Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Shining

Updike’s ladder

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Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 13, 2017.

Last year, the author Anjali Enjeti published an article in The Atlantic titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to what Enjeti writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says dryly, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I first encountered her article while reading the authoritative biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” Even Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the sheer productivity and variety of Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being prolific. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of chasing after a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially account for the prevalence in literary fiction of frustration and unresolved narratives. It also explains why it helps to be privileged enough to fail for years.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even as you’re transformed by it. I think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder, including Enjeti, who I’m pleased to note finally scored her book deal—she has an essay collection in the works from the University of Georgia Press. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

The tip of the spear

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Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

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.”

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January 8, 2018 at 7:46 am

The unstrung hero

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Despite the fact that writers have an obvious interest in talking about their lives, there are surprisingly few truly satisfying portraits of novelists in fiction. Until recently, I would have said, in all seriousness, that the best depiction of a writer that I’ve ever seen is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But my new favorite, which I discovered just a few weeks ago, is Edward Gorey’s early illustrated story The Unstrung Harp. This little book, which first appeared in 1953, was included two decades later in the collection Amphigorey, which I bought last month for my daughter. Its central figure is Mr. Clavius Frederick Earbrass, “the well-known novelist,” whose books include A Moral Dustbin, More Chains than Clank, Was it Likely?, and “the Hipdeep trilogy.” (Even in the first two sentences, you can hear the voice, more Edwardian than any Englishman could manage, that makes it all the more startling to realize that Gorey was born in Chicago and spent most of his life on Cape Cod.) In November of every other year, we’re told, Mr. Earbrass starts a new novel, and we meet him as he’s about to commence work on The Unstrung Harp, a title that he chose “at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book.” This is all good stuff, but a passage on the fourth page is what really caught my eye:

Several weeks later, the loofah trickling on his knees, Mr. Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.

This is so close to my own experience of writing that I began to read the book more closely. Two pages later, there’s a line that feels inexpressibly right: “[Mr. Earbrass] cannot help but feel that Lirp’s return and almost immediate impalement on a bottle-tree was one of his better ideas.” On the next page, however, we find the writer “engaged in making diagrams of possible routes and destinations, and wishing he had not dealt so summarily with Lirp, who would have been useful for taking retributive measures at the end of Part Three. At the moment there is no other character capable of them.” This is frighteningly accurate. Every page or so, there’s another exquisite detail, as when Mr. Earbrass thinks of the perfect epigraph, but can’t remember the source of the lines: “His mind’s eye sees them quoted on the bottom third of a right-hand page in a (possibly) olive-bound book he read at least five years ago.” And Gorey’s description of the revision process is one of the best that I’ve found:

Some weeks later, with pen, ink, scissors, paste, a decanter of sherry, and a vast reluctance, Mr. Earbrass beings to revise TUH. This means, first, transposing passages, or reversing the order of their paragraphs, or crumpling them up furiously and throwing them in the waste-basket. After that there is rewriting. This is worse than merely writing, because not only does he have to think up new things just the same, but at the same time try not to remember the old ones.

It’s the combination of “a decanter of sherry” and “a vast reluctance” that gets at the heart of what every writer feels when approaching a new draft. I’m feeling it this morning.

What’s remarkable about The Unstrung Harp is that it seems to know so much about writing and publication, but it was actually Gorey’s first book—it came out when he was just twenty-seven, in the same year that he moved to New York to work for Doubleday. As for its origins, Gorey unhelpfully recalled in the interview collection Ascending Peculiarity: “I remember I started writing The Unstrung Harp to order, except I don’t know if anybody gave me the idea for it. They just said give us an idea for a book that you think we might find feasible. Why they found that feasible, I cannot imagine at this late date.” The result turned out to be the longest story that he would ever write, at least in terms of word count, and it was also an outlier, compared to the themes and tone that he would develop and refine so obsessively over the next few decades. After it was reprinted, Gorey’s good friend Peter F. Neumeyer wrote to him:

I’m just delighted with [The Unstrung Harp], not because it’s a masterpiece…but because it’s rich and warm and represents directions which are potential in your writing which you may sometime, when life has taken you there, draw on again, after perhaps a year or so more of the strange syntax in the minuets which you favor now frequently.

As it happened, Gorey never seems to have revisited this early mode, leaving it as something singular and strange in his body of work, which would find its greatest success in darker places.

But The Unstrung Harp reads now like the work of a young man with both an unusually strong voice and an uncanny sense of what he might become. Gorey spent the next seven years turning out book covers and illustrations for Doubleday, where he must have learned far more about the business of publishing, but it’s hard to imagine anything better than his description of “the worst part of all in the undertaking of a novel,” the preparation of the clean copy from the revised manuscript: “Not only is it repulsive to the eye and hand, with its tattered edges, stains, rumpled patches, scratchings-out, and scribblings, but its contents are, by this time, boring to the point of madness.” Or the day when Mr. Earbass has to review his page proofs:

The galleys have arrived, and Mr. Earbrass goes over them with mingled excitement and disgust. It all looks so different set up in type that at first he thought they had sent him the wrong ones by mistake. He is quite giddy from trying to physically control the sheets and at the same time keep the amount of absolutely necessary changes within the allowed pecuniary limits.

But my favorite moment, and one of the most purely humane that Gorey ever allowed himself, is when Mr. Earbrass decides impulsively to spend a few weeks on the Continent, with the last page of the book capturing him in a state of mind that all writers must know well: “Now, at dawn, he stands, quite numb with cold and trepidation, looking at the churning surface of the Channel…Though he is a person to whom things do not happen, perhaps they may when he is on the other side.”

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2017 at 8:25 am

Updike’s ladder

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In the latest issue of The Atlantic, the author Anjali Enjeti has an article titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you can mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to Enjeti when she writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says drily, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I came across her article while reading the biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” And Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the qualities that we associate with Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being productive. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of waiting for a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially explain the literary world’s fondness for frustration and unresolved narratives.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even you’re transformed by it. I seem to think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

Seven children and It

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Note: With the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It out in theaters today, it seems like a good time to revisit my thoughts on one of my favorite novels. The material in this post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 22, 2011 and October 2, 2013.

We read fiction for a lot of reasons, but its most fundamental attraction must be the chance to experience lives other than our own. At their best, novels can create men and women who seem as real as ourselves or our own friends, as well as places that feel as familiar as the landscape of the towns where we grew up. A lot of books have done this for me, but the one that haunts me the most is Stephen King’s It, which might seem like an unlikely candidate for America’s greatest popular novel. Yes, it’s about an evil clown who stalks the children of a small city in Maine, but that description doesn’t do justice to the richness of this book, into which King, one of our shrewdest storytellers, distills everything he knows about youth, storytelling, and the melancholy process by which we leave our childhood selves behind. The result is a monster of a novel that seems to have bewildered even its own creator. King has said that It was an attempt to put everything into one story, a sort of “final exam on horror,” and it shows: few novels of any genre have invented so much. A book so large and sprawling inevitably has its flaws, but in its scope, ambition, and emotional power, It represents the best of what genre fiction can do, and in the twenty-five years since I first encountered it, it continues to grip my imagination. For me, it remains the popular novel, the primal reading experience I’m always trying to recreate, and literally dream of discovering again.

