Thursday, 18 April 2013

KUBRICK AT MIDNIGHT: Meditations of Gnostic Alchemy in 'The Shining' - Part One

This post is the first part in an intended series of Kubrick at Midnight essays – that will attempt to explore the Gnostic, Alchemical and Visionary qualities that I believe to be inherent in the films of Stanley Kubrick.

Prima Materia – Fragments of A Maze

Many differing opinions have been written and expressed concerning Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. Adapted from the 1977 novel by iconic horror novelist Stephen King, Kubrick’s film alters the source material quite significantly.  The screen adaptation is most definitely its own entity, drawing upon but standing apart from the novel.  Upon release King expressed his dislike of Kubrick’s screen version of his novel. Critics alternately hailed the film as slow, boring, overblown, silly, or a masterpiece.  The film divided both critics and viewers rather decisively.  To state my own position clearly at the outset, I’m one of those viewers who believe the film to be a masterpiece.  I am an unabashed Kubrick fan and consider him to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

It is my belief that Kubrick tackled filmmaking much like a chess-player, with viewers, critics and naysayers as his lesser opponents.  But truly, Kubrick’s greatest opponent when crafting his multi-layered works of art was himself.  As an artist he was not one to retread the same familiar ground, always seeking to shove himself out of his own comfort zone; sometimes quite violently. 

Kubrick seemed to perceive cinema in shamanistic terms, like an impossibly intricate puzzle box that could initiate spiritual transformation – full of subtlety, nuance and elusive contexts; a chymical wedding of film and viewer.  I believe that Kubrick saw art as a reflection and crucible of human consciousness.  His films are full of double, triple and even quadruple bluffs, often saying and doing one thing whilst stealthily implying another.  Often in Kubrick’s films the surface ideas and themes are exposed as fallacies when deeper layers of his narratives are uncovered, only to be resurrected and re-contextualized at even deeper levels of the game. Here is a quote that captures much of the flavour of Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, from the French semiotic philosopher Jacques Derrida in his seminal book Of Grammatology:

There are things like reflecting pools, and images, an infinite reference from one to the other, but no longer a source, a spring. There is no longer any simple origin. For what is reflected it split in itself and not only as an addition to itself of its image. The reflection, the image, the double, splits what it doubles. The origin of the speculation becomes a difference. What can look at itself is not one; and the law of the addition of the origin to its representation, or the thing to its image, is that one plus one makes at least three. 

I believe this is definitely the case with The Shining.  In his book entitled Kubrick the French author Michel Ciment uses the previous Derrida quote, and suggests that the film “constitutes an intiatory journey of death and transfiguration, this time inside a labyrinth”. Much has been written about Kubrick’s near-mythical prowess as a filmmaker, and his subversive, provocative stance as an anti-authoritarian intellect.  Speaking of intellect, some critics have accused Kubrick’s work of lacking genuine emotion; that his films are largely cold, unfeeling sojourns of the mind.  But I would argue that his work is full of raw but usually sublimated or hidden emotion.  In short I would argue that, like most true Gnostics, Kubrick’s work is furious.

It is my belief that Stanley Kubrick’s later corpus of work constitutes a nuanced and multidimensional meditation on Gnosticism, Alchemy, High-Weirdness and Hidden History – starting seriously with Lolita and all the way to his last film, Eyes Wide Shut.  Although Kubrick may have publicly claimed to be an atheist his work betrays a sophisticated comprehension of magical symbolism, spirituality and human consciousness, and reveals him as a masterful metaphysician.  Kubrick explicitly discussed his belief in the strange, unacknowledged powers of the human mind during an interview with Michel Ciment.  Kubrick stated:

I hope that ESP and related psychic phenomena will eventually find general scientific proof of their existence. There are certainly a fair number of scientists who are sufficiently impressed with the evidence to spend their time working in the field. If conclusive proof is ever found it won't be quite as exciting as, say, the discovery of alien intelligence in the universe, but it will definitely be a mind expander.

