ART IN THE BLOOD

 

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Mirrors are essential to the cinema of Martin Scorsese – from the first scene of the autobiographical MEAN STREETS, or the avalanche of anxieties pouring down on Howard Hughes as he washes up in THE AVIATOR, or Teddy Daniels desperately trying to pull himself together in the tense opening of SHUTTER ISLAND, and the moment the evangelical Fr. Rodrigues peers into his own reflection (and vanity) only to see his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in SILENCE, Scorsese’s characters constantly examine who they are and/or who they’re becoming.

Indeed, the most famous of scene in all of Scorsese, Travis Bickle asking, “You talkin’ to me?” in TAXI DRIVER, allows us to see Travis as exactly the invincible killer he now sees himself as via his dialogue with himself in a mirror.

His 1967 short film THE BIG SHAVE also tellingly plays out in front of a mirror. Arguably the most unsettling film Scorsese’s ever made, the six minute short turned out to be his first of several disquieting portraits of self-destruction. Made at a crossroads for the budding auteur (post NYU, his first marriage on the rocks), the young Scorsese was making ends meet by teaching at his former alma mater, as well as struggling to tweak his first feature; initially called BRING ON THE DANCING GIRLS, but eventually named WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, this black & white feature began life as his thesis project at the university but, after a poor initial reception, still needed plenty of work.

The camera, sound and editing equipment needed was available, but the hungry film students of NYU all had to wait for the gear in turn (not to mention the equally troublesome task of corralling the actors involved back together to shoot new material), so it was an agonizingly slow process.

Into this melee came Jacques Ledoux, Curator of the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique in Brussels, as well as patron of the arts, who enjoyed Scorsese’s award-winning student shorts and offered the young man funding for any short projects he may have had in mind. Scorsese responded with a six page script originally titled I CAN’T GET STARTED WITH YOU – 1967.

 

 

Scorsese’s original intention of filming his bloodbath in stark black & white may well have been a deliberate nod to the most famous bathroom in cinema history, the equally white and blood-soaked shower stall in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (“The white brightness of the bathroom is almost blinding,” as screenwriter Joseph Stefano describes the stage for Marion Crane’s demise).

Although Scorsese claimed in his outline that color would sensationalize the subject matter, his decision to forego black & white gave the short a potency it retains to this day; contrary to Scorsese’s fears, the disturbingly frank violence here showed the youthful director using onscreen violence as far more than the window dressing it often becomes in lesser hands.

THE BIG SHAVE is the wellspring of what would become one of America’s major film artists – there’s none of the playfulness of his two prior shorts, 1963’s WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS?, or 1964’s IT’S NOT JUST YOU, MURRAY!. Talking to Mary Pat Kelly about his 1989 short LIFE LESSONS, Scorsese described his then-current project in terms that could easily apply to the young man’s enigmatic butchering of himself in THE BIG SHAVE: “Let’s try to understand it, and maybe in the understanding there’s a sort of exorcism of what you do in your own life. I’ve had some close friends of mine say, ‘You know, this is depressing stuff again. You’re just doing more depressing stuff.’ I say, ‘All right. But that’s the reality I see.’”

With so much life experience ahead that would influence his later work (as with all artists in all mediums), it is amazing how fully formed so much of Scorsese’s filmmaking style was already; a tremendous amount of the emotional impact of Scorsese’s work comes via his dynamic and eclectic use of music and, looking again and his initial outline for this short, it’s clear that the music he chose here is far from happenstance – specific notes and lyrics are highlighted for what he planned to coincide with the disturbing visuals.

The high water mark for the use of pre-existing music in films remain the oeuvres of Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick; virtually every filmmaker working today, from Tarantino to Wes Anderson to Terrence Malick, have walked through the doors opened for them by those two masters.

Filmmakers from Hitchcock to Spielberg have enjoyed magnificent collaborations with masterful composers (Bernard Herrmann and John Williams, respectively), but the directors in such cases don’t control the music the composers will deliver.

Kubrick and Scorsese have, with rare exceptions, created the musical landscapes of their films themselves by incredibly precise choices of music to alter the emotional impact of a given scene; the use of “Layla” as a counterpoint to the grim discoveries in the aftermath of GOODFELLAS’ Lufthansa heist is a prime example (and, as editor Thelma Schoonmaker points out on the dvd, that scene was meticulously shot to emphasize certain beats of the song, almost like a music video).

Kubrick’s disquieting use of “Singin’ In The Rain” during A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, or the use of theme from THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB at the finale of FULL METAL JACKET are just as unsettlingly brilliant. For Scorsese, who later remarked to David Ehrenstein that “I’ve always believed all the arts culminate in film,” his decision to design so much of the impact of this short film as much as from the counterpoint of the music as anything else already shows an enormous artistic maturity and confidence, one that would only grow through the decades.

On the other hand, one enormous change that evolved from the original outline to the finished film, was the ending. In the initial scripted ending, once the anonymous young man has cut his throat, the movie would cut to stock footage of the Vietnam War, thus underlining the central metaphor Scorsese was driving at with this grim work.

Whether it was a creative or financial decision, the Vietnam footage was abandoned entirely, as was the original black and white color scheme. This change left the overall effect of the movie far more ambiguous and less an overt anti-war statement; the only potential connection to the war is the “Viet 67” credit at the end of the picture.

The removal of the Vietnam footage at the end instead made the film a dark mirror rather than a straightforward anti-war cry; THE BIG SHAVE became a bloody spectacle that leaves us asking, “What the hell just happened?” which, in itself, is as potent a metaphor for Vietnam imaginable, but it is open to interpretation.

The disorienting cuts as the young man disrobes (another Scorsese trademark) give our first clue that something is amiss within this otherwise normal-looking youth’s mind; indeed, the inordinately long close-ups about midway through hint that this suicidal act might only be occurring in the young man’s disturbed psyche, which, if it’s so, becomes all the more disquieting as we ponder what he may do next.

Outside of die hard Scorsese enthusiasts, THE BIG SHAVE is seldom seen; Roger Ebert mentions in his popular “Great Movies” series that the grisly bathroom shaving scene in PINK FLOYD THE WALL may have been inspired by this short, but the real legacy of this grim 6 minute short lies in it’s place within Martin Scorsese’s career at the time he made it – which is that, he really had no career.

As a young man struggling to finish his first theatrical feature, he detoured into this dark alley to get something off his chest, regardless of whether anyone would see it or really respond to it, and that is really the hallmark of all of his work that has followed: Scorsese’s work is always pointed at finding out the truth, no matter how unpleasant, and the fact that those seeds were already planted within him at such a young age are as striking as any of the visual virtuosity we know of him. He was a born artist; the technical finesse was simply something he had to learn.

