The illuminated

Image: Marco Buti


Commentary on Stanley Kubrick's film

Today's most interesting filmmakers – Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Nicholas Roeg, Stanley Kubrick – all practice, each in their own way, the gender, but in a historically new sense. They swap genres, just as classical modernists swapped styles. It is not, as in classical modernism, a matter of personal taste, but rather a result of objective limitations within the scope of recent cultural production.

TW Adorno's explanation of the future of "style" in contemporary literature and music proposes the concept of pastiche to describe the use Stravinsky, Joyce or Thomas Mann made of outdated styles and artistic languages ​​of the past as vehicles for new productions. For Adorno, it is necessary to radically differentiate pastiche from parody, as the latter intends to ridicule and depreciate styles that are still in force and influential. Although pastiche implies the existence of that same distance that is maintained in relation to the instrument or the finished artistic technique, it intends more precisely, like the imitation of ancient masters or even in the case of falsification, to reveal the virtuosity of the apprentice rather than the absurdity of the object. (In this sense, it can be said that the work of Picasso's mature phase consists of many masterful forgeries of "Picasso" himself.)

In the case of pastiche, two are the fundamental determinations of the situation in which it seems to have arisen: the first is subjectivism, the overemphasis and overvaluation of the uniqueness and individuality of the style itself – the particular mode of expression, the “world” unique to a given artist, the almost unique sensory nerve center of this or that new name claiming artistic attention. But as individualism begins to atrophy in a post-industrial world, as the mere difference of idiosyncratic individualities progressively transforms under its own momentum into repetition and sameness, as the logical permutations of stylistic innovation play out, the search for a uniquely distinctive style and the category of “style” itself take on an outdated appearance.

Meanwhile, for both producer and consumer, the price to be paid for a radically new aesthetic system in a world where innovation and style change have become the law (Adorno's example is Schoenberg's twelve-tone apparatus) becomes progressively onerous. The result, in the sphere of high culture, was the moment of pastiche, in which vigorous artists, now lacking form and content, cannibalize the museum and wear the masks of extinct mannerisms.

The moment of genre pastiche in cinema, however, differs from that in many respects: firstly, it is not about high culture here, but rather about mass culture, which has another dynamic and is much more immediately subject to the imperatives of Marketplace. There, too, Adorno was referring to the decline of a classic moment of modernism itself, while the cinematographic advances considered here, since they take place in late capitalism or in the current consumer society, must be understood in terms of a very different cultural situation. , namely, in terms of what could be called postmodernism.

Attempts by the first great filmmakers to open a loophole for characteristic individual production – categories of masterpiece, individual style, unified control by a single outstanding personality – are quickly blocked by the commercial system itself, which reduces them to countless numbers. tragic ruins and truncated legends (Stroheim, Eisenstein), redirecting these creative energies into mediocre Hollywood productions.

Such productions are, of course, genre films; however, what is important for us is that, with the advent of the media society and television (to which cinematic innovations are as characteristic as the arrival of the wide screen), even the possibility of the traditional genre film itself disappears. This end of the golden age of genre film (musicals, westerns, film noir, the classic Hollywood farce or comedy) then predictably coincides with its codification and systematization in the so-called theory of author, in which the various productions of medium standard or category B are now valued as fragments and windows that open onto a generic world, at the same time characteristic and illuminating.

No one whose life and imagination has been shaped and ignited by the remarkable images of film noir or infected by the unforgettable gestures of western you may for a moment doubt that this is true; however, the moment when the deepest aesthetic vitality of the gender becomes perceptible and aware of itself can also coincide with the moment when the gender in that old sense it is no longer possible.

The end of the genre, therefore, opens a space in which, alongside both avant-garde filmmakers, who develop their work independently of the market, and those few "stylists" of the older type who survived (Bergman, Kurosawa), great successes of box office now become closely linked to the best sellers and developments in other branches of the cultural industry. Younger filmmakers therefore can no longer follow the path of a Hitchcock, of the craftsman of thrillers from category B to “greatest director in the world”, nor even to copy the masterful way in which Hitchcock expands the previous generic structure, in a film like A Falling Body (Vertigo, 1958), in order to come close to a masterpiece “that expresses” an art of another kind.