It is my own personal belief that Stanley Kubrick’s knowledge of alternative research, conspiracies and fringe culture is carefully encoded into his films with an artistic cryptography that is rarely matched by other filmmakers. 2001: A Space Odyssey may have been his most ambitious chymical wedding, but I suspect that The Shining was always his most personal.

Overseer of the Overlook – Auditioning the Demiurge

The researcher, videographer and filmmaker Rob Ager has conducted what I believe to be a very detailed and insightful analysis of Kubrick's work, including The Shining.  On his website Collative Learning, Ager suggests that The Overlook of Kubrick’s film is dark metaphor of America.  Not only that, but it is also in some way a sentient metaphor.  Its shifting corridors and rooms, the spatial impossibilities inherent in its design, all imply a living, imagining presence that is the hotel itself.  Stephen King’s original novel touches on some of these themes in a more easily recognisable folkloric way.  But I would go further with this basic idea.  I would suggest that the Overlook Hotel is in fact a metaphor for the Gnostic State of Man; spiritual beings who have somehow become ensnared in a world of shapeshifting illusion by Archonic forces.  I would suggest that Kubrick’s Overlook is essentially the black iron prison later described by Philip K Dick in his seminal novel Valis.  The writer Christopher Knowles explores the literal and symbolic high-weirdness connections concerning Philip K Dick and Valis over on his blog The Secret Sun, particularly in this excellent post: I'll Show You How to Bring Me to Your World.

In both the novel and film of The Shining the distinctly American nuances of the hotel’s spiritual presence are all there, though explored differently - but I suspect there is a more elusively explicit symbolism at work in Kubrick’s film adaptation.  In Philip K Dick’s novel,  VALIS is an acronym for the Vast Active Living Intelligence System; a “spontaneous self-monitoring negentropic vortex...tending to progressively subsume and incorporate its environment into arrangements of information.” To me that sounds like a fairly evocative description of Kubrick’s Overlook.  

It is my belief that Kubrick was an avid Philip K Dick fan, and took some of the broader themes and atmosphere of The Shining from a novel by Dick entitled Ubik; a brilliant work concerning the nature of life, half-life and multiple realities.  But consciously or not, Dick's thematic conception of Valis is also foreshadowed in Kubrick's conception of the Overlook Hotel.  Interestingly, both men were born in 1928, ten years after the end of the First World War, and eleven years before the official start of the Second World War.  Both men were born of a generation that had just survived an apocalypse, and were about to live through another.  Their formative years were undoubtedly shaped in some way by what was going on around them politically and culturally at the time.  The Shining was released in 1980, and then Valis was released in the following year.  It's entirely possible that both Kubrick and Dick were working on their respective projects at around the same time.  The researcher Rob Ager, and other critics -- including the recent documentary Room 237 -- have noted the impossible rearrangement of the furniture and floorplans of the Overlook in Kubrick’s film.  Essentially, both Kubrick’s film and Dick’s novel deal with deep, dark secrets living and shifting below the level of conscious awareness, and with the mercurial nature of reality, identity and simulacrum.  Here’s an excerpt from an essay entitled 'Philip K Dick’s Divine Interference' by Erik Davis, that echoes this hidden reorganization theme:

“In the excerpts of the Exegesis reworked into the "Tractates Crytptica Scriptura" that close the novel VALIS, Dick expresses the MIT computer scientist Edward Fredkin's view that the universe is composed of information. The world we experience is a hologram, "a hypostasis of information" that we, as nodes in the true Mind, process. "We hypostasize information into objects. Rearrangement of objects is change in the content of information. This is the language we have lost the ability to read." With this Adamic code scrambled, both ourselves and the world as we know it are "occluded," cut off from the brimming "Matrix" of cosmic information.  Instead, we are under the sway of the "Black Iron Prison," Dick's terms for the demiurgic worldly forces of political tyranny and oppressive social control.

