Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Home for the Holidays: Katy Perry Edition

As school vacation days roll into weeks, you’re probably looking for novel ways to keep yourself and the children entertained. Like watching Katy Perry: Part of Me on Netflix Instant. So I checked it out to see what parts she’s talking about exactly. Are they rated PG? The answer is a resounding Disney YES.
Instead of shooting whipped cream from her bra, for the purposes of The California Dreams Tour she goes with the more traditional candy cane uzi. Her dresses are pretty skimpy, sure,  but they take the form of lollipops and mermaids. If your children have been cleared for Barbie, and let’s face it, they have, they can proceed safely with Katy Perry: A Part of Me.
But what about me, the purported adult, you ask.  Will I be bored out of my mind? That all depends, surprisingly, on your position regarding French semiotics, particularly the concept of the simulacrum. Jean Baudrillard's concept of the simulacrum can best be understood in terms of the main street of Disneyland. What era or geography are these buildings meant to represent? Some sort of idealized mishmash; it doesn’t really matter. Disneyland has its own reality, which may in fact be preferable, or at least more hygienic than the real thing. You can visit the past; go to space, travel to New Orleans and visit the sacred cinematic space that is the Pirates of the Caribbean all on the family-oriented day. Are you seeing how this applies to Katy Perry’s songwriting? Please, try to keep up with your tour guide.
This is no mere concert film, this is a journey, produced by Academy Award ® winning producer Brian Grazer.  Like it or not,  as in The Pirates of the Caribbean films, there’s going to have to be a plot. Or the quest for a plot, punctuated by songs instead of swordfights. Let me walk you through some of the bright colored narrative ideas that float by in this giddy 93 minutes.
First story balloon: Katy Perry’s career represents a major break from her extremely religious, even puritanical family, who have disowned her for singing about kissing a girl. This narrative is the clear front-runner, since it’s been well-covered by the media. She was in fact from a family of traveling evangelical show people. Even fairy tales and Alice in Wonderland were considered too Satanic for the childrens’ consumption. Unfortunately, this fantastic storyline is blown to bits when we catch up with her mother and father chatting in Las Vegas. He has dyed brown hair and very dark sunglasses (indoors); he looks like a creep(ier?) Roy Orbison.  As traveling evangelicals they are fanatical, sure, but as show-biz insiders they can’t argue with success. We see them basking backstage at the show, in spite of the subversive mermaid action. (This in pointed contrast to Madonna’s dad in Madonna: Truth or Dare,  who seems to have had an entirely more virginal Madonna in mind.)
Second at bat storyline: Russell Brand and Katy Perry as true and potentially star-crossed lovers. This seemed like a very real possibility, based on what I’d read about the rockumentary when it came out. All that is tossed to the wind, however, once we spot the actual Brand backstage, and it becomes clear these “married” people are barely acquainted. But though they really don’t give us much to work with in the flesh, as the long-distance relationship starts to crumble and Brand files for divorce, this narrative arc starts to show potential. The perky Perry gets, like, exhausted and sad for a few nights and has to be coaxed onstage. There’s some crying. Given Brand’s subsequent interest in reforming politics and income inequality, it seems likely this was an early effort to undermine the evil plutocracy from within, one pop star at a time. Valiant, but abortive, as it turns out. Perry overcomes her malaise and returns in full Roar.
If you are going to get technical, that recent hit is not included in this 2012 show. Nor is it written or even "co-written" by Katy Perry. Nonetheless, its weird Toto/Muhammad Ali hybrid gets at something quintessentially KP, and gets us to our final storyline: Katy Perry’s artistic journey. We hear how the lonely young Perry, given a blue guitar (shades of Picasso?), worked at it tirelessly, rockin’ paens to Christ, mainly, to start with. Although her first single “Ur So Gay,” quickly sank, she did manage to hook up with master pop producers The Matrix (Avril Lavigne, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears) and Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette) early on. This is where this particular narrative gets confusing. We hear about Perry rebelling against efforts to make her into another Lavigne or Morissette and to find her own voice. But the songs themselves are very much a presence in the film, and they tell another story. They kept seeming extremely familiar, partly they were big hits (she holds the record for the most hits off one album with Michael Jackson), partly because all her songs sound alike, and partly because they are also wildly reminiscent of all the other pop divas currently on the scene. I kept having the thought, “Oh, I thought that was Kelly Clarkson, or Pink, or Britney Spears.”
There’s a reason for that, as it turns out. Her story is not so much finding her own voice, as finally hooking up with the right songwriting producer,  
Max Martin, who also turns out to produce every other female pop star of the moment. Our voyage of discovery turned out  not to be one of French semioticians but of Swedish pop producers! This is the troubling Nordic landscape in which we find ourselves. Truly, must everything become ABBA?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Real Estella by Grace Lovelace