Metageneric production becomes, consciously or not, the solution to this dilemma: war films (Mash, 1970, by Altman; Glory Made of Blood [Paths of Glory, 1957], by Kubrick), the macabre films (Rosemary's Baby [Rosemary's Baby, 1968], by Polanski; The illuminated [The Shining, 1980], by Kubrick; Winter of Blood in Venice [Don't Look Now, 1973], by Roeg; The Dance of the Vampires [The Fearless Vampire Killers, 1967], by Polanski), the thrillers (Chinatown, 1974, by Polanski; The big blow [The Killing, 1956], by Kubrick; Performance, 1970, by Roeg), the westerns (Gambling and Cheating – When Men Are Men [McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971] and Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 1976; duel of giants [The Missouri Breaks, 1976], by Penn), and science fiction (2001 – A Space Odyssey [2001, 1968] and Dr. Fantastic [Dr. Strangelove, 1964], by Kubrick; The Man Who Fell to Earth [The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976], by Roeg; Quintet [Quintet, 1979], by Altman), the musicals (nshill, 1975, by Altman), the “theater of the absurd” (Trap of Destiny [Dead-end, 1966], by Polanski), spy films (Bad timing, 1980, by Roeg) – all these films use a predetermined structure of inherited genres as a pretext for a production that is no longer personal or stylistic in the earlier sense of modernism.

This is generally described in terms of reflexivity, self-referentiality and the focus of artistic production on its own processes and techniques. In this case, however, we could indicate a very different kind of reflexivity for this new moment – ​​sometimes called “intertextuality” (although I believe that such a designation is more a problem than a solution) – which has very different equivalents in post-modern literary production. -modernist (Pynchon, Sollers, Ashbery), both in conceptual art and in photorealism, and in that great renewal of rock in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most often cloaked in the rock term “new wave” and saturated with references to forms of rock older ones, while also being electrifying, despite any recent sterile production of Show or allusions of groups.

It is also possible to approach the moment of the metageneric film through a degraded version that is contemporary with it but that can be understood as its opposite, the expression of the same historical impulse in a non-reflexive way. Here is the full breadth of the contemporary “nostalgia culture”, called by the French the retro mode – partiche which, in a categorization mistake, in which content and form are confused, proposes to reinvent the style not of an art language, but of an entire period (the thirties in The Conformist [The Conformist, 1970], by Bertolucci, the 50s in American Graffiti, 1973, by Lucas; turn of the century America in a novel like Doctorow's Ragtime, 1975). Like the practice of pastiche that Adorno stigmatized in Stravinsky's work, such celebrations of the imaginary style of a real past constitute the innumerable symptoms of the resistance of contemporary raw material to artistic production. This resistance is usually reinforced by the ideological blinders that cover the eyes of contemporary producers, but it is suggestively broken when these artists are willing to include a future in their present and register the nascent impetus of science fiction or utopia within the logic of their own forms. .

The inauthentic, as far as cinema and nostalgia texts are concerned – though it would be interesting to see what Altman could have done with Ragtime – can best be dramatized in another way, what I will call the cult of the luxury image, the way in which an entirely new technology (wide-angle lenses, light-sensitive film) has extended its generous indulgence to contemporary cinema. It would be ungrateful to crave from time to time something uglier and less competent or skilful, more clumsy and simple, like homemade production, than those astonishing shots of interwoven ornaments illuminated by sunlight or of vases with flowers of intense delicacy in hue. What do we see in her that would have made the Impressionists close their paint cases in frustration? I hope it is not moralistic to admit that from time to time this absolute beauty can seem obscene, the ultimate form of systematized commodity consumption – the transformation of our senses into a firm that trades the spirit by mail order, the ultimate wrapping of Nature in cellophane, the kind any smart store would want to display in its window.

The objection is, in reality, historical, for there have certainly been historical moments and situations in which the conquest of beauty was an act of political appropriation: the hallucinatory intensity of smudged color amidst the gray numbness of routine, the bittersweet taste of the erotic in a world of exhausted and brutalized bodies. The 'sublime' of the 60s, the countercultural rediscovery of ecstasy, was not necessarily something anti-political either, since such intensities, like a stab beyond pain and pleasure, were essentially aimed at against the image. It is the triumph of the image in nostalgia films that ratifies the triumph of all the values ​​of contemporary consumer society, that is, of consumption in the era of late capitalism.

Reflect, on the other hand, on the "beautiful" in Kubrick's work: we still obsessively remember the sound of Blue danube to pack the aircraft that turns slowly towards the Light in 2001, as well as Musak in a high-class elevator, comforting and reassuring not only the bureaucratic official passengers who were there, but also ourselves, spectators of this technocratic future of our own present above all national conflict. The trivialization of the waltz by high culture thus expresses both the cheapening of this harmonious global world governed by the United Nations and the boredom of its inhabitants' superficiality: it is a didactic example of that signifying mechanism that Barthes das mythologies called “connotation,” according to which the language and formal categories of the medium of artistic expression constitute its deepest message, and the very quality of the image itself emits a meaning that secretly surpasses the immediate or apparent tenor of its content.

