The Shining: A Spacial and Temporal Examination of a Spectral Narrative

the shining 4.3In the beginning of Place: An Introduction, Tim Cresswell describes the significance of placing a specific art exhibit, one foregrounding Bollywood movies, in an elite Swedish town where only the 1% tend to visit, in part because it’s difficult to get there.  Cresswell includes the following quote in his introduction: “ ‘It’s difficult to get to,’ Mr. Wakefield added, ‘but because of that, it also demands a different kind of attention.  You discover the art through the place and the place through the art.’  The exhibition at Gstaad reflects a wider interest in how art and place interact on the part of both the artists and art theorists” (2).  This got me thinking that it might be intriguing to examine The Shining not just from a few lenses but – perhaps – from the intersection of a few lenses:  Space or place, as its conveyed in the film, the cultural space in which the film is produced, and the current cultural space in which I, the viewer, am watching the film.  This move, I think, is necessarily spectral, or turns the art under examination into a specter that disrupts linear time, since I become sort of engaged in this spectral moment, where I’m looking at the art forward, backward, etc – and this is especially true of The Shining, which situates its primary space, The Overlook Hotel, as a place that’s both mad and spectral, that consistently – if not constantly – manifests itself as a presence in the spectral moment by embodying both the past and the present – and, to the contemporary viewer, the more recent past (1921, 1980, 2017, but arranged as 2017 encompassing a film that shifts back and forth between 1921 and 1980, that begins by emphasizing 1980 but ends by emphasizing 1921).  As a “cautionary note,” I found, as I was watching, that it was challenging to thread the entirety of this analysis throughout my interpretation of the film, especially for a blog post, but that’s the general angle I’m coming from when I look at the film.  (As a sidenote, I wonder the extent to which we could deduce that all art is “spectral” – or maybe that’s what I’m getting at, but that seems like a sweeping argument for a later time).    

            In other words, I think there’s the spectral experience of looking back at the art, and, in The Shining, the spectral experience of the diegetic narrative (if I used that term correctly), one that more and more throughout the linear narrative transitions us back to the past and causes us to look forward as we anticipate (at least, if we’re first time watchers, but maybe even if we’re not) the fate of the characters involved (including, perhaps, the hotel as a whole).  And as a viewer, I not only watch, in the present, a film that was made in 1980 and flashes back to 1921, but I think of past experiences with the film, harkening back to the 1990’s, and the future, as I take notes to write my post.  Indeed, the entire process of watching any film, and especially this one, seems especially spectral to me –if the specter always disrupts space and time – a more explicated line of analysis that I will, again, try to follow.

Of course, part of the spectral experience of space in this film seems to engage with a then-contemporary (and still-contemporary) notion of technology’s bourgeoning ability to traverse space with a trepidation about what happens when all of those technological lifelines are stripped from us.  I’m not saying that’s the main point of the film or anything, only that from a space-place standpoint, space is constantly being challenged by technology and trumping technology; they compete in a sort of dialectic, and the more isolated our characters become, the more wholly they seem flung into the world of 1921, along with this sort of mad location of the late 70’s or 1980, when the film was made.  And as a viewer, I’m witnessing this fear of isolation – insinuated in an opening that foregrounds the enormity of the Colorado wilderness and the small-ness of the car, and the small-ness outside of the hotel – and this fear of technology’s inadequacy, even as I look back at a period when the “connectivity” for lack of better words, that we were experiencing, wasn’t as strong as it is now.  Of course, the song in the opening scene (I think it’s called the Death March of the Marionettes) is formidable, and as I look back into the 1980’s, I wonder – as I continue to wonder throughout the film – how feasible or likely this scenario would be in a 2017 setting.  What would The Shining look like if it were set in the early-mid 21st century instead of the middle-late 20th century, and then, why does that matter?  What does our perpetual cultural shift – Ray Kurzweil describes it as technology’s exponential growth – do to our experience of space as an entity either fostering or opposing connectivity or isolation (since, assuredly, it can work both ways).  And why is that question important for human beings?

