In the late spring or early summer of 1980, like quite a few people, I saw Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining at a first-run theater. Unlike most people, however, I was living at a Funeral Home when I saw it. To be accurate, I wasn’t quite living there that night; I was merely staying there, having returned, only temporarily, on a visit. I had lived in this family complex, of three houses, in Philadelphia, in the late 1970s. The first two floors of the middle house of the complex housed the Funeral Home, with its slogan on the illuminated marquee on the front lawn: Any Day, Any Place, Any Hour.
I had gone away to college and come back to Philly for an extended visit and it was May or June that I went with two old High School buddies to see Kubrick’s latest film. After the film, when I was dropped off in front of the Funeral Home, well after midnight, we couldn’t stop laughing. When the VW minibus pulled off and I waved goodbye in the street, I was still laughing and could see that my friends were still laughing, too, as I crossed the street toward the Funeral Home.
As I dug in my pocket for the house keys, I was no longer laughing. I had to admit to myself that I was spooked. In the house to the left (as I faced the Funeral Home), on the second floor, my Great Aunt and Uncle, well into their seventies, were, as they say, fast asleep. I could hear their frighteningly-heavy air conditioner grinding away at the humid night. In the house to the right, on the third floor of which I had lived when I first came to Philly, at the age of 16, in 1975 (the David Copperfield-like poor relative) there was nothing now but old furniture, rolled up Persian rugs and dying house plants. It was the house in the middle, the Funeral Home, I had to enter, and climb three flights of stairs in, to go to bed two stories above the morgue containing its several guests. I remember thinking two things as I entered the dark building: 1) I’m afraid 2) I’m not quite as afraid as I would have expected. I had just seen Stanley Kubrick’s version of a Horror Flick, after all, and I was standing in a building with real corpses in it. Shouldn’t I have been terrified?
And it wasn’t just my lukewarm fear that puzzled me. I had frowned at several points during the film. Not because of The Shining’s deliberately-puzzling set design or its ambient “uncanniness” but over being puzzled by the film’s blatant clichés (“built on an Indian burial ground”), especially the clichés that began rolling out as the film climaxed: the campy, post-Hitchcock score… the recurring image of the not-terrifying-and-so-over-the-top-it-wasn’t-even-revolting “river of blood”… Danny, Jack and Wendy’s pantomime face-pulling: all those bugging-out eyes and o-shaped mouths, underscored by stabs and slashes of the Psycho-violins. The worst was the zoom-in, at the very end, on that “oh, look, I guess he’s always been here” photo of Jack’s prohibition-era pre-incarnation… the kind of “twist” I’d grown used to, as an avid watcher of Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and the Boris Karloff-presented Thriller, as a kid. This was a Kubrick film? And, my god, that morning-after “freeze frame” of Jack’s cross-eyed corpsicle in the hedge maze: my old High School friends and I couldn’t help laughing, at that image, in the theater. Scary it was not.
Only one thing actually frightened me in The Shining and everyone, of course, knows what that is. Room 237. Right? That’s what I kept seeing as I brushed my teeth and undressed and got under the sheet in my room two stories above the morgue that night: the babe-to-hag changeling, the cackling corpse in the deco bathtub and her rotting green wounds. These were the three minutes or so that Kubrick managed to be frightening in his confusingly-lame attempt to make a “Horror Flick,” I felt.
And what was Kubrick doing, interpreting Stephen King, anyway? King, in my opinion, is a royal denizen of the lower-middlebrow canon, at best. Better than Dan Brown, worse than JK Rowling and a scrivening pissant compared to Ambrose Bierce.
For 20 years I ignorantly considered The Shining to be Kubrick’s failure.
Ah, Kubrick. The sly bastard.
It was on the Internet, c. 2005, that I happened to read the digital reprint of an old newspaper article, an essay, written in 1987, by Bill Blakemore, claiming that The Shining was Kubrick’s complexly-coded metaphor for the genocide of America’s indigenous populations. To quote the Blakemore piece:
“Kubrick, whose latest movie, “Full Metal Jacket,” is now playing, does not make simplistic films. Fans found it surprising in 1980 when he turned out a movie that was apparently no more than a horror film. The action took place at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, where the winter caretaker, a chilling Jack Nicholson, became progressively madder and tried to murder his wife and his telepathic son.
