Saturday, October 29, 2011

Redrum/ Murder: The Shining

While writing the script, Stanley Kubrick was reading an essay by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, usually translated as The Uncanny. In the original German, the title is "Das Unheimliche": "heim" means "home," and the prefix "un" means "not" while "liche" is "like," so a more literal translation that really pertains to his 1980 hit The Shining is "The Un-Home-Like." However, "heimlich" in German means "concealed, hidden or in secret," and it's this idea which prompted Freud to coin the phrase "to be robbed of one's eyes," to not be able to see something that, as the audience, we should; so Kubrick who wrote, produced and directed the (eventual) hit, is trying to "not conceal, not hide or keep something hidden," but the complex symbols make it a forest through which we can't see the trees. The dramatic events unfold in a structure which is not a home, but a hotel, the Overlook Hotel, a detail we are apt to "overlook" as we try to understand what happens; revealingly, Jack Torrance enters the Overlook and says that it's "homey," so his ideas of what make a home conflicts with the traditional. I don't think the Overlook Hotel is the only "un-home-like" aspect of the film, but the very family itself, and the lop-sided power which they each yield works to make it so.
When a film (such as Poltergeist referencing the year 1976 to invoke the Centennial of the United States, please see The Family Graveyard: Poltergeist for more) mentions a date, it really means to draw the audiences' attention to an event which occurred on that date; as Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) interviews for the position of winter keeper at the Overlook Hotel, Ullman (Barry Nelson) explains of the horrible accident which happened in 1970 with Grady (Philip Stone) killing his wife and two daughters; in the winter of 1970, such a crime actually happened, the MacDonald Family Massacre in which the husband/father Jeffrey R. MacDonald was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters. Jeffrey MacDonald always blamed the murders on hippies tripping on acid, similar to the Manson murders. But the similarities to Grady's murder spree in The Shining are unmistakable. As Ullman (a play on "all man" and his first name Stuart means a "steward" of something, i.e., all men are only stewards of this country) explains the situation, you can't help but notice the small American flag on the right-side of the screen, suggesting that Grady's murdering of his family wasn't an isolated incident, but something on a national scale.
What else happened in 1970?
The Kent State shootings.
If we are going to bring the murdering of a family from the micro to the macro in 1970, the United States firing on students demonstrating about the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia would have to be the pathway (for more on the Vietnam War, please see my post on how America's position on the war is coded in the hit song An Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini and the Vietnam War). The Shining seems to be saying that the military firing on its own people is as brutal as a father (read founding father) "cutting down" (with an axe) their own children (the future). But there is another side to this story: 1921, the year the photograph at the end was taken. If you examine a timeline of 1921, you see numerous areas in the world becoming Communist, Fascist and the beginning of the Nazi party power take-over. The words repeated over and over about the winters at the Overlook Hotel are "isolation," solitude," and "cold," words which can also be linked to the Cold War being fought against Communism and the potential policy of isolationism the United States could have taken instead of being so pro-Democracy.
The main memorial at Kent State honoring the shooting's victims.
If we take this path, we must remember that it's Danny who makes off with Wendy, and Jack is left frozen, possibly a reference to the idea that, if the "founding fathers" hadn't gotten us in the Cold War, we wouldn't be in a position to be in the Vietnam War. The idea that the Communists would allow America to be a free democratic, capitalist society, as they enforced socialist systems throughout the rest of the world is impossible to believe, rationally. But the death of Jack, lost in "a maze" of international politics does verify that Kubrick did not support America's purpose in fighting the Cold War: getting out of the Overlook Hotel was getting out of the Cold War (Kubrick is sometimes criticized for being apolitical since he never registered with a political party nor did he ever vote; for more on the Cold War, please see my post on Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Abe Froman, the Sausage King Of Chicago).
The photograph at the end of the film.
Since we have just discussed the presence of Indian Burial Grounds in Poltergeist, I would like to expand that discussion now with The Shining and an extensive quote from ABC reporter Bill Blakemore who wrote his essay The Family of Man which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in July 1987:

He (Blakemore) believes that indirect references to the American slaughter of Native Americans pervade the film as exemplified by the Indian logos on the baking powder in the kitchen and Indian artwork that appears throughout the hotel, though no Native Americans are ever seen. Stuart Ullman tells Wendy that when building the hotel a few Indian attacks had to be fended off since it was constructed on an Indian burial ground.
Blakemore's general argument is that the film as a whole is a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans. He notes that when Jack kills Hallorann, the dead body is seen lying on a rug with an Indian motif. The blood in the elevator shafts is, for Blakemore, the blood of the Indians in the burial ground on which the hotel was built. As such, the fact that the date of the final photograph is July 4 is meant to be deeply ironic. Blakemore writes,
As with some of his other movies, Kubrick ends The Shining with a powerful visual puzzle that forces the audience to leave the theater asking, "What was that all about?" The Shining ends with an extremely long camera shot moving down a hallway in the Overlook, reaching eventually the central photo among 21 photos on the wall. The caption reads: "Overlook Hotel-July 4th Ball-1921." The answer to this puzzle, is that most Americans overlook the fact that July Fourth was no ball, nor any kind of Independence day, for native Americans; that the weak American villain of the film is the re-embodiment of the American men who massacred the Indians in earlier years; that Kubrick is examining and reflecting on a problem that cuts through the decades and centuries.
Blakemore also sees this film as similar to other Kubrick films where evil forces get weak men to do their bidding.
Film writer John Capo sees the film as an allegory of American imperialism. This is exemplified by many clues; the closing photo of Jack in the past at a 4th of July party, or Jack's earlier citation of the Rudyard Kipling poem "The White Man's Burden". The poem has been interpreted as rationalizing the European colonization of non-white people, while Jack's line has been interpreted as referring to alcoholism, from which he suffers " (Wikipedia, The Shining (film) Native Americans).
The Overlook Hotel, timberline.
It's the sign of a really great film that so many different people can come to it and all take something different away from it. For example, when I see the photo at the end of the film, and I look at the exact same date which John Capo sees, I see two different events happening from that year: on July 2, two days before the film's photograph, President Harding signing a congressional resolution that America is no longer at war with Germany, Austria and Hungary (the official end of World War I); on July 29 of that same month, Adolf Hitler becomes the fuhrer of the Nazi Party. At the hour that one world war had ended, the next one had already started. There is, however, the dominant position in the film that, as a government "built" upon a land robbed from Native Americans (as the Overlook is built on the burial ground), what right do we have in telling others what government they are going to live under (democracy or communism)?
At home while Jack interviews for the winter caretaker position.
Psychoanalytic doubles are established within the first moments of the film: Danny (Danny Lloyd) has an... alter ego named Tony who discusses with Wendy (Shelly Duvall) the family going to the hotel for the winter. Meanwhile, Jack's double is Delbert Grady, and we can confidently say Grady is Jack's double because Jack will be "filling in the same role" at the hotel that Grady did. In various forms, it's these two roles that will battle throughout the rest of the film: Grady symbolizing the past, and Tony symbolizing the future, both wanting the United States (Wendy) for themselves.
The most important moment in the film: establishing Tony as the double for Danny.
The film itself establishes the practice of holding up a mirror and seeing something in reverse to see the thing more clearly: Tony is Danny's imaginary friend, but it could also be Toni, then holding up Danny's friend to the mirror to see Danny more clearly, it becomes the "i-not" of the film; who is Danny "not?" Probably the cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Carothers) because they can communicate mentally the same way that Danny and Tony/Toni communicate. He's a big black man and that's absolutely not what Danny is.
Dick Hallorunn and the Indian Chief Calumet behind him.
Using this perspective, we can establish that Jack, as the founding father, and Wendy as the symbolic of America itself, has given birth not only to Danny, but to Dick Hallorann, those who were once slaves; like the Native Americans who never make an appearance but are continuously referred to throughout the film, America has many children that she must defend from the murderous tendencies of the founding father; like Mary Poppins, the Hottentots were not only "the other," but also, by adoption, British. For the British to kill off the Hottentots was to kill off their own people, and its Mary Poppins that makes that point (please see Mary Poppins: Frankenstein and Animal Farm for more). 
This is the point where analyzing the axe that is used would contribute to our understanding of what's going on. As I said in Decoding the Decoding: Scream, the chef's knife has a long history in slasher films of being associated with sex as a weapon, and Wendy utilizes the same symbol, the same strategy. The axe, in the hands of first Grady and then Jack is the weapon of the founding fathers, not only to cut down religious differences between people (the tree symbolizes the wood of the cross and the religious wars and civil wars which prompted people to abandon their homelands to move to America for religious freedom) but also the vast forests which had to be cut down for developing homes and farms and railroads. This is the reason the Donnor Party is mentioned: they were heading west, just like the Torrance family, looking for a new chance. The entire opening sequence of the car (a German Volkswagen which was literally developed at the order of Adolf Hitler) driving through the wilderness is like a wagon going west in the era of Manifest Destiny.
Blood spilling from the elevators at the Overlook Hotel. The Native American motifs are obvious, and it's a good line of analysis to work that it refers to the Indian Burial ground. Yet this is an elevator, not a closet, and when something is "being kept hidden" the usual symbol is a closet (consider, for example, Carol Ann's closet in Poltergeist). Elevators are used for moving, going up and down, as in levels of consciousness; so I think an added dimension to this interpretation is that, while we are thinking about protecting the rest of the world from communist take-overs, we need to remember that we ourselves took over the Natives of the land and didn't hesitate to kill for what we wanted the way the Communists were killing to get what they wanted and take over other countries.
I don't believe, however, that we can say the film is just about international politics.
There is a problem in this marriage and Jack's projections of what he wants are at odds with Wendy's lackluster character. Jack sleeps when Wendy brings him "breakfast in bed." Noting that it's already 11:30, Wendy says, "I guess we've been staying up too late," meaning, they've been having a lot of sex. Things will change, however, or at least Jack will perceive that they have changed.When he's having the drink with "Lloyd" the barman, he tells him there's a bit of a problem with the old sperm bank. Either Jack has become impotent--which has carried over to his writing--or Wendy is no longer agreeing to have intercourse with him. Given the prevalent images of the "cold" after this point, I would guess that she's become frigid to him. As she takes on the responsibilities of maintaining the hotel and he's left to his writing, she loses respect for him and won't sleep with him.
Breakfast in bed. In this still, we are seeing Jack in a reflection of the bedroom mirror.
The hedge maze, in which Jack gets lost and dies, is similar to the hotel in being a maze, and I think both can be said to be symbolic of the mind: we easily get lost in the dark corridors, like room 237, and the elevator shafts filled with blood. Since Danny is always going around the entire hotel, and he's been through the maze, he has, for his age, thoroughly examined himself. Jack, on the other hand, hasn't. We can say this for two reasons: first, he dies in the maze (and that's also a symbolic, spiritual death) but he also can't write: if he was going deeper into himself, he would have plenty to write, but since he can only write one thing, it's indicative of he himself being only one thing.
Selling his soul for a drink of bourbon.
What about the crazy woman in the bathtub who tries to strangle Danny?
I think this is a symbol fo America, and how Danny (the future) and Jack (the status quo) views the country: as America is trying to cleanse itself of crimes and sins (the bath) to the young generation, America is an old country, trying to strangle the younger generation that would change her from what she's become. To the establishment, such as Jack, she's a beautiful young woman, in the inviting bath where they, too, can be rejuvenated and project themselves as writers expressing themselves on paper. Why does the woman turn once Jack takes a hold of her? Because he can't get a hold of it. He's at a luxury hotel, but he's not on vacation, he's a servant (staying in the servants' quarters, in an apartment) not a jet-setter staying in a luxury hotel room. The room he enters is far nicer than their apartment, but because Jack can't succeed financially, it's like a beautiful woman taking a bath that he can't have as his own...
The "key to understanding" is in Room 237; Kubrick gives us this, so to understand what happens in that room is to understand the film. It's the same woman yet the old Torrance and the young Torrance have a different relationship to her.
Let's say a few last words about "Tony." When Tony is first introduced to the audience, we see him telling Danny that his dad got the job at the hotel and will be calling in a few minutes to tell Wendy; but it's only a few seconds. Tony shows Danny an image of the two little girls in blue lying in a hallway of the hotel, butchered and bloody, but Ullman had told Jack in the interview that Grady stacked the bodies up in one of the rooms. Danny tells the doctor that Tony hides in his mouth and, if he were to open his mouth, Tony would go to his stomach. This is clearly an association with Danny's appetites, the same way the women are projections of Jack's appetites. When Danny is being examined by the doctor, we notice that his bed pillow is a bear; bear symbolize fear because, whatever it is we are afraid of, we fear it because we think it can--in some way--maul us to death the way a bear does. Since it's on his bed, Danny may already be experiencing sexual fears, although I don't want to suggest that about the sex act itself, rather, about his place as a male in society, because we know that he hasn't made any friends,... other than Tony.
"Hello, Danny.""
This brings us to the two little girls. The second time Danny sees them he's in the game room at the the hotel and he's throwing darts; he turns around and sees them standing in the doorway looking at him. Nothing is said. The symbolism of this, at least on one level, is that, at Danny's age, he should be playing games, not being sexualized or fearing for his life. Instead of the darts being a phallic symbol, as they would be for his father, but for Danny it symbolizes the games we play when we are a child. The appearance of the two little girls, however, foreshadows that Danny will not get to play games; like Carol Ann in Poltergeist, he will have to grow up fast and realize that his father is trying to kill him.
"Come play with us, forever and ever..."
Let's talk about Wendy.
It's a weak character who manages to survive and that's important. The constant "torrents" of abuse and anger which Wendy endures helps her to see what's really happening to her so she can go with the "wind(y)." As Jack forces her up the stairs, backwards, holding a bat, we have a powerful image. The stairs, of course, symbolizes a higher plane of consciousness; but she's going up "backwards," which means she's not looking up, but looking down on the daily routine and what does she see? Herself, holding a bat, as if it were a phallus. Wendy, in taking over the responsibilities of maintaining the hotel, as also taken all the responsibility from Jack, something he complains about, but not something he does anything about.
When she looks into the bedroom and sees the bear sitting up and looking at her, as mentioned earlier, the bear symbolizes fear, and it's very likely that Wendy had or had not been giving Jack oral sex because she was afraid of him (remember, he was having problems with the old sperm bank). Wendy, a rather self-centered character, can only understand things in terms relating immediately to herself, so it's natural that, as she's trying to comprehend the situation, she does so in their intimate relationship.
When Grady tells Jack that he needs to "correct" Danny and Wendy, that his girls didn't like the Overlook, I think he's referring women's right to vote (trying to burn down the old ways) and how Jack--as the establishment--needs to discipline (put down) Danny (the younger generations) and Wendy (the country). Remember, the bathroom is red, so we're dealing with the appetites.
About Jack's writing...
We discover in the conversation in the bathroom with Grady, that Jack recognizes Grady because he looked up the newspaper articles. When Wendy had come in and wanted to know how his writing was coming, there was a scrapbook open on Jack's right side of the table, so Jack was probably trying to write a novel about what happened to Grady and why he killed his family. At this point, if this is what Jack has been doing, we could say that his conversation with Grady is a severe case of character identification. We also find out something very important about Danny: Grady recognizes that Danny has a very great talent and he's using it. This totally undermines Jack--not necessarily is authority--but worse, Jack's own knowledge that he doesn't have any talent.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
In order to understand this sentence, and its multiplicity, we need to define "work" and "play." I think this goes back to the complex situation of being a servant at a luxury hotel that he's living in, but his work means that he can't have any play because he would never be able to afford to actually stay there. Remember at the beginning when Wendy and Jack are getting the tour and she's gushing that it's the most beautiful hotel she's ever been in. This makes for a clear class distinction: there are all these gorgeous rooms in the hotel (for that time period) but they are staying in the servants' apartment. If you took Jack's situation, living in the land of the free where he can't get a job that he wants, and multiply Jack times a thousand (that there have been thousands of Jacks) then he has written a book; a book about class struggle, where never getting to play and enjoy life makes him dull ("dull" as in un-educated) and directly clashes with the idea of "play" that Danny has and needs to make sure that he doesn't become "a dull boy," but we have to question, is that what is happening? In both senses, Jack's and Danny's, "play" is essential to our individual identities because it also helps us to define what our "work" is. Towards the beginning, Jack was throwing a ball against the wall; many would consider that play but because he has no responsibilities, Wendy takes care of it all, he can't also have a sense of play.
The dream which Jack has and wakes up from, in which he had killed Wendy and Danny, is a dream, but the symbolic translation of that isn't he unconscious wish to actually kill them (our real feelings have to hide behind symbols) but he does "cut them into pieces." Has a "writer," Jack does cut Wendy and Danny to little pieces, with his words. I wouldn't want to have a conversation with him, at any time. And this is important because it reminds each of us how we must be the "care takers" of our conversations and our loved ones. In his "torrent" of accusations against Wendy, as she backs up the stairs, he talks about whether or not she knows what a moral and ethical responsibility is, and how he has made an agreement to look after that hotel. Well, she does know, because she entered into the "marriage contract" with him, which he first made prior to the Overlook Hotel agreement. His moral responsibilities to his wife and child superceedes his agreement to the owners of the hotel.
This final, utterly disturbing image is the image of the establishment in the United States in 1980, those who have been frozen by the Cold War and are trying to strangle the younger generation from making America their own home. He freezes to death with his eyes open, suggesting that, no matter how much you see it coming, there's still nothing that can be done about it. While the country had consistently handled its problems in the same way, over and over throughout the years, Jack vowed that he wouldn't, but when he was threatened, he did the same thing the others did: tried to destroy those who threatened him.