I could work through the movie like this, but doing so seems like it would take a long time.  The film, though, very much opens up in the late 70’s or 1980, when it was released, and all of the setting evinces that.  The diegetic narrative, then, does not seem spectral – not completely, at least, as we find ourselves in Ullman’s office and in the Torrance home, very then-contemporary although both exhibiting signs of the past from the standpoint of a present-day viewer.  But it doesn’t take long, not long at all, to move to the past.  However, as this is happening, were we first time viewers, we would be constantly thinking of the characters’ futures during these horrifying glimpses of the past, making the experience of the film spectral from a sort of 4th wall standpoint situated outside the narrative and within our response to the narrative.  Tony – and we could speculate why Tony lives in Danny’s mouth, of all places – takes Danny, through his psychic abilities, his shining, to the Overlook Hotel as a site of murder and mayhem, as blood pours incessantly out of the elevators.  And in his very modern office, in his nice suit, Stuart Ullman tells Jack the rather recent story of Grady, and the fact that Grady recently killed his wife and daughters in a case of so-called “cabin fever.”  Situated in the mid-late 20th century, the spectral moment (as it does with Danny) risks driving us mad, at least temporarily, while it takes us to a location that is simultaneously mad and spectral.  Indeed, the closer the characters come, in the film, to the spectral, the madder they get (maybe, whether that madness is destructive like Jack or protective, for Danny), and the characters become so spectral that they go mad, or, conversely, go so mad that they become spectral.

Perhaps it makes no sense to dissect a narrative in a linear way when every element of my argument seems to point toward the problem of relying on linearity when examining this narrative.  But we do rely on assumptions of linearity and chronology, to the extent that we examine how that linearity is subverted.  Still, as mentioned, such an examination would take a long time.  I think the richness comes from all the different directions we’re thinking in as we watch – any film, maybe, any horror film, maybe, but especially this film.

Jack and Grady seem, then, like the film’s ultimate specters.  One will note, only after Jack disconnects the telephone and smashes the other transmission device does he completely slip into the world of 1921, as he sits across the bar talking to Lloyd.  (And we think these people could be ghosts or hallucinations, but when Wendy starts to see “traces” too – and it’s fascinating that in an earlier scene, Halloran even calls the Overlook ghosts “traces” – though hers are much more formidable, we start to believe that Jack was seeing ghosts, albeit the ghosts of an idyllic part in 1921, instead of hallucinations).  At first, he just talks to Lloyd, but when he returns to the bar, after the hotel is completely disconnected, when space has trumped technology completely to produce the sort of isolation that the Overlook needs to work its magic, Jack can slip seamlessly into 1921, where he meets Delbert Grady in the bathroom, working as a waiter in the party.

To me, this was perhaps the most spectral moment of the film, and it’s one of my favorites.  From the standpoint of “linear time” – what is going on here?  On one level, as a viewer in 2017, one who’s been watching this film since the mid-90’s, I’m watching a man in the 1980’s talk to the ghost of someone who probably committed murder, according to the diegetic narrative, in the mid 1970’s, but they’re talking about the murder (and at first, not agreeing, at all, about what happened) in a party that evidently takes place in the distant past, and that we can infer took place in 1921 based on the date of the picture in a later scene.  I’m flashing back to all of the other times I’ve witnessed this scene – including my confusion the first time around – to think of how I perceived it, and I’m harkening forward to what I’ll write about it, just as I watch Jack and Delbert meet in a vintage bathroom (it does not look like a restroom in 1921 would look, however) at the beginning of the 20th century, a 1921 that exists in about 1980, talking about a murder that probably happened in both the past and the present at once (50 years or so after 1921, and a few years before 1980).  Thus, the meeting of these two ultimate mad specters – men who lose themselves so much in the hotel that they become specters (at least, Jack does) early in the film, and murderous specters at that – meet, toward the middle-end of the film, in the ultimate spectral moment, after Wendy’s ability to resist and transgress isolation and physical space through technology has been (I think) completely destroyed by Jack.  In other words, this scene is really, really cool.

