Michael Sicinski

University of California, Berkeley


The Shining as Vertical Time Study [excerpt]

The complete text is forthcoming in the 2004 publication The Cambridge Companion to Kubrick. Complete data to come.


Jameson / Deleuze

By way of attempting to tease out some of the complex temporal structures at work within The Shining, I want to begin by considering two illuminating takes on Kubrick, that of Fredric Jameson in his outstanding reading of the film, “Historicism in The Shining,” and some of the discussions on Kubrick’s work in Gilles Deleuze’s book Cinema 2: The Time-Image.  While I will address Jameson’s argument first, and reinflect and elaborate it using some critical categories from Deleuze’s film theory, this should not be taken to mean that I find Jameson’s analysis wanting.  Rather, I am interested in building on it, and taking it in a slightly different direction.  Jameson’s primary interest is in understanding how the various historical times represented in Kubrick’s film relate to a master plot regarding the role of class consciousness in U.S. history.  Jameson moves in this direction based in part on a consideration of the role of genre recoding in late-1960s and 1970s New American filmmaking.  For Deleuze, however, Kubrick’s cinema in general, and The Shining in particular, enact a mode of cinematic thought which operates at a pitch which exceeds its local investment in genre tropes or the collision of distant historical epochs. 

Jameson begins his discussion of The Shining by contextualizing Kubrick’s career within the American scene, such as Altman, de Palma, Polanski, and Penn.  On page 94 of his essay, Jameson offers a succinct breakdown of how these filmmakers adopted pre-existent cinematic genres, in order to comment critically upon the historical status of those genres.  In this regard, Jameson is marking a difference from his earlier argument about pastiche in cinema, in which old film genres are cited, but only “in quotes,” mimicking their gestures, styles, and forms, but with no obvious connection to the culture at large. His example: original film noir might’ve been an expression of cold war anxiety, the alienation of European immigrants exiled in the  United  States after fleeing the Third Reich, or of a growing skepticism about the possibility of safety of the efficacy of police.  Today, however, that style is simply  “film noir,” or “neo-noir,”  just a ready-made, easily understood style which can be cited for the recognition of movie buffs. It expresses only its status as a “genre movie.”  It is possible to perhaps see some of the more obviously tongue-in-cheek efforts by the Coen brothers in this light – Blood Simple as “noir;” The Hudsucker Proxy as “screwball;” O Brother, Where Art Thou? as “Sturges,” etc.

Jameson finds Kubrick interesting, though, in part because he sees Kubrick’s adoption of genre codes as entailing an immanent critique, not only of the codes themselves, but of their contemporary viability.  In this regard, Kubrick’s genre work seems to create instructive dissonances, rather than holding up film-savvy citations and smirking quotation marks.  As Jameson says, The Shining acts like it will be an occult film, but becomes a ghost story. But who are these ghosts?  As we, along with the Torrances, are given our first tour through the Overlook Hotel, we learn that it “was once a stop for the jet set, before there even was a jet set.” We also learn that the hotel was built between 1907 and 1909, and was even allegedly built atop an ancient Indian burial ground (cf. Poltergeist).

What does all this mean? For Jameson, these statements allude to layers of history and privilege, from the expropriated soil of America to the Gilded Age through to the Roaring Twenties, the hotel’s apparent heyday.  These layers of competing time should in turn draw our attention to the question of class consciousness. Jameson argues that the Roaring Twenties were the last age in which U.S. class relations were blatant, outsized, and seemingly intractable. (1992, 95).  Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) encounters class consciousness as suppressed history upon entering the Overlook Hotel.  Jack is coded as a lower-class man from Vermont, who’s hired to “look after” the Overlook. When he encounters the ghost of butler Delbert Grady, the ghost tells Jack that he has “always been the caretaker.” That is, Jack’s fantasy of social mobility through writing is short-circuited by the hardwired class relations of the Overlook. Earlier, in Jack’s interview with hotel manager Ullman, we learn that a man by the name of Charles Grady murdered his family while serving as the hotel caretaker in 1970. This complicates our understanding of just who Grady is, and what historical time he might have occupied. However, the party scenarios which Jack infiltrates in the Golden Ballroom are from the 20's. The music, the decor and the fashions all attest to this, inasmuch as such markers are reliable. So, according to Jameson’s reading, Grady and Torrance are ensnared by the ghosts of the hotel, made to recognize their subordinate status, in a much more conscious way than current social relations allow. The hotel puts them in the 20s to dramatize their lowly rank for them (ibid).

