Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘F for Fake

American Stories #6: The Shining

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

“Vanderbilts have stayed here, and Rockefellers, and Astors, and Du Ponts,” Stuart Ullmann, the manager of the Overlook Hotel, smugly informs Jack Torrance in the opening pages of Stephen King’s The Shining. “Four presidents have stayed in the Presidential Suite. Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon.” After Torrance replies that they shouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon, Ullmann adds, frowning, that the hotel was later purchased by a man named Horace Derwent, “millionaire inventor, pilot, film producer, and entrepreneur.” Just in case we don’t make the connection, here’s what Torrance, now the caretaker, thinks to himself about Derwent hundreds of pages later, while leafing through the scrapbook that he finds in the hotel’s basement:

[Derwent was] a balding man with eyes that pierced you even from an old newsprint photo. He was wearing rimless spectacles and a forties-style pencil mustache that did nothing at all to make him look like Errol Flynn. His face was that of an accountant. It was the eyes that made him look like someone or something else…[His movie studio] ground out sixty movies, fifty-five of which glided right into the face of the Hayes Office and spit on its large blue nose…During one of them an unnamed costume designer had jury-rigged a strapless bra for the heroine to appear in during the Grand Ball scene, where she revealed everything except possibly the birthmark just below the cleft of her buttocks. Derwent received credit for this invention as well, and his reputation—or notoriety—grew…Living in Chicago, seldom seen except for Derwent Enterprises board meetings…it was supposed by many that he was the richest man in the world.

There’s only one mogul who fits that description, and it isn’t William Randolph Hearst. By hitching his story to the myth of Howard Hughes, who died shortly before the novel’s publication but would have been alive during much of its conception and writing, King taps into an aspect of the American experience symbolized by his reclusive subject, the aviator, engineer, and movie producer who embodied all of his nation’s virtues and vices before succumbing gradually to madness. It’s no surprise that Hughes has fascinated directors as obsessive as Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Christopher Nolan—who shelved a Hughes biopic to focus instead on the similar figure of Batman—and even Orson Welles, whose last film, F for Fake, included an extended meditation on the Clifford Irving hoax. As for Stanley Kubrick, who once listed Hughes’s Hell’s Angels among his favorite movies, he could hardly have missed the implication. (If we see the Overlook’s mysterious owner at all in the movie, it’s in the company of the otherwise inexplicable man in the dog costume, who is identified in the novel as Derwent’s lover, while in the sequel Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read, King evidently associates him with the ghost who offers the toast to Wendy: “Great party, isn’t it?”) The film’s symbols have been analyzed to death, but they only externalize themes that are there in the novel, and although King was dissatisfied by the result, his attempt to treat this material more explicitly in the later miniseries only shows how right Kubrick was to use them instead as the building blocks of a visual language. The Overlook is a stage for reenacting the haunted history of its nation, much of which can only be expressed as a ghost story, and it isn’t finished yet. Looking at the pictures in the scrapbook from the hotel’s grand opening in 1945, Torrance thinks: “The war was over, or almost over. The future lay ahead, clean and shining.”

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2018 at 7:46 am

Great Directors: Orson Welles

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Essential films: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, F for Fake

I have to admit that it took me a long time to come around to Kane. Few other movies have been so unfairly suffocated by their own reputations: advance expectations run so high, for the officially certified greatest film of all time, that it nearly overwhelms what is really, as Pauline Kael points out, the fastest and frothiest of all newspaper comedies. At least, that’s how it plays at first. But as time goes on, thanks largely to David Thomson, I’ve found depths in Kane that probably weren’t evident even to its creator, who was, in fact, the secret subject of his own movie. Citizen Kane is a prophetic foreshadowing of the career of Orson Welles, the boy wonder who plays only a handful of scenes in his own face, and its power grows all the greater as the years take us further away from the incredible physical fact of Welles himself.

And the movie wouldn’t be able to sustain the weight of such baggage, or scrutiny, if it weren’t so intricate and beautiful a toy—a labyrinth without a center, as Borges notes. Of all the faces in Kane, the one that stays with me most is that of George Coulouris, as Thatcher, scowling, at the end of the closing credits, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” No other film has made the art of movies seem like such mischievous fun for boys, and though Welles’s vision darkened over the years, that sense of delight is never entirely gone. It’s there throughout Touch of Evil, and it’s wonderfully evident in F for Fake, his last film, a feat of sleight of hand that even Exit Through the Gift Shop can’t hope to match. In the end, Welles’s life remains, as David Thomson says, “the greatest career in film, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.”

Tomorrow: Akira Kurosawa and the triumph of storytelling.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2011 at 7:37 am

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