And in the end, we return to the blood-soaked young man looking at, or away, from what he sees in the mirror, the pivot for so many of Scorsese’s characters.

A key scene in RAGING BULL finds boxer Jake La Motta, freshly defeated, alone in his locker room soaking his knuckles in ice; after  loathing at his reflection for an inordinate space of time, he simply sinks his hand into the bucket, soaking in the pain. If our eyes are indeed the windows of our souls, THE BIG SHAVE’S anonymous protagonist takes his place in the Scorsese gallery by getting the kind of inward glance most of us try our best to avoid.

 

Copyright (c) 2019 by Eric Peeper

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Christie, Ian & Thompson, David (ed.), SCORSESE ON SCORSESE

Ehrenstein, David, THE SCORSESE PICTURE: THE ART & LIFE OF MARTIN SCORSESE

Kelly, Mary Pat, MARTIN SCORSESE: A JOURNEY

LON CHANEY UNMASKED

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The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.

– From Oscar Wilde’s preface to
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

The landscape of silent cinema had an embarrassment of riches when it came to talent (Chaplin, Keaton, De Mille, Murnau, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, not to mention the early works of Fritz Lang and Hitchcock), and those diverse artists had an allure that’s hard to fathom today because movies were so new; today, “celebrity” has a grossly narrow connotation. In the teens and ’20s, movie stars were indeed aptly named, they shone brighter than anyone. Yet even among these towering figures, one managed to stand tall in his own unique fashion – Lon Chaney.

Of course there are talented actors working today; we have huge stars whose names bring mammoth applause from crowds; the movies have been blessed with brilliant make-up artists who have left their indelible creations in the minds of the public (geniuses like Rick Baker, Michael Westmore, Tom Savini, and the late Stan Winston are only a few).

Lon Chaney was all of these.

How many actors today, be they on stage, screen, or television, can claim to so completely shape their characters? Chaney was famously labeled Hollywood’s “man of a thousand faces,” and while it is a fun marketing brand, it can be somewhat reductive, just as Hitchcock’s branding as the “master of suspense” downplays his contributions to the very grammar of cinema.

The characters were the important factor in Chaney’s roles, not a leading man’s vanity; it is most telling that even in films where he used minimal make-up, such as TELL IT TO THE MARINES, he still vanishes into his character. Indeed, a portrait gallery of his creations unveils an actor who made being unrecognized not just a selling point, but an artistic triumph.

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Chaney also had a say in precisely how his make-up would be lit and photographed (which was one of many sources of friction with PHANTOM OF THE OPERA director Rupert Julian), but it was far from just ego – Chaney prepared many of his make-ups on a wax mold of his face and he understood how it would best be represented on screen because he was, first and last, an artist.

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Just as Jack Pierce later did when creating the monster make-ups for Universal throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Chaney would prepare his creations out of the kit each day from scratch; today, make-up artists often will fabricate appliances beforehand to speed up the process, but Chaney had no such assistance. It’s doubly impressive knowing this hand-crafted approach, which is akin to making a new sculpture each day, had to be nothing less than perfect in order for the work to match what had been shot in the days or weeks prior.

We’ve become so accustomed to movies constantly slamming us over the head to tell us we’re being entertained, that it can be wonderfully refreshing to revisit a silent film and remember that any film’s primary goal, just like that of a great novel, is to involve us; faces and performances are keys to that, and Lon Chaney remains a giant because his characters, no matter how sinister or repulsive, still embrace us thanks to the humanity he brought out of them.

Though it’s been said so often it hardly needs repeating, it is perhaps impossible to talk about Chaney’s work without mentioning the great constant for his shadowy creations – they typically center around the peculiarly cruel condition of unrequited love. PHANTOM may be his most famous example, but arguably his most wrenching is the heartbroken but always smiling clown in LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH, a character who would give Pagliacci a run for his money; just as so many of Chaney’s creations (and so many of us) experience, the clown goes from discovering nascent love, and never thinking he’d ever need to find a cure for heartache, to the horror of knowing he’ll never find one.

Kevin Brownlow’s authoritative documentary LON CHANEY: A THOUSAND FACES (2000) is a treasure trove of info and insight on Chaney’s life and art, but one key insight therein comes from author Ray Bradbury, who was a worshipper of Chaney’s for as long as he could remember. Bradbury best summed up the pathos of Chaney’s performances – “[Chaney] brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you will never be loved, you fear that there is some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from.”

On Halloween of 2005, I found myself in the balcony of Fort Wayne’s glorious Embassy theatre, where they showed THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with a live organ accompaniment. I’d seen the movie several times previously, but any movie needs to be seen in its native environment to really be appreciated.

When Mary Philbin unmasked the Phantom, seeing Lon Chaney’s signature creation on a giant screen was an experience; no one ran screaming from the theatre, as some patrons were alleged to have done in 1925 (Chaney and Universal wisely kept the Phantom’s look out of the publicity materials to torque up the anticipation), but it was still a revelation.

After all, creative people routinely put the best parts of themselves into their work, and it is far from reductive to say that creating a thousand faces which still live is the closest thing to immortality.

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Copyright (c) 2019 by Eric Peeper

ESCAPE ARTISTS

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On the night of June 2, 1932, a robber broke into a second hand clothing store in Cleveland, Ohio to make an easy score. The owner, a 60-year-old Jewish immigrant from Lithuania named Mitchell Siegel, happened to be present when the thief made his entrance. Though the police report later said gunshots were heard, Siegel’s family and the coroner, however, would claim he died of a heart attack.

This tragedy is the type of petty crime all too prevalent in our world, and describing one which took place so long ago would seem of little consequence to anyone not part of the late Mr. Siegel’s immediate family and friends; at the time of his death, however, Mr. Siegel left behind a 17-year-old son, Jerry, a writer who had recently befriended a young artist named Joe Shuster. Within six years, these two young men would create, in the stellar new medium of the day, comic strips, an all-powerful (and bulletproof) champion of justice, sent to Earth from another world to guide and protect us mere mortals.

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If ever there was a purer example of the wish fulfillment offered by comic book superheroes, I cannot think of it.

Most of the classic comic heroes have origin tales steeped in tragedy, but the fact that Superman, the original superhero, was likely created out of a son’s response to a senseless act, is unbearably poignant. Author Brad Meltzer, who revealed this amazing story to USA Today in 2008, later added, “Superman came not out of our strength but out of our vulnerability.”