And I was lucky to read it at just the right age—or rather, the wrong age, which is really the same thing. I’ve pointed out before that the best time to discover Stephen King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. It is the ultimate example, because in an era when the “young adult” category has been diluted by works really written for grownups, this is legitimately the greatest young adult novel of all time, at least in the sense that reading it can turn children into adults. As the novel begins, its main characters, the Losers, are in the fifth grade, and I was only a year or so older when I first read it. (Even now, I can’t look at the cover without remembering the library in my hometown where I borrowed it for the first time, like Ben Hanscom.) With its sex, gore, and rock music, It was an education in itself, and also the most realistic depiction of my inner life I’d ever seen. And it’s only now, after I’ve gone through precisely the process of forgetting that King spends much of the novel warning us about, that I can appreciate the intensity and accuracy of his evocation of youth. This is really a book about childhood, and only incidentally about horror. King is the most intensely personal of bestselling novelists, and at his finest, he uses horror to get at issues revolving around death, loss, and survival that stand out more clearly when they’re cast into a fantastic form. This doesn’t deny his roots in the great pulp tradition that values scares for their own sake, but the qualities that first drew me to his work aren’t necessarily the ones that have kept me there.

As a result, It no longer scares me much, any more than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining does on my twentieth viewing. Reading it again a few years ago, I was surprised to discover that while so much of it remained fresh—its humor, its sense of place, its immersion in the popular culture of two different eras, both of them now period pieces—the horror aspects felt a little tired. It might seem strange to say this about the most epic of horror novels, but the more I revisit It, which I’ve probably read in pieces at least a dozen times, the more its supernatural element seems like a fictional convenience, a clothesline on which to hang a series of episodes about memory and coming of age. King, in his prime, treated horror less as a subject than as a medium, and in this book’s central conceit, of a monster that takes a multitude of shapes and returns once a generation, he found a potent image for the ways in which we’re haunted by our youth but unable to fully recall it. A novel isn’t always about what we initially suspect it is, and when I think back to It now, the last thing that comes to mind is the killer clown in the sewers or the convoluted cosmology that assumes center stage in the book’s untidy conclusion. What I love, instead, are King’s descriptions of a clubhouse in the woods, of a first crush, and of how it feels to live in an inner world still peopled by creatures from comics, movies, and horror novels. And King’s inimitable voice, often copied but never equalled, has drawn me back again and again.

The result is one of the few works of fiction that make me feel as if I’d be objectively poorer if I’d never read it. It’s a densely structured novel that moves back and forth between multiple time periods, with excursions into remote corners of the history of Derry, Maine, but it’s also one of the great natural reads of all time: I can open it to any page and get sucked in all over again. King is an intuitively strong teller of tales and also a fine craftsman, and the novel is crammed with sequences—my favorite is Ben Hanscom’s encounter with the clown by the frozen river—that read like master classes in the use of atmosphere, detail, and suspense. There’s also a relaxed, genial curiosity that permeates even the most frightening scenes: King is as intrigued by this town as we are, and he spends hundreds of pages exploring it, until we feel that we could find our way around it without a map. Derry is a haunted place, and King works mightily to remind us of this, but he also loves it. That tension between nostalgia and terror is never resolved, and It is like a dream that oscillates unbearably between a nightmare and a fantasy where you’re still the child you always meant to be. If its succession of boogeymen no longer has the power to frighten, it’s only because I’ve reached the age of its protagonists as adults, and I’ve started the process of forgetting my own childhood that King warned me would happen one day, as a child’s purity of terror gives way to more ordinary anxieties. The monster in It sleeps for a quarter of a century before it returns, which is perhaps a sign that everyone who read this book when it came out should revisit it now. Because the children who first read It are grownups at last. And they might be surprised by how much this novel still has to say.

Written by nevalalee

September 8, 2017 at 9:01 am

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The steady hand

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Danny Lloyd in The Shining

Forty years ago, the cinematographer Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam. It was a stabilizer attached to a harness that allowed a camera operator, walking on foot or riding in a vehicle, to shoot the kind of smooth footage that had previously only been possible using a dolly. Before long, it had revolutionized the way in which both movies and television were shot, and not always in the most obvious ways. When we think of the Steadicam, we’re likely to remember virtuoso extended takes like the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas, but it can also be a valuable tool even when we aren’t supposed to notice it. As the legendary Robert Elswit said recently to the New York Times:

“To me, it’s not a specialty item,” he said. “It’s usually there all the time.” The results, he added, are sometimes “not even necessarily recognizable as a Steadicam shot. You just use it to get something done in a simple way.”

Like digital video, the Steadicam has had a leveling influence on the movies. Scenes that might have been too expensive, complicated, or time-consuming to set up in the conventional manner can be done on the fly, which has opened up possibilities both for innovative stylists and for filmmakers who are struggling to get their stories made at all.

Not surprisingly, there are skeptics. In On Directing Film, which I think is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read, David Mamet argues that it’s a mistake to think of a movie as a documentary record of what the protagonist does, and he continues:

The Steadicam (a hand-held camera), like many another technological miracle, has done injury; it has injured American movies, because it makes it so easy to follow the protagonist around, one no longer has to think, “What is the shot?” or “Where should I put the camera?” One thinks, instead, “I can shoot the whole thing in the morning.”

This conflicts with Mamet’s approach to structuring a plot, which hinges on dividing each scene into individual beats that can be expressed in purely visual terms. It’s a method that emerges naturally from the discipline of selecting shots and cutting them together, and it’s the kind of hard work that we’re often tempted to avoid. As Mamet adds in a footnote: “The Steadicam is no more capable of aiding in the creation of a good movie than the computer is in the writing of a good novel—both are labor-saving devices, which simplify and so make more attractive the mindless aspects of creative endeavor.” The casual use of the Steadicam seduces directors into conceiving of the action in terms of “little plays,” rather than in fundamental narrative units, and it removes some of the necessity of disciplined thinking beforehand.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

But it isn’t until toward the end of the book that Mamet delivers his most ringing condemnation of what the Steadicam represents:

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” one might say, “if we could get this hall here, really around the corner from that door there; or to get that door here to really be the door that opens on the staircase to that door there? So we could just movie the camera from one to the next?”

It took me a great deal of effort and still takes me a great deal and will continue to take me a great deal of effort to answer the question thusly: no, not only is it not important to have those objects literally contiguous; it is important to fight against this desire, because fighting it reinforces an understanding of the essential nature of film, which is that it is made of disparate shorts, cut together. It’s a door, it’s a hall, it’s a blah-blah. Put the camera “there” and photograph, as simply as possible, that object. If we don’t understand that we both can and must cut the shots together, we are sneakily falling victim to the mistaken theory of the Steadicam.

This might all sound grumpy and abstract, but it isn’t. Take Birdman. You might well love Birdman—plenty of viewers evidently did—but I think it provides a devastating confirmation of Mamet’s point. By playing as a single, seemingly continuous shot, it robs itself of the ability to tell the story with cuts, and it inadvertently serves as an advertisement of how most good movies come together in the editing room. It’s an audacious experiment that never needs to be tried again. And it wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the Steadicam.

But the Steadicam can also be a thing of beauty. I don’t want to discourage its use by filmmakers for whom it means the difference between making a movie under budget and never making it at all, as long as they don’t forget to think hard about all of the constituent parts of the story. There’s also a place for the bravura long take, especially when it depends on our awareness of the unfaked passage of time, as in the opening of Touch of Evil—a long take, made without benefit of a Steadicam, that runs the risk of looking less astonishing today because technology has made this sort of thing so much easier. And there’s even room for the occasional long take that exists only to wow us. De Palma has a fantastic one in Raising Cain, which I watched again recently, that deserves to be ranked among the greats. At its best, it can make the filmmaker’s audacity inseparable from the emotional core of the scene, as David Thomson observes of Goodfellas: “The terrific, serpentine, Steadicam tracking shot by which Henry Hill and his girl enter the Copacabana by the back exit is not just his attempt to impress her but Scorsese’s urge to stagger us and himself with bravura cinema.” The best example of all is The Shining, with its tracking shots of Danny pedaling his Big Wheel down the deserted corridors of the Overlook. It’s showy, but it also expresses the movie’s basic horror, as Danny is inexorably drawn to the revelation of his father’s true nature. (And it’s worth noting that much of its effectiveness is due to the sound design, with the alternation of the wheels against the carpet and floor, which is one of those artistic insights that never grows dated.) The Steadicam is a tool like any other, which means that it can be misused. It can be wonderful, too. But it requires a steady hand behind the camera.