And what’s cooler about it is that one of the specters seems to have no idea what’s going on – or doesn’t he?  Delbert looks genuinely confused when Jack brings up the past-future (it is, again, exactly the past and future at once) and his decision to kill his daughters and his wife.  He says he has no recollection at all of that incident, that Jack has always been the caretaker, and he seems so genuine.  We really believe him.  But then Jack talks about Wendy and Danny’s disrespect for the Overlook, and Delbert Grady tells us that his wife and children were the same way.  He says, ominously, I “corrected” them (his daughters, his wife) in a portending tone that makes us believe, very much, that “corrected” means killed, and he knows exactly what he did.  As such, he looks to the past and the future at once – Grady’s murder, not Jack’s potential murder, but Grady’s murder, exists in the past and the future in this scene – and his relationship to the past is both cognizant and aware, and completely unaware, in two separate but closely related moments, which completely matches the temporal ambiguity of the act itself (at least, we can speculate).  Since it both has and hasn’t happened, it makes complete sense that he’s both aware and unaware of it, and he becomes, then, the epitome of the specter – maybe.  What injustice he embodies, if the specter always embodies injustice, would be another question entirely.  There are, at the very last, some whiffs of patriarchal concern and statements about abuse in this movie that might be applied to such a line of speculation.

Of course, Danny becomes a complete specter after he gets assaulted by the decaying ghost in room 237, another important turning point in the narrative.  But this point seems particularly significant because through Danny’s spectral status, through a potential form of sort of near-catatonic, displaced madness – his self seems quite literally dispossessed, in an exaggeration of Judith Butler’s description of self-dispossession because of our vulnerable bodies – but when he turns deeply inward (if that’s what he does) and Tony’s running the show, he seems, perhaps, safe – and still rational.  His ability to trick the mad and irrational Jack in the hedge maze is unspeakably brilliant for a five-year-old in supreme duress, as he manipulates his footprints to escape.  Danny’s entire ability to shine seems like the ultimate curse and the ultimate gift.  Indeed, while it brings him closer to the actual specters of the hotel than anyone except Jack (who may, we infer, shine a little himself – or a lot), it is also the only thing, when technology fails, that can traverse and transgress hostile space – the wilderness, all the way to Florida where Halloran lives, a man who has been navigating the mad, spectral space of the Overlook for who knows how long.  For this to happen, conversely, Danny must be assaulted by the ghost in room 237, an event that affects his psyche so much, I think, that Dick feels his terror and is immediately prompted to travel to the Overlook.  The process of shining, ultimately, seems like Kubrick’s answer (if not King’s answer) to what humans resort to in this film when technological connectivity fails to traverse isolated, cruel space, but it’s no answer at all in the face of the Overlook Hotel, which also shines, and, vis a vis Jack, outshines Danny and Halloran but putting Jack (we assume) in just the right position to kill Halloran when he gets to the hotel.

I am going to avoid talking more about Halloran, or about Wendy, because this blog post has gotten quite long already, but I think it’s worth noting that when technology fails and our intrepid characters are brutally enmeshed in isolated space, it becomes shining against shining more than person against person in this film; in a very post-human way, that expresses and foregrounds human vulnerability through a super-human force, the shining fights both for and against the Torrances, both for and against the hotel.  There is, oddly then, even in Kubrick’s very bleak depiction of King’s novel, some supernatural force for good.  The spectral shining is what helps characters move through the past and present, to their benefit or detriment, perhaps being a force for good, perhaps for bad, or perhaps – in an act of western-metaphysical disruption – disrupting the good-bad (implicitly, god-devil) binary and becoming at once a force for good and evil, as it creates the spectral moment, both isolates the characters and traverses isolation, and moves from the past to the present in the mad, spectral space.


The Shining: A Spacial and Temporal Examination of a Spectral Narrative

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