Reviewed by John David Ebert
Rodney Ascher’s documentary film about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece is an amusing, if insipid, attempt to make Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining “make sense.” He calls on the wits of five exegetes — whose faces we never see — to analyze the film as though they were giving Biblical commentary of chapter and verse. One exegete insists that the film is “really” about the Holocaust: this is “obvious” because of the repetition of the number “42” in the film, the year that the Nazis began to apply the Final Solution. An extra is spotted wearing a shirt with the number 42 on it; Shelley Duvall is seen watching the film Summer of ’42 on the television while Danny plays with his trucks; and of course, 2 x 3 x 7 = 42. Therefore, the film is really “about” the Holocaust. This is the sort of parody of the hermeneutical process which the film routinely takes for granted as somehow “illuminating.”
Or, even more absurdly, Kubrick is seen as somehow having concealed references in the film to his “role” in faking the Apollo Moon Landing: Danny, after all, is seen wearing a shirt with an Apollo 11 rocket on it, while room 237 refers to the distance of the moon from the earth (in reality, it is not 237,000 miles, as the commentator insists, but rather 238,900 miles). The same commentator insists that the reason Kubrick changed the number of the haunted room from the book, where it is 217, to the movie, where it is 237, is because the owners of the hotel the film was based on were afraid that its customers would not want to stay in room 217. But since, the commentator insists, there is no such room in the Timberline Lodge (upon which the shots of the film’s exterior hotel are based), this must not have been the reason, and this gives him the opportunity to expand our minds with his Apollo 11 nonsense. Of course, when you’re saying the “hotel” the film is based on, you need to specific: is it the original hotel, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, where Stephen King stayed and which gave him the inspiration to write the book? Or is it the Timberline Lodge, upon which the film’s exterior hotel shots are based? Or, is it the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite Park, California, upon which the film’s interior shots are based? The Stanley Hotel certainly does have a room 217 because it was the very room King stayed in while residing there.
But such details, of course, involve taking the time and trouble to do the research to verify them and that’s not what Ascher’s film is about. Ascher’s film belongs to the same category of rumor-mongering and urban legend building as the myth that Paul McCartney was killed in a car accident and subsequently replaced with a look-alike, which one can find “proof” for if one examines the details of the images of such album covers as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or listens to songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever.” There is, of course, not a shred of proof for such an assertion, and it is well known and well documented that this urban legend was invented by a bored college student while writing his review for the album Abbey Road.
But despite the silliness and insipidity of the various interpretations which Ascher offers up for the film, it does point to an interesting fact: namely, that the film is a masterpiece precisely because of its hermeneutic complexity. That’s what the word “masterpiece” means: a work of art that is so complex that scholars and exegetes will go on talking about it for centuries. That’s why we’re still talking about Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare and Joyce. Because those men created masterpieces that defy the kind of pigeon-hole, line-up-the-dots simple-mindedness of Ascher’s not particularly bright or erudite exegetes. As Gadamer points out in Truth and Method, the true work of art is hermeneutically inexhaustible. There is no One Final Interpretation hidden within a great work that is just waiting for some genius interpreter to come along and provide us all with the Code for. Art doesn’t work that way, despite the insistences of Ascher’s simpletons.
What, then, is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining really about?
Well, I can tell you what it’s about for me, and that’s all I can tell you. The simple-minded scholar with the herniated ego who thinks he’s found THE interpretation to beat all others is really a kind of literary fundamentalist and a literalist who is out to make a grandiose impression at cocktail parties. The squashing out of all ambiguities is the aim of such interpretations. These are the kinds of nut cases who write books about Bible Codes and Illuminati conspiracies.
The first point to notice about the film (and indeed, one of Ascher’s commentators, Juli Kearns, gets at least this much right), is that the image of the labyrinth is its main metaphor. Indeed, the hotel itself is a kind of vertical labyrinth, with multiple floors, like the old, very old, cosmologies of the Mythical Age in which the Underworld was imagined with multiple levels, as in the case of the Aztec image of Mictlan with its nine (sometimes thirteen) levels. Indeed, labyrinths, in the ancient world, were associated with the realm of the dead: in the Malekulan journey of the soul through the afterlife, for instance, the dead person was expected to memorize and complete a drawing of a labyrinth in the sand or else suffer the fate of being devoured by a demon. The Egyptian underworld was essentially a labyrinth in which one followed, not a Yellow Brick Road, but a single river that led one past all sorts of obstacles: demons, closed gates, threshold guardians, etc., which one could only fend off by pronouncing the correct magical spell.
And the other thing about labyrinths is that, in origin, they were designed and built for the purpose of trapping and capturing monsters. This was the sole and single reason for why Daedalus built the famous labyrinth for King Minos in the first place: to house the Minotaur that had been borne as the fruit of Pasiphae’s indiscretion with a bull. Daedalus himself could only trace a line of flight from this labyrinth by creating wings for him and his son, whereas Theseus had to go in, kill the Minotaur, and retrace his steps using Ariadne’s thread.
