[27 January 2014]
Stanley Kubrick was infatuated with the idea that images could unearth secrets hidden in the unconscious. He was obsessed with the possibility that image and sound could reach us on a level beneath language and causation. Kubrick sternly carried out these ambitions, often aiming to produce a preternatural perfection that gave his films primordial authenticity, like the mind revisiting long-lost myths. But was he ever truly able to penetrate the unconscious? And if so, could the experience of watching his films haul up truths that would otherwise never have been charmed out of the depths of our minds, into the light of day?
In the vast majority of his films, Kubrick employs a filming technique known as one-point perspective. One-point perspective exists when the lines on the picture plane (that is, the camera shot) are parallel with the viewer’s line of sight and converge on a vanishing point in the center of the shot. Shots of railroad tracks, roads that stretch into the horizon, and tunnels are lucid examples of one-point perspective.
Kubrick used this technique fanatically, and it’s one of the secrets to the strange, existential evocations his work produces. In the famous scene in Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining, where Danny Torrance rides his tricycle through the hotel, the viewer’s line of sight is inexorably drawn to the center of the shot; the invisible lines running parallel to the carpet, walls, and ceiling all converge on this center point.
As Danny rides through each hallway, Kubrick uses his Steadicam for extended, uninterrupted takes that aren’t nearly as long as they seem. They simply create the illusion of length because of the one-point perspective that forces the viewer to focus almost exclusively on the vanishing point. We are not used to staring at a single point on the screen when we watch movies. Whether we know it or not, our eyes are more familiar with zero-, two-, or three-point perspective. This unfamiliar, perhaps uncanny vantage has a visually disturbing potency, and it might be the key to Kubrick’s stated desire to reach our dream state.
The Shining is a masterpiece of one-point perspective. In the opening credits the camera whooshes over a lake and then drifts deliberately through the Rocky Mountains, keeping one eye on Jack Torrance as he drives through a forbidding road coiled around the great peaks. From the beginning, all is menace. When Jack arrives at the Overlook Hotel for his interview to become winter caretaker, it’s still bustling with activity and the casual reassurance of human life. The Overlook doesn’t have the sinister aura yet; it seems to still be slumbering, ever so patiently biding its time before the winter months roll in. In other words, it doesn’t yet have the shining.
Kubrick knows form must follow function: there are medium shots of patrons carrying their luggage in the lobby and checking out of their rooms. The twin red elevators are nary given so much as a lingering look.
The camera is not yet transfixed, not yet in frightening lockstep with the hotel and its otherworldly perfections. When the cooks, clerks, and bellhops have all exited, though, a different camera, and by consequence a new reality, surfaces. Once the Torrances have the Overlook to themselves, one of the first scenes is of Danny riding his tricycle through the hotel. The flexibility of the Steadicam allows Kubrick to execute a tracking shot of Danny, with the camera trailing his red sweater by no more than a few feet. This scene is so indelible because it is the first major instance of one-point perspective used in the film. Our eyes move through the image as the walls grow ever narrower, converging on a single point at the end of each corridor.
In this scene, and a short time later in Danny’s horrifying encounter with the twins we see the hotel in a more intimate, corporeal way. The line between third-person and first-person perspective gradually dissolves, and it is us walking through the hallways. At the least, the hallways come at us exactly as they would if we were to walk through them. This is how Kubrick establishes an intimacy with the hotel—its layout, its design, the insistence of its reality. And speaking of those twins. They are not just there to play with Danny. The twins also reflect the haunting symmetry that’s grafted into the anatomy of the Overlook.
Still, even the Grady sisters cannot compete with the symmetrical perfection of the bloody red elevators. They appear to Danny during one of his extra-sensory perception visions, rapidly followed by a flash of the murdered girls. At first it’s unclear if this psychic apparition is a vision of a specific future event or simply an imaginative rendering of the carnage and butchery to come. As we discover, it’s the former. When all hell breaks loose in the Overlook, and the hotel’s ghastly memories and supernatural forces are churned to an overflow, Wendy stumbles upon the elevators as a cataract of thick blood spills forth.
The bloody elevators, evidence of Freud’s notion of the uncanny.
The image of the red elevators appears twice in the film, in both cases serving as part portent, part symbol for the horrors that follow. But they are even more than that. The red elevators also serve as an irruption to the narrative; they are not part of the plot, nor are their supernatural aspects ever explained. Frustrating? Perhaps at first glance. But more crucially, the short, almost subliminal elevator scenes are the tissue connecting the rest of The Shining’s narrative to the realm of the unconscious. They are the iron chains that impossibly, magnificently, drag the film down into the psychic underworld a part of us all inhabits.
After a few viewings of The Shining, it becomes clear that this is a film with an atypical dedication to architecture and design. From the beguiling one-point perspective shots of the hallways to the towering ceilings and twin staircases in Jack’s study to the hedge maze, the movie is always semi-secretly attending to Kubrick’s preoccupation with man-made forms. In fact, the symmetry and vanishing points give these structures not only an unusual charisma but an eerie perfection, one that threatens to invert the hierarchy between man and his architectural creations.