The last tango

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Bernardo Bertoclucci, Marlon Brando, and Maria Schneider on the set of Last Tango in Paris

When I look back at many of my favorite movies, I’m troubled by a common thread that they share. It’s the theme of the control of a vulnerable woman by a man in a position of power. The Red Shoes, my favorite film of all time, is about artistic control, while Blue Velvet, my second favorite, is about sexual domination. Even Citizen Kane has that curious subplot about Kane’s attempt to turn Susan into an opera star, which may have originated as an unkind reference to William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but which survives in the final version as an emblem of Kane’s need to collect human beings like playthings. It’s also hard to avoid the feeling that some of these stories secretly mirror the relationship between the director and his actresses on the set. Vertigo, of course, can be read as an allegory for Hitchcock’s own obsession with his leading ladies, whom he groomed and remade as meticulously as Scotty attempts to do with Madeline. In The Shining, Jack’s abuse of Wendy feels only slightly more extreme than what we know Kubrick—who even resembles Jack a bit in the archival footage that survives—imposed on Shelley Duvall. (Duvall’s mental health issues have cast a new pall on those accounts, and the involvement of Kubrick’s daughter Vivian has done nothing to clarify the situation.) And Roger Ebert famously hated Blue Velvet because he felt that David Lynch’s treatment of Isabella Rossellini had crossed an invisible moral line.

The movie that has been subjected to this kind of scrutiny most recently is Last Tango in Paris, after interview footage resurfaced of Bernardo Bertolucci discussing its already infamous rape scene. (Bertolucci originally made these comments three years ago, and the fact that they’ve drawn attention only now is revealing in itself—it was hiding in plain sight, but it had to wait until we were collectively prepared to talk about it.) Since the story first broke, there has been some disagreement over what Maria Schneider knew on the day of the shoot. You can read all about it here. But it seems undeniable that Bertolucci and Brando deliberately withheld crucial information about the scene from Schneider until the cameras were rolling. Even the least offensive version makes me sick to my stomach, all the more so because Last Tango in Paris has been an important movie to me for most of my life. In online discussions of the controversy, I’ve seen commenters dismissing the film as an overrated relic, a vanity project for Brando, or one of Pauline Kael’s misguided causes célèbres. If anything, though, this attitude lets us off the hook too easily. It’s much harder to admit that a film that genuinely moved audiences and changed lives might have been made under conditions that taint the result beyond retrieval. It’s a movie that has meant a lot to me, as it did to many other viewers, including some I knew personally. And I don’t think I can ever watch it again.

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

But let’s not pretend that it ends there. It reflects a dynamic that has existed between directors and actresses since the beginning, and all too often, we’ve forgiven it, as long as it results in great movies. We write critical treatments of how Vertigo and Psycho masterfully explore Hitchcock’s ambivalence toward women, and we overlook the fact that he sexually assaulted Tippi Hedren. When we think of the chummy partnerships that existed between men like Cary Grant and Howard Hawks, or John Wayne and John Ford, and then compare them with how directors have regarded their female collaborators, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. (The great example here is Gone With the Wind: George Cukor, the original director, was fired because he made Clark Gable uncomfortable, and he was replaced by Gable’s buddy Victor Fleming. Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were forced to consult with Cukor in secret.) And there’s an unsettling assumption on the part of male directors that this is the only way to get a good performance from a woman. Bertolucci says that he and Brando were hoping to get Schneider’s raw reaction “as a girl, instead of as an actress.” You can see much the same impulse in Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall. Even Michael Powell, one of my idols, writes of how he and the other actors frightened Moira Shearer to the point of tears for the climactic scene of The Red Shoes—“This was no longer acting”—and says elsewhere: “I never let love interfere with business, or I would have made love to her. It would have improved her performance.”

So what’s a film buff to do? We can start by acknowledging that the problem exists, and that it continues to affect women in the movies, whether in the process of filmmaking itself or in the realities of survival in an industry that is still dominated by men. Sometimes it leads to abuse or worse. We can also honor the work of those directors, from Ozu to Almodóvar to Wong Kar-Wai, who have treated their actresses as partners in craft. Above all else, we can come to terms with the fact that sometimes even a masterpiece fails to make up for the choices that went into it. Thinking of Last Tango in Paris, I was reminded of Norman Mailer, who wrote one famous review of the movie and was linked to it in another. (Kael wrote: “On the screen, Brando is our genius as Mailer is our genius in literature.”) Years later, Mailer supported the release from prison of a man named Jack Henry Abbott, a gifted writer with whom he had corresponded at length. Six weeks later, Abbott stabbed a stranger to death. Afterward, Mailer infamously remarked:

I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.

But it isn’t—at least not like this. Last Tango in Paris is a masterpiece. It contains the single greatest male performance I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t worth it.

Red shoe diaries

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Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Earlier this week, my daughter, who is three years old, watched her first live-action movie. It was The Red Shoes. And although it might seem like I planned it this way—The Red Shoes, as I’ve said here on multiple occasions, is my favorite movie of all time—I can only protest, unconvincingly, that it was a total accident. Beatrix has been watching animated features for a while now, including a record number of viewings of My Neighbor Totoro, but she had never seen a live-action film from start to finish, and I’d already been thinking about which one to try to show her first. If you’d asked me, I’d have guessed that it would probably be Mary Poppins. But over the weekend, Beatrix started asking me about my own favorite films, and The Red Shoes naturally came up, along with a few others. (The first movie we discussed, for some reason, was The Shining, which led to an awkward plot summary: “Well, it’s about a family, sort of like ours, and the daddy is a writer, like me…”) I said that it was about dance, which piqued her interest, and I suggested that she might like to see the self-contained ballet sequence from the middle of the movie. She did, so we watched together it that night. When it was over, she turned to me and said: “I want to watch the rest.” I agreed, expecting that she would tune out and lose interest within the first twenty minutes. But she didn’t, and we ended up watching the whole thing over two evenings.

At first, I was understandably thrilled, but the overnight intermission gave me time to start worrying. The Red Shoes is a great movie, but its climax is undeniably bleak, and I spent a restless night wondering how Beatrix would handle the scene in which the ballerina Victoria Page falls to her death before an oncoming train. (It didn’t help that during the first half, Beatrix had said cheerfully to me: “I’m Vicky!”) The next morning, when she asked to watch the rest, I sat her down on my knee and explained what happened at the end. She told me that she would be okay with it, and that if it bothered her, she wouldn’t look at the screen, as long as I warned her in time. That’s more or less how it went: when we got to the ending, I told her what was coming, and she turned her head toward the back of the couch until I said the coast was clear. When the movie was over, I asked her what she thought. She said that she liked it a lot—but I also noticed that her eyes were glistening. It’s the first film of any kind she’s ever seen, in fact, that didn’t have a happy ending, and when she’s asked me why grownups enjoy watching sad movies, I’ve struggled with the response. I say that sometimes it’s good to feel emotions that you don’t experience in your everyday life, or that a sad movie can make you appreciate your own happiness, or that you can take pleasure in how well a sad story is told. But she didn’t seem all that convinced, and to be honest, neither am I.

