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Excerpted from The Shining Scene-by-Scene
by John David Ebert
The Ascent up the Mountain”
The first shot of the film is taken from the perspective of a helicopter doing a quick fly-by over a mountain lake where a small island densely packed with trees in yellow and orange autumn foliage juts up above the smooth glassy surface like the visible half of some ancient wrecked ship. (In reality, it is St. Mary Lake located in Glacier National Park at the northern edge of the Rockies in Montana. The island in the center of the lake is known as Wild Goose Island). [i]
The next shot then hovers high in the air above, like a disembodied spirit, looking directly down at a tiny yellow VW Volkswagen making its way across a curving road that winds along through a forest of pine trees. In the subsequent shot, the Volkswagen is seen travelling along almost at ground level, while in the glossy white distance, the cool, icy bergs of the Rocky Mountains loom as the VW’s destination point. As the blue letters of the film’s title credits begin to roll up from below, each subsequent shot follows the progression of the car as it ascends ever higher and higher into the Rockies in the speckled gold sunlight of late autumn.
As it climbs into the mountains, the aerial point of view follows the tiny car as it rounds precarious curves and goes through tunnels into the mountainside, while vast, deep chasms and vistas of giant green valleys open up all around it. The viewer has the sense of floating, as though he or she were a discarnate spirit soaring up into the cold realm of chiseled limestone and black basalt peaks along the blue-gray mountainsides. As the tiny car ascends higher, the sides of the mountain become covered with a light sift of powdery snow, and the viewer soon realizes that he has at last ascended to the top of the mountain where a bulky gray hotel with peaked, pyramidal roofs is perched amongst a few scattered green pines. Behind it, there looms a mountain peak covered in a thin skin of cream-colored snow. (In reality, the shot is an exterior view of the Timberline Lodge located on Mount Hood in Oregon).
The VW has finally reached its destination and can be made out to the discerning eye as one of the cars parked amongst the twenty-five or thirty others in the Overlook Hotel’s parking lot.
The first point to note is the film’s vector of ascent: from below upwards. The viewer is travelling along with the story’s protagonist Jack Torrance to an elevated plane—the realm of Spirit, as James Hillman would put it in terms of his opposition of “peaks and vales”—a plane of consciousness that is far removed from the ordinary everyday world of the banal and the mundane. Indeed, the immediate literary point of comparison is to the opening chapter of Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain, in which the novel’s young protagonist, a nautical engineer named Hans Castorp, is ascending by train up into the Swiss alps near Davos to the Berghof Sanitarium—an actual sanitarium that was built there around 1900 as a place of rest and relaxation for tubercular patients, but was bought and reterritorialized as a hotel in 1954 and also renamed the Hotel Schatzalp. Mann points out interesting details such as the change in scenery as Castorp ascends, noting that the landscape shifts from deciduous trees which die in the winter and grow leaves again in the spring, to the evergreens of higher altitudes, such as the pines, firs and oaks that stay green all year long and therefore connote the realm of eternal values. The Overlook Hotel and the Berghof Sanitarium have more than a little in common,[ii] for each occupies a realm “above” where consciousness is “different” than the slower-moving temporalities of the flatland down below, a land which Mann equates with the realm of social duties and responsibilities. The elevated realm at the top of the mountain is a place where magical transformations occur, and this is also evident in works of art like Hans Thoma’s 1899 painting Die Gralsburg, which shows a trail of knights riding horses along a path that leads to the distant peaks of a mountain carved in the shape of a castle (specifically, the Grail Castle). The knights, too, are moving from the flatland of daily concerns—the Biotemporal World, we might say–to ascend into the realm of myth, magic and spirit where contact with supernatural powers is a “normal” occurrence.
Jack Torrance, an alcoholic writer who has recently moved from Vermont to Boulder, without knowing it, then, is ascending into a realm of Axial Intersection where the plane of the living intersects with, and crosses over into, the astral realm of the dead, a zone where time ceases to function in a linear manner.
