Tuesday, October 15, 2013
The best idea in Room 237, which is 90% lazy half-argument, moronic supposition, and pseudo-intellectual gibberish, is represented by the image above. A couple of guys arrange an experimental film-screening of The Shining and run the film backwards and forwards simultaneously, the frames superimposed. What results is an astonishing interplay of images that, believe it or not, make sense; they connect, thematically and situationally, like one of those old MAD fold-ins. No, I don't think Kubrick planned this, but I do like the idea that a director's careful framing of a scene can work in much larger ways that only others with the will to wonder can see. Notice, in the image above, how Nicholson's eyes are bleeding, his nose painted red. Almost a portrait of a sad clown. My favorite theory in the documentary, of course, is that Stanley Kubrick uses The Shining to confess his part in the faking of the moon landing. Could any director have been that bored? Granted, we aren't meant to take all these notions seriously, but critics are applauding the movie for being an ode to movie-love, a celebration of examination. What the movie fails to embrace is any coherent thread of examination; it offers only crackpot ideas, no true point of view. How many poems have been misinterpreted in freshman English because students believe writers are artists hiding or coding their messages? How many of those poems would have been interpreted correctly if readers had simply paid attention to the literary devices at work? I just don't believe it's enough to celebrate ideas for the sake of ideas, interpretation for the sake of interpretation; they need to be good ideas.
Written and directed by Rodney Ascher
Monday, October 14, 2013
With Doctor Sleep holding at number one on the bestseller lists, there's been a great deal of talk in book presses and blogs lately about Stephen King's take on Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of The Shining. No secret by now that King has strong dislike for the film, mostly owing to Kubrick's interpretation of the characters and his cold tone. Wendy, for example, King says, is one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman ever committed to film (his hyperbole paraphrased). I recently re-read Roger Ebert's review of The Shining, one of his Great Movies, and at the end of the review he tells the story of asking Shelley Duvall what it was like working on the picture. "Almost unbearable," is her answer. She describes the year-long shoot as nine months of crying, five and six days a week.
She means crying in the role of Wendy Torrance, of course, but in Vivian Kubrick's documentary, Making The Shining, we catch glimpses of very real tears. Duvall has a fainting spell; the assistant director cracks wise. Jack Nicholson ignores her, directs his flirtations elsewhere. Kubrick himself mutters impatiently, occasionally yells at her. Duvall, as tall and strikingly pretty as she is, like a weird wide-eyed forest creature by way of Tim Burton, seems small and frail on set, almost overlooked. "After all that work," she tells Ebert, "hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick. Like I wasn't there."
First, it's important to note that Wendy, in the movie, performs no action that Wendy in the book does not do. Wendy in the book looks out for Danny. Wendy in the movie looks out for Danny. Wendy in the book stands up to her husband when her son appears with bruises on his neck. Wendy in the movie does, too. In fact, Wendy in the movie locks Jack Torrance in the pantry all by herself, whereas in the book, her hands are shaking so badly her five-year-old son has to slide the bolt in place for her (granted, that's because she's been beaten with a mallet by her deranged husband, but Wendy in the movie never allows herself to be beaten). My theory, as uncharitable as it is toward King's notions about women, is that Shelley Duvall simply isn't the Wendy he describes: long blonde hair, great legs, beautiful. Not that Duvall isn't beautiful, but she's not King's Wendy. She's an altogether different kind of woman whose long features and odd physicality is amplified by near-constant screaming and crying (all of which is perfectly logical within the circumstances of the film; her terror is meant to be our terror). Simply put: she doesn't look strong because she looks odd and she cries and screams a lot. But how or why do these things equal weak? Does a woman, Mr. King, have to look or act like Rebecca DeMornay to be strong?
Was Kubrick a misogynist? On this set, probably. Does he destroy Duvall's performance, crush her spirit? No. Conversely, does the way he treats her somehow add to her performance, make it better, more natural, more harried? Not in the least. She persists in spite of Kubrick, I think, not because of him. To endure a year-long shoot in such isolation with so many men, I think this is the strength we're ultimately seeing in the film version of Wendy Torrance. Is it a quiet performance? Not always. Is it pretty? Not always. Is it graceful? You bet.