Nor would the connotative operation always be inauthentic, as it is in advertising, according to Barthes, or in the ideologeme of Beauty, to which we referred above: in Saint Genet, for example, Sartre has shown that Genet's use of imitation, his deliberately flashy stylistic projection of the thanks to , from the extravagantly verbose, his intentional inclusion of “bad taste” in the connotatives of his flowery sentences was a protopolitical act, that is, the inversion of resentment into an act of revenge against his respectable readers (the style junk of Dreiser, who expresses, by his own falsity, the truth of the commodification that arises in his time, can be taken as a similar case).

Indeed, the authenticity of Kubrick's use of this connotation of high culture can be used as a yardstick against him when, in an ideological (and reactionary, anti-political) film like Clockwork Orange (A Clockwork Orange, 1971), the connotation is attenuated in explicit denotation, and the same elevated cultural materials are instrumentally used there to consider from a didactic perspective the boredom and intolerance of a conquered utopia, to which only violence can bring relief. Such a statement about the future must be clearly distinguished from the parallel connotation of the image in 2001, in which sci-fi content is a vehicle for a message about our own technological present and about Kubrick's supreme technological skill - as sterile and lobotomized as a trip to the moon.

Beauty and boredom: this, then, is the immediate sensation of the monotonous and unbearable sequence that opens The illuminated and the beautiful aerial shot of the trail through the sublime and stunning natural landscape of a postcard of an “intact” America, as well as the magnificent hotel, whose traditional splendor from the turn of the century is undermined by the most vulgar conception of “luxury” nurtured by society of consumption, and in particular the modern space of the manager's office and the inevitable pseudo-coffee served by his secretary.

In Hitchcock, such minor figures were still conceived as idiosyncratic, as interesting/amusing (and this not just because he viewed them from his British point of view: the characteristic British humor of early films is structurally reinvented as a new pattern of authentically American attitudes). in the Hollywood period): we thus have in A Falling Body the innkeeper in San Francisco who suddenly jumps up from behind her apparently empty desk with the excuse that she was “oiling the leaves of her rubber plant”; or the sheriff of the small town in Psycho (Psychosis), who sardonically syllables through his cigar smoke the name of the missing big-city detective (“Arbo-gast”); or, at the end of the same film, the penal psychiatrist whose raised index finger smugly corrects the naive first impressions of his legalistic parochial audience (“In drag? Not quite!”).

Nothing similar in Kubrick: these superficial people, whether on their way to the moon or nearing the end of another season at the wonderful hotel in the middle of nowhere, are flat and uninteresting, their rhythmic smiles as constant as the frequent intake of breath from each other. a radio announcer. If Kubrick amuses himself by organizing a counterpoint between this obligatory, deadpan facial benevolence and the horrendous story, which the manager is finally forced to reveal; it is a matter of very personal entertainment that, ultimately, does not benefit anyone. Meanwhile, Brahms' big chords stir the fresh air in the exterior images of The illuminated and reinforce the already familiar feeling of cultural suffocation.

It is possible, of course, that these arid and trivial distensions are basic characteristics of the genre of the horror film itself, which (like pornography) ends up being reduced to the sterile alternation of shock and its absence. Such awkward placement is due to the fact that the alternating moment – ​​the mere absence of shock – is now stripped of even that content and meaning inherent in what used to be described as boredom. Consider, for example, the first waves of horror and science fiction films of the 50s, whose "peacetime" or "civilian" context - usually small-town America in a remote Western landscape - signified a parochialism that no longer exists. in today's consumer society.

That Georgetown of The Exorcist (The Exorcist, 1973) of Friedkin is no longer uninteresting in that socially charged sense, but simply trivial; the vacuum of his daily life becomes the deadpan background silence from which the sinister flapping of wings in the attic will be perceived. And, of course, this very triviality of daily life in late capitalism is itself the hopeless situation against which all the formal solutions, strategies and subterfuges of both high culture and mass culture arise. After all, how can you project the illusion that things still happen, that events exist, that there are still stories to tell, in a situation where the specificity and irrevocability of individual destinies and individuality itself seem to have evaporated? This impossibility of realism—and, more generally, the impossibility of a living culture that speaks to a unified audience about common experiences—determines the metageneric solutions with which we begin. It also justifies the emergence of what might be called false or imitative narrative, the illusory transformation into an apparently linear and unified narrative surface of what is in reality a collage of heterogeneous materials and fragments, of which the most surprising are kinetic segments. or physiological ones inserted in texts of a very different character.

Thus, in the most problematic moments of formal dispersion of the beautiful poem Paterson, by William Carlos Williams, about the impossibility of an American literature or culture, blocks of unreduced physical sensations – most explicitly the waterfall itself – are inserted, as if the body and his inexpressive but existing sensations constituted the most elementary court of appeal. Also, in Kubrick, the hotel's off-season lifelessness is characteristically punctuated by that man's favorite sensory perceptions. author [1], in such a way that the tireless pedaling of the child on his velocipede through the empty corridors is transformed into a real Grand Prix, a relentless space probe that moves inside a tunnel, like a star vehicle under a meteor shower.