The labyrinth, in other words (and to use the language of Deleuze & Guattari) is an Apparatus of Capture. Whatever you do, the ancients seem to be saying, don’t get caught inside one. And if you do, you must trace a Line of Flight to escape it.
So we can think of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s film as a sort of vertical labyrinth that functions as a nexus point at which the realm of the living intersects with the realm of the ancestral dead. And the thing about the dead is that they represent the past and the claims of the past: the one thing they do not point to is the future, least of all any sort of future in which the New can make an appearance. The dead exert a sort of gravitational weight against the claims of the living. They pull down, in other words, with an entropic insistence that refuses to allow the living to move forward until their claims are addressed.
In his book Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze makes a distinction between three different syntheses of Time: the first synthesis is that of habit, which is a passive synthesis that contracts time; the second synthesis is that of memory, an active synthesis that reproduces the former simultaneously with the reflection of the new; but it is the third synthesis of time which interests us here, for in the third synthesis, time as repetition is ruptured by an Event that introduces difference into repetition with the advent of a novelty that leads to a new temporal series (this, of course, becomes the Event ontology of Alain Badiou). But now take note: it is precisely this third synthesis that the Overlook Hotel is designed to prevent ever taking place. It is an Apparatus of Capture that seizes control of the present by capturing the lives of the living and slowly regressing them back to the past, or Deleuze’s first two syntheses of habit and memory.
In the age of the post-metaphysical ego, we are left with a model of the self that is poorly defended by a weak membrane. The Fichtean Self, on the contrary, was a miniaturized model of Spinoza’s God, a Transcendental Self that was constructed through the firm positing of the Ego as A = A. The self-identical ego was able to construct a very strong, metaphysically sealed partition between itself and the Other, which allowed it to exist in a kind of Heideggerian Vorhandenheit, or transcendental space in which it could look out over objects with absolute certainty. This was, accordingly, the age of metaphysically certain propositions. The self was well-defended by this membrane against any sort of astral invasions.
Not so with the Subject after World War II: the Subject now has been weakened by deconstruction on the one hand and electronic technologies on the other. Immunologically, it has been ruptured, and the microsphere that once protected it has collapsed and dissolved. The self is now prey to astral invasions of all sorts. Hence, we are living in the age of alien abductions, poltergeist hauntings, bizarre phenomena and the like.
Jack Torrance, in The Shining, is a perfect embodiment of this contemporary weak Self who, because he has little in the way to protect him against the influence of transpersonal forces, falls prey to them when he is placed inside a haunted hotel. These transpersonal spirits grasp control of him rather easily and slowly, bit by bit, begin to erode, efface and dissolve his singular personality. That is, they perform a reverse Individuation process on him. Instead of the self evolving and changing and growing, in The Shining, the self devolves and disintegrates, losing its singular individuality and regressing back to the level of a mere archetype.
Jack Torrance’s story is the description of the reversal of a Badiouan truth event: instead of a singular personality built up as something new and original, Jack devolves and regresses back to the level of a cliche, a mere archetype. The Overlook Hotel is the place where no singularities are ever allowed to emerge. It is a place governed exclusively by the past, exclusively by Jungian archetypes which dissolve and destroy all attempts to move on into the future.
The longer one remains at the Overlook Hotel as an Apparatus of Capture, the more slowly one is transformed back into a living archetype that loses its grip on the present and becomes a mere walking cliche of the past. This is why Delbert Grady tells Jack in the red bathroom that he has “always been here.” The archetype, like Plato’s Forms, always are and never were. Hence, the solution to the puzzle of why we see him in the black and white photograph hanging on the wall at the end of the film: he has been completely absorbed back into the archetypal midden heap of the past and robbed of all individuality and uniqueness as a three dimensional person. For an archetype is a two-dimensional cliche that robs the present of its singularity and prevents the emergence of anything new.
Danny and his mother (the Christ Child and the Virgin in their modern incarnation) are allowed to escape the hotel because the child is the future. The future is the way out of the sucking vortex of the labyrinth of the past, which is doomed merely to an eternal repetition of cliches, repeated, with the myth of the Eternal Return (characteristic most strongly of Indian Mythology) over and over again, without anything new or original ever emerging. Danny as child is the key to the future in which new lines of flight are traced out for new pathways of Becoming that give rise to Deleuze’s third synthesis of time: the emergence of Difference out of the Repetition of the past.
The true fascination of the film is that in the poles represented by Jack (the past and the dominance of metaphysical cliches) and Danny (the future and the possibility for the creation of new Forms) is that we contemporaries nowadays are stuck at a crossroads (the Overlook Hotel) in which the future of civilization could go either way: are we going to devolve back into a metaphysical obscurantism dominated by Jungian archetypes and the sickly murk and morass of myth? Or are we going to move onward into the next structure of consciousness that moves us beyond the mere Modernism of Gebser’s Integral consciousness structure and into something truly unprecedented? Indeed, each one of us taken as an individual must today face this exact dilemma. Repeat the past or somehow find the energy to create something new?
That is what Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining is about.