If you are skeptical about this, consider the Calumet baking powder cans with their Indian chief logo that Kubrick placed carefully in the two food locker scenes. (A calumet is a peace pipe.) Consider the Indian motifs that decorate the hotel, and the way they serve as background in many of the key scenes. Consider the insertion of two lines, early on in the film, describing how the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground. These are “confirmers” such as puzzle makers often use to tell you you’re on the right track.
“The Shining” is also explicitly about America’s general inability to admit to the gravity of the genocide of the Indians — or, more exactly, its ability to “overlook” that genocide. Not only is the site called the Overlook Hotel with its Overlook Maze, but one of the key scenes takes place at the July 4th Ball. That date, too, has particular relevance to American Indians.
That’s why Kubrick made a movie in which the American audience sees signs of Indians in almost every frame yet never really sees what the movie’s about. The film’s very relationship to its audience is thus part of the mirror that this movie full of mirrors holds up to the nature of its audience.
After reading this I went back, with some excitement, and had a look at a digital copy of The Shining and I saw that Blakemore’s thesis was plausible (the meaningful “Native American motifs” were confirmed when Kubrick himself wrote Blakemore a note congratulating him on the insight); I then realized that The Shining was much more than Kubrick’s misguided attempt to go populist. I not only saw that there was more to it than I’d first assumed but saw also that Blakemore’s “key” was only a partial solution to the problem of the film: lots of the obvious secondary and tertiary layers to the infinitely-more-complex “text”, partially revealed, seemed to address and invite references beyond the North American genocides. And, still, the nagging question: those terrible Horror Flick clichés. If Kubrick had wanted the “horror” aspect of the film to be made of finer, subtler stuff, he could and would have. The clichés were obviously serving a purpose. What?
Two or three years after reading Blakemore, I found the work of another methodical Kubrick-Film-parser, the Brit Rob Ager. Ager has developed a frame-by-frame system for detecting possibly-intentional anomalies, eg. “meaningful continuity errors” and “evocative set design and script coincidences,” that, when collated and compared, in a given film, seem to cohere in a way that would have been unlikely if they’d all been genuine errors and random coincidences. Kubrick’s immense reputation as a nearly-pathological perfectionist was the collateral against which Ager bet his considerable time and painstaking effort in what the average film-goer would have considered a Wild Goose Chase. Where Ager sees red flags and trails of bread-crumbs, the average film-goer sees all-too-human fuck-ups in the film-making process (and is most probably reassured by intimations of sloppy, banal mortality in such a genius as Kubrick). But any serious student of Art/ Film/ Text knows better: what Nabokov was to the page, Kubrick was to the screen… if not rather more. Nabokov loved his games and his textual secrets (I argue elsewhere on this site that the big secret in Lolita, supported by textual evidence, is that Quilty is Lo’s biological father) but it’s quite possible that Kubrick one-upped VN as a lover of games.
For example, there’s the documentary that Kubrick’s daughter, Viv, shot (edited by whom?), called “The Making of The Shining,” that strikes me as an obvious post-modern extension of the film (we see Kubrick berating Shelley Duvall on camera and Jack flirting with the teenaged Viv… what kind of PR is that? And how does the appearance of Kubrick-and-Nabokov alumnus James Mason, in period costume, visiting the set with two girls similar to The Shining’s famous twins, fit in?). There are Kubrick’s interviews, regarding The Shining, which read like performances in that he doesn’t always sound quite like “Stanley”* in them. And there’s that tag line, on the original posters, that Kubrick ordered to be put on to the original posters: “The tide of terror that swept across America is HERE”.
Which tide of terror? In what way would that refer to the imminent first run of the movie called The Shining?
Ager agrees with Blakemore’s original Genocide motif and adds to it the clues he’s unearthed relating to Racism, Sexual Abuse, Wife-beating, colonialism, et al. Ager goes into great detail across several videos and much text and, with one or two minor quibbles, I believe he has filled in more of the puzzle. But he hasn’t answered (or really even addressed) the problem of the “horror flick clichés”… the stylistic gaps or faults between the hidden Social Justice metaphors. It was those gaps… the B-movie “horror” tics… that prevented the film from cohering into a genuine Masterpiece, for me. For years, then, despite no longer feeling like some kind of failure to me, The Shining remained a super-clever jumble of disparate elements without a cohering spark. Inert. (As admirable-yet-somehow inert, in fact, as many Godard films). I still didn’t get it.
Only a few days ago, a little more than 37 years after first seeing The Shining, the penny finally dropped. The film hit me with the back-dated, accumulated force of all the years I had failed to get it.