Such embellishments of the narrative line – micropractices of the “sublime” in the eighteenth-century sense, but also closely related, as formal symptoms, to the grandiose sequences in Hitchcock (the parallel oscillation of the two parakeets in The birds [The Birds, 1963], which indicate the bends and turns of the highway like a miniature display) – mark the separation of Fantasy and Imagination in contemporary cultural production and remain like many other diverse signs of the heterogeneity of contents into which modern life has fragmented.

As for the child itself, its “story” is not merely a pretext for such purer perceptual and cinematographic exercises, but, more generally, for a game with generic signs, which brings us to the heart of this peculiar form. The initial signs have undoubtedly already been instituted by advertising and marketing of the film (and the reputation of the bestseller from which it was adapted): they will be reinforced by the initial sequences, which confirm them and lead us to believe that the boy will be the center of the narrative (after all, his telepathic powers give the film its name). We rush to heed orders and passively/obediently clothe these first alarming sights with the proper foreboding: the child's powers (and apparent possession of him by a alter ego supernatural) portend a very uncomfortable winter in the months to come.

Anyway, we've had enough experience with horrible kids (The Bad Seed, 1956, by Leroy, Village of the Damned, 1960, by Rilla) to be able to identify naked evil when someone reveals it to us. Alongside all this, the fatal weakness of Jack Nicholson's character is unsuspectingly diagnosed as something more normal and comforting, alcoholism (including any other moral instability you want). Such pretexts continue at least until the point where the old cook (Scatman Crothers) recognizes the boy and explains his powers to him; there is, however, no time for the subject of telepathy to develop into any of its traditional meanings.

Telepathy has been the subject of sinister depictions: notably in the novel Dying Inside, by Silverberg, 1972, who considers this motive so serious as to ask – in the midst of a depressingly contemporary Manhattan – what problems a “gift” like this could cause for its unfortunate possessor. However, generally speaking, telepathy in recent science fiction has made possible the anticipatory depiction of the utopian community of the future and an unimaginable evolutionary mutation in collective relations (as in the classic novel More than Human, 1953, by Theodore Sturgeon). At best, The illuminated very tenuously recapitulates this utopian resonance in the protective friendship between the frightened child and the old black chef (and through the latter in the momentary juxtaposition of the black ghetto community with the atomized white society of the luxury hotel or the trivial unit of the bourgeois family).

But the main point about telepathy in The illuminated is that this is a misleading thread; and that it is, therefore, compatible with the game of generic signs mentioned earlier, that this deliberate confusion entails the misinterpretation of the film's genre during its first half hour. The model for this type of generic replacement is certainly Psychosis by Hitchcock (whose staircase sequence is cited at least twice in The illuminated), in which a common narrative of embezzlement is developed with the sole intention of being abruptly extinguished, alongside the heroine herself, by a very different crime narrative. (In Psychosis, however, the relationship between the two genres, between the socially acceptable determined public crime, or "rational" money motive, and the private or psychotic drive, is still possibly a significant juxtaposition, a message in itself, and one that had been more overtly dramatized in M, The Vampire of Dusseldorf [M], by Fritz Lang, from 1931.).

Here, the gender change has a less coherent appearance and seems to occur within the motif of possession; however, it turns out we were looking for the message in the wrong place: instead of the little boy, "possessed" in some sinister way by his spectral playmate, it is the alcoholic father and his weakness that open a void into which everyone pours. the initially undetermined types of malefic impulses. However, this too is itself another kind of generic misinterpretation, one that seizes on some of the signs and conventions of the new genre of supernatural film to project a foretaste of some truly diabolical possession to come.

The illuminated it is not, however, a supernatural film in this sense: I will demonstrate that it marks the return and reinvention of a much older subgenre, with its specific laws and content, namely, the ghost story subgenre, which for historical reasons has been practiced less and less. Yet even the initial generic uncertainty is part of the reflexivity of the metageneric enterprise: Kubrick's freedom to reinvent the various generic conventions is in direct proportion to his distance from them all and his own historical obsolescence in the new world of television, the screen. wide range and the big blockbusters. It's as if, in order to regain some of his old powers, classic genres like this need to take us by surprise and exercise their conventions retroactively. Even a relatively straightforward pastiche of an older subgenre like the Chinatown it secures its effects ambiguously behind the protective veneer of nostalgia cinema.

