Kubrick’s The Shining

Kubrick’s The Shining

The supreme beauty of Kubrick’s The Shining (similar to Lynch’s first season of Twin Peaks) is its openness to interpretation. I’d argue its beauty is not only in its openness to multiple, legitimate interpretations – but in its ability, as well, to capture and retain our curiosity for trying to make sense of it. It seems less the straightforward narrative itself that intrigues, but more the bits and pieces of an interpretively malleable narrative and characters and its inconsistent visual elements that make our minds so frantic and desperate to try to arrange them into something that makes it all coherent. This is its beauty. This is its draw. This is what keeps us sucking at the bone long after the marrow’s gone dry. Or has it gone dry? Is it a bone with an endless supply of succulently moist marrow? This is Kurbrick’s artistic genius expressed in The Shining. And why wouldn’t this be genius? Isn’t the proof in the pudding of the endless debates over what the film’s really about? We love this shit of constructing sense out of the muddled. We do it with jigsaw puzzles, even when we already know what the fucking outcome’s going to be. It’s right there on the front of the goddamned box, yet we piddle around with it for hours like silly chimps anyway. But with something like The Shining or Twin Peaks, the image or meaning that emerges from the fractured narrative, clues, twisted characters, etc. is not straightforward. What will be the result of the construction is not even known. For it to be known, it requires a foundation or a meta-narrative for everything below or above to finally fall into place as something coherent.

All you gotta do is look around at all the different theories about what The Shining (or Twin Peaks or Eggers’ The Lighthouse) is really about. For example, there’s The Wendy Theory which speculates Wendy is schizophrenic and much of the film, including Jack’s insanity and ensuing violence, are figments of her schizophrenic hallucinations. And there’s plenty of meticulously compiled evidence to support this theory.

And there’s robust theories supported with evidence that the movie’s all about Jack’s relapse into alcoholism. Or Jack’s descent into madness. Or it’s a wink-wink to Kubrick’s hand in the moon landing hoax. There’s theories that the film’s a metaphor for the Holocaust, the CIA’s mind control experiments, or it’s about Danny’s sexual abuse. There’s the theory that the film is a metaphor for Native American genocide. Some suggest the film is a retelling of the Greek myth of Theseus & The Minotaur. Some say the overlook hotel is really Hell. Some suggest the hotel is a hall of mirrors, reflecting each character’s madness back at them, creating a hellish scenario akin to Camus’ No Exit (note: I’m taking some extreme liberties with the “House of Mirrors” and “Overlook as Hell” interpretations here.)

Each theory of what the film is really about has been researched and justified with evidence. I suggest that whichever theory we adopt to aid us in interpreting (making sense of) the film – that whichever theory we choose gives the film an entirely different meaning. A film ultimately or fundamentally about the moon landing hoax is an entirely different film than one about Wendy’s schizophrenia, though each is blanketed in the same narrative and visual clues and symbols. Resting upon the foundation of any theory, “REDRUM” is one thing within The Wendy Theory and something far different within The Holocaust Theory. In one theory – one ideological foundation for explaining the film – Tony is nothing more than an imaginary friend, while in another Tony is a spirit. Within one explanation/theory, Danny’s “visions” are mere coping mechanisms for trauma, while they are real visions of future horrors in another. Within in the framework of The Wendy Theory, her son’s visions are no more than fragments of her own delusions. And are the evils of The Overlook Hotel real or mere figments of Jack’s madness? Depends on how you ground the interpretation of the film.

I suggest the totality of the beauty of Kubrick’s The Shining (much like Twin Peaks) is in this ambiguity. I’d argue that, though visually less stunning than Jodorowski’s Holy Mountain, it’s psychological effect (though not psychedelic effect) is more effective. I suggests its sublimity rests on its narrative ambiguity which so richly mirrors the ambiguity and complexity of all of life and existence. For life is filled with clues and metaphors and disjointed narratives hinting at what we may be and what the totality of this shitshow may be about. And we forever seek meanings and theories to bring it all together into something cogent and coherent. We seek those theories and foundations in politics and religions and art and philosophy. We seek meaning through Jesus and Buddha and conservativism and liberalism just as we seek the “real” meaning in The Shining through the meta-narratives of a hoaxed moon landing, Wendy’s schizophrenia, the Holocaust, Native American genocide or one man’s descent into madness and horror.

Though I love their work, still, I sometimes wonder if it’s all a gimmick. I sometimes wonder if guys like Kubrick and Lynch were clever enough to sprinkle their works with multiple meta-meanings. And the clues and various narrative directions are sorta plucked outa one of those bingo ball scramblers so that a single scene might contain elements of two or more meta-narratives, forever keeping us piqued and puzzled and trying to fit it all together. These films with scenes rich and complex and multi-layered, but, as a whole, are they every truly coherent? Is this the gimmick? And we’re strung along this way for the entirety of the film, caught in some wicked game of perpetual guessing and trying to comprehend. It’s a pleasing enough act of engagement, like restructuring a jigsaw puzzle. And again, why not? It’s the way of life. It’s the way of living under the presumption of free will, while also assuming, under certain conditions, we act without free will. It’s living life with the belief in a utopian afterlife, yet grieving when a loved one passes into it. It’s living as if we know what we are, while knowing it can’t be known. It’s knowing the world’s going to hell and not caring, yet squaring that with ourselves still being good and decent, cause to live as something less is too goddamned painful.

Are these films great works of art, mimicking the complexity and ambiguity of existence? Or, are they just gimmicks? Gimmicks barely more robust than religion and politics and all the rest of art? Fuck if I know. And I’m even sober, thank God. So I’ll just end this thing here.

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