Ellen “Nelly” Ternan at 19, a year after meeting Charles Dickens.


Like the work of Charles Dickens itself, The Invisible Woman, the new film about Dickens’ mistress Ellen Ternan, is more radical than it appears. The 45-year-old Dickens met Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, 18,  when she appeared in a play he was producing and starring in. She stepped into the role previously played by his daughter Kate, as he decided to take the show on the road. She also became his companion for the next 12 years, his last.
Nelly Ternan has generally been treated as a somewhat ambiguous footnote to Dickens’ life. In this, his biographers took their cue from Dickens himself, who expended great energy wiping out the traces of his late life love affair. A famous man in mid-life spends enormous time and money on a pretty young actress? Generations of Dickens’ scholars have found this behavior unreadable. “Family friend,” had been the somewhat gingerly consensus, at least until the English biographer Claire Tomalin stepped in with her 1990 book on Ternan, her family, and their association with the  famous novelist.
Then, as now, the theater represented a sort of liminal space, on in which real world rules don’t always apply. Actresses, too, as Tomalin explains, though disapproved of, were also allowed unusual liberties. While regarded as outlaws, with an inevitable aura of prostitution, they were also, when successful, granted a remarkable degree of autonomy in Victorian England,  frequently moving between relationships or having children with different partners, within or without marriage. Nelly came from a well-established theatrical family, with roots and connections. She also seemed quite young and innocent, most people agreeing she seemed more immature than her 18 years. A potent combination, as it turned out, when it came to Charles Dickens.
For Dickens, the putting on of plays seems to have filled a number of purposes: providing an at least temporary escape from his by then unhappy marriage, and an opportunity to hang out with his Bohemian friend, Wilkie Collins. (Collins wrote the play, The Frozen Deep, in which Ternan and her sister appeared. He was also involved in many of Dickens’ other theatrical endeavors.)  A fellow novelist (The Moonstone, The Woman in White), Collins was also a notorious rogue:  a connoisseur of actresses, in fact, maintaining several households over his adulthood, while remaining unmarried. A man of the continent and of the theatre, he was the perfect companion for the restless Dickens, enacting freedoms the infinitely more famous, and famously virtuous Dickens could not allow himself.
When he eventually decided to sack his wife, Dickens seemed to have encountered surprisingly little resistance. He simply spun the story to his advantage. His wife, he wrote to the papers, had never taken an interest in the children, though she bore him ten. She was cow-like and crazy, he claimed, an unfit companion for his genius. According to Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman, from which the film is adapted, she was pensioned off to a small house north of Regent’s Park, away from the rest of the family. Georgina Hogarth, her sister, who had long enjoyed a position of power and favor with her celebrity brother-in-law, was happy to officially become matron of the house. She also publicly backed Dickens claims.
Dickens turned out to be quite masterful in shaping his public image, even well after his death. The beloved Dickens of a Christmas Carol didn’t just happen, he needed producing and stage managing. To that end, he blackmailed, wrote in code, used pseudonyms and most of all, burned anything incriminating and ordered others to do the same. His daughter Kate, writing much later to George Bernard Shaw, said she looked forward to letters surfacing “in which the real man is revealed, minus his Sunday clothes and all shams, and with his heart and soul burning like jewels in a dark place! I say there may be such letters and they may be one day given to the world” (quoted by Tomalin, p. 236). As it turned out she underestimated the extent of her father's control.
But history, like family, is an unruly thing. When Tomalin began to fill in the missing pieces, there were plenty of clues to be found. Ralph Fiennes takes up this material, as adapted by screenwriter Abi Morgan (
The Iron Lady), to give us a life not so much invisible as willfully erased. Tomalin’s Invisible Woman reads like a detective story; the drama lies in piecing together the evidence into the most likely scenario. What does it mean for a Victorian couple to disappear to France, as Dickens and Nelly appear to have done?  She posits that Ternan became pregnant and was spirited away to a morally flexible Gallic retreat, rather a tradition for English gentlemen of the period. Financial records for leases and sums of money under false names, frequent appointments with “N” in a lost appointment book? Along with testimony from Dickens’ children, several of whom made sure to go on the record before their deaths, the story of Dickens and Nelly Ternan began to take shape.
     While covering the same material, Fiennes movie takes a somewhat different approach.  His film, detailing the somewhat mercenary arrangements of an influential Victorian figure, plays out against our expectations for a love story, specifically one about an artistic couple  bucking convention. There’s not much transcendent here, the film makes clear, and Dickens alone had sufficient power to alter conventions to his own needs.