The ghost story's characteristic contingent and constitutive dependence on physical place and, in particular, on a specific house is what makes it anachronistic. Undoubtedly, in some pre-capitalist forms, the past clings stubbornly to outdoor spaces like a gallows on a hill or a sacred burial ground; but, in the golden age of this genre, the ghost is in harmony with a construction of some antiquity, of which it is the nightmare, alluding to the incomprehensible succession of generations of residents in a kind of return of the repressed consciousness of the middle class.

Thus, it is not death as such, but the sequence of these “mortal generations” that constitutes the scandal reawakened by the ghost story for a bourgeois culture that triumphantly suppressed ancestor worship and the objective memory of the clan or aggregated family, condemning thus its life cycle to that of the biological individual. There would be no other building more appropriate to express this than the grand hotel itself, with its successive seasons, whose different rhythms mark the transformation of the leisure of the American leisure classes in the second half of the XNUMXth century into the holidays of today's consumer society. The Jack Nicholson of The illuminated it is not possessed by evil per se or by the “demon” or some similar occult force, but simply by History, by the American past that has left its sedimented traces in the corridors and in the dismembered suites of this asphyxiating monumental building, which projects its afterlife in a peculiar way. formal, empty image in the outer labyrinth (suggestively, the labyrinth is added by Kubrick himself).

At this level, however, the genre still does not convey a coherent ideological message, as Stephen King's mediocre original attests: Kubrick's adaptation actually turns this vague, global domination of all the haphazard voices of American history into a specific historical commentary. and articulate, as we will see shortly.

However, even this diffuse sense of the presence and menace of History and the past as such is enough to reveal the generic kinship between the ghost story and that older genre with and against which it so often constitutively defines itself, namely , the historical novel. What is this, really, if not an attempt to resurrect the dead, to stage a hallucinatory phantasmagoria, in which the ghosts of a defeated past meet again at a costume party, surprised by the moral gaze of the contemporary spectator voyeur? A novel like Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, by HP Lovecraft, can then be read as building a shocking link between the two genres, supplying a disturbing and reflective commentary on the intentions and secret goals of the narrative historian or historical novelist.

Thus Lovecraft - as possessed as any historicist by the local and cosmic past of the Providence where he was raised [2] – decides to present a literal dramatization of Michelet's classic vision of the historian as the guardian and reviver of the generations of the dead: and the most gruesome moments of his fable, in which figures of "World history", such as Benjamin Franklin, are plucked naked from their tombs and interrogated by their torturers, comment on the hybris of the historian and his superstitious belief in the possibility of representing the past.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that alongside the meta-story of the ghost of The illuminated Kubrick's own presents one of the most brilliant (and problematic) contemporary realizations of the ideal of representation of the historical novel proper on film. Barry Lyndon (1975). The very images in this film seem to extract the mystery that surrounds the painted bodies from the privileged effect of the powder on the rosy faces of its young characters; the simulacrum remains, on the whole, a virtual didactic illustration confirming Lukács's explanation of the archaeological novel as a terminal form of the evolution of the historical novel proper: the moment in which the once new genre begins to lose its social vitality as a living expression of the historicity of a triumphant, class-conscious bourgeoisie and comes to survive as a curiously gratuitous formal shell, the content of which is relatively indifferent.

Lukács was fond of quoting the great Berlin novelist Theodor Fontane's comment on the extent and only limits within which authentic historical fiction became possible: you must not place your novel, said Fontane, in a more remote period of time. than that of the life experience of his own grandparents, an observation by which he seems to have tried to underline the constitutive relationship between the historical imagination and the living presence of those surviving mediators, whose anecdotes, linked to a determined past, reveal a social time zone from there. henceforth accessible to fantasy, while anchoring this zone in constraints referring to the experience of real individuals. The disappearance of the figure of grandparents in an atomized suburban culture must therefore have a significant effect on the social amnesia, the loss of a sense of the past, in consumer society, and also on the increasingly problematic nature of the historical novel as a form. .

The basic prerequisite for there to be an aggregated family thus becomes the symptom and allegory of the survival of “organic” social relations, of what Raymond Williams calls “knowable community”. [3] (whether in the form of a village, the classical city or even the vitality of national groups). To our own theoretical climate, so deeply marked by the Symbolic revolution and the discovery of Language, we could certainly want to add the need for a continuity of discourse from the represented past to the present of the public reading the historical novel.

The romances of the Roman Empire in English, or Lukács's greatest example of the archaeological romance, French-speaking Carthage in the Salammbô by Flaubert, are contradictions of terms, much more than curiosities. Possibly the XNUMXth-century “Englishman” of Barry Lyndon be yet another of those dead languages. My argument is not that Barry Lyndon is not an artifact of great quality and impressive virtuosity: a great film, why not? Certainly a great Kubrick film. In fact, a large number of interpretations are available to formulate its relevance and its possible appeal to a contemporary viewer like us: you can see it as powerful anti-war propaganda; as a study of the power of prostitution, of manipulation, of pathos of waste, of what is used and discarded like an old shoe; as a deeper expression, on a psychoanalytic level, of the anxieties caused by mutilation and castration… indeed, all great themes that a contemporary artist should be entitled to develop without further justification.