Jameson argues that The Shining is an implicit comment on Kubrick’s previous film, the literary period-piece Barry Lyndon. As Jameson interprets it, the very project of a contemporary “restaging” of an “historical” period (such as Barry Lyndon) can in today’s world only be nostalgia – making an “18th century,” out of antiques and doodads which will merely be symbols of our own stereotype of “the 18th century.” The Shining can be seen as a corrective comment on the stakes involved in revivifying the past.  According to Jameson, Kubrick uses the ghost story to represent the revenge of history, a set of relations between past and present, these relationships being visible only at certain horrifying moments, in the form of the past’s domination of the present. The past compels actions in the present, and they are brutally destructive. For Jameson, The Shining tells us that “history films” are nostalgic possessions, exercises in collapsing past and present, but on the present’s terms. The ghostly possession of The Shining performs the same collapse, but on the past’s forceful terms.

It becomes difficult to sort out the historical specifics of haunting in The Shining.  After all, we never really know what relation, if any, existed between Delbert and Charles Grady, or if in fact they are different people who have been conflated by the hotel’s bent chronology.  It is possible that either Delbert Grady is Charles Grady’s grandfather (but then where is his son?), or they are part of a trans-generational ghost force (then why the shared name?). In either case, such concrete facts as who was the caretaker when, or when such newsworthy events as quadruple-homicide actually occurred, become subject to a complex and multilayered chronology. And this is but one example of the conflicting and interpenetrating time structures at work within the film.  While Jameson’s analysis is absolutely convincing on broad thematic terms, the problem of temporality is slightly more convoluted when considering relations between (and even within) characters, places, and non-corporeal entities.  In order to attempt to establish a framework for discussing these multiple durations, I’d like to turn to the film theory of Gilles Deleuze.

Deleuze’s discussion of elastic temporality and “sheets of time” in Cinema 2: The Time-Image, as well as Deleuze’s specific discussion of Kubrick’s cinema, make it possible to reread The Shining as a study in vertical time.  Rather than seeing the ghost-story genre as enabling an allegory, however complex, of class relations across American epochs, Deleuze describes The Shining as establishing an “identity of brain and world” (205)  In so doing, Kubrick creates a structure wherein past and present are fully coterminous time-images to which the Overlook Hotel-as-mind has equal access.  Following Deleuze, we can see in a form of historical thought at work in The Shining, one which is articulated not only across epochs but across spatial, gender, and racial divides, as well as through Kubrick’s attention to the specific properties of the film medium.  My discussion of Deleuze’s theories will of necessity be brief – they more than constitute an object of study in themselves, and it is an unfortunate fact about this rich theoretical material that virtually any concrete application of it tends to elide its nuances and blunt its overall force.  But I hope to provide a sketch of how Deleuze sees differential temporalities as countervailing forces which drive the modernist film text.

One characteristic of Deleuze’s writing is that he seldom spends too much time analyzing a single film or filmmaker.  In the whole of his second Cinema book, Deleuze allots no more than four pages to Kubrick.  But those pages are key, because Deleuze makes a concrete connection between Kubrick and Alain Resnais, who is the single filmmaker on whom Deleuze expounds at some length.  So, by way of describing Deleuze’s concept of cinematic temporality, I’ll rely somewhat on the Resnais discussions, opening them onto Kubrick when possible. 

In discussing the cinema of Resnais, Deleuze introduces the concept of the “sheet of time.”  In short, films such as Je t’aime je t’aime and Last Year at Marienbad contain multiple, discrete and interacting temporalities, each which unfolds with its own logic.  The sheet, as Deleuze describes it, is like a roll which unfurls, in that the time structure (what we might conventionally think of as a narrative) exists as total potential, a synchronic mass wherein past, present, and future are all equally available, and can potentially all be “present.”

In thinking about The Shining, we encounter questions, such as: Who is Grady?  Why has Jack “always been the caretaker”?  Why does the Overlook’s “curse” or “ghost life” afflict Jack and Danny (Danny Lloyd), but not Wendy (Shelly Duvall)?  And most importantly, how can these elements coexist within the same film, intersect and interact?  For Deleuze, Resnais’s cinema is an example of a multiple-past structure which exceed the simple fact of differing private pasts.  The same sets of events in the past actually, objectively occur in totally different ways for the characters of Resnais, making an objective “past” impossible for the characters and the spectator to determine.  He briefly sketches this development in Resnais’s career.  In the earliest films, Resnais begins with the most radical proposition regarding multiple time structures – that world-historical time functions in this manner, and there are “sheets of time” which ensnare subjects differentially across time and geography.  Deleuze writes

Resnais had begun [in his early films] with a collective memory, that of the Nazi concentration camps, that of Guernica, that of the Bibliothéque Nationale.  But he discovers the paradox of a memory for two people, or a memory for several: the different levels of past no longer relate to a single character, a single family, or a single group, but to quite different characters as to quite unconnected places which make up a world-memory.  He attains a generalized relativity, and takes it its conclusion what was only a direction in Welles: constructing undecidable alternatives between sheets of past (Deleuze 1989, 116-117).