Fiennes gets a lot across of this across, very economically, in the early scene rehearsing The Frozen Deep.  His own theatrical experience, as well as growing up in a large, artistic family, no doubt came in handy. The casting is particularly effective: Felicity Jones, a young British actress unfamiliar to me, is attractive and fairly effective, but clearly unable to compete in terms of star power with her elder co-stars, evoking her youth and experience in what must have been an overwhelming situation. Ralph Fiennes plays Dickens and, in an extremely clever bit of casing, Kristin Scott Thomas is Nelly’s mother, Fanny Ternan. We cannot help but be reminded of their archetypal love story together, The English Patient, every time they are together in a scene. But now Thomas has been transformed to chaperone and somewhat unwilling broker. A sense of things are askew, of displacement, is the effortless result of this particular reunion.  Kristin Scott Thomas is flawless, as usual. She conveys a weary grasp of the situation, as well as a determination not to let it veer out of control. If there is a weak link, in terms of the acting, it is Fiennes himself.  When I first heard he was playing Dickens, I found it hard to imagine; how could this slow-moving, introspective actor play the tiny, hyper Dickens? (The very best man for that job, it strikes me, would have been Willy Wonka era-Gene Wilder. He alone could convey his manic vision and zany leadership style. And the costumes could essentially remain the same.) Though Fiennes acquits himself as Dickens, his acting in this film does not rise to the level of his directing.
When Nelly has been discussed as part of Dickens’ public life, it has been as the inspiration for Estella in Great Expectations, his late, great novel writing during this time. Although she may have initially appeared to him as a figure of virtue and passivity, in the long term he seems to have found her, and her family, rather less pliable.  Estella, an intractable beauty controlled by powerful backstage forces: this  does seem to bear some resemblance to his dealings with the Ternan clan. In the beginning he used his influence to get them parts and rent them houses; as time went on he procured her older sister Fanny a position as governess to Anthony Trollope’s widower brother, a job that quickly morphed into wife. Fanny began to publish regularly, at top prices, in Dickens publication All the Year Round. In the twelve years of his association with the family, before his death, they established themselves quite firmly in the nexus of his financial and literary connections. Later historians had grounds to wonder is this family was simply one of his ongoing charitable endeavors; they seem to have represented a package deal.
If at times these Ternan claims may have seemed onerous, they did confer one real advantage to Dickens: once established in respectable marriages, the Ternans were just as anxious to hide the true nature of the connection as he was himself. The extent to which Nelly was erased from the official Dickens story was due, largely, to her own efforts.
Nelly seems to have picked up Dickens knack for fictionalizing her own life. After his death she shaved a neat decade of her age, conveniently refreshing her maidenhood to marry a much young clergyman. Together they founded a school, coincidentally in Margate, the setting for much of Dickens’
Great Expectations.  She also had a son. Scenes from her life in Margate punctuate the film, which is told in flashbacks. These scenes of her helping to run the school, striding along the shoreline, and staring moodily into her first editions of Dickens, are some of the film’s weakest. Part of the point seems to be to establish the connection between Nelly and the real life elderly local cleric, coincidentally a huge Dickens fan, to whom she confided her secret and who eventually spilled the beans, establishing one of the important links in the chain of Nelly evidence. But this legalistic accounting, evident too in the scenes regarding Nelly’s probable stillbirth (closeup on Dickens signing the French death certificate, using one of his many Nelly-related pseudonyms), sits uneasily with the doomy romanticism.
After Dickens is gone, so too, largely, is the point of the film. Pasting in what are basically sequences from The French Lieutenant’s Woman does not, unfortunately, add depth to the portrait of Nelly Ternan, who seems to have been in point of fact  proactive in the extreme, not at all prone to depressive trances on the pier. She went on to live to a very old age, the Dickens relationship only discovered by her son much later, as he attempted to make sense of the financial records and mementos she left behind.
I saw this film as part of a series of early  industry screenings, accompanying my sister, who happens to be a SAG member. The showing of The Invisible Woman was sparsely attended, there was muttering about boredom on the way out. Very much in contrast to the later showing of  Out of the Furnace , the testosterone and violence fueled vehicle featuring powerhouse performances by Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck, as well as a standard bit part by Zoe Saldana as girlfriend/pre-school teacher. “Brave!” and “startling!” was the consensus on that one. The Invisible Woman is a small movie, not a perfect one, but it is unusual in having a genuinely feminist vision. From where I sit, that is startling.



Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Talkin' Orson Welles Blues by Grace Lovelace






My Lunches with Orson.Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Biskind. Henry Holt and Company, 306 pp., $28



In this collection of short lunchtime talks--tapas, if you will-- you get the kind of Rabelaisian stream-of-consciousness concoction that could only be delivered by a man wearing “bifurcated tents to which, rather idly, lapels, pocket flaps, buttons were attached in order to suggest a conventional suit.” (Gore Vidal’s memorable description of Orson Welles’ late-era costume, as quoted in Peter Biskind’s introduction.) Within the ambiance of late-seventies-early eighties Ma Maison we are treated to a series of conversations between two champion talkers--the legendary Orson Welles, and his spunky sidekick Henry Jaglom. (For the record, while I’ve always been underwhelmed by Henry Jaglom’s films, he proves a stimulating foil to Orson Welles here.) The waiters come and go; celebrities mingle; meanwhile the history of Hollywood’s golden age is recounted, in swift and sometimes spiteful bursts, by one of the world’s master storytellers.
I must say, I loved this book so much more than I expected. The conversations, taped at Orson Welles request by Henry Jaglom, have been masterfully edited by Peter Biskind. We get the most delicious, unfiltered gossip, but also a sharp sense of environment. Most importantly, a character emerges: the aging boy genius, still pushing for the next big project, but in the meantime enjoying leisurely meals and angling for another lucrative commercial. (These were the Paul Masson years, after all; a contract which provided Welles major income for this period. In an amusing aside, he talks about how low-rent the Masson advertising execs were, and how much they resented his automatic attempts to improve the copy even as he spoke it.)
We learn about the evolution of Hollywood through the prism of the Ma Maison chicken salad:
OW: Don’t get tiresome about the chicken salad.
HJ: Why am I being tiresome, Orson? I want to get it the way it always is, without the capers. The waiter doesn’t understand.
OW: This is the way the chef makes it now.