However, all these themes function as if they kept a distance from the object itself, whose perfection in itself as pastiche intensifies our constant doubts about the gratuitous nature of any undertaking. What is the reason for this XNUMXth century touch in the midst of a late XNUMXth century cultural industry? And if so, why didn't everything else work out so well (Kubrick's Elizabethan age, Kubrick's American revolution, and a Ivanhoe by Kubrick)? It is an insidious doubt whose contamination threatens to transcend the specific question of the content of the historical novel as such and problematize the raw materials of all contemporary cultural production.

Without a past, is it possible to continue to resort to a mutual present? And for that matter, why should the choice of a small Southern town, a California university, or the Manhattan of the 70s be any less arbitrary as a starting point, in a fragmented multinational culture, than London or German principalities? of this eighteenth century? In fact, the theory of pastiche, with which we started, arose from the generalized crisis in current cultural production as a whole and not from the study of the dilemmas of the historical novel.

The illuminated can be read as an analysis both of the questions raised by his previous film and of that impossibility of historical representation, with which the perfection achieved by Barry Lyndon so dramatically and paradoxically confronts us. First, the conventional motives of thriller suspenseful or supernatural tend to distract us from the obvious fact that, whatever else he is, The illuminated it is also the story of a failed writer.

Stephen King's original was much more overtly and conventionally a novel about an artist whose hero is already a writer of some accomplishments and a cursed poet classic American whose talent is both tormented and stimulated by alcoholism. Kubrick's hero, however, is already a reflective commentary on this stereotype that has become conventional (Hemingway, O'Neill, Faulkner, the beats, etc.): your Jack Nicholson is not a writer, not in the sense of someone who has something to say or likes to work with words, but rather someone who would like to to be a writer, someone who lives a dream of what an American writer is, in the sense of a James Jones or Jack Kerouac.

However, even this fantasy is anachronistic and nostalgic; all those unexplored cracks in the system that allowed the lumpens of the 1950s became, in their turn, symbols of the “Great American Writer”, they have since been absorbed into the sealed and delimited space of the consumer society. (Or, if you prefer, the hitherto unknown and unrecorded experiences that beats were able to discover on the margins of the system – alongside the writer’s own figure and role beat as such – they themselves became a part of the culture and its stereotypes: like black and female literature, what has never been seen is that it makes possible the production of a new language – “affirmative culture” then makes up for lost time as quickly as possible, incorporates all these things into what everyone knows, delineates the unexplored, transforms everything not yet defined for lack of words into consumable images).

The very content of star system, as he is inscribed in Kubrick’s film, and the semiotic content of “Jack Nicholson” as a post-contemporary hero confirm this by the distance maintained in relation to the older generation, the new rebels (Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman and even even, transiently, Steve McQueen).

On the other hand, whether or not Jack Nicholson's character is capable of writing, and she certainly writes, as the film’s most electrifying moment demonstrates, it unquestionably produces what poststructuralists call “du texte” (even if you have the urge to recall Truman Capote’s comment about On the Road – “that's not writing, that's typing!”). However, the text in question is explicitly about work: it is a kind of ground zero around which the film organizes itself, a final kind of empty self-referential assertion about the impossibility of cultural or literary production.

If one imagines that this type of production must always presuppose the existence of a community that functions as an identified or unidentified support, aware of itself, or even on the verge of reaching such awareness through that very cultural expression that it attests to, ex post facto, that she was always there), it is then clear why “Jack” has nothing to say: even his family nucleus has been reduced to a kind of total isolation, to the fortuitous coexistence of three individuals who from then on represent nothing to cannot be themselves, their mutual relations being (violently) questioned.

Likewise, any possibility that this family might have had to develop, in the social space of the city, a collective solidarity with other equally marginalized people is automatically excluded by the total isolation of the grand hotel in winter. Only the child's telepathic companionship, as it establishes a link with the pattern of the black community, offers a spectral picture of broader social relations.

However, it is precisely in this situation that the drive towards community, the desire for collectivity, the envy from other well-developed collectivities arise with all the force of the return of the repressed: and this is, ultimately, what The illuminated seems to address. Where to look for this “knowable community”, to which the fantasy of collective relations, even if excluded, could be linked? Certainly, such a community could not be located in the managerial bureaucracy of the hotel itself, as multinationalized and standardized as the one-room community or a motel chain; nor should we consider the vacationers of the current holiday season, departure, each one on the way to his own house, towards his private residences. The only direction to follow is the one that leads to the past; and this is the moment when Kubrick's adaptation of the original novel becomes a powerfully articulated and intelligible symbolic act.