Indeed, it is out of our collective vulnerabilities that superheroes make their biggest mark, even in these latter days of superhero cinema when the sheer volume of comic book films and television shows threaten apathy as much as a sense of wonder; there is a school of thought that the tableau vivant quality of comics make them inherently uncinematic, but, whether that’s true or not, it is incumbent on any filmmaker bringing these characters/stories to life that they bring more than spectacle and snappy one-liners.

Filmmaker and comic writer Kevin Smith was correct when he revealed in the documentary COMIC BOOK SUPERHEROES UNMASKED that even the finest big screen superhero epics do not allow us to internalize those characters thoughts and feelings as well as the printed page does.

While lacking in the internal landscape that Smith mentions, the Fleischer Superman shorts of the 1940s remain arguably the high water mark for comic book adaptations (animation is truly the best medium for superheroes) because they deliver purely visual adventures with no one-liners, no brooding angst, no camp, just pure escapist Technicolor fun.

“The Superman cartoon shorts by Max Fleischer are in a league of their own in terms of production quality, style and execution,” Michael French of Retroblasting.com shared with me. “A lifelong fan of these cartoons myself, I consider them some of the finest Superman adaptations ever made, alongside Christopher Reeve’s 1978 film.”

Quite so.

Superman may have been the world’s first comic strip superhero, but he was not the first to make it to the silver screen; Fawcett Publications’ rival hero Captain Marvel took that distinction when Republic Pictures brought him to life in the 12 chapter serial THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL in 1941. As historian Jerry Beck outlined on the serial’s Blu-ray, Republic had originally tried optioning the film rights to the Man of Steel, but they couldn’t agree with National Allied Comics (later D.C. Comics) on how to adapt Superman for the big screen.

On the rebound, a deal was struck with Paramount Pictures to produce a series of animated Superman shorts, which Paramount offered to Max & Dave Fleischer to create. The brothers, who’d had success with the Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons, initially balked at the offer because they knew the challenge of doing the phenomenally popular superhero justice, so they devised a budget for each short that was so high that they were sure the studio would drop it. Instead, Paramount gave the go-ahead.

To bring the Man of Steel to life, the Fleischers employed a tried a true technique which Max Fleischer, an artist and techno nerd very similar to Walt Disney, patented in 1917 in the Neolithic period of motion picture animation – rotoscoping.

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Rotoscoping involves filming actors in live-action, then tracing over the footage frame by frame on an animation stand to give a more life-like quality to the drawn figures. Although the medium has changed from hand-drawn cels to CG, rotoscoping has lived on in films such as A SCANNER DARKLY and WAKING LIFE; it has often unfortunately been used as a simple animation shortcut with less than stellar results, as in the 1978 Ralph Bakshi LORD OF THE RINGS full-length animated film.

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Michael French summed up the differences between the Fleischers and their imitators perfectly: “The rotoscoping within these shorts is not the corner-cutting roto’ done to background characters in Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. Rather, it is in the service of fully-realized animated characters throughout. It is little wonder that these shorts were some of the most expensive animation per minute ever made.”

The time, care, and imagination exercised by the Fleischer Studios speak for themselves:

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Beyond mere technical prowess, the Fleischer team also brought an economy of storytelling that remains an enviable model for visual storytelling; Howard Hawks’ famous rule for great moviemaking (“3 good scenes, no bad scenes”) becomes infinitely more challenging when creating a 7-9 minute short, but by pumping up the visual and minimizing dialogue whenever possible, the Fleischers succeeded superbly.

Take the opening of BILLION DOLLAR LIMITED. We start with a newspaper headline declaring that a train loaded with a huge shipment of gold is about to be escorted to the U.S. Mint; a shadow of an armed policeman falls across the paper, and we cut to a wider angle of the armed guards looking on as the gold is loaded onboard. In less than 30 seconds, the entire story is set up perfectly.

Using shadows in animation can be a cost effective shortcut around animating a character’s entire face and rustling clothes, but it’s done so artfully throughout these cartoons, from Lois Lane typing away in her office at night, to Clark Kent becoming his alter ego in silhouette, that we never feel it’s simple penny pinching.

Despite their strong visuals, the influence of radio is also clearly apparent on these shorts as well. In the early scenes of the studio’s first Superman short, we’re given the background of the doomed planet Krypton; rather than showing any glimpses of the world itself or of Superman’s father safely placing him in a rocket ship to spare him, we see simply the green planet itself as the narrator boldly and dramatically informs us what’s happening, and our imaginations take care of the rest.

Music was a key factor in not just the atmosphere but also the storytelling of radio dramas (Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air owed a vast debt to Bernard Herrmann’s ominous and thundering chords, especially their production of DRACULA), and Sammy Timberg’s music for the Superman series is equally indispensable.

Very often, music that closely mirrors/compliments the onscreen action is derisively referred to as “Mickey Mousing” because of how Disney utilized music in their early Mickey Mouse and SILLY SYMPHONY shorts, but Timberg’s music not only gives these films an energy that’s irreplaceable (try watching them with the sound off), but the music even takes the place of sound effects at times, such as in the initial short when Superman gets struck down by the scientist’s death ray; Timberg’s horns fill in for what could’ve been costly sound effects while also serving as percussive music in its own right. It’s also interesting how he orchestrates the name “Superman” so often in these shorts, especially in the main titles, which is a theatrical touch John Williams echoed in his masterful score for the 1978 Superman, and James Bernard even did the same for Count Dracula in Hammer’s 1958 HORROR OF DRACULA and some of its sequels.

As forward thinking as many of these technics may be, the Fleischers most assuredly were inspired by what preceded them. The mad scientist in the premiere cartoon (I’ve seen it titled either THE MAD SCIENTIST or just SUPERMAN) is clearly influenced by Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN. The crazed doctor is dressed in a surgeon’s smock much like Colin Clive, the scientist’s tower is incredibly reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein’s watchtower, and his electrical lab is one Frankenstein would’ve been envious of.

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THE ARCTIC GIANT, in which Superman fights a newly thawed prehistoric beast in Metropolis, may well have been influenced by KING KONG, but also manages to eerily predict GODZILLA.

After completing the first nine Superman shorts, Max Fleischer and his brother Dave dissolved their partnership over  irreconcilable creative differences, and the Fleischer Studios were reshuffled into Famous Studios, where the team completed another eight shorts. They are still as innovative as the earlier shorts, the Famous Studios’ batch took on more wartime tales than fantasy, filled with the appalling racism that populated many films and comics of the time did, the other such reprehensible marriage being the 1943 BATMAN serial from Columbia.

