The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980) – Even just the abstracts of the “interpretations” that have been performed on this film are exhausting. (And note well: these are performances.) Some of them embody everything that’s wrong with academia, what with those deconstructive and reconstructive critical analyses that turn out to bear very little, if any, resemblance to the source material. Identifying a subtext is one thing, but seeking one out in the most obscure places, then milking what are clearly peripheral elements for all they’re worth at the expense of the important foreground and background features: this is an injustice at best and masturbatory, self-congratulatory contempt for author and text at worst. Sure, something in The Shining likely reflects the crisis in masculinity, particularly of the white variety, and perhaps there’s even something in there, something not insignificant, about the history of whites kicking Native Americans off the land. But it would at least help if the work done on The Shining started with the sounds and images presented by and in the film itself. This is a much more challenging endeavor, however, than locating or constructing a motif and then skipping through 99% of the film and pinpointing those obscure moments when thematic and cinematic elements synch with that reading.
What makes a true close reading more difficult is that The Shining presents 24 richly-filled frames per second (in a 146-minute film), each of which presents a world of possibilities for interpretation. Each of these frames is a sea of meaning in itself, and skirting along the surface rather than plumbing the depths of those waters means missing something. Of course, none of us can be expected to perform this kind of close analysis completely, but that fact alone demands a critico-ethical response of humility. Analytical humility means acknowledging that the task of ascertaining meaning is a very difficult one, that the text is probably (certainly, in this case) greater than the work of analysis that will be performed upon it, and that the task of an individual reader is necessarily incomplete.
In a recent seminar on film and architecture, we examined a couple sequences from The Shining, notably the early maze scene and Danny’s Big Wheel ride around the hotel hallways by means of Steadicam. These scenes and the shots in them exude something through the viewing experience that is fundamentally uncomfortable, in part precisely on account of the Steadicam effect. We are identified with an unnatural, silent point of view that closely follows Danny’s circular traversing of the maze-like spaces of the hotel. “Following too closely” is a descriptive phrase that may partially translate the anxiety we feel, being visually positioned just behind the boy. The silence of the camera movement is somehow amplified next to the high and varied volume of those Big Wheels against the different floor surfaces. A similar Steadicam shot of Danny takes place later in the film, when Jack chases after him in the snowy outdoor maze. There, the point of view might seem to be that of Jack, except that Danny evades his crazed father, and the uncanny point of view remains. So much of The Shining produces this kind of effect and the disturbing disjuncture that it implies. What disjuncture? The one embodied in the gap between events in the film and their elusive explanations. Jack is crazy, or rather he is in contact with with otherworldly forces. Danny has an imaginary friend, or Danny’s friend is all too real. The point of view is simply that of the camera, or the camera’s point of view hints at another one. Jack himself is real, or Jack is an echo of an other [sic] captured in the photograph in the film’s final image.