It hit without me even needing to sit through it an Nth time and I experienced goosebumps (an echo from which hits me, now, in a second wave, as I recount the moment). My epiphany crystallized around the work of a third, less polished than the other two, Kubrick-decoder who supplied, for me, the missing piece of the greater puzzle. His/her presentation is a bit amateurish but the argument, ideas and evidence are sound.
This pseudonymous poster on YouTube posits the following notions:
… There are two Jacks in the film. The two are distinguishable by certain recurrent motifs which only appear as one, or the other, Jack is shown. One of the Jacks is the writer writing a Stephen-King-like book, inspired by The Overlook Hotel’s secret, bloody history (as related early in the film, by Ullman, to Jack before the family joins him). The other Jack is in the manuscript itself as “Real” Jack writes him: the film switches between these levels of Reality, cued by, for example, the changing typewriter (Real Jack is writing on a little beige portable; Text-Jack uses a big old German thing: could/would Kubrick have possibly let such a whopping “continuity error” go unfixed?). After getting that far in the third Kubrick-parser’s presentation, I didn’t need to read or listen further (though there are also valid points on Kubrick’s technique in using consumer-products… Kool Aid / Calumet Baking Powder/ Disney figures… as intertextual winks; “Dopey” and “Goofy” make appearances during various “supernatural” moments, for example).
—Much of what The Shining presents to the audience, and all of its “supernatural” effects, are meant to be Jack-the-Writer’s bad novel… schlocky, idiotic, silly, implausible and shopworn. (Polanski used the same trick, in a small way, for his film Bitter Moon, in which the protag, a failed writer, narrates the film’s introduction with a groaning cliché that most in the audience won’t have noticed, being fans of bad or mediocre novels and groaning clichés).
—Kubrick, the Greatest Post-Modernist of them all, made the finest example of a Genre film, in Cinematic History, by ripping the film’s supposed Genre to bits. Perhaps he was angry over Barry Lyndon’s failure at the box office. He knew who and what to blame.
—The Shining is a post-modern, cliché-deconstructing Black Comedy of the Highest Order. A satire, exactly like Strangelove.
Consider: Kubrick turned the source material for Doctor Strangelove ( “Red Alert”) from a lowbrow, macho, thuddingly-portentous thriller of its era into an era-transcending black comedy, no? He cartoonified and inverted the War Movie Genre with Full Metal Jacket’s inter-platoon sex and creepy barracks brutality; the “heroic” climax of that film was the protag, “Joker”, blowing a wounded 12-year-old girl’s head off, no? Kubrick the chess player took on and clearly bested Mr. Nabokov, the chess player, in Lolita (the scene set during the school play, in which Sellers as Quilty, near the curtain, resembles Nabokov, says it all… not to mention the subtle subversion of casting a 16-year-old girl, who most straight males of the day would find sexually attractive, as Lolita; the “Lolita” of the book was 12); and did A. Burgess escape Kubrick’s skewer in A Clockwork Orange? Not if we consider the somewhat troll-like and homoerotic vibe of the right-wingishly left-wing writer-character based on Burgess in Kubrick’s film… and I suspect that if we look more closely we’ll see that Kubrick skewered Sci Fi and Arthur C. Clarke with 2001: A Space Odyssey (while slipping wicked Vietnam-themed jabs between the jokes). How camp is HAL, after all? How could the HAL= IBM pun really be a “coincidence”? Why do the primordial man-apes, as instructed, subliminally, by the Monolith (which resembles an upended movie screen) learn to kill instead of learning, say, the technology of fire or language? Why is the Moon depicted as exerting full Earth gravity; could such a colossal error be both inadvertent and remain unnoticed until the film, the greatest “hard” Sci Fi flick in history, was shipped off to the cinemas? Can we really believe that the perfectionist who specified the exact dimensions of the custom-made boxes he stored his archives in would fail to notice such a whopper? These “errors” are clues. They confirm that there are puzzles to solve.
Was anyone in on these games, with Kubrick, on the deepest level? I doubt it; not even family, at the deepest level. To confide in anyone would risk a leak. Any serious Artist knows better than to comprehensively explain her/his work. And what’s the point of working so hard to bury these secrets, only to risk having them exposed in a half-arsed, crowd-pleasing manner? Not to mention the fact that if Kubrick’s real project (as I see it), his Gesamtkunstwerk, had been outed during his lifetime, he’d have faced serious critical, professional and political repercussions… like Marlowe/Shakespeare before him. Kubrick would have been, at the very least, as Hated as any Gifted Truth-Teller is. One can only imagine how isolated he was.