The Red Shoes

It was especially enlightening to watch The Red Shoes through her eyes. It’s a movie with a strikingly fatalistic view of life and art: Lermontov tells Vicky that she can’t be married to Julian and be a great dancer at the same time, and the film implicitly confirms his judgment. “You cannot have it both ways,” Lermontov says grimly. “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.” It doesn’t seem to leave Vicky with much in the way of a middle ground. Yet although I’ve watched this movie endlessly over the last twenty years, I realized, seeing it again with my daughter, that I’m not sure if this reflects Powell and Pressburger’s true opinion or if it’s simply a narrative convention that they needed to enable the story’s tragic ending. For that matter, it doesn’t need to be one or the other: it feels a lot like a conclusion into which they were forced by the material, which is as valid a way as any for an artist to discover what he or she really thinks. And you don’t need to accept the movie’s bleaker aspects—I mostly don’t—to appreciate its merits as entertainment. Still, this isn’t a distinction that you’re likely to understand at the age of three, so I found myself telling Beatrix that the movie’s apparent message wasn’t necessarily true. It’s possible, I think, to have a satisfying creative career and a happy personal life: it’s certainly hard, but less than an order of magnitude harder than succeeding as an artist in the first place.

I don’t know how much of this Beatrix understood, but then again, I’m never entirely sure about what’s going on in her head. (On the night before we finished The Red Shoes, I passed by her bedroom and noticed that she was lying in bed with her eyes open. Looking straight at me, she said: “I’m thinking about the movie.”) And I wouldn’t be surprised if we quickly moved on to the next thing: Beatrix still says that her favorite movie is Ponyo, which makes me very happy. But hey, you never know. The Red Shoes has been responsible for more careers in dance than any other movie, and I know from firsthand experience how much impact a passing encounter with a piece of pop culture can have on your inner life. I’m not sure I want Beatrix to be a ballerina, which, if anything, is the one career that offers even less of a prospect of success than the one I’ve chosen for myself. But I want her to care about art, and to appreciate, as Lermontov tells Vicky, that a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit. On a more modest level, I want her to understand that we watch sad movies for a reason, even if it’s hard to explain, and that it’s both normal and good for the emotions they evoke to be as intense as the ones we feel in real life. Of course, she’ll probably come to that conclusion on her own. The other day, Beatrix looked at me and said: “I want to watch the movie about the girl at the restaurant.” It took me a while to realize that she was talking about Chungking Express. I replied: “You will soon.” And I meant it.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2016 at 8:32 am

Hail to the King

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Stephen King

“The golden age of science fiction,” the fan editor Peter Graham once wrote, “is twelve.” And it seems fair to say that the golden age of horror fiction comes shortly thereafter. If science fiction tends to take hold of the imagination of curious kids in search of stories in which intelligence is a means of empowerment, rather than isolation, they often latch onto horror in the years when middle school and the onset of adolescence send them looking for a kind of narrative that can put their terrors into a more tangible form. Between the ages of twelve and thirteen, I read so much Stephen King that it’s a wonder I had time to do anything else: at least fifteen novels in all, from Carrie to Needful Things. And I know that I’m not alone in saying that the best time to discover King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. The recent rise in fiction geared exclusively toward young adults, which includes its share of horror titles, isn’t a bad thing, but it means that a teenager looking for interesting reading material is less likely to turn first to The Shining or The Stand. Which is a loss in itself—because I’ve come to realize that King, for me, wasn’t just a gateway drug into reading in general, but toward an especially valuable mode of fiction that I can only describe as modernist realism put into the service of more primal fears.

King has never ceased to produce bestsellers, but if his reputation continues to rest on a main sequence of early books—stretching roughly from ‘Salem’s Lot through It—this isn’t just a question of his having produced his best work in his youth. He was, and is, a writer of enormous talent, but he was also the right man at the right time. His most influential novels appeared in the mid- to late seventies, at a time when mainstream fiction was uniquely enterprising in turning the tools of modernist realism onto genre plots. The first category to take full advantage of that bag of tricks, not surprisingly, was the suburban sex novel: the difference between Peyton Place and Updike’s Couples is more one of style than of substance. A few earlier horror novels, notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, had covered some of the same ground, with meticulous, almost fussily detailed looks at upper-class households on the verge of crossing over into the supernatural, but King was the first to do it over multiple books. And it was a surpassingly good trick. King’s basic formula, with convincing observations of everyday life providing a backdrop for increasingly horrifying events, may seem obvious now, but surprisingly few other writers have pursued it consistently. (One exception is Peter Straub, whose Ghost Story is one of those late entries in a genre that has a way of codifying everything that came before.)

John Updike

And much of King’s appeal comes from his ability to create what John Updike called “specimen lives,” with carefully constructed characters who turn out to be both timelessly interesting and emphatically of their era. King’s novels are rooted much more in the culture and politics of the seventies than we tend to remember. The Shining often reads like a haunted house story informed by Watergate, as when Stuart Ullmann smugly informs Jack Torrance that Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon all stayed in the hotel’s presidential suite: “I wouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon,” Jack replies. And The Stand originated in a confluence of ideas that could only have occurred at a particular historical moment, as King recounts in Danse Macabre:

The story about the CBW spill in Utah…became entwined in my thoughts about Patty Hearst and the SLA, and one day while sitting at my typewriter…I wrote—just to write something: The world comes to an end but everybody in the SLA is somehow immune. Snake bit them. I looked at that for a while and then typed: No more gas shortages.

When we turn to his characters themselves, we find finely nuanced portraits of ordinary individuals who wouldn’t have been out of place in an Updike novel. Time has turned them into period pieces, but they’re as valuable, in their way, as the literary novels of the time, and the care that King lavished on assembling those mundane lives goes a long way toward explaining the power of the terror that follows.

Gradually, King strayed from that template, particularly as his own success made it more difficult for him to write convincingly about protagonists who weren’t members of the upper middle class. (The transitional novel here is It, in which nostalgia takes the place of reportage for the first time, and which a character observes of his friends: “And then there’s the passingly curious fact that you’re all rich.”) But those early novels—in which King fused the textured social observation of the seventies with something older and darker—stand as permanent landmarks, and when we look at lesser efforts in the same vein, we’re reminded of how hard it really was. One reason why Jaws reads so strangely today, as I’ve noted before, is that it’s an early attempt to fuse the slightly sordid air of a sexy bestseller with a monster story, and the two halves don’t work together: instead of allowing each piece to enhance the other, Benchley gives us a hundred interminable pages about Ellen Brody’s affair that never connect in satisfying ways to the action on the boat. King cracked the code in a way that Benchley didn’t, and a book like Pet Sematary is a master class in fusing a realistic psychological novel with a plot out of Poe. In time, both King and the culture around him moved on, and the artistic moment that produced his best novels seems to have passed. But the books still exist, for whatever teenagers or adults feel like seeking them out, and for lucky readers, they can still spark the kind of hunger that they once awoke in me.

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October 30, 2015 at 8:28 am

My ten great movies #4: The Shining

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For most of the past decade, the Kubrick film on this list would have been Eyes Wide Shut, and while my love for that movie remains undiminished—I think it’s Kubrick’s most humane and emotionally complex work, and endlessly inventive in ways that most viewers tend to underestimate—it’s clear now that The Shining is more central to my experience of the movies. The crucial factor, perhaps unsurprisingly, was my decision to become a writer. Because while there have been a lot of movies about novelists, The Shining is by far our greatest storehouse of images about the inside of a writer’s head. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill, and there isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy.