HJ: They keep writing in the papers that, ever since Wolfgang left, this place has gone downhill. And his restaurant, in turn, has become the number-one one. He’s begging me to get you to come to it.
OW: I’ll never go.


HJ: Why?

OW:: I don’t like Wolgang. He’s a little shit. I think he’s a terrible little man.
HJ: Why?
OW: I don’t know. God made him that way. What do you mean, “Why?”


And against the bustling restaurant backdrop, celebrities are sighted, summoned, gossiped about and rebuffed. Jack Lemmon stops by and chats for a chapter. Richard Burton and Liz Taylor are sent back to their own table, much to Henry Jaglom’s chagrin. The two friends touch on innumerable topics drawn from Welles 50+ years on the public stage, but, inevitably, certain names keep floating to the surface: John Houseman, enjoying a maddening career surge at the time, consistently unkind to his former Mercury Theatre partner; Rita Hayworth, partly because of Jaglom’s fascination with Welles’ gorgeous former wife;  Citizen Kane, of course; and, most amusingly, Welles main Shakespearean competition, Laurence Olivier.  In Welles’  book, this book,  no one could be stupider, vainer, or foist more pig-headed interpretations on an innocent public than “Larry”:
HJ: How is Larry? Has anyone heard anything more about his health?
OW: I hear all kinds of stories, none of them very cheerful. He has three kinds of cancer. It’s particularly a shame, because Larry wanted to be so beautiful. I caught him once, when I came backstage to his dressing room after a performance, he was staring at himself with such love, such ardor, in the mirror. He saw me over his shoulder, embarrassed at my catching him in such an intimate moment. Without missing a beat, though, and without taking his eyes off himself, he told me that when he looked at himself in the mirror, he was so in love with his own image it was terribly hard for him to resist going down on himself. That was his great regret, he said. Not to be able to go down on himself!
This is a big ego, but surprisingly, the flip side of that ego is a major fragility and, frequently, an open-heartedness and compassion towards the other players. For example, it’s obvious both Jaglom and editor Biskind want him to strike back at Pauline Kael, who, in truth, did him a gross disservice in her essay on Citizen Kane. When Jaglom brings it up,  Welles just nods--she was wrong--but continues, “I love Pauline, because she writes at length about actors. Which nobody writing about movies does. II think she’s wrong a lot of the time, but she’s always interesting.” .Refreshing, particularly given the venom regularly directed her way by powerful men who found themselves on  the business end of her pen.
The book conveys the depressing hustle of Welles late career, as Jaglom and he plot his next move, only to meet disappointment after disappointment.  Jaglom, to be honest, seems more hopeful about the prospects than Welles at this point, who is always glimpsing the failure in any possible success. This portion of the book reaches it’s heartbreaking nadir in a meeting with an HBO exec who offends Welles with her indifference. “When I get that dead look, I’m dead!, he fumes.” “I can’t do it.” We witness the whole sorry thing.
His fatal ADD is on full display in these Ma Maison lunches, it’s true; but so too  is the brilliance that allowed him to shrug off one of the greatest movie of all time at age 25.

Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles

Monday, October 28, 2013

Shirley Jackson's Haunted Houses


The Haunting (1962), directed by Robert Wise.


In one of many jolting moments in Jamaica Kincaid’s roman a clef See Now Then (2013) about the dissolution of her marriage,  she reveals that she is living in Shirley Jackson’s old house--that she is, in fact, being haunted by Shirley Jackson. I have no idea if  this is literally true (since they both lived in North Bennington, the village adjacent to Bennington College, it seems at least possible they ended up in the same house); regardless of its factual veracity, however, for those familiar with Shirley Jackson’s biography this is a very bad sign. Jackson, as Kincaid  well knows, spent her final years in that house as a madwoman in her own attic, self-confined to her house and then further to her bedroom, paralyzed by the pills, the alcohol, and the escalating sense of paranoia regarding the town she’d made her home for more than half her life. (Her husband’s fairly frequent affairs with Bennington co-eds probably didn’t help matters; another explicit point of identification for Kincaid.) The rumor that children from town used to follow her home from the post office or grocery store, taunting her and  throwing rocks gives you a sense of her life there, as does the fact that Jackson based “The Lottery,” her famous story of ritualized American violence, on her experience living in North Bennington.

Even if you think you don’t know Shirley Jackson’s work, you  still do. Her brand of psychological horror, encompassing  poltergeists, multiple personalities, dysfunctional twins and ambiguous conjurings, has proved widely influential in the years since her death. (It is, perhaps, a sign of the necessary schizophrenia of a mid-century female writer that alongside the tales of psychic disintegration that made her long-term literary reputation sit two chatty, anecdotal volumes about raising four children, very much in the Erma Bombeck mode.) For a writer primarily identified with one short story, she has a number of powerful, passionate advocates. Jonathan Lethem, in a 1997 article for Salon, calls her “a writer’s writer” as well as “one of this century’s most luminous and strange American writers.” (He also wrote an introduction to a collection of previously unpublished Jackson stories; one of several posthumous volumes of her work.) The New Yorker published a story by her called "Paranoia" this summer; there’s a new biography in the works. It’s Stephen King, however, who remains her most ubiquitous disciple.
The plot of The Haunting of Hill House will sound immediately familiar to anyone who’s done some time in popular culture of the fifty years: a group of disparate people gather in an old mansion under the aegis of a researcher into the paranormal. Chaos ensues. Did she invent this classic haunted house format, or simply polish it to perfection with her tricky yet accessible narrative? King put it this way, in Dans Macabre, “It and James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.”
     The Haunting of Hill House was Jackson’s first big breakthrough it commercial terms, and it attracted the director Robert Wise, who said he became so frightened sitting in a chair reading the novel that he knew it would be even more powerful on screen. Wise made The Haunting between his Academy Award-winning musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music. At first glance this relatively small-scale black-and-white ensemble piece seems like an odd departure in his filmography, until you remember his early background in horror films, directing  films like Curse of the Cat People, a genre he never really lost his fondness for--Audrey Rose was one of his final films, in 1977.
The Haunting is considered a classic, elegant ghost story, relying more on suggestion and atmosphere than actual ghouls, something Wise said he learned from his years early years at RKO working for horror producer Val Lewton.  (He was also Orson Welles’ editor on Citizen Kane. Talk about a film pedigree.) Wise assembles an outstanding cast in his haunted mansion: Claire Bloom as an elegant, needling lesbian psychic, Russ Tamblyn as the hep, hard-headed future heir of thehouse, and, most remarkably, Julie Harris.
Julie Harris in The Haunting,


Julie Harris, who died a few months ago, was an illustrious actress, mostly of the theater (She is tied with Angela Lansbury for the record number of Tony Awards.). She had a tougher time in film, seemingly too thoughtful and angular for her time; Robert Wise was one of the few directors to use her to advantage. It’s weird to think  this role was less than a decade after her other big film role, opposite James Dean in East of Eden; where she played an inexperienced teen. In this film she veers between an ancient spinsterdom and utter childishness (She became most closely identified, later on, with her stage portrayal of Emily Dickinson.) She is perfect here as the film’s locus. She holds our attention and sympathy even as she evokes an extremely isolated, unstable, and volatile personality. The movie, like the book, is really about her hidden life and how it begins to be stimulated by the company of the other racy and sexually experienced guests, particularly the lesbian played by Claire Bloom.  It’s an open question, in the book, whether anything truly supernatural actually takes place, or just the stunted flowering of an extremely troubled personality. “Jackson’s ‘hauntedness’ is in her troubled protagonist, not in the actual house--there is the possibility that a toxic individual is a contagion to others, and to herself,” remarks Joyce Carol Oates, in a 2010 interview about Jackson.
Unfortunately, much of the novel’s ambiguity is absent in the film, which, while retaining traces of the original, also becomes a much more conventional horror story: walls shake, furniture moves, and cars get driven into trees by unseen forces. The best Shirley Jackson adaptation remains, believe it or not,
The Shining.



