Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’: American Deterioration Through Americana
The third Monday in February marks the annual federal holiday of Presidents’ Day (or, Washington’s Birthday) in the great ‘ol US of A. The holiday is steeped in patriotism as it celebrates the founding fathers and leaders of the U.S. Though, admittedly, it’s more so become a day that kids only care about because they don’t have to go to school, and some adults don’t have to go to work. But regardless of what the meaning of the day is becoming, there’s still an inherent sense of nationalism tied to the holiday. And with its impending annual arrival, it got me thinking about the ways America is represented in film, particularly one of my favorite films, The Shining. Kubrick represents a side of America that needs to be discussed by tying it to themes that recur throughout the film.
In The Shining, Stanley Kubrick creates a frightening story of the deterioration of American society through national self-reflexivity, that is, Kubrick depicts different elements of Americana to portray a commentary on American culture. Within the film, we can see that racism, classism, and the breakdown of the nuclear family are being presented as indictments of American culture. But it is the way in which Kubrick presents them that is rather ingenious. In order to elucidate issues of race, class, and family, Kubrick introduces them through verbal and visual, quintessentially American histories, images, and colors. It is with these elements of traditional Americana that Kubrick commentates on American societal deterioration.
From start to finish, an inherent racism is prevalent in The Shining. At the root of this racism is the fact that we learn the Overlook Hotel is built on an ancient, Indian burial ground. But it is the story behind the construction of the Overlook that ties its racism to American historical culture. With mild joviality in his voice, Ullman, the manager of the Overlook, tells Jack and Wendy that there were fights to fend off Indian attacks during the construction of the hotel. Speaking in the most blasé way possible, Ullman conveys the story of Native American sufferings at the hands of this hotel as trivial. What we see here is Kubrick using American history to show the racism ingrained in the Overlook, which in turn causes the audience to examine their own racial prejudices.
One of the most blatant examples of racism is when Jack is having a conversation with the ghost of the former caretaker of the Overlook, Grady. In this conversation (seen in the following image), Grady informs Jack that Jack’s son, Danny, is trying to bring an “outside” party into the situation at the Overlook. This outsider is the black chef at the hotel, Halloran. Grady refers to Halloran as “a nigger.” There is overt racism in the speech, but it is tied to American society through Kubrick’s choice of mise en scène. The colors red, white, and blue factor predominantly into this scene (and recur throughout the entirety of the film). The walls are vividly red. The bathroom fixtures and floor are bright white. And in the center of it all is Jack’s all-American blue jeans. Incorporating this particular element of Americana (i.e., patriotic colors) into such a racist scene implicates American society, through association, with racist ideals, which Kubrick implies is a factor contributing to a deteriorating society. He does so, as Greg Smith mentions in his essay “‘Real Horrorshow’: The Juxtaposition of Subtext, Satire, and Audience Implication in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,” by portraying the two black characters, Hallorann and Hallorann’s service station worker friend, Larry Durkin, as the only positive, adult male characters in the film (301-302). All the white, adult male characters in The Shining are deplorable and lack any redeeming qualities.
Within the aforementioned racial tensions, issues of American classism also become illuminated. When Ullman is telling the story of the removal of the Indians, we are left to realize that the “other” does not matter in this situation if, in their place, is a showy, grand display of American (white) bourgeois opulence — in this case, the grandeur of the Overlook Hotel. Class trumps all, and the Overlook caters to the upper-crust of society, which is seen as more important than the “other.” Also, when Grady is speaking to Jack and calls Hallorann “a nigger,” he further specifies and calls him “a nigger cook.” It is understood that the use of the word “cook” is definitely meant derogatorily. Calling him a cook establishes a social ladder based on American classism. Amongst the traditional, upper-class guests at the Overlook, Hallorann ranks as completely insignificant as a lowly cook.
The film ends displaying American racism and classism through the black and white photograph (seen in the image to the right) of Jack and the other guests during a ball at the Overlook. The racism behind this picture is the fact that no black men or women are pictured; this is strictly a party for the white members of society. The picture then goes further into realms of classism. Not only are blacks excluded, but this party is only for the well-to-do white members of society. We can see that Kubrick is using this photograph to show the deterioration of American society through Americana because he explicitly links the picture to American culture through the date of the party — July 4th, 1921. By so closely linking a date that is arguably the most important in American culture, Kubrick is implicating the audience of being guilty of these things.
It is not only issues of race and class in America that Kubrick challenges in The Shining. One of the most important elements of the film, I would say, is the deterioration of the American family ideal. And just as with racism and classism, Kubrick depicts the breakdown of the nuclear family by using traditional American items and images. Though we do not necessarily know it yet, one of the first instances of the deterioration of the nuclear family in this film occurs when Wendy is talking to Danny in the kitchen about going to the hotel (seen in the above image). Danny (speaking as Tony) says he does not want to go to the hotel. We understand this to mean he knows something bad is going to happen. This forewarning of bad things to come is emphasized by the recurrence of the red, white, and blue color scheme, this time in Wendy and Danny’s clothing. But also, there is a baseball behind Danny’s head, creating a physical manifestation of a classic American pastime, the sport of baseball. It should be noted, then, that it is no coincidence when the nuclear family deterioration has fully occurred when Jack wants to kill Danny and Wendy, Wendy’s weapon of choice is a baseball bat (seen in the image to the right).