There is also the psychology of Kubrick’s Method of Production to consider: Kubrick worked best (like any good chess player) in competitive opposition. He worked against his source material and his co-writers (and even his camera-operators); he painstakingly conceived and executed visual narratives which bettered, talked-back-to, and contradicted his co-written scripts. He chose scriptwriters, sometimes, I believe, precisely for the points of view and personality traits of theirs he needed to refute and oppose, forging Great Art in the conflict. He deliberately dissembled and misled, when it served the project best. And it’s highly possible that his famous insistence on dozens or hundred-plus takes helped him hide his stranger “continuity error” clues from his team (eg: the famous case of the disappearing sculpture or changing typewriter or moving furniture). All that and 400 days of production left plenty of opportunities for meta-narrative voodoo.
Kubrick’s The Shining is a savage critique of America, of Power, of Pop Culture, of the Horror Film, the Horror Novel, fans of both, Auteurs of both.
Very early in the film, during his job interview, before becoming The Overlook’s caretaker, Jack refers to the touchingly-naive, helplessly incapable and air-headed Wendy as a “horror film addict”. Every subsequent instance during which the orchestra lets loose a portentous DUHNNNG! and a “horror” cliché comes swinging onscreen, Kubrick is poking the “horror film addicts” in their childish ribs and sneering. Kubrick (who once commented, with dry sarcasm, I believe, that (to paraphrase) “Ghost stories are ultimately rather optimistic because they presuppose an Afterlife,”) uses the surface “Horror” story of the The Shining to sell the film to Duh Masses while lampooning not only Duh Masses and the “Horror” genre itself but Supernatural/ Religious Belief Systems. It’s all just Goofy/ Dopey Disney Fairytales for gullible children.
The Real Horror Stor(ies) of The Shining are packed as dense as bloody bone-meal grout between the lines; what people have taken, all these years, for the film’s essence is a farce that Kubrick layered on top to prove, I’m afraid, how gullible we are. We see but don’t. I saw but I didn’t. We Overlook. The surface layer of The Shining, with its string of clichés and Over the Top schlock, is now commonly anointed a “Masterpiece”. But it’s the actual Masterpiece beneath, between and beyond that layer, which carries the message. The top layer is a tired, crowd-pleasing cliché about resilience, one supposes. But where do Danny and Wendy escape to, in the end? The Horrors of the Real World. (In November of 1978, right in the middle of production, came the Jonestown Massacre… 918 mostly poor Blacks dead in a cult murder/suicide: what is Jack-with-an-ax compared to that?) Out of the frying pan, as the old saw goes…
I like to picture Kubrick in a top hat, with a megaphone:
“America! Built on Genocide and Theft and Slavery and Murderous Racism, riddled with multi-generational Incest and Domestic Violence and the Orwellian blandishments of an idiotbox designed to infantilize adults and sexualize children, all participants dumb with pain and deafened with blather and blinded by toxic materialism while drenched in rivers of real blood, contemporary and historical, from sea to polluted sea: and yet it’s bullshit narratives like this ridiculous Stephen King pap… these ‘Horror’ stories… that you flock to for “entertainment” … and consider scary?“
Kubrick’s message, in a nutshell: We are the Bad Guys. The Horror Film Is US.
Like other geniuses (Marlowe and/or de Verre or Bacon as the composite Shakespeare? Mozart?) who found terrible, irremediable faults in his semi-civilized era, Kubrick buried the true nature of his greatest work in a kind of time capsule, a solid vault of codes and puzzles… solvable only in a complete sense, perhaps, by Disinterested Observers with no ego or cherished brainwashing at stake. Kubrick used his and our Present to finance an Art that was always intended for Others. Kubrick’s true audience, his best audience, in other words, as Kubrick clearly knew, was always going to be The Future.
But how distant?
*”Jan Harlan: Stanley was fundamentally not interested in a horror film. He doesn’t believe in ghosts. When the book was offered to him by Warner Bros., he said, “Well, all right, it might be challenging to do this, but I must have the freedom to change whatever I like.” Stephen King was perfectly happy with that [at the time], it’s obviously a prerequisite to making a film. And Stanley certainly changed it drastically…