Superman, and superheroes, may have come from our own vulnerabilities, but the Fleischers, in a brief, almost throwaway moment in each of these shorts, perfectly sum up the key to the superhero myth with a simple dissolve from Superman to Clark Kent – there’s someone unnoticed but extraordinary inside all of us.

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For more background on these classic shorts, the Warner Bros. featurette “First Flight” is an invaluable resource.

For all great things nostalgic, visit http://www.retroblasting.com

 

Copyright (2018) by Eric Peeper

 

 

 

ONE DAY SINCE YESTERDAY

 

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Roman Polanski was more right than he knew he said that films which end unhappily stick with us longer than the upbeat movies, for we spend much of our time afterward trying to figure out how/why things turned out so poorly, and what (if anything) it all means. In the aftermath of the Manson murders, Polanski doubtless spent most of his time wondering why his pregnant wife and her friends were butchered, which may have been the reason Polanski chose Shakespeare’s bloody spectacle MACBETH as his next project; what better vehicle is there than Macbeth’s despairing view that life is “full of sound and fury and signifying nothing” to look for meaning within the meaningless?

Indeed, unlike the powerless figures in Greek tragedies, Shakespeare mined his tragedies from the actions and inactions of his characters; the line from JULIUS CAESAR about our faults lying within ourselves might the closest thing to a thesis statement Mr. Shakespeare penned for his entire oeuvre.

Recently, I re watched THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and, aside from how incredibly moving and flawlessly crafted this film remains, after it was over, I began living Polanski’s prophecy, and kept asking myself “What is this film about? Why is everyone in it so damn miserable???”

To be sure, Peter Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry do a fine job in the screenplay (adapted from McMurtry’s novel) of sharply drawing all the characters in the film’s dying little town; sex is plentiful but love is rare for these folks, jobs are mundane, so it’s easy to see why they’re so unhappy, but all I could wonder was why no one in the story does much about it. It’s really my fault for trying to find such a simplistic answer, because life rarely works out in neatly, and the best fiction shouldn’t offer easy answers.

The elegiac melancholy suffused throughout the movie belies, or maybe it imbues, the characters’ constant search for relief from their perpetual malaise. The way Bogdanovich directed the film, shooting it not just in black and white, but also with the kind of wide angle, deep focus photography common to films of the past, but filled at the same time with a sexual frankness, and a downbeat tone, which films of the 40s and 50s never had, make this movie both a celebration and criticism of films from yesteryear, and this boxes within boxes construction is part of what gives this film added power in revisiting it. But also, of course, the terminal melancholy of these lonely souls is what haunts us.

Each of the people in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW take their turns ending up in predicaments they never could’ve anticipated, and if that isn’t a recipe for how life works, I’m not sure what is. Peter Bogdanovich himself ended up in unforeseen places: after the thunderous success of this film in 1971, and his two succeeding movies (WHAT’S UP, DOC? In 1972, and PAPER MOON in 1973), he suffered some professional setbacks before facing a horrific personal tragedy in 1980 when his then-girlfriend Dorothy Stratten was brutally murdered by her estranged husband. Bogdanovich, in turn, took full financial control of the movie he’d directed which featured Stratten in a lead role, 1981’s wonderful romantic comedy THEY ALL LAUGHED, and the film’s poor reception broke him in every way.

 

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All these vicissitudes are well-chronicled in the 2015 documentary ONE DAY SINCE YESTERDAY, which took its title from a song Bogdanovich co-wrote for his comic valentine, which in turn was taken from something Dorothy Stratten had written to him the day after their first romantic evening together. The song’s lyrics, about forbidden fruit being sweetest, are doubly wrenching given what that love affair led to (“Emotions are terrific because nobody can help how they feel,” John Ritter’s lovesick detective tells Stratten’s character in an equally poignant moment in THEY ALL LAUGHED).

 

It’s often irresistible for people to seek out hints of autobiography in fiction, and Bogdanovich has said THEY ALL LAUGHED is the film closest to him (although THE LAST PICTURE SHOW will probably remain his best-known work, it had roots of autobiography for author Larry McMurtry, not the director).

In the end, though such matters are irrelevant; whether it’s the light-hearted, breezy romance the detectives find in THEY ALL LAUGHED, or Sam the Lion’s recollection of a brief affair which lit a dark corner of his life in PICTURE SHOW, all that matters is how such moments resonate with us, and the perspective we receive on all the joys and pains still closer than one day since yesterday.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper

 

CHILDHOOD’S MINEFIELD

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Though it’s not often easy to pinpoint when it happens, sooner or later a fundamental line gets crossed in the gap from childhood to adulthood; it isn’t so much that the magic feels gone, but that our definition of “magical” changes from Santa bringing presents to knowing that we’ll have enough in the bank to get by.

Still, the childhood minefields of loneliness and self-acceptance may forever be an albatross for many of us, and the power of two of the most resonant cinematic portraits of childhood, Spielberg’s E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and Bergman’s FANNY & ALEXANDER, is that they both hit all of these nerves.

Francois Truffaut arguably made the most adult films about childhood, from THE 400 BLOWS to SMALL CHANGE, but the two movies from Bergman & Spielberg are interesting because they each present the fantastic alongside the mundane, which is precisely how children can view the world; kids easily have imaginary friends and adventures that adults can’t, or won’t, see.

This is a style both directors illustrate in other works (Spielberg in films ranging from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS to JURASSIC PARK, Bergman in THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES), but it peaks here by having the eyes and ears taking in these unworldly sights and sounds be predominantly those of children; Alexander seeing the grim reaper  feels every bit as plausible through his eyes as when Elliot first meets the extra-terrestrial guest in the shed.

Children only gradually began to take center stage in Bergman’s work, possibly because of the increasing number of children he fathered, but Spielberg’s films, from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS onward, concerned either the welfare of kids, or depicted a child-like hopefulness to life’s gray skies.

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E.T. and FANNY & ALEXANDER, which both coincidentally opened in 1982, offer unique viewpoints from two sensitive directors, with very different sensibilities, taking a look at life through the guileless gaze of children.

Fittingly, the two movies draw on memories from the filmmakers’ upbringings – Bergman recalled in his autobiography how he would hide under tables and dream as Alexander does (and dreaming is something no creative person can outgrow), and Spielberg (as noted in Joseph McBride’s biography of the auteur) used Elliot’s method of warming a thermometer on a light bulb to allow him to play hooky more than once as a boy.

