Of all of Stanley Kubrick’s eclectic films, none endure more in the minds of conspiracy lovers than The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Cuckoos and obsessives alike have ascribed the wildest, most off-the-wall explanations of Kubrick’s motives behind these two movies, sparking discourse that spans the IQ spectrum. In many cases, dissecting scenes enough times to match the number of takes to shoot them seems to be the sole qualification but I’m not shitting on all idears here. In fact I’ll be adding to the pile. Yet for a photographer by trade to occasionally revert to evocative images, it’s testament of our just estimation of his work to be projecting something to his visuals, no matter how whacky it gets. So rest assured, ridicule isn’t my aim here.
Good horrors that stand the test of time typically utilize sharp subtext underneath the surface. In place of cheap jump-scares and tired tropes, a degree of subversion is slipped in to strike a powerful chord in the audience. When George Romero cast Duane Jones as his lead in Night of the Living Dead, and when he used a mall as the setting for Dawn of the Dead, something a little more than a pre-production item was checked off the list. A black character as hero and protagonist and a shopping center as humanity’s last stand against a zombie apocalypse, at the time, were groundbreaking. In the first case it undermined prejudices toward black people without co-opting or profiteering off of the Civil Rights climate. In the second film he threw in a takedown of consumerist culture by showing zombies shoulder-bumping like klutzes as they overcrowd a mall. Black Friday, anyone? I suspect the reason I won’t bother seeing Day of the Dead is Romero probably ran out of that biting edge by then considering his body of work is mostly cult circuit material and not that iconic.
Putting aside allusions to the Indian genocide, The Shining has little subtext that survived the onslaught of projections and far-fetched interpretations. Outlandish theories and interpretations eclipse the film hardly doing it any justice, but I digress. Express terms such as “burial grounds” and “the white man’s burden” aside, the film shows repeated imagery of blood gushing from an elevator shaft as the faintest reminder of the massacre of Native Americans. It is powerful imagery and a disturbing visual that goes well with the ability of some people and places to “shine” if those images are understood to be the building communicating from the past. Even if the symbolism remains elusive, or proves wrong, the shots were meant to be taken as the hotel sending signals. Danny picks up on it from afar but Wendy has to get close to the elevators to receive those visions. As for Jack, it’s left for other things to send him over the edge. Like tits and booze.
The entire premise pivots on the idea that some people have the talent to shine; having dog ears, if you will. And some places are like people. If the Smithsonian or LAX could talk, what sort of thing would they say? Better yet, what if Sea World, Alcatraz, Gitmo or the jungles of Vietnam could do the same? What about Penn State? Scary, right? Come to think of it, Apocalypse Now broached these themes. The horrors of war did a number on colonel Kurtz meaning the idear of a gravely afflicted place wreaking havoc on passers-by can only flourish in the skilled hands of a select few. Like a Kubrick or a Coppola.
But more than the atrocities that saddle the site of the Overlook Hotel, it is the order of priority Kubrick forces on the viewer that leaves a more recent tragedy front and center; the previous caretaker who hacked his family to death on the premises. You know, because we tend to forget about the Indians. Kubrick, intentionally or otherwise, loads up on Indian artifacts and paraphernalia, the kind that adorns all of America in some fashion in all fairness, without allowing the audience to consider for a moment the tragic decline of its authors. The story although legitimate as one about a decent into madness is helped immensely by this profound backdrop. As much as it is troublesome to see Jack as a helpless victim to the hotel’s manipulations. Could he be the Indian to the hotel’s America? Who couldn’t get with the times and was left for dead by the unforgiving forces of progress? Is colonialism progressive?
If one were to play with the analogy further, the architecture of the hotel itself is a gold mine which I’ll get back to. The relative seclusion and inaccessible nature are too much like the guarded walls of the White House to ignore the connection. In fact, one staircase tucked away in the lobby resembles some you can find in the executive residence. Many dignitaries and distinguished people have roamed the halls of the Overlook. The job of caretaker proves too overwhelming for Jack. With no days off, and despite the freedom to set his own schedule, he is ultimately subject to contractual obligations to his employer. Just like the president in a way. The pomp and circumstance of the Gold Room scenes hearken back to a bygone era. The roaring twenties and the prohibition period. That the party must go on, come hell or high water. These are all intriguing layers to stack on top of a simple story about catching cabin fever. The interior of the hotel is tacky seventies decor that masks an obvious set. For one, the layout is peculiar. Some people drew up floor plans and went into detail about impossible rooms and doorways. Kubrick wouldn’t allow a goof to slip past so they have to accepted as intentional. Kubrick doesn’t even attempt to hide the façade because it’s likely he wasn’t planning on letting the audience go on a wild goose chase. But the disorienting effects are perceptible only to those spatially inclined and those with lots of time on their hands. It all points back to the dog ears because, as with the shining, some people have it and others don’t. But with the Overlook being a unique case it is too powerful to stay within the threshold exclusive to those who shine. And the house of mirrors effect is nothing but the visual representation of the haunting in full swing.