It is interesting that the manager of the Overlook Hotel is named Stuart Ullman. Stuart is a name that means steward, and Ullman can be interpreted as a play on the words all men.  So, even in King’s novel the manager of the monstrous hotel can be seen as the ‘Steward of All Men’.  I suspect that Stanley Kubrick sensed something powerful lurking below the surface in King’s novel, and indeed in the writer’s psyche – a capacity or scope for a detailed metaphysical, Gnostic meditation.  In King’s novel Ullman is more akin to the archetypal villain, a sinister character that has a hand in initiating Jack Torrance’s descent into madness.  But in Kubrick’s screen adaptation Ullman is a different sort of sinister; he’s a seemingly congenial presence, made creepy by the fact that he is so bland and casual about the hotel’s dark history.  Jack’s initial meeting with Ullman in the film doesn’t feel so much like a ‘bringing you up to speed’ situation as it does an audition.  There is an odd, disquieting humour traded between the men, almost as if there is the implicit notion in the air that Jack is expected to perform.  He is to put on a good show for the hotel.  And so he does, in spades.  Or rather, axes. 

At the time of release many critics didn’t gel with Nickelson’s overblown lunatic performance as a man in the throes of violent madness.  Nickelson’s interpretation didn’t sit well with them, and many of them questioned Kubrick’s ability to direct his actors.  Why such a hammy performance?  But Jack’s initial meeting with Ullman sets up this expectation, this implicit pressure to perform.  Ullman and many of the other background characters are so bland that Jack is the intoxicating juice by comparison.  There is something interesting to be gleaned here.  In Kubrick’s film it is clear that Ullman is just the public relations face of the hotel; another intermediary, a lesser Archon doing the grunt-work of the real intelligence of the Overlook.  The true demiurgic presence of the hotel is embodied in the character of Lloyd the Bartender. 

Alcohol has always been viewed as an initiatory, sacramental substance throughout human history, and Lloyd the bartender is quite literally the Keeper of the Spirits.  Spirits that are both consumed and consuming, imbibed and imbibing.  Lloyd is a name that derives from the old welsh for ‘grey’.  And so, since the character has no first name, Lloyd is quite literally Mr Grey.  He is the many shades of grey in the narrative; the odd nuances and strange contexts that collectively represent the implicit intelligence of the Overlook.  Most of Jack’s interactions with other characters in the film take place in front of or behind mirrors.  Mirrors are often placed carefully and crucially in key scenes.  This creates an anxiety of ontology whereby characters can be interpreted as doubles, reflections and fragments of one another.  As I quoted from Derrida earlier in this essay: "There are things like reflecting pools, and images, an infinite reference from one to the other, but no longer a source, a spring."  And so Jack becomes much more than just a caretaker of the black iron prison - he becomes the reflections, the infinite reference - the very thing that animates it, that gives it spirit and life.

(To Be Continued...)


  1. I really enjoyed this. You hit me where I live...I'm a fan of Kubrick, King, Dick, Derrida, and Knowles. Can't wait for the next installment, as I'm also a fan of yours my friend. I look forward to all your work, but this is brilliant! Rock on!

    The scenes between Jack and Lloyd are my favorite in the movie...gauging his descent into madness through their dialogue is riveting stuff. You've got my mind working as well with the comparative analogy between Dick's Black Iron Prison and The Overlook...complete with maze...and all the anxiety that goes with them...and the realization that "there's no way out."

  2. I am enjoying the straightforward and clear explanation you are bringing to your analysis of the Shining/Black Iron prison. Keep it coming and thanks as always for sharing. I know summer gets busier, so, just as with Chris, be easy on yourself and take the time you need. I know I have less time to read and think!

    The Black Iron Prison was such a genius metaphor from PKD and has resonated with me since I first read it. Well, more than a metaphor when I so often feel so strongly that I am in it! Anyway this is great reading and clearly put and I look forward to the rest of it.

    As always, your friend, Delorus