When he began filming FANNY & ALEXANDER, Bergman announced that it would be his final film (though he stayed active in the theatre and in television, and he didn’t quit writing), and it seemed he wanted to leave nothing out, giving himself an expansive 312 minute, four part miniseries canvas to paint on; as he had done with SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, Ingmar Bergman would later edit the miniseries into a feature length movie for foreign markets, but he always seemed more comfortable with the longer version, as the feature version (as splendid as it is) pares down some of the fantastical aspects.

In his screenplay of CRIES & WHISPERS, Bergman wrote that he felt the color of the interior of the soul was red, and that’s why that picture became drenched in scarlet hues – that’s the real landscape of that film.

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Red shows up again in F&A, especially in the colors of the bedroom the titular duo share later. Is Bergman making a point on the soul of the whole family unit, and how it’s displaced by all the upheavals, but most especially how painful it is to the children?

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While making his adolescent 8mm sci-fi opus FIRELIGHT (a rough draft for what later became CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), young Steven Spielberg boldly told his collaborative classmates that one day he wanted to be, “The Cecil B. DeMille of science fiction.” The scope and the success of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS more than allowed Spielberg to achieve that boyhood dream, and it is interesting that for E.T., his next work sci-fi, he turned to a far more intimate fantasy than he’d done in the previous work.

Tellingly, Spielberg delivers another portrait of another fractured family like the Nearys in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS; Elliot and his family have been so devastated by the abandonment of the husband/father in the house that they have become aliens of a very different variety to each another.

At the end of their dual masterpieces, Bergman and Spielberg have their youthful protagonists learn some harsh lessons – when E.T. leaves, Elliot learns that magic exists, and it’s heartbreaking; when the ghost of the vile stepfather slaps Alexander on the back of the head, hinting he’ll always be lurking, Alexander learns that magic exists, and it’s frightening. Though we may not live in a world of such literal magic realism, the fears and heartburns that we encounter in our youths can become a no man’s land we may spend much of our adulthoods attempting to navigate our way out of.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper

 

 

 

 

 

A THOUSAND NATURAL SHOCKS

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“Have you heard of attachment theory? It describes our need, psychologically, to form close relationships, to reach out to intimates. We need such relationships to conceal the awful truth, which we confront as we grow up, that each of us is alone. The greatest battle of human existence is to come to terms with that fact.”

This exchange comes about two-thirds of the way through Arthur Clarke & Stephen Baxter’s science fiction novel THE LIGHT OF OTHER DAYS, as one character tries reminding a technologically addicted friend what’s truly important. Robert Redford’s 1980 film ORDINARY PEOPLE has nothing to do with high technology, but everything to do with the terrain Clarke & Baxter spoke of – the wilderness of human connectivity.

Based on Judith Guest’s novel of the same name, the film follows the dissolution of an upper middle class family, the Jarretts, after the death of their eldest son. In its broadest outline, that makes the film sound as superficial as many of the weepy domestic television movies that followed ORDINARY PEOPLE, but Guest had the instinct and the talent to look deeper and x-ray her characters, and Redford had the good graces to follow her lead with how he brought the book to life.

This is not a message movie; if anything, it is about confronting the truth, both about ourselves and those around us, and, as Martin Scorsese pointed out in his introduction to Ciment’s book KUBRICK, “…No matter how comfortable we think we are with the truth, it always comes as a profound shock when we are forced to meet it face-to-face.”

Every film is defined by the director’s choices, not just where they put the camera, but also what they restrain themselves from doing, and this film is a masterclass in the courageousness of playing everything in a minor key, something all the more striking since it was Redford’s directorial debut.

Again unlike many of the family dramas that succeeded ORDINARY PEOPLE, this is a film with minimal music or directorial flourishes; Redford keeps his focus on his story and his actors, but Redford also allows his painterly eye (for Redford did, as he told James Lipton, consider a career as an artist in his younger days) to tell the story in a powerfully casual way. Indeed, many shots in the film could be a heartbreaking still life.

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Any successful movie sets up its mood and tone from the outset, and Redford’s calm confidence is crystal clear in his lyrical opening sequence. ORDINARY PEOPLE was largely shot in and around Chicago, and we begin with gorgeous shots of autumn in the Midwestern U.S., as we hear Noel Goemanne’s choral version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D (Redford hired Marvin Hamlisch to do the specific arrangements for the film).

Pachelbel’s tune becomes the musical signature of the whole picture (though used sparingly), and it is a sublime choice. In this sort of emotional story, the temptation is to use the music to force a response; Canon in D is a classical piece that is, curiously, not any single emotion, but it consistently keeps us in a contemplative mood.

Using the changing seasons to illustrate the changes in people may be far from original, but it is sensitively and appropriately used in this film; we begin as the autumn leaves are changing and the picture ends during an early winter thaw, as Conrad and his father openly talk and embrace for the first time in a long time.

The autumnal view foreshadows the changes in the characters, but the very first thing we see in the opening shot is of the waterfront, where the cause of the tragedy that precedes the story happened, and from which all the seismic shifts in Conrad, Beth, and Calvin precipitate.

After the evocative opening shots, we push in on a high school where we hear the  choir rehearsing the Canon, and we hear Goemanne’s lyrics for Pachelbel:

In the silence of our souls O Lord, 
We contemplate Thy peace 
Free from all the world’s desires 
Free from fear and all anxiety

It is never clear whether Conrad is attending a private school or not, so it is a unique choice for a school to be performing music with any religious connotations, but the lyrics do reflect the “surcease of sorrow” (to quote Poe) that Conrad needs, which we clearly see when he bolts up in bed in the following scene, a textbook portrait of anxiety and depression. Conrad also mentions later in the film that he’s an atheist; might this view be a backlash to his schooling, if he attends a religious secondary school?

We never learn if this opening is a flashback to Conrad’s serene life before the death of his brother, or if it’s just a dream that temporarily gives him some peace, but either way we are instantly shown something is boiling inside this young man.

With Conrad firmly placed on the story’s stage, we are next introduced to his parents, Calvin and Beth, as they attend a local production of SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR. As he later did for 2004’s SPIDER-MAN 2 (where Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST made subtle comments about honesty and identity apropos for a masked superhero and his would-be girlfriend), screenwriter Alvin Sargent uses a play within the play to make a nice ironic point about the characters’ lives; the dialogue here (“What I do know is that in the last 24 years, I’ve never been out of love with you”) echoes with a vengeance at the end of the picture.

This husband and wife are able to make small talk with such ease (with their friends as well as each other) that we might be forgiven for not guessing the family has been through such trauma recently; it could be excused as how determined they both are to return to normal, but the repression in this house becomes clear once they’re home.