As I hope to explain below, The Shining partakes of these macrolevel time differentials as well.  Those shopworn categories of post-1960s academic analysis, “gender,” “class” and “race,” can actually be thought about in news ways, by considering them as concrete historical temporalities which unfurl into radically different presents, creating collisions at their points of intersection.

But part of the affective force of The Shining comes from witnessing the individuals involved, trapped in different scripts, fundamentally opaque to one another as familial relations shift into an animalistic battle royal.  Not unlike Resnais’s Mon oncle d’Amerique, which creates analogies through cross-cutting between social actors and tormented laboratory mice in a maze, The Shining is a field of forces in which a family – those who should be more capable than any others of possessing a shared “sheet of past,” become supernaturally estranged.  Deleuze again finds in Resnais a contest of claims to the past, but on the private level of two lovers, in Last Year at Marienbad.

Last Year at Marienbad is a more complex figure, because here the memory is for two characters.  But it is a memory which is still shared, since it refers to the same givens, affirmed by one of them and refused or denied by the other.  What happens is that the character X revolves in a circuit of past which includes A as shining point, as ‘aspect’, whilst A is in regions which do not include X or do so only in a nebulous way.  Will A allow herself to be attracted into X’s sheet, or will the latter be shattered and unhinged by A’s resistances which are rolled up in her own sheets? (Deleuze 1989, 117)


Likewise, in The Shining, we discover incommensurable claims about the familial past, and, as with Resnais’s work, we are given no objective criteria to evaluate their truth claims, and we do not know for certain whether a schism split once-coterminous sheets of time apart, or whether they were fundamentally but imperceptibly separate prior to the intervention of the Overlook.  And, as Deleuze makes clear, these incommensurate time structures create fissures in the film which are not mere formalism, but concrete demonstrations of the fractured present.

Did X know A or not?  Did Ridder kill Catrine, or was it an accident, in Je t’aime je t’aime?  Was the letter in Muriel sent and not received, and who wrote it?  These are undecidable alternatives between sheets of past, because their transformations are strictly probabilistic from the point of view of the coexistence of ages.  Everything depends on which sheet you are located on (Deleuze 1989, 120).


What follows below are a set of readings of The Shining from a number of angles of vision, all loosely organized around the question of temporality.  When I call the film a “vertical time study” in my title, I mean to imply that within The Shining there are discrete envelopes of activity, organized by differential access to the ability to narrate events, the relative speed of action, and specific accretions of the past.  The Overlook Hotel both accommodates and orchestrates distinct timeframes, and by structuring my analysis around individual characters, I hope to give a sense of different possible temporal modes which overlap and intersect within the film.  This entails character analysis, but is quite different from it, since each character serves as a formal principle through which the film can organize conflicts in the form of temporal collision.  Also, in several cases (especially Danny and Tony), the clash of incommensurable timeframes is worked out on the level of film form, and as such touches upon the viewing time of the spectator as well.  I discuss her or him when necessary, although not so much as a concrete, embodied audience member, but more as a textual function or potential, an available time structure which is offered for audience acceptance / rejection.  Calling The Shining a ghost story, ultimately, cordons it off within genre boundaries, and assigns those sheets of time which haunt it to the role of momentary anomalies in the field of the present.  Following Deleuze, I hope to explain some of the ways in which Kubrick’s film articulates  “the strict contemporaneity of the present with the past that it will be, of the past with the present that it has been” (274).

Danny / Tony

Shortly after coming to, following a blackout at the bathroom sink, Danny Torrance describes “Tony” to the doctor who has made a housecall to the Torrances’ apartment.  “He’s the little boy who lives in my mouth,” Danny explains, and sometimes Tony “hides” by retreating into Danny’s stomach.  The doctor inquires as to whether Tony “tells [Danny] things,” following up on a likely audience assumption – that Danny is experiencing some form of schizophrenia.  Danny refuses to elaborate further, and, in one of the most implausible moments of medical analysis depicted in the cinema, Danny’s doctor assures Wendy that there’s nothing to worry about, that Danny simply lapsed into a state of “self-induced hypnosis.”