Consider what's happening in Shelley Duvall's early monologue about Jack dislocating Danny's arm. Notice the fragility she conveys, the complex psychology at work behind her mask. She tells the psychiatrist it was just "one of those things you do to a child a thousand times," but we get the sense that Wendy has never done any such thing to Danny, or would she ever. It's her husband she's really talking about in this scene, and the subtext of her fear of him is all there in the way she trembles, the way her eyes widen, the way her cigarette ash lengthens, forgotten. The way she smiles. Hers is, in fact, the first great moment of naturalistic acting in the movie, following a scene of oddly calculated, mannered dialogue between Nicholson and the manager of the Overlook Hotel. How is this, then, a misogynistic portrayal, to shoot her in light and colors so becoming, to make her the first great moment of the movie?
One thing I will give Kubrick credit for: he understands Jack Torrance better than anyone. King seems to think Torrance is an everyman, and detractors of Nicholson's take on the character often cite the fact that he seems crazy from the beginning (King has said this himself). In the novel, Torrance is, in fact, crazy from the beginning. He's the heavy, an angry man whose issues with rage, not alcohol, seem to be the true root of his madness. Yet in the novel King allies Danny with Jack, creates a bond between them that his Wendy is jealous of. Kubrick, to his credit, makes Jack the villain with no apology, and allies Danny with his mother, not his father.
In fact, in the movie, Duvall saves Danny's life on at least two occasions. She drops him down the snowbank away from Jack and takes up a knife to defend herself. She finds him outside the hedge maze and drives the Snow Cat down out of the mountains. What's more, she's confronted with the horrors of the hotel after the horror of her husband, and she survives both.
In Vivian Kubrick's documentary, there's an unforgettable moment in which Scatman Crothers, who plays Dick Halloran, is asked what it was like working on the film. His eyes water. Tears spill down his cheeks. Extraordinary, he says. Just extraordinary. Shelley Duvall's answer to that same question, ten years later, from Ebert: "Almost unbearable." In light of the fact that Kubrick put Crothers through almost 160 takes of a single scene, I can't help wondering if the old man was spilling tears of relief just to have survived.
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Published January, 1977
Written and directed by Victor Sjostrom
I remarked on Frank Darabont's The Mist when it came out six years ago, and my opinion hasn't really changed since then. The ending, daring though it may be, simply isn't supported by the characters Darabont establishes. Why, for instance, would a man willing to venture into the mist to save a stranger who's dying of horrible burns give up so easily on his perfectly living, perfectly healthy son? Darabont cuts the scene from the novella in which David Drayton has sex with Amanda, presumably because it's hard to wrangle that into the character and have him still be sympathetic (after all, his wife's still out there, right?). But maybe the movie's ending would have been more successful if that had been left in, if only to demonstrate David has, from time to time, poor judgment. Everyone argues about the merits of the ending from the perspective of like-it or hate-it, but no one talks about whether it's actually successful in terms of everything that came before it. It's not. Darabont's assertion that he wouldn't make the movie if King didn't like his ending is strange, too; obviously, Darabont is a huge King fan, but he can't set aside his own desire to make a political statement in favor of honoring the novella's optimism?
Written and directed by Frank Darabont
Curse of the Cat People, as a sequel, is a weird thing. If you hadn't seen the first one, you'd have little to no information about who the Cat People even are. Also very little exposition about who Amy's parents are, why they moved to the burbs, etc. It's enough, I guess, to suppose it's just what everyone does when trying to get free of the past: leave the city for the quiet life. But the geography of this suburban neighborhood is stranger still − forests beyond the chain-link, decrepit mansions inhabited by aging actresses and psychotic daughters, and, oh yeah, kids who are real assholes. I like Curse of the Cat People a great deal, but it's not quite what one would expect, tonally, having seen the first.
Written be DeWitt Bodeen
Produced by Val Lewton
Directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise
We kick off October and the Val Lewton set I've never gotten fully round to (a shame, I know) with Cat People, a strange and creepy movie about, well, a woman that turns into a cat and mauls people. My two favorite scenes involve the stalking of Jane Randolph, once along a lonely street at night, where a cat's roar mixes into the screeching of a bus that saves her life, and the other in a swimming pool, where shadows and sound and edits ramp the tension. A nicely made, odd, and ultimately malevolent little movie.
Written by DeWitt Bodeen
Produced by Val Lewton
Directed by Jacques Tourneur