Calvin makes a point of checking in on his son when he notices the boy’s light on in his room. Yes, he tries making sure his son is alright (unlike Beth, who just goes to bed), but the marvelously subtle performances of Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton reveal how much in this family goes unspoken, as Calvin gently but forcefully suggests his boy see a shrink as planned, while Conrad insists he’s fine.

The elephant in the room is the set of scars on Conrad’s wrist, in clear view as Hutton rests his head on his arm. Watch the actors’ eyes and body language as they talk around what Conrad has done in the past, and it’s clear how Conrad’s guilt and sense of blame stayed buried until he did something so drastic.

The crux of the story becomes how the three of them circle around the painful past they all share; Calvin and his surviving son become more communicative: Conrad, once his reluctance fades, has his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch, in a wonderful performance), and Calvin talks with his business partner and friends at parties with greater ease than he does with anyone at home.

Beth, however (whether by choice or from upbringing), tries looking the other way as long as possible; even conversations with her own mother have a frigidity that Eskimos would be in awe of.

Through his analyst, Conrad comes to terms with his guilt over not only his brother’s death, but also his own subsequent suicide attempt. “I don’t want to hurt myself. I want to stop hurting,” said one character in Wallace’s INFINITE JEST, and Conrad’s interior monologue is probably not much different. Still, he doesn’t arrive at easy answers; Dr. Berger’s words are great but the real emotion in the powerhouse scene between them as Conrad confronts everything comes from Conrad trying to internalize the doctor’s words, something that can take years to do.

Conrad’s wrenching scene with Dr. Berger is not only flawlessly written and acted, but it also is  revealing about Redford’s direction: this scene reaches the emotion solely on the writing & performances, no music. This is the strategy Redford has done through the whole film, but in the last 20 minutes of this film, it adds up to an emotional crescendo rivaling the best music.

This scene would’ve been the end of a lesser film, but thankfully nothing is tied up with a bow; as we see in the final scene between himself and Calvin, Conrad is still quick to blame himself for anything that goes wrong, so he still has growing to do by the end of the film. Redford, as Judith Guest did in her beautiful novel, sidesteps any instant solutions.

The worst thing that happened to ORDINARY PEOPLE was its success at the Academy Awards; beating put Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece RAGING BULL for the Best Picture and Director prizes has created  tremendous backlash toward the movie in recent years among film buffs, but ORDINARY PEOPLE has tremendous staying power on its own terms. Sam Mendes cited this as one of the films that influenced his look at dysfunctional suburbia, 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, which is clear in scenes like the dinners in Burnham house: just as Redford had done, Mendes shows most of his trio in wide shots at the dinner table, saving the close-ups for his punctuation marks.

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The best fiction is at its best when all walls fall away, and we become wrapped in the gauze of a beautiful lie that speaks the truth; ORDINARY PEOPLE  does this as few films do. There may be nothing we can do to stop the coming of what Hamlet dubbed “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” but, as the Jarretts learn the hard way, how we react to those blows will change our lives.

 

Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SLEEP OF REASON

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“Until you learn to name your ghosts and to baptize your hopes, you have not yet been born; you are still the creation of others.”

                         – Maria Cardinal, THE WORDS TO SAY IT

 

A hallmark of Gothic literature isn’t just that spooks exist in the old dark house at all, but that the ghosts have some kind of agenda; think of the spirits that Scrooge must suffer in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Hamlet’s father  demanding revenge, or even the lonely Captain in THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 translation of Stephen King’s modern gothic THE SHINING stands apart from this tradition by making us wonder not just what the spirits of the haunted Overlook Hotel may desire, but if any ghosts reside there at all.

King’s book arrived in 1977, hot on the heels of the publications of ‘SALEM’S LOT and CARRIE (not to mention the success of the 1976 film version of CARRIE), and King was suddenly a full-blown phenomenon. With THE SHINING, he delivered a story fueled, in part, by his own struggles with alcoholism (a factor that similarly fueled Stevenson’s novella THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE), and follows a barely recovered alcoholic family man who becomes the winter caretaker of an elegant, Manderlay-esque hotel; once he and his brood move in for the long snowbound winter, the three realize the Overlook may, in fact, be haunted.

Kubrick biographer John Baxter incorrectly points out on the DVD release of the film that King’s novel is “unashamedly mystical,” inferring that the story is all laid out on the surface. In fact, there are numerous degrees of ambiguity in the book, although in the end King does indeed side with the supernatural, such as when the topiary animals on the grounds spring to life.

Kubrick’s film, much like Poe’s THE TELL-TALE HEART, torques up the ambiguity a hundred times over, but even in the book, it is questionable how many of the frightening events are happening only in the heads of the dysfunctional Torrance clan, and there are never any concrete answers to fully explain the film (another staple of Kubrick’s work); indeed, wading through THE SHINING’S layers, we become lost in a psychological labyrinth every bit like the hedge maze that dominates this picture.

For the most part, Kubrick’s oeuvre doesn’t deal with the domestic; BARRY LYNDON’s family scenes are far from cozy, and the space travellers in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY only see home via pre-Skype video messages.

Only LOLITA and EYES WIDE SHUT deal with characters whose problems hone in on the familial, though the specifics are far from typical. EYES WIDE SHUT shares a kinship with THE SHINING in that both deal with fractured marriages, but in THE SHINING we are never given details about what’s caused the cracks. Dr. Bill in EWS realizes with a vengeance that his wife’s needs are not being met, nor have they been for quite some time; Jack and Wendy Torrance never seem to get to the bottom of their marital problems, nor do they try. This is in sharp contrast to King’s novel, where Jack, Wendy, and their son Danny are trying hard to rebuild the dyke destroyed by Jack’s drinking.

In the film, Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson take a far darker turn by leaving the specifics under the surface. In his chat with the ghostly bartender Lloyd (if he’s talking to anyone), Jack simply sounds resentful of his wife, though he professes a token love for his boy. In Kubrick’s hands, Torrance is far from the overgrown man-child we see in several of Spielberg’s films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, men who had families before they were truly ready. No, Jack Torrance comes off as a man who feels his shipwrecked status needs a scapegoat.

In the novel, Torrance sacrifices himself to destroy the hotel and spare his family, thus redeeming all his sins. Kubrick himself sounded as though he saw nothing at all redemptive in Jack’s character, and wanted him on a pitch black course from the beginning. “Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its bidding,” the director told Michel Ciment. “He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable.” Kubrick further felt that Jack is “quickly ready to fulfill his dark role,” so this could be a man ready to blame ghosts for his misdeeds.