The visual, aural, and visceral experience of The Shining is so overwhelming that there’s no need to describe it here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the performances, which are the richest that Kubrick—often underrated in his handling of actors—ever managed to elicit. (Full credit should also be given to Stephen King’s original novel, to which the movie is more indebted than is generally acknowledged.) At one point, I thought that the film’s only major flaw is that it was impossible to imagine Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a married couple, but I’m no longer sure about this: there are marriages this strange and mismatched, and the glimpses of their relationship early on are depressingly plausible. Duvall gives what is simply one of the major female performances in the history of movies, and as David Thomson was among the first to point out, Nicholson is great when he plays crazy, but he’s also strangely tender in his few quiet scenes with his son. “You’ve always been the caretaker,” Grady’s ghost tells Torrance, and his personality suffuses every frame of this incredible labyrinth.

Tomorrow: A masterpiece in six weeks.

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May 19, 2015 at 9:00 am

An unfinished decade

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Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What movie from our best films of the decade so far list doesn’t deserve to be on there?”

Toward the end of the eighties, Premiere Magazine conducted a poll of critics, directors, writers, and industry insiders to select the best films of the previous decade. The winners, in order of the number of votes received, were Raging Bull, Wings of Desire, E.T., Blue Velvet, Hannah and Her Sisters, Platoon, Fanny and Alexander, Shoah, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Do the Right Thing, with The Road Warrior, Local Hero, and Terms of Endearment falling just outside the top ten. I had to look up the list to retype it here, but I also could have reconstructed much of it from memory: a battered copy of Premiere’s paperback home video guide—which seems to have vanished from existence, along with its parent magazine, based on my inability, after five minutes of futile searching, to even locate the title online—was one of my constant companions as I started exploring movies more seriously in high school. And if the list contains a few headscratchers, that shouldn’t be surprising: the poll was held a few months before the eighties were technically even over, which isn’t close to enough time for a canon to settle into a consensus.

So how would an updated ranking look? The closest thing we have to a more recent evaluation is the latest Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the best films ever made. Pulling out only the movies from the eighties, the top films are Shoah, Raging Bull, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Fanny and Alexander, A City of Sadness, Do the Right Thing, L’Argent, The Shining, and My Neighbor Totoro, followed closely by Come and See, Distant Voices Still Lives, and Once Upon a Time in America. There’s a degree of overlap here, and Raging Bull was already all but canonized when the earlier survey took place, but Wings of Desire, which once came in second, is nowhere in sight, its position taken by a movie—Blade Runner—that didn’t even factor into the earlier conversation. The Shining received the vote of just a single critic in the Premiere poll, and at the time it was held, My Neighbor Totoro wouldn’t be widely seen outside Japan for another three years. Still, if there’s a consistent pattern, it’s hard to see, aside from the obvious point that it takes a while for collective opinion to stabilize. Time is the most remorseless, and accurate, critic of them all.

Inception

And carving up movies by decade is an especially haphazard undertaking. A decade is an arbitrary division, much more so than a single year, in which the movies naturally engage in a kind of accidental dialogue. It’s hard to see the release date of Raging Bull as anything more than a quirk of the calendar: it’s undeniably the last great movie of the seventies. You could say much the same of The Shining. And there’s pressure to make any such list conform to our idea of what a given decade was about. The eighties, at least at the time, were seen as a moment in which the auteurism of the prior decade was supplanted by a blockbuster mentality, encouraged, as Tony Kushner would have it, by an atmosphere of reactionary politics, but of course the truth is more complicated. Blue Velvet harks back to the fifties, but the division at its heart feels like a product of Reaganism, and the belated ascent of Blade Runner is an acknowledgment of the possibilities of art in the era of Star Wars. (As an offhand observation, I’d say that we find it easier to characterize decades if their first years happen to coincide with a presidential election. As a culture, we know what the sixties, eighties, and aughts were “like” far more than the seventies or nineties.)

So we should be skeptical of the surprising number of recent attempts to rank works of art when the decade in question is barely halfway over. This week alone, The A.V. Club did it for movies, while The Oyster Review did it for books, and even if we discount the fact that we have five more years of art to anticipate, such lists are interesting mostly in the possibilities they suggest for later reconsideration. (The top choices at The A.V. Club were The Master, A Separation, The Tree of Life, Frances Ha, and The Act of Killing, and looking over the rest of the list, about half of which I’ve seen, I’d have to say that the only selection that really puzzled me was Haywire.) As a culture, we may be past the point where a consensus favorite is even possible: I’m not sure if any one movie occupies the same position for the aughts that Raging Bull did for the eighties. If I can venture one modest prediction, though, it’s that Inception will look increasingly impressive as time goes on, for much the same reason as Blade Runner does: it’s our best recent example of an intensely personal version thriving within the commercial constraints of the era in which it was made. Great movies are timeless, but also of their time, in ways that can be hard to sort out until much later. And that’s true of critics and viewers, too.

The Wire cutter

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Clarke Peters on The Wire

Earlier this week, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, posted a fascinating piece on his blog about the recent conversion of the series from standard to high definition. Like everything Simon writes, it’s prickly, dense with ideas, and doesn’t sugarcoat his own opinions. He has mixed feelings about the new release, and although he ultimately comes down in favor of it, he doesn’t exactly give it a ringing endorsement:

At the last, I’m satisfied that while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has significant merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups, and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.

The whole post is worth a read, both for its insights and for its reminder of how much craft went into making this great series so convincing and unobtrusive. We don’t tend to think of The Wire as a visually meticulous show, in the manner of Mad Men or House of Cards, but of course it was, except that its style was designed not to draw attention to itself—which requires just as many subtle decisions, if not more.

Simon likes to present himself as a visual naif, “some ex-police reporter in Baltimore” who found himself making a television series almost by accident, but he’s as smart on the subject of filmmaking he is on anything else. Here he is on the development of the show’s visual style, as overseen by the late director Bob Colesberry:

Crane shots didn’t often help, and anticipating a moment or a line of dialogue often revealed the filmmaking artifice. Better to have the camera react and acquire, coming late on a line now and then. Better to have the camera in the flow of a housing-project courtyard or squad room, calling less attention to itself as it nonetheless acquired the tale.

Compare this to the exchange between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in their famous interview:

Hitchcock: When a character who has been seated stands up to walk around a room, I will never change the angle or move the camera back. I always start the movement on the closeup…In most movies, when two people are seen talking together, you have a closeup on one of them, a closeup on the other…and suddenly the camera jumps back for a long shot, to show one of the characters rising to walk around. It’s wrong to handle it that way.

Truffaut: Yes, because that technique precedes the action instead of accompanying it. It allows the public to guess that one of the characters is about to stand up, or whatever. In other words, the camera should never anticipate what’s about to follow.

David Simon

As it happened, when The Wire premiered twelve years ago, widescreen televisions were just coming on the market, and the industry shift toward high definition occurred about two seasons in, after the show had already established its defining look. Simon notes that he felt that a shift to widescreen halfway through the run of the series—as The West Wing was among the first to attempt—would draw unwanted attention to its own fictionality:

To deliver the first two seasons in one template and then to switch-up and provide the remaining seasons in another format would undercut our purpose tremendously, simply by calling attention to the manipulation of the form itself. The whole story would become less real, and more obviously, a film that was suddenly being delivered in an altered aesthetic state. And story, to us, is more important than aesthetics.

In the end, The Wire took a more subtle approach. Each scene was shot in widescreen, but composed for a 4:3 image, and the decision was made early on to tell much of the story in medium shots, with minimal use of closeups. This served the needs of the narrative while granting the show some flexibility when it came to the prospect of a future conversion, which, if nothing else, is easier now than ever before. (During the filming of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra spent most of one night manually enlarging every frame of the scene in which Jimmy Stewart breaks down while praying: it was a spontaneous, irreproducible moment, and they couldn’t get a closeup in any other way. These days, as I noted in my piece on The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, you can do it with a click of a mouse.)

