Stanley Kubrick, 1980
Was it a coincidence that Michael Haneke opened Funny Games (1997) with an aerial shot of a car winding through the Austrian landscape, or was it a conscious nod to Stanley Kubrick’s thematically complimentary THE SHINING? While their directorial styles are markedly different, Kubrick and Haneke share an interest in the function of violence in human affairs – and in cinema.
Where Haneke alerts viewers to his intentions by breaking the fourth wall and inviting them into the discussion, Kubrick keeps the wall intact – only just. His comic book winks and nudges (especially in The Shining) often came close to addressing the audience directly, but he always chose to embed his subtext, sometimes very deeply, leaving it to be teased out by those so inclined but largely hidden from those expecting a good generic ride, the very thing most audiences in 1980 expected from an adaptation of a Stephen King novel.
King had a lot of box-office pull in those days, so given how poorly Kubrick's previous film, the masterful Barry Lyndon (1975), was received, he was looking for something with ‘bankable’ appeal. Of course, Kubrick couldn’t help being Kubrick, so even a sure thing based on a supernatural crowd-pleaser from one of the most box-office friendly writers in Hollywood and one of the highest profile actors of the time was never going to be just another movie. True to form, The Shining was less of a Stephen King thriller than a confounding cinematic conundrum by the iconoclastic force of nature that was Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick enjoyed watching (and making) films that offer viewers ample room to make their own discoveries, where one might come away wondering if the filmmaker was even aware that “they were in the film” (as Kubrick nicely put it). He invested himself in every film he made, but refused to comment on or explain them, believing that allegory is crucial to our relationship with any work of art. One suspects that he would have enjoyed seeing his films through the eyes of others. It’s also interesting that virtually all of his films met with a lukewarm critical reception upon their release, only to be revered as masterworks in due course. It’s fair to say that a Kubrick film takes time to absorb, sometimes decades! Certainly, one viewing is never enough, but his artistry ensures that every screening is a sensuous, aesthetically and intellectually satisfying pleasure.
Many of Kubrick’s central preoccupations are evident in The Shining: hierarchical power structures; violence as a form of control; individual, institutional and/or corporate narcissism; the dehumanisation of the individual; a crises in masculinity and/or personal identity; social and/or political dysfunction; etc. There’s also a satirical wit running through The Shining that can be discerned, if one makes the effort, in all of Kubrick’s work, even the sombre and serious films such as the seemingly dispassionate 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968), the unforgiving brutality and cynicism of Full Metal Jacket (1987), and particularly his widely misunderstood final masterwork, Eyes Wide Shut (1999, a film about fidelity, partnership, the ego and the id, narcissism, celebrity, worldliness, and finding the strength to love without reservation). The Shining is also about the then relatively new Steadycam technology. Being one of the first to use it, Kubrick put the camera to great thematic purpose, emphasising the maize-like paths throughout the film, weightless and vertiginous, an effective visual correlative to the theme of haunted psyches, long-buried atrocities, murder and madness.
The film stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance (i.e. ‘torrents’, as in a sudden violent outpouring of rage), a struggling writer who takes an off-season caretaking job at an isolated resort called the Overlook Hotel which was built on an Indian burial ground. The name of the hotel is a joke that refers to glossing over or conveniently forgetting (or rewriting) the past. Likewise, when Jack meets the “ghost” of a butler from the 1920s, the butler tells him, “You are the caretaker – you have always been the caretaker.” The implication is that Jack is like every Jack before him and every Jack to come, the one who ‘takes care’ of things, which of course is a euphemism for murder – or as Jack’s psychic (i.e. intuitive, perceptive, aware) young son Danny writes it on a wall, Redrum.
If Jack represents all caretakers, Danny is every caretaker’s son, those who eventually discover the truth about their fathers. Hence the “psychic” ability Danny shares with the hotel chef, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), a shared secret knowledge that alludes to the eventual revelation of hidden truths. There’s a nice line in the film describing the presence of ‘ghosts’ as “the smell of burnt toast lingering in the air”. It’s a line designed to suggest the lingering scent of death, the silent and invisible residue of violence and trauma, past misdeeds waiting to be acknowledged.
For many, the central subtext of The Shining is the massacre of Native Americans (a reading supported by the film in many ways, and one I'm in agreement with), but I’d take the subtext further to include the long history of devastation wrought by the American impulse for expansion at the expense of other peoples. The long wake of US imperialism stretches from the years of African enslavement through decades of indigenous oppression and ransacking in numerous countries (they've actually invaded 70 nations) to Vietnam and beyond, to a time when 70 young women would be systematically abused by co-workers at the behest of ‘invisible authority’ as depicted in Craig Zobel’s Compliance (2012).
Is that what's meant by having ghosts in the attic?
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader