Saturday, 5 June 2010

The Shining and the Slaughter.

The Genius of Kubrick.

The 1980 film The Shining, adapted from the Stephen King novel, directed by Stanley Kubrick  is a cinematic masterpiece of psychological horror. Today tales of madness and isolation, telepathy and the supernatural, are commonly churned out of the Hollywood machine in such a manner that it can only be put down to the profit motive. But The Shining is one of few great films in the horror genre that has not been diluted by the "invisible hand" that pushed out The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then squeezed out as many sequels as possible, before resorting to remaking the entire bloody saga. Though it could easily be asserted that The Shining is of a superior standard of art and film, by comparison the slasher flicks of that era appear exploitative and devoid of the intelligence which refined King's story into a classic that stands the test of time. Even 30 years after it's release, the film can be watched and appreciated on many different levels due to the polysemic nature of the story.

To the displeasure of Stephen King fans everywhere, Stanley Kubrick altered the plot of the story, cutting away a great deal of back story, and in doing so diminishing the themes developed throughout the novel. For instance, Jack Torrance is a much more sympathetic figure in the novel and has a moment of redemption as the plot concludes. Whereas, Kubrick's Jack Torrance is devoid of such qualities and in that respect may have more in common with Alex DeLarge of A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps this is indicative of the pessimism often associated with Kubrick's films. Though similar arguments have been made regarding Kubrick's preceding adaptations, notably A Clockwork Orange and Lolita, but the completed projects were some of the most innovative and enthralling contributions to modern cinema. Though there is another side of The Shining that is often overlooked, no pun intended, the political themes and messages in the film that most horror films are simply devoid of.

What should not be ignored is the way in which Stanley Kubrick littered his films with socio-political messages. For instance, in 2001: A Space Odyssey the HAL 9000 computer represents IBM. Each letter of the acronym "HAL" is one letter ahead of the letters that make up "IBM". But there are other references, towards the end of the film while HAL is being dismantled the computer begins to sing 'Daisy Bell'. The first ever synthesised computer speech was produced by an IBM 704 computer which first sang 'Daisy Bell'. It was at a lab in Urbana, Illinois that this demonstration first took place in 1962. While being dismantled HAL makes reference to this historic event by naming the same location as the place of which HAL was built. The scene in which HAL cheats during a chess game may imply that Kubrick distrusted and was suspicious of IBM. Kubrick had good reason to be, IBM had devised a traffic management system, centred around punch-cards, for the concentration camps of the Third Reich.

Sins of the Nation.

If we accept that the work Stanley Kubrick is typically littered with politicised symbolism and messages, it seems highly likely that The Shining also carries such symbolism and messages. The idea that The Shining could be interpreted as commenting on the slaughter of Native Americans is nothing new. It goes back to an essay written by Bill Blakemore and has recently been explored in great depth by film analyst Rob Ager. Today this is still a commonly neglected interpretation of the film and is no doubt an interesting view of the story. Arguably, the major political theme of The Shining is the suppression of a violent history. At the time, Kubrick was planning to make a film about the Third Reich and the Holocaust. He would later abandon the project after Schindler's List was released in 1993 and the overwhelmingly depressing research that he had undertaken in pursuit of his goal. It could be that Kubrick focused on political themes relating to war and ethnic cleansing in his films, like Full Metal Jacket and The Shining, out of an obsession with producing a film about the Holocaust.

The way in which the United States was "created" is often described in semi-biological terms which distort the magnitude of the slaughter and displacement of Native Americans, what is understood in terms of genocide and ethnic cleansing today. The genocide of Native Americans was downplayed for over 150 years, while Hollywood capitalised on the slaughter by churning out dozens of Westerns featuring the typical "Cowboys-and-Indians" dynamic. It wasn't until the 1970s that there was even a real debate on the issue that there was once an advanced civilisation consisting of over 80 million people, around 95% of the Native population had been exterminated by the mid 17th Century. It was following the American Revolution that Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of assimilation and acculturation of the Natives, first proposed the idea of an "Indian Removal Plan", a precursor to the Indian Removal act of 1830 which Andrew Jackson put in place and used to drive many tribes to west of the Mississippi.

As Rob Ager points out in his analysis of the film, there are numerous references to Indians and settlers throughout. The music, as Jack Torrance is making his way to the Overlook Hotel by car, is at one point reminiscent of Native American chanting. Jack and Wendy are informed by Ullman that the Overlook Hotel, itself riddled with Native American artwork and symbols, was built on an Indian burial ground and a few attacks by tribes had to be "repelled" to complete construction. In the car, with his wife and son, Jack tells a story about a group of settlers who get lost in the wilderness and resort to cannibalism to survive. The Hotel is littered with art that appears to be Native American in origin, the paintings above the fireplace for instance are Native American sand paintings. The 'Gold Room' is the place in which Jack goes to get away from his wife and first encounters the mysterious bartender. The room is a clear reference to the days of the gold rush which motivated many to head west in search of prosperity.

The twin girls, who were killed by the caretaker Grady, have parallels in Navajo folklore in which twins were used to depict the duality between "father sky" and "mother earth". There is also symbolism which suggests that Wendy is representative of a Native American wife. The way she dresses and braids her hair is very similar to that of a Native American woman. Many Native American women had to marry white men to gain citizenship in the US. But also many slave women were exploited sexually by their masters, which is a reason that many African-Americans have white ancestors. So it is possible that Wendy represents either a Native American woman or an African-American. The river of blood that rushes out of the elevator could quite conceivably represent the blood of Native Americans that the Overlook Hotel was built upon. The colours red, white and blue are seen in several scenes, on clothing worn by Wendy, Danny, Jack and Ullman. These are the well known colours of the American flag, which also appears in several scenes and carries patriotic connotations and indifference to the ethnic cleansing that the Republic was built upon.

The character Dick Hallorann may represent the Otherness, composed of both African and Native Americans, which was destroyed. Hallorann is juxtaposed with a can of baking powder that has a stereotypical "Indian Chief" as its logo. It could also be argued that Hallorann is resembles a Native American in terms of his facial features. As Jack is talking to the phantom bartender and sipping a glass of bourbon he refers casually to the "white man's burden", a reference to Rudyard Kipling's poem on imperialism. It isn't until Jack meets Delbert Grady that the implicit racism of the characters spills out onto the floor for all to see. It is done so  suddenly, Grady casually drops the deeply repugnant slur "nigger" with a look of complete hatred about him. Interestingly, the conversation takes place in a gentleman's toilets which is decorated entirely in white and red, the toilets are also immaculate. This reflects the decades of white supremacy that the US went through and the blood that it was predicated on. Hallorann is later murdered by Jack with an axe, he dies on a floor made up of tiles with a pattern similar to fabric seen in Native American culture. 

Delbert Grady describes the killings of his daughters and wife in terms of doing his "duty" and "correcting" them. Presumably, Grady believed the duty to protect the Hotel outweighed his responsibilities as a father and husband. Similarly, Jack rants at Wendy about his "responsibilities" and emphasises the importance of the "contract" which he signed freely and in doing so accepted such "responsibilities". This is just after Jack caught Wendy looking through what he has been working on for so long. The idea of a "social contract" was a liberal idea associated with the philosopher John Locke. Locke's work inspired many of the ideas expressed in the US Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence. In this sense, it could be that the "writing project" that Jack Torrance was working on for so many months was symbolic of the Declaration of the Independence. An implication of this may be that Jack represents Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, who had a relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave who bore him a child.

 Time to Shine.

The Shining was released in March of 1980, which would place it in the limbo nearing the end of Jimmy Carter's time in office just before the "Reaganite Revolution" that heralded a new era in American politics. Carter was elected as a figure of "hope" in the aftermath of the scandalous Nixon era, which decimated the public belief and trust in politicians, but disappointed and left largely a failure after just one term. This led the way for the Reaganite zeitgeist of 1980s America to fill the void left by the perceived failure of "liberal politicians" in the 1960s. This is the source of the prevalent disdain of liberals on the American Right and the demonising of liberalism that has taken place in the US over the last 30 years.  But on the back of the failure of Democratic administrations under the likes of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the Republicans have continued to reinvent themselves and have led populist "rebellions" against the "liberal elite" who want to destroy the American way of life.