What the physician cannot know, and what Tony cannot or does not communicate to Wendy, is that Tony is not merely a discursive function but also a visual force.  Danny and Tony hold conversations, such as the one at the sink prior to Danny’s blackout.  But the act of narration which sends Danny into a trance state consists of a series of visual inserts which, in filmic terms, represent flash frames intruding onto the space of diegesis.  Like a good director, Tony doesn’t tell, he shows. We see brief, decontextualized snippets of the main elevators of the Overlook Hotel, gushing with tidal waves of blood; we also see the two little girls, presumably the murdered Grady children, standing so close together in their identical dress as to suggest conjoined twins.  These images, lasting between one and two seconds each, are spliced into a close-up of Danny, the horrified spectator of Tony’s “film.”

This dual function of Tony within Danny (one who tells / one who shows) can be understood as representing two distinct but related temporal structures.  First of all, the information we can glean from what Tony says, both to Danny and to Wendy, indicates that Tony shares Danny’s sensorium.  While we never fully understand what Tony’s status as a consciousness would be if he were to retreat into Danny’s stomach, we can tell that during most of Danny’s waking hours, Tony is also present as a dual consciousness.  Thus, Danny’s sensorium is doubled, drawing in information for two separate entities.  (This in itself marks a difference from movie-generated stereotypes of “split personalities,” often shown toggling back and forth but usually not simultaneous.)  However, when Tony is discoursing, Danny remains quiet, and vice versa.  This can be seen as being both practical – Danny has only one set of vocal cords – and indicative of Tony’s status as a separate being, since he and Danny engage in conversational turn-taking typical of civilized spoken discourse.  So, at these moments, Danny and Tony talk to each other and exchange ideas across time. And, within the context of the film, actor Danny Lloyd speaks for either character, Danny or Tony, at different times.  In contrast to this diachronic characterization, the visuals Tony presents to Danny appear like a horrific slide show, jutting into the diegetic flow and effectively halting the narrative.  Within the contexts of the diegesis and of The Shining itself as a film viewer experiences it, Tony’s images leap forward in time.  That is, they provide views which Danny will encounter again once he arrives at the Overlook Hotel, and which the spectator will encounter later in the film as well. But at the same time, these inserts hark back.  The Grady girls are ghosts from some indistinct past, haunting the Overlook Hotel and Danny’s consciousness.  But also, the bleeding elevators represent an image from the probable past of The Shining’s spectators, since this indelible image standing alone served as the theatrical trailer for Kubrick’s film.  So, the visions which Tony transports from the Overlook to the theatre of Danny’s consciousness are part of an intertext, both for Danny (these images may represent events which predate his own birth) and for the spectator (referencing imagery which preceded the film into theatres, presaging what was to come).

The visions which Tony provides for Danny (and of course, Kubrick simultaneously confronts the audience with them as well) are synchronic slices from multiple points in the non-present, brought forcefully into the present.  The visions indicate that Tony is a clairvoyant consciousness, possibly omniscient. As such, Tony has access to visions which occur elsewhere in the film.  These visions make Danny’s present into a compound and multiple timeframe.  Within the context of The Shining’s organization, we are seeing blunt insertions of future images which will occur in more elaborated form further along the filmstrip.  The plasticity of film allows for such physical manipulations as the flashback and the flashforward, and there is nothing so unusual about their appearance in and of themselves. However, their integration into the diegetic framework of the film makes this manipulation of cinematic time a doubled effect, since the plastic rearrangement of the film’s form by Kubrick is also located as the work of an omniscient agent, Tony, who exists inside the diegesis. 

There are numerous precedents for Kubrick’s temporal intervention in the history of modernist cinema, although most restrict the organization of temporal plasticity to the textual level, ascribing this composition fully to the film’s author.  Pertinent examples include Godard’s extradiegetic intertexts, or the radically compressed, almost Webern-like narration strategies of Straub and Huillet’s earliest films.  In these cases, the directors are clearly marked as the enunciators of these temporal shifts, commenting through montage on the proceedings from a position outside.  Closer in kind to Kubrick’s use of vertical time relations are modernist film texts wherein memory, trauma, or subjective dispersal are ascribed to diegetic characters, and the filmmaker uses the plastic potentials of montage to create an analog to these states.  This particular formal feature is best exemplified by the cinema of Alain Resnais – not surprising, given Deleuze’s claims for Resnais -- and a less well-known Greek-American filmmaker, Gregory Markopoulos.  In mid-period Resnais especially (Muriel, Je t’aime je t’aime), the organization of flashback and flashforward is so radical as to confound attempts to locate a secure present at most any point in the film.  On the other hand, Markopoulos’s films, such as Twice a Man, use single frame insertions, sometimes as near-subliminal signposts of his characters’ consciousness of other temporalities; other times the single frames repeat and accelerate, serving as a temporal weave, pivoting between one timeframe and another.