I’m not the first one to make this connection; early in his career, Stephen King was forever at pains to point out his imaginative debt to Shirley Jackson. His female adolescent powerhouses, like Carrie, clearly have their source in Jackson’s work. (He even dedicated the novel  Firestarter, about a girl whose temper starts conflagrations, to her.) I’m also far from the first to see The Shining  as a close reworking of elements drawn from The Haunting of Hill House. The internet as a whole is seemingly in agreement on this, if nothing else “The Shining, as Stephen King wrote it, is essentially a bigger, ‘splodier, more dudely version of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House,”  writes a blogger on Superworse. Another blogger points out that certain editions of The Shining contain an epigraph from The Haunting of Hill House. I could go on, but who among you is foolish enough to argue with the internet? It’s all there: the journey, the psychic-as-catalyst, the malevolent estate, only returned to the family romance, where it is very much at home.
The most remarkable aspect of King’s The Shining is how he incorporates aspects of Jackson’s own life into the structure she herself has provided. Since Judy Oppenheimer’s informative biography of Jackson didn’t come out until 1988, how could he have known about the isolation, substance abuse and writer’s block  of her final years? Did he simply intuit the facts, or use his writerly imagination? I believe the explanation is much more down to earth. Stephen King, a writer haunted by Shirley Jackson, settled in the same region. Both King and Jackson are writers who liked spending time with other writers; in spite of her increasingly fraught and withdrawn relationship with the town of North Bennington, Jackson and her husband counted several important writers on the Bennington faculty, like Ralph Ellison and Bernard Malamud, as their close friends, and Jackson frequently traveled to writing conventions in the area. King, intensely curious and living in the neighboring state of New Hampshire in the decade after her death must have been able to glean the relevant details about her dramatic unraveling, details he then incorporated into his own novel ( a novel, which, incidentally,  like The Haunting of Hill House marked a major breakthrough in terms of his own popularity).
But as remarkable an imaginative achievement as King’s novel is, it is Stanley Kubrick’s film version of
The Shining which stands as the more lasting artistic feat.


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In spite of King’s strong imaginative link to Jackson,  Kubrick actually comes much closer than King in replicating Jackson’s narrative effects, especially the utter inscrutability of the action. How much of what is happening is real, and how much is psychosis? What the fuck is going on? The maze in which Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) loses his life, a fitting emblem of the film as a whole, is not found in King’s novel . There is, however,  a topiary maze that swallows up a character in another work from Jackson’s oeuvre--an earlier novella called The Sundial (courtesy of the blogosphere, once again).
As the recent documentary Room 237  makes clear, The Shining is a film which invites almost endless analysis. In Room 237, nine obsessive interpreters of Kubrick’s The Shining take you on a tour of some of the labyrinthine thinking inspired by the film. For example,  of the participants walks you through the film forwards and backwards, projected simultaneously one on top of the other.  (Apparently there are insights to be gleaned from this exercise.) Most are content with reading all of Western history, particularly the genocidal moments, as encapsulated in subliminal imagery within the film.
The enigmatic nature of the film is undoubtedly part of what makes it such a masterpiece. As May Pols wrote in her Time review of Room 237 , “people are still crazy about the beauty of a beautiful movie about people going crazy.” When you gaze deeply enough into this shining abyss, you should see the visage of Shirley Jackson staring back.


Shirley Jackson, shortly before her death at 48.
Photo by her son Laurence Hyman.