Still, there are always tradeoffs. This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has been forced to deal with shifting formats, and when you look back on the two most significant previous moments in the history of aspect ratios—the introduction of CinemaScope and the dawn of home video—you find directors and producers struggling with similar issues. Many early movies shot on widescreen, from Oklahoma! to Around the World in Eighty Days to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, were actually filmed twice, with an alternate version prepared for theaters that hadn’t yet made the conversion. And we know that the problem of filming a movie both for theatrical release and for television obsessed Kubrick, who composed each shot for The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut so that it could be shown either letterboxed or in full frame. (Kubrick was good, but not perfect: the full frame versions, which expose regions of the image that would be matted in theaters, occasionally lead to small goofs, like the shadow of the helicopter clearly visible in one of the opening shots of The Shining.) Making movies at such transitional moments is an inevitable part of the evolution of the medium, but it’s never fun: you find yourself simultaneously dealing with the past and some unforeseen future, when the present provides plenty of challenges of its own.

The monster in the mirror

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Psycho

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “If you were a horror movie villain, what would be your hook?”

In horror movies, we’re supposed to relate to the victims, but some of the genre’s most enduring works implicate us into an uneasy identification with the monster. I’m not talking about the films that invite the audience to cheer as another mad slasher takes out a platoon of teenagers, or even more sophisticated examples like the original Halloween, which locks us into the killer’s eyes with its opening tracking shot. What I have in mind is something more like Norman Bates. Norman is “nutty as a fruitcake,” to use Roger Ebert’s memorable words, but he’s also immensely appealing and sympathetic in the middle sequence of Psycho, much more so than John Gavin’s square, conventional hero. The connection Norman has with Marion as she eats her sandwich in the parlor is real, or at least real enough to convince her to return the stolen money, and it fools us temporarily into thinking that this movie will be an adventure involving these two shy souls. Because what defines Norman isn’t his insanity, or even his mother issues, but his loneliness. As he says wistfully to Marion: “Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies. They moved away the highway.”

Which is only to say that in Norman, we’re confronted with a weird, distorted image of our own introversion, with his teenager’s room and Beethoven’s Eroica on the record player. Other memorable villains force us to confront other aspects of ourselves by taking these tendencies to their murderous conclusion. Hannibal Lecter is a strange case, since he’s so superficially seductive, and he was ultimately transformed into the hero of his own series. What he really represents, though, is aestheticism run amok. We’d all love to have his tastes in books, music, and food—well, maybe not entirely the latter—but they come at the price of his complete estrangement from all human connection, or an inability to regard other people as anything other than items on a menu. Sometimes, it’s literal; at others, it’s figurative, as he takes an interest in Will Graham or Clarice Starling only to the extent that they can relieve his boredom. Lecter, we’re told, eats only the rude, but “rude” can have two meanings, and for the most part, it ends up referring to those too lowly or rough to meet his own high standards. (Bryan Fuller, to his credit, has given us multiple reminders of how psychotic Lecter’s behavior really is.)

Kevin Spacey in Seven

And if Lecter cautions us against the perversion of our most refined impulses, Jack Torrance represents the opposite: “The susceptible imagination,” as David Thomson notes, “of a man who lacks the skills to be a writer.” Along with so much else, The Shining is the best portrait of a writer we have on film, because we can all relate to Jack’s isolation and frustration. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill: you’re surrounded by gorgeous empty spaces, as well as the ghosts of your own ambitions, and all you can manage to do is bounce a tennis ball against the wall, again and again and again. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy, and whenever I tell people what I’m working on at the moment, I can’t help but hear a whisper of Jack’s cheerful statement to Ullman: “I’m outlining a new writing project, and five months of peace is just what I want.”

There’s another monster who gets at an even darker aspect of the writer’s craft: John Doe in Seven. I don’t think there’s another horror movie that binds the process of its own making so intimately to the villain’s pathology: Seven is so beautifully constructed and so ingenious that it takes us a while to realize that John Doe is essentially writing the screenplay. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script was sensational enough to get him out of a job at Tower Records, but despite the moral center that Morgan Freeman’s character provides, it’s hard to escape the sense that the film delights more in its killer’s cleverness, which can’t be separated from the writer’s. Unlike Jack Torrance, John Doe is superbly good at what he does, and he’s frightening primarily as an example of genius and facility without heart. The impulse that pushes him to use human lives as pieces in his masterpiece of murder is only the absurdist conclusion of the tendency in so many writers, including me, to treat violence as a narrative tool, a series of marks that the plot needs to hit to keep the story moving. I’m not saying that the two are morally equivalent. But Seven—even in its final limitations, which Fincher later went on to explode in Zodiac—is still a scary film for any writer who ever catches himself treating life and death as a game.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2014 at 9:01 am

Inside Room 237

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Room 237

I’d say a day rarely goes by when I don’t think about Stanley Kubrick, but recently, he’s been on my mind even more than usual, thanks to the appearance in my life of two wonderful pieces of Kubrickiana. The first is the gorgeous Taschen study of Napoleon, the film Kubrick modestly hoped would be “the greatest movie ever made,” including the director’s own notes, voluminous research materials, reference photographs, and his original script. The other is Room 237, the fascinating if somewhat shapeless new documentary that details five elaborate interpretations of The Shining, with its interviewees convinced that the movie is really a veiled allegory, among other things, for the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, or the role Kubrick played in faking the Apollo moon landing. And although the two works might not seem to have much in common, aside from the figure at the center, they cast a surprising amount of light, both separately and together, on the artist who seemed more committed than any other director to advancing the entire medium.

Room 237 deliberately leaves its viewers with more questions than answers, and there are times when we’d like a little more information about some of the passionate, articulate, slightly unhinged voices on the soundtrack, but it’s still a huge pleasure to watch. If nothing else, it’s a welcome excuse to revisit The Shiningone of the richest of all American movies, as the documentary picks it apart with the obsessiveness of a conspiracy theorist rewinding the Zapruder film. It gives us freeze frames, enlargements, diagrams, and entire scenes played in slow motion or reverse, until the film starts to resemble one of those visual puzzles that Nabokov evokes at the end of Speak, Memory: Find What the Sailor Has Hidden. The guiding principle of these readings is that nothing is a mistake, and that even seemingly innocent continuity errors can convey a secret meaning. Even I’d never noticed that the color of Jack’s typewriter changes over the course of the movie, that the pattern on the carpet beneath Danny’s feet reverses itself between two shots, or that Stuart Ullman’s office includes an impossible window.

Danny Lloyd in The Shining

And it’s worth asking why Kubrick, and The Shining in particular, has encouraged such diverse—and occasionally insane—interpretations. For one possible answer, we can turn to Taschen’s Napoleon, which convincingly documents that Kubrick really was as obsessive as he seemed: even before the project had been officially approved by any studio, he had an army of assistants and researchers compiling visual references, combing through archives, and assembling a card catalog that documented what every character was doing on every day of Napoleon’s life. When one of the interviewees in Room 237 claims that Kubrick deployed a team to spend months researching every aspect of Colorado history, we aren’t given much supporting evidence, but it’s certainly plausible. The interviewees argue, not without reason, that Kubrick was a perfectionist who shot miles of film, did countless takes, and wanted to control every aspect of a movie’s production, so that even the fact that a chair in the background disappears from one shot to the next can be taken as a deliberate choice.

But I think there’s a deeper point to be made here about the nature of Kubrick’s process, and of artistic endeavor in general, beyond what particular significance we read into The Shining. (For what it’s worth, I think there’s a good case to be made that the film deliberately incorporates symbolism from American history, although less for the sake of a clear message than as a way of enhancing its richness and texture, and I’m not sure how seriously to take that can of Calumet baking powder.) Kubrick understood that the point of meticulous control, paradoxically, is to make a movie that can strike up its own reality in the inner life of the viewer, independent of the artist’s intentions. The Shining retains its fascination, after so many other films have been forgotten, because the intricacy of its construction, far from limiting its possible readings, creates a sort of playground—or labyrinth—that rewards endless exploration. The real impossible window is one that the work opens up because the rest of it has been so deliberately constructed. And while I’m not sure what Kubrick would have made of the elaborate games of Room 237, I think he’d be the first to grant that only a very dull movie is all work and no play.

Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2013 at 9:09 am

Learning from the masters: Stephen King and The Shining

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Room 237

Last week, in my post on the mirror scare, I noted that most of the conventions we see in horror movies don’t really work on the printed page: a book can’t startle us, or throw a cat at us, or use a scare chord to make us jump in our seats. When a commenter asked if I could think of any tropes that could be utilized by authors of horror fiction, I replied that they could all be found in a short scene of four pages or so in The Shining, when little Danny Torrance enters Room 217 for the first time. (It was changed to Room 237 in Kubrick’s movie, apparently at the request of the hotel where it was shot.) Looking back, this strikes me as worthy of a blog post in its own, so if you haven’t read the novel, you can at least check out the scene in question here. I’d recommend only reading it in a brightly lit room, where no one is likely to sneak up behind you. When you’re done, read it again. And if you’re at all interested in writing literary horror—which is only a highly refined and intensified version of suspense itself—I can’t imagine a more useful exercise than taking this scene apart to see how it works, once most of the gooseflesh has subsided.

Let’s consider the sequence beat by beat. The most striking thing about the chapter is how beautifully it builds. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken about the importance of cutting the beginnings and endings of scenes, and how directors like Kurosawa will intentionally omit purely transitional moments, such as shots of a character opening or closing a door. The one place where this rule can be ignored, and where it truly begs to be broken, is when there’s a monster waiting in the next room. As I’ve said before, the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door, once you’ve established what might be lurking behind it, which is why King spends so much time getting Danny into the room itself. Once he’s inside, the narrative continues to unfold slowly, with lots of homely little details, like the closet with its “clutch of hotel hangers, the kind you can’t steal,” as Danny moves inexorably toward the bathroom—and the tub. And once we have time to collect ourselves, we find that we’ve been given a perfect illustration of Orson Scott Card’s distinction between dread, terror, and horror. In the excellent collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dean Koontz says much the same thing:

Does King start the scene with Danny in the room? No way. The scene begins with Danny outside 217, the passkey in his pocket, and he takes more than two hair-raisingly tense pages just to open the door and step inside. Anticipation. King makes us sweat. But when Danny finds the dead woman in the bathtub, and when she opens her eyes and reaches for him, the rest of the scene moves like a bullet and climaxes one page later. We are given more time to dread the encounter than to experience it.

Saul Bass artwork for The Shining

This is all perfectly true, although I should also point out that, contrary to what Koontz says, the dead woman doesn’t open her eyes at all. Her eyes are already open when Danny slides the shower curtain back, as described almost as an aside within a longer paragraph—”Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles”—which makes the image even more horrible. She’s been waiting for Danny for a long time. And that’s the kind of touch that makes King the best author the genre has ever seen. The rest of the chapter is a terrifying master class in just about every tool a horror author can use, and it’s been imitated by other writers, as well as King himself, ever since. Once the dead woman comes out of the tub, she moves slowly, which is far more terrifying than the alternative: this isn’t a monster you can outsmart or outrun. Danny spends much of the scene trying to convince himself that nothing here can hurt him, when we unfortunately know better. And once it seems that the horror is over, it’s really just getting started—at which point King cuts away, crucially, to leave us to imagine what happens after Danny turns around to stare into that dead and purple face.

King has written scarier books than The ShiningPet Sematary is probably his greatest sustained work of this kind, even if it falters a bit near the end—but I don’t think he’s ever topped this sequence. (It’s especially scary when reading the original Signet paperback, in which the scene takes place on page 217.) I’ve written about my admiration for King before, but I may as well say again that he’s one of the few popular novelists who have only grown in my estimation over time. He’s good in ways that you can only appreciate after you’ve read the work of talented but lesser novelists working in the same genre. I recently read Koontz’s Phantoms, for instance, and while it’s a nice propulsive read, it feels two-dimensional and calculated in comparison to King’s work. In fact, I’ve often thought it would be worthwhile to go back and systematically seek out all of the books from King’s classic period—which I’d arbitrarily say stretches from Carrie through Needful Things—that I haven’t read yet. Growing up, I devoured just about everything King ever wrote, but for whatever reason, I managed to skip over The Dead Zone, FirestarterCujo, and the entire Dark Tower series. I’ll need to back and check them out one of these days. But I’ll make sure to turn all the lights on first.

My ten great movies #5: The Shining

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For most of the past decade, the Kubrick film on this list would have been Eyes Wide Shut, and while my love for that movie remains undiminished—I think it’s Kubrick’s most humane and emotionally complex work, and endlessly inventive in ways that most viewers tend to underestimate—it’s clear now that The Shining is more central to my experience of the movies. I realized this only recently, after seeing it at midnight earlier this year at the Music Box in Chicago, but this is still a film that has been growing in my estimation for a long time. The crucial factor, perhaps unsurprisingly, was my decision to become a writer. Because while there have been a lot of movies about novelists, The Shining is by far our greatest storehouse of images about the inside of a writer’s head. “You’ve always been the caretaker,” Grady’s ghost says to blocked writer Jack Torrance, and his personality suffuses every frame of the movie whose uneasy center he occupies.

The visual, aural, and visceral experience of The Shining is so overwhelming that there’s no need to describe it here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the performances, which are the richest that Kubrick—often underrated in his handling of actors—ever managed to elicit. At one point, I thought that the film’s only major flaw is that it was impossible to imagine Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a married couple, but I’m no longer sure about this: there are marriages this strange and mismatched, and the glimpses of their relationship early in the movie are depressingly plausible. As David Thomson was among the first to point out, Nicholson is great when he plays crazy, but he’s also strangely tender in his few quiet scenes with his son. And Duvall gives what is simply one of the major female performances in the history of movies, even if we suspect, after hearing of the hundreds of takes she was forced to endure, that something more than mere acting was involved.

Tomorrow: The triumph of the studio system.

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December 5, 2011 at 10:00 am

The horror, the horror

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With Halloween right around the corner, my thoughts have been turning to horror, and not just at the prospect of providing candy for the 250 trick-or-treaters I’ve been reliably told to expect. The success of the third installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise, which scored both the highest October debut and the all-time best opening weekend for a horror movie, provides ample proof that the horror genre is alive and well. And while I have no intention of seeing Paranormal Activity 3, or anything else from the makers of the loathsome Catfish, I can’t help but admire the ingenuity behind a franchise that has grossed $450 million worldwide on a combined $8 million budget. Audiences love horror, it seems, which remains the only genre truly independent of budget or starpower, so I thought it might be fun to spend the next few days reflecting on this most potent, and misunderstood, segment of popular culture.

The first point, which can’t be stressed enough, is that horror in film and horror in literature are two very different things, although they’re often misleadingly conflated. Cinematic horror is a communal experience: nothing compares to seeing a great horror movie, whether it’s Psycho or The Descent, in a packed auditorium with an enthusiastic crowd. At its best, this carnival atmosphere adds enormously to the fun, as the A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo notes in his recent consideration of Scream 2, and is only diminished when a movie is experienced on video. (For what it’s worth, I suspect that the increase in the critical reputation of The Shining, which was widely dismissed on its initial release, is because it’s one of the few great horror movies that can be profitably watched at home, although its power is incalculably increased on the big screen.)

Horror fiction, by contrast, is experienced in solitude. This is true of all fiction, of course, but here the solitude is as much a part of the reading experience as communality is at the movies. For the full effect, horror novels or stories are best experienced alone, at night, in an empty house, and the best horror fiction amplifies the reader’s loneliness, so that every creaking floorboard or unexplained sound participates in the overall mood. (It’s no accident that many of the best horror stories are built around a spooky house.) And while every good novel is grounded on the reader’s identification with the characters, horror takes the identification to another level, until it becomes not just mental, but physiological. The sweating palms, the accelerating heart, the white knuckles—these are all signs that the identification is complete. And it can only achieve its optimal intensity when the reader is completely alone.

Clearly, an art form centered on a communal experience will evolve in utterly different ways than one that depends on solitude. And indeed, successful works in either medium have developed distinctive strategies to achieve the common goal of complete identification with the characters, at least for the duration of a scene. It’s unfortunate, then, how often aspiring writers in horror fiction take their cues from the movies, without realizing that the two forms have little in common, and how badly the movies have distorted the works of serious horror novelists like Stephen King. Writing good horror fiction, in particular, is a skill that only a handful of authors have managed to achieve, which is partially due to the misleading influence of cinematic horror. Tomorrow, I’ll talking more about this distinction, and about the differences between horror, terror, and the most powerful sensation of all, dread.

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2011 at 9:10 am

Great art and the problem of spoilers

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Today on the A.V. Club, an article by critic Noel Murray has inspired a nice little discussion on the problem of spoilers, an issue on which I have some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve been spoiled before. I had the death of a major character on The Wire spoiled for me by a clue in the New York Sun crossword puzzle, of all things. (Why, Peter Gordon, why?) And it always stings. On the other hand, I also believe that avoiding spoilers entirely can make it hard to read any kind of serious criticism. In some cases, a detailed plot summary can make it easier to get through a challenging work of art, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Andrei Rublev. And a good work of art is, or should be, more than the isolated details of its plot. It’s impossible to spoil a movie’s visual aspects, its director’s style, or the details of a great performance—although it’s certainly possible, alas, to spoil a joke.

In fact, you could make the argument that a defining factor of great art is its immunity to spoilers. And the opposite also holds: once a bad work of art has been spoiled for you, there’s rarely any reason to seek it out. Like a lot of people, I enjoy reading detailed plot summaries of horror movies that I never intend to see, to the point where I could probably give you a pretty good description, sight unseen, of the plot of Saw II. And I don’t think I’ve missed much—which is not the case for The Descent, for instance, not to mention The Shining. The same is true, unfortunately, of many works of mystery and science fiction. All too often, such stories are little more than delivery systems for a twist or an interesting idea, which could be conveyed as effectively in a paragraph as in an entire novel. (That’s why I like Borges, who pretends that the novel he wants to write already exists, and gives us the essential points by writing a review of it.)

A really good novel or movie, by contrast, has qualities that can’t be expressed in summary form. And it’s still possible to enjoy such works of art while knowing how they conclude, if the artist’s craft is strong enough to return you, at least temporarily, to a state of narrative innocence. One of the most striking examples is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Everybody “knows” what happens in that story, so it’s startling to read it again, as I did a few weeks ago, and remember that the original novel, unlike its many adaptations, is structured as a straight mystery. Stevenson saves the revelation of Hyde’s true identity for the end of the ninth chapter, and the effect, if you can put yourself in the position of a reader experiencing it for the first time, is stunning—the only detective story, as others have pointed out, where the solution is more horrible than the crime.

The same is true of many classic movies. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve watched Psycho—I’ve seen it on the big screen three times, twice in the past two years alone—and yet the structure of that movie is so strong, with its brilliant opening mislead, that the first appearance of the Bates Motel, through its dark curtain of rain, hasn’t lost any of its original power. (Seeing it with an audience also helps, especially when it comes to that wonderful second murder, which has rarely, if ever, been spoiled.) The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the end of Citizen Kane: I’ll never be able to experience it the way it was intended, but by the time that moment comes, I can glimpse at least a shadow of what it might have been. Is it good enough? Yes. But I’d still give anything to experience it, just once, the way it was meant to be seen.

The uncanny influence of Stephen King

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Over the past year, I’ve sold two novelettes to Analog that have strong overtones of horror, a genre in which I’d previously displayed limited interest as a writer. “Kawataro” is my homage to Japanese horror movies, while the upcoming “The Boneless One” is sort of a haunted house story and murder mystery set aboard a research yacht in the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t set out to write stories this creepy, but seem to have arrived at them by accident. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that they reflect the influence of a writer whose impact on my work is invisible but pervasive. He’s a novelist of massive fluency and technical proficiency, enormously inventive and imaginative, with a real gift for character and setting. He seems capable of doing just about anything within the conventions of the popular novel—although he rarely knows how to end a story. And through sheer cultural dominance alone, he’s had a subterranean influence on a whole generation of writers. He’s Stephen King.

King’s lasting mark on writers my age reflects one of the fundamental truths of fiction: if you want to change your readers’ lives forever, get them while they’re young. I don’t remember the first King novel I read, but it was probably The Talisman, picked up when I was a fifth grader as a tattered paperback at the much mourned Roskie & Wallace (later known as Gray Wolf Books) in San Leandro, California. Over the next two years, I worked my way through most of King’s oeuvre, the high points of which were, and remain, It, The Shining, Pet Sematary, and The Stand. Was I too young to be reading King? Sure. But that’s the best time to be reading his novels—when you’re just a little too young for the violence and sex and ideas they contain, so they seem to promise all of the primal power that fiction affords. The comments on this AV Club article imply that my experience was shared by millions of young men (and women) who came of age in the last thirty years. As a result, I think that King will influence, and has influenced, the writing of this generation in ways that will become increasingly clear as time goes on.

Stephen King

King, although far from a faultless writer, is certainly the most powerful popular novelist alive. His medium is horror, but very rarely has this seemed like a commercial calculation. Rather, it feels like an inner compulsion, a sense that horror and the supernatural provide him with the best way of exploring the themes to which he repeatedly returns—childhood, family, the inevitability and unfairness of death, the power of imagination, the memory of place. That willingness to follow character and theme wherever they lead, all the way into the darkness, makes King utterly unlike most other mainstream novelists. Reading It again two years ago, I was simultaneously impressed by how convincing and rich these thematic elements remained, and how dated the horror had become. It no longer has the power to scare me—though the thought of Tim Curry in clown makeup might—but it still has the power to move me. It might be my favorite popular novel in any genre.

Not all of King’s books have aged as well. The Talisman, on rereading, remains hugely inventive and textured, but structurally all over the map; the uncut version of The Stand is one of the most ambitious of all popular novels, but its mythic confrontation of good versus evil hasn’t dated well, and it’s also clear that King had no idea how to end it (a shortcoming that affects nearly all of his books). Pet Sematary, though, is almost flawlessly imagined and controlled, up to its grand guignol conclusion, which strikes me now as a failure of nerve, while still undeniably effective. And King’s best short stories are particularly fine—they may end up being his most lasting work. But his real legacy is impossible to measure. For thirty years and counting, through sheer skill, scale, and luck, he wound up shaping the inner lives of almost every young person who saw a future for himself, or herself, in imaginative literature. No other living author can claim nearly as much.

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2011 at 10:17 am

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