of Auschwitz and how the meat refrigerator is stacked much like the dorms of concentration camps. Listen carefully as Jack references Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” a poem that seeks to defend Imperialism, while the only African American is assigned a kitchen job and referred to as a “nigger cook.” His murder, the only one in the film, denotes the crippling effects of Slavery.

 

Jack Torrance may be hired to oversee the well being of the hotel during the winter, appropriately a period where nature is in symbolic death, but what Kubrick implies is that Jack brings his family to a hotel overlooking the horrors committed in American History. Because Jack is the patriarch, Kubrick treats the horror Jack witnesses and succumbs to as something ingrained in American consciousness, a tradition that everyone is unwittingly written into, even a failed writer. A tradition involving murder for the sake of financial gain that leaves everyone in American History with blood on their hands. But more importantly, a tradition involving murder as sport.  The contrast established between “work” and “play” in the proverb “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” highlights the need to play games to escape the boredom of work or the monotony of stale relationships.  Because Jack writes himself into the American tradition, he chooses to play the most dangerous game and therefore partakes in a long lineage of murder.  By having Jack channel the horrors of past history to the point where he tries to kill his own family, Kubrick shows us that the nature of horror lies in humanity. He shows us that regardless if a hotel is a place where people go to conduct business or simply to get away from the tediousness and white noise of their everyday lives they cannot escape the horror of their humanity and history. He shows us what happens when the white noise dissipates. He asks us to carefully listen to the sound silence can bring. And when he has our attention, he gives us the sound of echoing screams of past atrocities. He shows us the blood from millions of victims of mass murder that have come back to haunt us. He shows us what tradition we are a part of. The question is: Now that you are aware of the ghosts haunting your everyday lives, like Jack, would you join in the longstanding American tradition of redrum?

Click here for a review of The Shining Blu-ray at DVD Beaver

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. The Vern says:

    You bring up some good points with Jack being haunted more by the past than just demons and yet I have a hard time buying into that notion. I do believe the movie is better seeing it on a big screen. The terror is better because you feel like you are in this hotel. Stuck with this family

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    1. And that’s fair :) I like pushing Kubrick’s films a little more because of how knowledgeable he was about many things. Although one could make an argument that none of it was intentional, Kubrick was very well read about art, history, science, etc. so he had a natural inclination for including things in his films that would resonate on deeper levels, in my opinion.

      I got the idea for Jack being haunted by the past from Kubrick’s shots, what he includes in the frame in various scenes and also from a series of scholars that include Frederic Jameson and Roger Luckhurst. Some shots include Native American art and portraits, the kitchen fridges and storage shelves are shot in the same manner Concentration Camp dormitories were shown in Alain Renais’s Night and Fog, for example.

      Seeing the film on the big screen, for me, was less about what was being shown and more about the sound. I don’t know what kind of frequencies Kubrick was using to make the audience feel uneasy, but damn it felt strange, especially during the bleeding elevator scenes. The Overlook Hotel, to me, acts as a metaphor that encapsulates history as a whole, something you can’t escape. The Hotel is like a giant antenna that is catching all the frequencies, reverberations if you will. Those frequencies are channeled through Jack, but unlike us, who tune in to radio one channel at a time, Jack is experiencing all of them at the same time.

      The Shining as a film works in ways that are mind-boggling at times. Just look at what came out of the film Room 237. Intense conspiracy theories.

      I simply love the film :) You can get out of it a great deal of interpretations. Not many films have that.

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