It must be pointed out, however, that although the psychological subtext of Kubrick’s adaptation shares a similarity to the great 1942 horror gem CAT PEOPLE, where it is completely ambiguous whether or not Simone Simone’s character actually transforms into a deadly panther or whether it’s all in her mind, Kubrick (and King, in the source material) sprinkles enough inexplicable supernatural phenomena in the story (how does Jack get out of the locked storage room?) that we can never truly explain everything as just existing in the characters’ damaged heads, but such questions are precisely what keep us returning to THE SHINING after so many decades.

If character is destiny in fiction (if not in life), the setting of a tale is often a mirror for the characters, if not the tale itself; where better for Dickens to have set A CHRISTMAS CAROL than the very country where Gothic literature was born? In THE SHINING, the vast, empty corridors of the Overlook become a perfect reflection of Jack Torrance – cold and empty with unknown horrors around every possible turn, plus mother and son doing their best to keep warm and thrive amidst the frigid isolation.

In the latter half of his career, from 2001 onward, Kubrick seemed increasingly drawn to trying to create films with enormous understatement, films that seemed razor thin on the surface but had myriad undercurrents; the dialogue is often less than electric because the real emphasis is what’s not being said, the looks and gestures accompanying every banal line, and THE SHINING is no exception.

A prime example is the job interview scene early in the film. Yes, it features key exposition with the horrific backstory of the Overlook, but Jack Torrance’s reaction to the news that a previous caretaker butchered his family becomes an interesting Rorschach test for what happens later.

Also of interest is how Kubrick makes us, on subsequent viewings, reexamine Torrance via an almost throwaway character. Bill Watson, the assistant to the hotel’s manager,  Mr. Ullman, joins them during the interview and is initially all smiles and handshakes, until the conversation turns to the subject of the previous caretaker. Kubrick then throws us for an interesting loop by cutting to Watson’s reaction to how Torrance is taking all this. What is Watson thinking? We never know, because he’s never given another line in the whole film, but he’s there throughout several key upcoming scenes, always at Ullman’s side; Watson is seen in the background having an intense discussion about the potential new hire as Jack calls Wendy. What is Watson saying? Does he already detect something is off? Has he noticed the profound resemblance between Torrance and the man in the ballroom photo from 1921?

Typical of Kubrick’s work, THE SHINING was met with extremely mixed reactions when it hit the cinemas in May of 1980. The film was financially successful, but it received indifference from critics; in an interview for the DVD release of EYES WIDE SHUT, Steven Spielberg admitted that he was less than impressed with the film at first (though he said it is now an all-time favorite of his, something made abundantly clear by the astounding homage he paid to it in READY PLAYER ONE), and Spielberg was far from the only filmmaker to feel uneasy about it.

“I don’t think (Kubrick) understood the [horror] genre,” SCANNERS auteur David Cronenberg told the Toronto Star in 2013. “I don’t think he understood what he was doing. There were some striking images in the book and he got that, but I don’t think he really felt it.”

Again, par for the course with much of Kubrick’s oeuvre, time has been kind to the craftsmanship that (understandably) threw many for a loop in 1980, especially anyone expecting a typical fright fest. Kubrick was an innovative stylist, from the still awe-inspiring visual effects of 2001 to the candlelit splendor of BARRY LYNDON, and it is easy to imagine how much filmmakers and filmgoers anticipated what Kubrick had up his sleeve for his foray into the macabre. What he had, beyond the exquisite sets, was the Steadicam.

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This specially mounted (and perfectly balanced) camera rig,  which allows bump-free mobile camerawork without cumbersome dolly equipment, was the invention of Garrett Brown in 1975;  the Steadicam became a signature to ROCKY, with the God-like floating camera chasing Stallone up the steps of Philadelphia’s art museum, but Brown (who also operated the camera using his gadget), instilled in ROCKY’s director, John Avildsen, that the Steadicam was about more than stunt shots – it was a replacement for tons of expensive equipment.

Sure enough, many shots in ROCKY that might not be recognized as enormously complicated now, like the shots following Stallone running through the streets of Philly, were made far easier; with no dolly track to lay, the Steadicam was simply put in the back of van that Stallone followed, and the gadget delivered a perfectly stable shot every time.

Kubrick saw a test reel of this new device and knew he wanted to implement it on his next film, and THE SHINING is a masterclass in its usage.

Just as the zoom lens in BARRY LYNDON was used for more than simple effect, Kubrick, his cinematographer John Alcott, along with Garrett Brown himself, used the Steadicam not just for marvelous stunts like following little Danny endlessly throughout the Overlook’s corridors, but as a magnificent way to build tension.

In HALLOWEEN, director John Carpenter and his cameraman Dean Cundey got away with murder by constantly having objects pop up in the foregrounds of their shots, a perfect way to deliver quick shocks. While Kubrick does employ this at times in THE SHINING (such as when Jack walks in on Wendy reading his manuscript), it’s done sparingly. The fear of what lies around every corner is central to most horror films, and the inexorable momentum given to many shots in the film, be they fast, or creepily slow (as when Danny sees the tennis rolled toward him), it adds invaluable suspense even though we are seeing nothing but empty halls.

The wide lenses employed make the hallways seem even longer than they surely were, making them feel endless, with safety always farther and farther away.

In addition to the flow the Steadicam gave to a story set in such a confined place, Kubrick may have had an additional motivation for wanting the Steadicam’s omniscience floating throughout this film. Ed Di Giulio, the technician who adapted Kubrick’s cameras for the ultrafast lenses needed for the candlelit scenes in LYNDON, wrote to the director after seeing THE SHINING that the virtuosic use of the Steadicam gave the movie limitless dimension. “It was like a malevolent POV,” he wrote. “Evil was following the kid, evil was following the kid.”

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Indeed, Kubrick had a way of always making the technology he used as an integral factor in his storytelling. If we can accept that the Overlook is haunted, it’s no coincidence then that the first interior shot of the movie, when Jack Torrance arrives for his interview, is a lengthy Steadicam shot, as though the evil of the hotel is locking onto Jack and already stalking him.

This wonderful opening scene, the kind that could easily be a throwaway, is also a fascinating microcosm of the way the whole film was made. Although Stephen King drew much of his inspiration for the novel from an actual hotel (The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado), THE SHINING was filmed completely on London soundstages. The vastness of the sets can be intimated by this early scene; the sunlight pouring in through the windows aren’t daylight at all, but dozens of harsh, bright fluorescent lights. Watch as Jack walks through the entire lobby to Ullman’s office, noting the amount of light coming in through every window, and you get an idea of how sizable this production was. Ditto any of the scenes in the huge Colorado lounge set with daylight blasting through.

