California Dreamin'

Years ago I attended a summer seminar in nonfiction writing at a college near Baltimore. One of our assignments was to plant ourselves somewhere and watch the world go by, writing down everything that happened. I staked out the lobby of the hotel where I was staying, pretending to read a newspaper as I took careful note of everything that unfolded around me. Although nothing much happened, I found it to be an eye-opening experience. All the world is a hotel, I discovered. People come, and people go, everyone absorbed in his or her own private drama. All except for me, who was absorbed in their private dramas — a still point in a turning world, to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot.

I was reminded of my long-ago writing assignment when I listened to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” recently on a classical rock station. I had never been an Eagles fan, nor had I paid much attention to that particular song, even though it has been a constant fixture on the radio for decades. Released by the normally laid-back rock group in 1976, the song tells the story of a traveller who stops for the night in an other-worldly hotel that gives off a shimmering light on a dark desert highway. The traveller has an apprehension that “this could be Heaven or this could be Hell.” A woman tells him, "We are all just prisoners here/Of our own device.” As the song progresses, this “lovely place,” with mirrors on the ceiling and pink champagne on ice, reveals itself to be something more sinister. Guests gather for a feast in the “master’s chambers” but discover they are unable to “kill the beast.” At this point the traveller tries to make a run for it, but the night porter cheerfully informs him, “You can check out any time you like/But you can never leave!”

The song comes across like an old Twilight Zone episode set to music. While that show does feature several episodes set in hotel rooms, the closet thing to “Hotel California” may be an attraction at several Disney theme parks called the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, set in an old Hollywood hotel. The backstory is that lightning strikes the hotel on Halloween night in 1939, and the five occupants of the hotel elevator disappear without a trace. There is no direct reference to the story in the Eagles song. However, the hotel in the Disney attractions looks like it might have been inspired by the one pictured on the Hotel California album cover.*

While we are on the subject of spooky old hotels, let’s not forget Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, which is set at a remote resort in the Colorado Rockies during the winter off-season. Except for the caretaker and his family, the place is deserted — if you don’t count Lloyd the bartender and assorted guests who appear to be long dead. With an over-the-top Jack Nicholson playing the caretaker, there is little doubt the place is more hell than heaven. Nicholson soon comes unraveled and is goaded by a spectral waiter into going after his wife and young son with an axe. They escape the snowbound hotel in a snowcat, and Nicholson’s character freezes to death when he becomes lost in a hedge maze. In the movie’s final scene, the camera zooms in on a framed black-and-white photograph on the wall showing a July 4th celebration in the hotel ballroom from 1921. There in the foreground is a tuxedo-clad figure looking exactly like Nicholson — a Twilight-Zone ending if ever there was one.

The Shining’s literary forbearer — at least insofar as its setting is concerned — is Thomas Mann’s great door-stop of a novel, The Magic Mountain. The story takes place in a mountainside tuberculosis sanitarium of a type that flourished in the early decades of the last century, before the discovery of streptomycin made it possible to cure the disease. The patients are wealthy Europeans who can afford the sanitarium’s “slow cure,” which can sometimes last for years. They are, by and large, indistinguishable from guests at an upscale resort, except that many are slowly dying of a mostly incurable disease — the overall effect a "danse macabre in a hotel deluxe.” Like Hotel California, the sanitarium is a “hellish paradise,” with many of the patients given over to a life of dissipation from which they never leave. The sanitarium is a world unto itself where little notice is taken of the passage of time. The novel’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, arrives for a three-week visit with a sick cousin and winds up spending seven years there before heading off to another danse macabre, the First World War.

Every hotel is a world unto itself and as such is a good metaphor for the whole world. If you have been around long enough, you do not need to plant yourself in the lobby with a notebook to observe that people come and people go in this life, all absorbed in their own private dramas. Whether in heaven or in hell, they are in a large extent prisoners of their own device, to borrow a line from “Hotel California.” Is it a danse macabre, with an endless line of people dancing hand in hand to the grave? In a way, yes. But it can be such a lovely place!

*The photo on the cover depicts the actual Beverly Hills Hotel, which threatened a lawsuit when it learned the image had been used without permission.

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