In the cases of both Resnais and Markopoulos, a particular formal effect is presented as a directorial analogue for a state of consciousness which is diegetically attributed to a character in the film.  That is, a subjective state on the part of a character becomes the authorization for formal experimentation, and we as viewers understand that the filmmakers are creating audio-visual analogies for the characters’ perception of time and memory, traumatic time, etc.  While Deleuze is certainly correct to identify affinities between Resnais and Kubrick in terms of organization, that which Kubrick achieves in The Shining is of a slightly different order.  Danny, a spectator internal to the text, experiences flashes of imagery, and like we spectators outside The Shining, Danny experiences these flashes as disturbances in the perceptual field.  More importantly, Kubrick distinguishes these images from those flashes of clairvoyant vision common to the “paranormal” film genre, by locating a separate and specific agent, Tony, who is responsible for their arrangement and presentation.  (This split consciousness distinguishes Danny from Dick Hallorann, who appears to see visions but remain a stable subject nonetheless.) So, unlike the time traveler in Resnais’s Je t’aime je t’aime, for example, for whom film form is an analogy to scrambled consciousness, and unlike the psychic “seer” who appears in many genre films (Hallorann), a figure who remains a singular subject despite having unplanned eruptions of psychic perception, Tony appears in The Shining as a conscious force with the power to manipulate film form.  As Danny explains to Hallorann, “It’s like I go to sleep, and he [Tony] shows me things.” 

One need only compare such a statement with similar statements in the film theory of Christian Metz to begin to detect an analog between Tony’s power and the power of the cinema.  For instance, Metz writes


The dreamer does not know that he is dreaming; the film spectator knows that he is at the cinema: this is the first and principal difference between the situations of film and dream. [. . .] However, the gap between the two states sometimes tends to diminish. At the cinema affective participation, depending on the fiction of the film and the spectator’s personality, can become very lively, and perceptual transference then increases by a degree for brief instants of fleeting intensity.  The subject’s consciousness of the filmic situation as such starts to become a bit murky and to waver, although this slippage, the mere beginning of a slippage, is never carried to its conclusion in ordinary circumstances (Metz 1982, 101).


Of course, Tony quite certainly carries this slippage well past “ordinary circumstances.”  But the important factor here is that unlike other modes of temporal compression in film, wherein a disturbance in film form is either a directorial intervention which approximates a character’s experience, or a representation of a character’s far-seeing vision, The Shining sets up concrete relationships between Danny’s vision and that of the audience.  Whereas Danny and Tony tend to occupy the same timeframe on the level of narration, Tony takes over on the level of visual representation, orchestrating the visual field for Danny while Danny recedes into a trancelike state.  Likewise, we as spectators are subject to Danny’s visions, orchestrated as they are by Kubrick.  A modernist organization of temporality in The Shining, to which we are subject as viewers, is located at the site of a doubled agency.  What Tony is within the text, Kubrick is beyond the text.  Therefore, the vertical temporality represented by Danny’s visions is already doubled, “haunted” by Kubrick’s overall management of the film’s form.  With this doubling, The Shining uses the trope of clairvoyance to vertically articulate the time of the diegetic narrative’s unfolding with the time of viewing. Moreover, since these two times are mapped onto one another, any given vision of Danny’s has the capacity to be temporally coded in more than one direction – the elevator, for example, which represents Danny’s future (the trip to the Overlook), The Shining’s past (a period at the Overlook before Danny was born), and the spectator’s immediate past (the theatrical trailer).  In this way, Kubrick is able to locate his own directorial authority within the text, as a parallel but virtually omnipotent consciousness, who shows the spectator things when he or she is “asleep.”  Whereas filmmakers such as Resnais and Markopoulos use the plasticity of filmic time to promote intellectual engagement, if not distanciation, with respect to their modernist organizational patterns, Kubrick’s doubled status seems to encourage the horror of helplessness on the part of the spectator.  Images from multiple timeframes will assault our sensorium, and an outside force, who has already seen both the beginning and the ending, is in complete control of what we see.  This is nothing unusual – in fact, this is one of the primary appeals of moviegoing.  What is unusual in The Shining is the rather explicit textual alignment of directorial control with supernatural force.  In this case, modernist manipulation of filmic time is a cause for severe spectatorial disturbance, not intellectual contemplation.