The music which Stanley Kubrick has chosen as the soundtrack for this sequence of ascent to the spirit world highlights and underscores its imagery, for it is an electronic adaptation by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind of just a few notes from Hector Berlioz’s 1830 Symphonie Fantastique.[iii] Specifically, the notes are taken from the fifth and last movement of that symphony, which is entitled “Dream of the Night of the Sabbath,” and refers specifically to the Witches’ Sabbath which Goethe in his epic of Faust Part I (published in 1808) terms the “Walpurgis Night,” and which is set in the Hartz mountains where ghosts and spirits gather for a festival. The title of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain specifically refers to this scene, for in it, a fleeting spirit tells Faust, “The mountain is mad with magic tonight!”
Kubrick’s allusion to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is an interesting one, for in it, Berlioz imagines the tale of an artist who has a vision of an ideal woman that he keeps pursuing and failing to find (Jack Torrance, likewise, will catch only a fleeting glimpse of his ideal woman when she steps out of the bathtub in Room 237). Feeling spurned by her, the artist attempts to kill himself with an opium overdose, but instead it induces in him a trance vision of seeing himself murder his beloved and go to the scaffold to be hanged for it. Then, in the Fifth and last movement of the symphony, the so-called “Dream of the Night of the Sabbath,” he envisions his funeral taking place during a Walpurgis Night where ghosts, spirits, witches and sorcerers of all kinds have gathered, and where his beloved finally turns up, meeting him only in death.
Berlioz clearly had Goethe’s Faust in mind—who, in turn, may have had Goya’s 1798 painting entitled Witches’ Sabbath in his mind—but Kubrick’s allusion to the symphony not only looks back at this tradition of ascent to an elevated place in the mountains where spirits gather, but is also a foreshadowing of the climax of his own film, The Shining, which eventually ends with its own kind of Walpurgisnacht (although that ceremony is traditionally held in the springtime to drive the evil spirits away, whereas Kubrick’s ceremony takes place shortly after the winter solstice, when the sun has gone down into the Underworld) wherein a festival of spooks and ghosts gathers inside the Overlook Hotel for an eternal celebration.
And whereas Nietzsche, at the beginning of his opus Thus Spake Zarathustra, began with his protagonist ascending up into a mountain at the age of 30 to live there for ten years and then descending, with his eagle and his serpent, at the age of 40 to announce to the world that he had discovered the ultimate “truth” that God is dead and must be replaced with the Ubermensch, in Kubrick’s narrative the story of Jack Torrance will be an ascent to the top of a mountain where spirits gather every winter in order to celebrate the realm of the dead as a vast, eternal and unending party, and he will therefore discover not that “God is dead” but that “spirits are very much alive and well” in the age of cosmopolitan techno-humanity. Nietzsche, as the contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo points out, was in reality announcing the end of the metaphysical age that had its dim and distant origins in the time of the Greeks, but Jack Torrance, on the other hand, will rediscover and experience the pre-metaphysical age of spirits, ghosts and hauntings that are part of what Jean Gebser termed the ancient, and very archaic “magical consciousness structure” that still sleeps latently within each one of us.
[i] The mountain lake, high up in the Rockies, may also be an oblique reference to Lake Truckee in the Sierras, where the Donner Party were snowbound for four months during the winter of 1846-47. See the chapter entitled “Ascent Redux” for more on the significance of the Donner party to the narrative.
[ii] Including the fact that The Stanley Hotel’s founder, Freelan Oscar Stanley had the hotel built in 1909—Kubrick gives the same date for the completion of The Overlook Hotel—as a place for tubercular patients. He himself was cured of tuberculosis after staying there for a time. He died in 1940. Interestingly, he also had a twin brother, Francis Edgar Stanley, with whom he built the famous Stanley Steamer automobiles from 1902-1924.
[iii] In an interview with Michel Ciment, however, Kubrick states that the opening score was based on the traditional Dies Irae (i.e. “Day of Wrath”). However, when one listens to various versions of the Dies Irae, as in the case, for instance of Mozart’s Requiem, or the Dies Irae from Verdi’s famous Requiem, or even another Dies Irae done by Berlioz for his Grande Messe des Morts, none of them sound remotely like Berlioz’s adaptation of the Dies Irae that he did for his Symphonie Fantastique, which is unmistakably the one that Kubrick has adapted for the opening score of The Shining. See the interview online at: http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/interview.ts.html
This book may be ordered at the following link: http://www.amazon.com/Shining-Scene—Scene-David-Ebert/dp/1515105490/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1437412748&sr=8-1&keywords=the+shining+scene-by-scene+john+david+ebert