It could be argued that the story of The Shining is indicative of this transition from liberal disillusionment with politics to reactionary anti-politics. Jack Torrance is a hard-working blue-collar guy and the primary breadwinner in a nuclear family. The reason Jack took on the job as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel is to find the time and seclusion he needs to complete a novel. The inspiration for the story came from the months Stephen King spent writing in isolation at an almost totally empty hotel.  Though the risk posed to his son Danny and Wendy's instant reaction, to get Danny to a doctor as soon as possible, are obstacles to Jack's writing ambitions. In a sense, it is his self-interest that he sees blocked by the interests of his family. This is much like the clash between conservatism and liberalism in America, the latter representing individualism and the former being social democracy. What should be kept in mind is that conservatism and liberalism in the US differ greatly from the traditions of conservatism and liberalism.

Perhaps Jack's murderous rage and delusions of a glorious past represent the most vicious and reactionary tendencies in what is commonly referred to as "conservatism" in the US today. A precursor to the angry white men who emerged in the early 1990s, at first it was to seize the House of Representatives and the Senate from the Democrats. But a much more ugly side to this phenomenon has emerged, the oldest example being shooting sprees targeting civilians. A more "modern development" is the killing of abortionists being primary examples. Let alone the thousands of private armies, commonly mislabled as "militias", who are preparing to take on the Federal Reserve, the UN or the Devil. The culmination of years of neglect that led to the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, an act of terrorism perpetrated by men with extreme right-wing views and sympathies with the militias. Today it is the Tea Party Movement, which is another figment of the angry white male phenomenon, and is doing it's best to stifle the moderate changes proposed by the Obama administration.

Significant Links:
Noam Chomsky Meets the Pioneer Spirit 
A People's History of the American Empire  
Noam Chomsky on "anti-politics"


Bramski said...

I've not the book so I don't know how much of the native American imagery is down to Kubrick, but after reading your article it would seem highly likely that the implicit references to the bloody roots of America's establishment and right wing politics are deliberate.

Not only would this fit with Kubricks thematic climate and expressive direction of the time but would also appear to explain why he resolutelty flattened King's originally complex conception of Jack, hardening him into a stark, metaphorical monster.

I've read this was a major gripe for Stephen King who, rejecting Kubricks decision to cast the typically unhinged Nicholson as Jack, stipulated the character should begin the story much more humanely, descending gradually into the pit of insanity.

I think King originally crafted the characters with alot of personal relevence to battles with alcohol and mental instability, (he wrote the book in near isolation and therefore I would imagine had a much more abstract and ethereal basis to the plot and therefore context of its characters) but it appears Kubrick re-shaped them into much stronger, socio-cultural icons that have a far broader reach and profound historic relevence.

I don't want to say who was right or wrong because both versions make for an equally good chiller, but delving into the subtext pot, Kubricks creations, for me at least, carry a much sharper and more uncomfortable symbolism.

But maybe I should just read the book! :p

Very nice article by the way. Lots of background info I didnt know, particularly regarding HAL and IBM's dark past.

J.T. White said...

Forgive the late reply Bramski, I've been preoccupied with demonstrations and writing other articles.

I haven't read the book either and Kubrick, a consummate perfectionist, is known for altering the story to fit a specific vision he had for the silver screen. This is rarely popular with the author, neither Anthony Burgess and Stephen King were particularly pleased with Kubrick's "alterations".

So I would concur that the imagery and references are deliberate on the part of Kubrick and not of King. King's writing has been heavily influenced by his battles with alcoholism and emotional problems, he typically writes in near isolation, a good instance of this is 'Misery'.

I'm also much more interested in Kubrick's films than King's writing, though Kubrick has made film adaptations of greater writers than King - Burgess and Nabokov for example. I'm currently working on an article on Kubrick's 'Full Metal Jacket'.

Thanks for reading.