Another way the nuclear family is shown as deteriorating is through discussion and images of the quintessentially American television. Everything revolving around TV in The Shining seems to bring out negative aspects of the family. On the way to the hotel, the Torrances are having a conversation in the car. The only time in the film when Jack shows any pride in his son is during this conversation when Danny says he knows what cannibalism is because he learned about it on television. We get the sense that something is not right with this family if the father is only proud of his son for knowing what cannibalism is. In a later scene, Danny is seen watching TV right before he has an odd conversation with his father, in which Danny asks Jack if Jack would ever hurt him or his mother. Later, Danny is watching a Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon, highlighting the similarities in the way Jack is essentially hunting his family.
The depiction of the deterioration of the nuclear family continues right after Danny has been attacked, presumably by the ghostly woman in the bathtub in room 237. Kubrick really plays with elements of Americana in this scene to get across the point (as seen in the image to the right). Danny has just been attacked, his Apollo 11 sweater torn and tattered. The shredded American icon (i.e., the picture of Apollo 11) that Danny is wearing is symbolic of the young boy’s innocence being taken from him due to a situation in which his parents have put him. This takes place immediately proceeding Jack telling Wendy he has just dreamt that he killed his family. The American Flag in the background of all of this is of notable mention.
But perhaps the most conspicuous examples of the deterioration of the nuclear family in The Shining are the actual acts of heinous, violent attacks taken out on family members. It is not only evident in the case of the Torrances, but also in the case of the Gradys. The connections to these specific acts of violence and American culture are twofold: their connection to American culture is through words and through colors. When Jack is coming to attack Wendy and Danny, Smith writes about the language that Jack chooses to use in this moment, connecting it to American television, the epicenter of negativity for this family as I have mentioned earlier. In his essay, Smith says:
‘Wendy, I’m home,’ [Jack] calls amiably upon chopping through the first door, with that one phrase recalling the banal entry cue of countless American white male sitcom fathers from the 1950s, along with associated images of the ridiculous television idealizations of the nuclear families they headed. ‘Heeeeere’s Johnny!’ he announces dementedly when he manages to whack a sizeable hole in the bathroom door, now aligning himself with the comedic king of American late- night television who, it should not go unnoted, is well known for being unable to cultivate a successful marriage. (303)
Taking these clear staples of American culture and setting them against a scene of such gory violence is to definitely make obvious the connection of the deteriorating American family by using American culture to prove that point.
In this violence, we see the return of the red, white, and blue theme. Kubrick using Jack’s Americana-heavy dialogue during the scene of graphic familial violence served a verbal and auditory purpose. The recurrence of the patriotic color scheme in the graphically violent scenes serves a visual purpose. Grady greatly emphasizes to Jack how he “corrected” his family and Jack’s need to “correct” his family, too. At one point in the film, we see the results of Grady’s “correcting” (seen in the image to the left). This is a horribly graphic image in which we see the ultimate breakdown of the nuclear family. Grady has taken an axe to his two young daughters leaving their lifeless bodies in pools of blood. To show this familial deterioration, Kubrick uses the red of the blood, the white of their skin and the woodwork on the walls, and the blue of the girls’ dresses to connect this decay to American culture.
And this color scheme continues when Jack is trying to attack Wendy and Danny in the bathroom with an axe (seen in the above left and right images). The blue of Wendy’s robe, the stark white bathroom walls and tiles, and Jack’s red coat come together to form the same connection as previously mentioned, all while Jack is carrying out a murder attempt on his son and wife. And even more red is introduced when Wendy slashes her husband’s hand and he bleeds from the wound.
Creating a film that also serves as a social commentary on our society is nothing new. But Kubrick does this in a brilliant way by using our own culture to show how racism, classism, and the deterioration of the nuclear family are negatively affecting our society. Smith says:
…it is no surprise that Kubrick, a director who indulges his penchant for using mirrors as cinematic devices in The Shining, ultimately suggests that his film is horrific not because it’s about ghosts, but because it reflects us, its audience, as Americans. (300)
When we watch the horror that is taking place in the film, we are really watching the horror of our deteriorating society. When we watch the racism, classism, and familial breakdown in the film, it is really our own struggles with these issues that we are watching. It is brilliant of Kubrick to use elements of Americana, from American history, to baseball, to the patriotic colors of the country, to construct a narrative of the decline of our society. There is still a ways to go to fully correcting these issues of American society, but by Kubrick directly implicating us in these issues, it causes us to take a deeper look at them, which is the first step in eradicating such negative aspects from our culture.
What do you think? Leave a comment.