This subtle triumph of man-made structures is best exemplified in the scene where Jack looks down into the scale model of the maze. We see miniature versions of Wendy and Danny running through the model, followed by a shot of them outside running through the full-size maze. This shooting trick is made gripping and plausible because of the simultaneity: at the same time that Jack is looking into the scale maze, his wife and son are running through the real one. But this sequence is more than sleight-of-hand; it shows how the Overlook has all the power in the relationship between this family its surroundings. Wendy and Danny have not desultorily entered the maze; the maze has beckoned and devoured them.
The hedge maze is a fine example of form conceived by man; it expresses the possibilities and complexities of design for their own sake. But the allure of such complexity can come at a price. Who can forget how the brilliant craftsman Daedalus designed the tortuous labyrinth for King Minos, only to become imprisoned in his own creation? That story seems to resonate not only in the hedge maze but throughout the Overlook: the dominion of perfect form over imperfect man. Granted, the Greek myth has a terrifying irony at its heart—Daedalus unwittingly constructs his own nightmarish fortress, from which he cannot escape—that is not as vivid or discernible in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel.
But the Overlook does prey on similarly deep-seated fears. Kubrick’s camera technique privileges the edifices in and around the Overlook over their denizens, giving the hotel unusual power and the suggestion of sentience. This awakes some ancient, uncanny fear, conjuring a petrifying dream reality that the viewer has permanently forgotten in their waking state. It is only when they sit through the film that these memories, for lack of a better word, are awakened.
It is no great secret that Kubrick was influenced by Sigmund Freud. The director mentions him in interviews, and speaks fluently about dream content and the unconscious. It is Freud’s concept of the uncanny, though, that resonates most deeply in The Shining. In his landmark 1919 essay on the topic, Freud draws from German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch, stating that “a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny sensations is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one.”
This is the most easily ascertained facet of the uncanny: the fear that an inanimate object is animate. This basic characteristic of the uncanny pervades Kubrick’s film, as the Overlook’s head chef, Dick Halloran, attributes clairvoyance, or “the shining”, to the hotel early on. Later, the constant use of one-point perspective gives the hotel an eerie animate sentience. Through the hallways and the labyrinth, the uncanny reigns, as we dangle helplessly in uncertainty as to the aliveness of the thing these family members are moving through like maze-rats.
But that isn’t the most compelling instance of the uncanny in Kubrick’s film. Freud later mentions “a recurrence of the same situations, things, and events” that can, “subject to certain conditions and combined with certain circumstances, awaken an uncanny feeling, which recalls that sense of helplessness sometimes experienced in dreams.” The uncanny has a powerful connection to dreams and the dream state, and The Shining understands this. But instead of showing recurrence and helplessness in dreams themselves, the film uses Danny’s shining as a source of the uncanny. While brushing his teeth, Danny has a vision of the blood-soaked elevators, followed by the ghostly twins.
When these images return later in the film, they possess the power of the uncanny because we have seen them before, only in a different context. Because they were first incarnated as ethereal visions, they retain the substance of dreams in their second appearance. The red elevators are especially powerful examples of this. Because they are never explained or incorporated into the narrative, they must always be associated with the logic of dreams and visions rather than causal reality. When Wendy sees them in all their river-of-blood glory in the final act, they produce a sense of helplessness in both viewer and character, as an ineffable symbol previously only found in dreams has emerged in reality. It remains completely unexplained as an object in the real world, and instead functions as a dream recurring, or being revisited, in waking reality. For virtually everyone involved—Wendy, Danny, and the viewer—the elevators are a bad dream come to life.
If we try and organize all the instances of the uncanny in The Shining into a coherent whole, it might go something like this: Kubrick’s one-point perspective and the exquisite symmetrical design give the Overlook a hypnotic allure that suggests a certain sinister sentience; this whispers to us that perhaps the inanimate is animate; and Danny’s visions give the sense that these experiences have happened before, only in dreams.
One final instance of the uncanny, however, remains unexplained. In the final shot of the film, we see a photo of Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel’s July 4th ball, dated 1921. That is, Jack appears in a photograph serving as caretaker for the hotel about 60 years before the events of the film. This produces the most uncanny feeling of all. Why? As Freud mentions, the uncanny can arise when we feel like we are revisiting situations and circumstances from a distant, unremembered past. Sort of like déjà vu. And as we’ve discussed, we feel the uncanny when dream content ruptures and invades our waking state.
So the uncanny surfaces when we experience the memories and sensations of a self normally estranged from our daily reality. This could be our dream selves, our infant selves, or, more disturbingly, selves from another time and place. When we see the picture of Jack as the Overlook’s caretaker in 1921, we get an uncanny sensation because a self from a distant time and place has resurfaced in present day reality. The July 4th ball photo does not jar or frustrate us, but pulls us in as some unconscious part of us registers it: Yes, this was Jack Torrance once, in another life.
Like the memories and residue of dreams and infantile fears reappearing in our adult consciousness, it feels strangely familiar, but off. As if our unconscious recognizes Jack the caretaker, but our conscious mind is puzzled by the illogic of it appearing here and now. The scariest fact of all, then, is that it is not Jack Torrance or any other fictional character that senses the uncanny (and therefore acknowledges the shuddering possibility of previous lives) upon looking at that photograph. It’s us.
A photo from a past life bringing the uncanny into focus.