Because, while the novel represents the “past” as a confusion of ghostly voices from all the ancestors generations that participated in the history of the hotel, Kubrick's film isolates a single period in the foreground, multiplying signs that are progressively unified: tuxedos, convertible cars, bottles of whiskey, hair with pomade parted in the middle… The very inconsistency of these elements in the film reinforces this coherent and emergent message: thus, in the big scene of the hallucination, when the ballroom is animated with the revelers of a another era, among which the sad out-of-place figure of Jack Nicholson, sport jacket and unshaven, the long-awaited moment of truth arrives, and the audience expresses its amazement when the conventions of the ghost story are broken and the hero physically penetrates its ghostly surroundings and collides with the material body of the waiter, whose drink he spills.

The audience immediately understands that this waiter can only be the character not yet mentioned: the former night porter, whose grisly murder-suicide of a previous winter had already been revealed. The apparent inconsistency is that the night porter – out of the recent past, whose psychotic impulses and familial violence we tend to imagine as paralleling those of Nicholson's own character – must not have been, whatever he actually was, anything like that. to that amiable, obliging figure of the clean-shaven servant, whose monotonous courtesy projects its malevolence through its lack of expressiveness. Even the image of its predecessor, the forerunner of Nicholson's own possession and the evil shape of his own destiny, has been rewritten in terms of the earlier past and the style of an earlier generation.

This is the generation of the 1920s, by which the hero is pursued and possessed. The 1920s was the last time that a genuinely American leisure middle class had a glamorous and restless public life, in which the ruling class projected a class-conscious and unapologetic image of itself and enjoyed its privileges without guilt, openly, armed with the emblematic top hat and glass of champagne, on the social stage in full view of the other classes.

the nostalgia of The illuminated, the desire for the collective, takes on the peculiar form of obsession with the last period in which class consciousness is on display: even the employee or personal servant motif expresses the desire for a defunct social hierarchy, which is no longer well-maintained. coming into the spurious multinational atmosphere in which Jack Nicholson is employed by an unidentified organization for a trivial job. This is clearly a true "return of the repressed": a utopian impulse that lends itself too precariously to complacent and uplifting celebration, which finds its expression in the very snobbery and class consciousness we naively believe is threatened by it.

the lesson of The illuminated, which is his profound analysis and “formulation” of the class fantasies of contemporary American society, disturbs Left and Right alike. Its generic structure – the ghost story – relentlessly demystifies nostalgia cinema as such, the pastiche, and reveals the concrete social content of the latter: the apparently beautiful simulacrum of this or that past is here unmasked as possession, as the ideological project of return. to the clear certainties of a more visible and rigid social structure; and this is a critical perspective that includes, but also transcends, the most immediate appeal of even those thrillers with which The illuminated might momentarily have been confused.

Such films actually seemed to revive and enact a Manichaean world, in which good and evil exist, in which the demonic is an active force, in which – with the right guidance and dose of attention – we could discern what is in service. of the Lord than he who is not. Such films can be seen as both expressions and symptoms: and in a social climate about which we hear that there is a powerful fundamentalist and religious revival at work, we can believe that they document an important development in today's social consciousness and serve essentially the function of diagnosis.

There is, however, another possibility: namely, such films would not so much express a belief as the projection of the desire to believe and nostalgia for an era when any belief would seem plausible. Possibly the golden age of science fiction films of the 50s, with their pod-men and brain-devouring monsters, attested to an authentic collective paranoia, that of Cold War period fantasies, fantasies of influence and subversion that reinforced the own ideological climate reproduced by them. Such films projected the figure of the “enemy” into the monstrous individually, with its collective organization conceived, at best, as a biological or instinctive subhuman chain, like the dynamics of an anthill. (The internal enemy is therefore, paradoxically, undifferentiated: the “communists” are people like ourselves, except for the empty look and a certain automatism that denounces the appropriation of their bodies by alien forces.)

But in today's world, where information about the planet has become much more widespread through the media and where, with the great decolonization movement of the 1960s, the most repressed collectivities began to express themselves through their own voice and project demands of truly revolutionary subjects, it is no longer possible to represent otherness in this way. It is inconceivable that America's political unconscious today still imagines Russians as evil, in the sense of the alien, faceless otherness of earlier fantasies: clumsy and cruel at best, as in recent assessments of the invasion of Afghanistan.

As for the once faceless Chinese mob, they are now our staunch allies and have reinstated that old “friendship” war fantasy between China and America, while our once Vietnamese enemies – no longer a global ideological threat anyway – enjoy the grudging prestige of the victor. The Third World, usually immobilized in a post-revolutionary situation by military dictatorships, corruption, and economic poverty, no longer offers adequate elements for the fantasies of America, besieged and isolated from the world, submerged by the rising waves of militants from the less favored classes.

This is the situation in which the new wave of supernatural films (which can be dated back to 1973, the year of both The Exorcist I as well as the global economic crisis that marked the end of the 60s as such) can more accurately be seen as the expression of nostalgia for a system in which Good and Evil are well-defined categories: it does not express a new psychology of war. Cold, but rather the desire and remorse for the Cold War period in which things were still simple, not so much a belief in Manichaean forces as an abiding suspicion that everything would be so much easier if we could believe in them.

The illuminated, on the other hand, even if it is not a supernatural film, nevertheless embraces the new ideological genre of the supernatural from a broader critical perspective, allowing us to reinterpret this still “metaphysical” melancholy of absolute Evil in the much more materialistic conditions of longing for certainties and satisfactions of a traditional class system.

This is, in fact, the constraint that The illuminated reserve for left-wing audiences, so accustomed to celebrating class consciousness as if its resurgence were politically positive everywhere and did not include forms of nostalgia for hierarchy and domination allegorized in Jack Nicholson's "possession" still exercised by the social system. from the 20s, described in Veblen's style.

Indeed, legitimate and unanswerable questions may well be raised about the status “critical” – not to mention the immediately “political” – of this ostensibly entertainment film, and in particular about the effectiveness of this debunking of social nostalgia for the general public. Behind such notions of demystification and the "critic" remain the unexamined models of Freudian psychoanalysis and a confidence in the power of self-awareness and reflexivity in general to transform, modify, or even "cure" the ideological biases and positions that were, thus brought to the light of consciousness.

That confidence is at least out of place in an atmosphere where no one believes in the real capacity of individual consciousness any longer and in which the ideologues of “critical theory” – the Frankfurt School – have left behind, in works such as the negative dialectic, testaments to the disbelief in the possibility of the “critical theory” of our time to do something more than keep the negative and critical tenor (of critical theory itself) still alive in our minds.

It doesn't matter what your critical value is; The illuminated, at any rate, "resolve" its contradictions in a very different spirit. If possession by the past offers an implicit commentary on Kubrick's historical project in Barry Lyndon, the end of The illuminated, through an ominous quote, sheds new light on the 2001, whose apparent theme was the evolutionary leap into the future. The manifest contents of the metageneric practice of that very different thing, the science fiction genre, derived, of course, from Arthur C. Clark, whose star child produced yet another variant of this author's favorite theme, namely, the qualitative mutation in human development and the notion of a kind of "end of childhood" of human history.

Even at that time, however, I doubt that any viewer of what Annette Michelson significantly called "man's last stop on his journey towards disembodiment and rebirth" - the well-decorated, if formal and anonymous, room in which the last astronaut lives the biological cycle from aging and death to cosmic rebirth – may have received these images with unrestrained enthusiasm. The very sterility of the decoration and the implacable abandonment of the moments added to the individual's life cycle seem to provide, in terms of the images, an unpleasant comment that opposes the optimistic ideological message of the film.

So, the end of The illuminated makes that comment explicit and identifies the operational reason for the star child like that of repetition, with all its intimations of traumatic fixations and the death wish. Indeed, the great labyrinth in which the possessed Nicholson is finally cornered, and in which he freezes to death, shatters the vulgar climax of Stephen King's novel, with the destruction of the hotel itself by fire, but it rewrites more insistently the embryonic face of the star child ready to be born from Nicholson's bulging still face frozen in sub-zero temperature, which is finally replaced by a period photograph of his aristocratic avatar in the environment of the era of the leisure classes.

The anticipatory foreshadowing of an unimaginable future is then openly replaced by the horrible imprisonment in monuments of high culture (the ballroom, the labyrinth itself, classical music), which have become the imprisoning cells of repetition and the space from which the past informs us. dominates. It remains to be seen whether The illuminated managed to exorcise the past for Kubrick, or for any of us.

* Fred Jameson is director of the Center for Critical Theory at Duke University (USA). Author, among other books, of Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verse).

Translation: Neide Aparecida Silva


The illuminated (The Shining)

USA, 1980, 146 minutes

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers e Danny Lloyd


[1] See Annette Michelson, “Bodies in Space: Film as 'Carnal Knowledge,'” in Artforum, Feb. 1969.

[2] For a socialist interpretation of Lovecraft, see Paul Buhle, “Dystopia as Utopia: Howard Philips Lovecraft and the Unknown Content of American Horror Literature,” in Minnesota Review, n. 6, spring 1976.

[3] See the work of Raymond Williams and, in particular, The Country and the City (London, Chatto & Windus, 1973).

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