The Shining, Apocalypse Now, and the uses of allegory
On Saturday, in what seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate the completion of Part I of my new novel, my wife and I caught a midnight showing of The Shining at the Music Box in Chicago. Watching The Shining again was a reminder of how central this extraordinary film is to my experience of the movies: while 2001 may be Kubrick’s most ambitious film, and Eyes Wide Shut his most narratively intricate (as well as underrated), The Shining strikes me as his most purely satisfying work, and as such, it has always occupied a peculiar place in my imagination. The Overlook Hotel, as conceived by Stephen King and brought to life by Kubrick, is one of the greatest locations in all of cinema, and it’s the perfect stage for a series of unparalleled set pieces that are frightening, beautiful, and often very funny.
After the movie was over, I showed off a bit to my wife by pointing out the symbols that Kubrick uses to imply that the story of the Overlook is, in fact, an allegory for the history of America: it was built on an Indian burial ground, occupied by the British (as symbolized by the incongruously English ghost of Grady, the hotel’s previous caretaker), and inherited by American pioneers (hence Jack’s lumberman’s jacket and axe). And this network of symbols informs many aspects of the film, both large, like the uncomfortable fate of Scatman Crothers’s black psychic, who makes the long trip back to the Overlook only to be slaughtered on arrival, and small, like the designs on Danny Torrance’s sweaters, with their handmade versions of Mickey Mouse and the Apollo 11 spacecraft. It all ends with a closeup of a single date: July 4, 1921. And I believe that Kubrick’s use of such images is very intentional.
But then my wife asked a question that brought me up short: “So what is it trying to say?” Which caught me at a bit of a loss. My first response was that trying to sum up The Shining into a single message was doing the movie a disservice. After all, if Kubrick had meant it to be an allegory, clearly the movie itself was the simplest possible expression of the message he had in mind. But the more I thought about it, the less certain I became that there even was a message, which raises the question of what the allegorical elements were doing there at all. The question seemed all the more urgent because I’d had a similar experience, earlier that week, while watching Apocalypse Now Redux on Blu-ray. Coppola’s flawed masterpiece openly evokes not only Heart of Darkness but also the Odyssey—the river patrol boat encounters the Cyclops, the Sirens, Hades, and (in the extended version) the Lotus-Eaters. Which is great for critics playing a game of spot-the-reference. But what does it really mean for the viewer?
My more considered response, which I’m still working through in my own head, is simply this: it doesn’t necessarily need to mean anything. The role of allegory, at least in terms of my own reactions, isn’t so much to convey a message as to set up a chain of associations in the viewer’s mind. The Shining and Apocalypse Now are echo chambers in which images and symbols can jangle against one another, evoking other myths and works of art, and setting off unexpected vibrations within the story. The best allegories should be all but invisible, at least at first viewing, and even afterward, they continue to resist verbalization, because any allegory sounds weak and reductive when boiled down to a sentence or two. If we say that The Shining is about the violence inherent in the American experience, we risk two responses: first, a sense that this message isn’t exactly original, and second, a stubborn insistence that the movie isn’t about this, but rather a series of images and moments that can take up their own life in the experience of the viewer.
Which brings us to perhaps the most useful aspect of allegory: it helps the author find his way. I’ve written before about how structural constraints allow a writer to make unexpected discoveries about his own story, and though I was referring mostly to genre and plot, it also applies to allegory—which is only another way of bringing the reader from point A to B. And it seems clear that Coppola and Kubrick came up with artistic discoveries, using their allegorical elements as a guide, that they wouldn’t have made otherwise. Coppola admits that he didn’t have an ending to Apocalypse Now until almost the day they shot it, when he saw that a mythic journey had to have an equally mythic ending—that is, the sacrifice of the divine king. And The Shining is full of design choices that owe their existence to an almost subterranean allegory, invisible at first, but imperceptibly enriching the viewer’s experience. Is there a deeper meaning? Sure. But not one that can easily be put into words—at least not when it’s all there in Nicholson’s eyes.