The unstoppable momentum of the gliding camerawork in THE SHINING anticipated such later masterful examples that Kubrick did in FULL METAL JACKET (one particularly endless tracking shot following the Marines through Hue City is equally breathtaking and suspenseful), as well as the God-like POVs that Terrence Malick and company achieved on THE THIN RED LINE with the Akela crane.

Stanley Kubrick was far more than a cutting edge technician; he loved breaking conventions whenever it suited his storytelling needs. A perfect instance is the long scene in the restroom between Jack Torrance and the ghost of Delbert Grady, the previous caretaker (the fact that Mr. Ullman mistakenly calls him Charles Grady in the earlier scene adds to both the unreality of the scene, as well as Ullman’s ignorance of people beneath him).

In the bathroom scene, Grady’s ghost (if it’s a ghost) seduces Torrance to murder his family in the same way Grady had done. As film historian Paul Jensen pointed out, close examination of how a director handles simple, quiet scenes often says more about their talents than the bravura moments in a film, and in this scene, Kubrick breaks with convention by crossing the 180° line, aka “the invisible line.”

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Traditional camerawork keeps the camera on one side of a “line” across which the camera shouldn’t cross, for fear of the change in angles being too jarring for the audience. Kubrick, however, keeps changing his shots constantly here, flagrantly breaking the rule, and it is jarring, but that is wholly appropriate – either Jack is talking to a ghost(!), or he’s having a long internal debate about whether he should kill his wife and child; whichever interpretation we choose, Kubrick is disorienting us as much as Torrance himself is mentally coming unglued. It is additionally interesting how the wide shot of the strikingly red bathroom, when Jack and Grady enter, echoes the earlier (and iconic) shot of the blood discharging from the elevators; the door at the rear and center of the frame branches out into the splashes of red across the walls, which has equal resonance with the topic of the conversation in this most curious-looking of movie restrooms.

Part of the allure of a puzzle box film like THE SHINING is that its riddles always offer new interpretations. This film, however, more than any of Stanley Kubrick’s other works (even 2001), has attracted more wild notions, and even conspiracy theories, than most other American films; neither FIGHT CLUB, MEMENTO, nor PULP FICTION have spawned such wild notions that were outlined in the 2012 film ROOM 237. Certainly, many layers of THE SHINING are open to interpretation, but the idea that any filmmaker, let alone one of Kubrick’s stature, would intentionally leave clues about his supposed role in faking the Apollo moon landings buried in this film are more ludicrous than anything dreamt up by Dan Brown on LSD.

Careful research into the lengthy, and rocky, production of this movie bring a long pause to such theories. For someone as meticulous as Kubrick dealing with daily script rewrites, sorting through upwards of 50 takes or more of virtually every shot with his editors, working closely with all the actors, leaves little time to make sure people decades later would know Mr. Kubrick had some alleged hand in faking Armstrong’s One Giant Leap (plus, for one as impossible to please as Kubrick, I doubt anything less than the genuine lunar surface would have sufficed).

King’s novel is structured in five parts, mirroring a five act Shakespearean tragedy; with the structure of the film, Kubrick proved innovative yet again. In the foreword to his story collection SUPERTOYS LAST ALL SUMMER LONG, the late sci-fi author Brian Aldiss recalled that as he and Kubrick futilely tried crafting a screenplay that became AI:ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, the director showcased a complete lack of interest in the traditional three act story structure, preferring instead a series of “non-submersible units” instead. This method was used to spectacular effect in 2001, which neatly divided itself into several set pieces (“The Dawn of Man,” “Jupiter and Beyond The Infinite,” etc), leaving the audience to fit the pieces together.

“This method works at its best in THE SHINING,” Aldiss wrote. “Here, blackboards announcing starkly ‘A Month Later’ or, simply, ‘Tuesday 4 p.m.’ warn the audience pleasurably that something awful is going to happen and that Jack Nicholson is going to be a little more over the top than before.”

Film editor Tony Lawson revealed on Criterion’s release of BARRY LYNDON that this precise method was tried out on LYNDON, but all involved felt it slowed the pace down too much, but it does work better in THE SHINING, keeping us at arm’s length to wonder what may be coming next. This type of storytelling was indeed widely used in silent cinema, but Kubrick relished trying new methods of old techniques.

Aldiss’ feelings about Nicholson’s performance being “over the top” is a complaint lodged by many (all of the performances in this film have been branded as such at one time or another); for Kubrick, naturalistic acting was a dead end. “It’s real, but it’s not interesting,” Nicholson said Kubrick loved to claim about Method acting in Vivian Kubrick’s video diary about THE SHINING , and the bigger than life acting fits the slow, dreamlike state in Kubrick’s work, almost as though we’re watching life in a late night reverie. Still, Kubrick knew when to have his actors dial things back; the ghost of Jack’s bartender (ghost or memory?) never blinks, creating an incredibly eerie presence as he grants Jack’s request for liquor in exchange for his soul.

Stephen King was colossally disappointed with the film, and the bestselling author has never been shy about saying so. “The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre,” King told American Film magazine in 1986, presaging David Cronenberg’s comments by more than 25 years. “Everything about it screams that from beginning to end, from plot decision to that final scene – which has been used before on THE TWILIGHT ZONE.”

King’s lackluster response could well be due to the personal nature of the book’s roots for the author; as a novel, King’s book (like all of his work) has a warmth for the characters and what happens to them, whereas in Kubrick, everything and everyone always becomes opaque. King did get to do THE SHINING his way in 1997, when he wrote and executive produced a three-part miniseries version for ABC. The television version is nicely done,  but the deeper mysteries that lie between the words are what’s present in Kubrick’s iteration.

“Is there something bad here?” Danny asks Mr. Hallorann in a key early scene, and the answer is yes in more ways than one. The cold tone of the film says more about the banality of the Torrance’s home life than any line of dialogue ever could, and there is real venom beneath that frigidity waiting, maybe begging, to become malignant (the novel is appropriately prefaced by a quote from Goya: “The sleep of reason breeds monsters”).

Whether or not there are literal ghosts causing it is beside the point; our pasts are the ghosts that stalk us every hour of every day, and the real subject for Kubrick’s unblinking lens is what makes people do evil knowing that they’re doing evil, so naturally, we’re left with more questions than answers.

Haunted, you might say.

 

Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper