Friday, March 31, 2006

"Dad, Do You Feel Bad?": The Secret History Lesson of THE SHINING (1980)

I wish we could stay here forever and ever...

I - "They Actually Had to Repel a Few Indian Attacks as They Were Building It"

In 1987, Bill Blakemore published an important essay in the history of Kubrick Studies, called "The Family of Man" in The San Francisco Chronicle. Blakemore proposes that The Shining contains a previously uncounted number of visual and verbal references to Native American genocide and American colonialism, which constitute an unplumbed allegory within the film. The article lays valuable groundwork for further discussion of this critical approach to The Shining, but it's highly problematic. Blakemore is good at spotting visual motifs in key moments, not as sharp at spotting them as they become more obscure or oblique, and awful at rooting out the signified behind the sign. Blakemore's thesis, "The Shining is not really about the murders at the Overlook Hotel. It is about the murder of a race — the race of Native Americans — and the consequences of that murder," buries his useful insights for most readers. Granting primacy to a minor metaphor may make Blakemore's article more desirable to publishers (telling viewers they have not seen the movie they thought they saw), but renders it hogwash to most readers, his observations lost in the buzz of 1000 bullshit detectors simultaneously sounding.

Some of "Family of Man"'s supporting examples are nonsense, confused, or inconsistently read. It's going to be up to every reader if they want to accept "we never meet an actual Indian," as an argument. We never really meet a Chinese-American, a Passenger pigeon, or a Yeti in The Shining: negative evidence is not evidence.

So in what capacity is The Shining metaphor for Native American genocide? How does this function in concert with the film's other metaphors, signals, secrets and symbols to create the larger themes that The Shining is truly "about?" The film is a critique of power relationships, and the brutality of the eternal nature of man — that it what it is "about." But there are ghosts in these walls, and they are here to confuse you.

II - "I Wouldn't Want To Go In There Unless I Had an Hour to Spare to Find My Way Out!"

How is Kubrick's film built? The Shining uses a number of organizational metaphors and motifs to illustrate its conclusions and ask its questions. In a way, the film contains a number of loosely allegorical nested or overlaid narratives of varying correlative thoroughness and depth: secret stories, if you will. One is reminded of James Joyce's schemata for Ulysses. That Bloom's wanderings through Dublin are roughly parallel with Odysseus' travels is both to be understood, and does not displace our investment in the core narrative of Ulysses. These are not the harvests of mythological readings of Ulysses, but intentional puzzle games, links and paths built into the novel. That the threads bear individual attention does not mean they are not weaving a larger Indian blanket.

A map will be useful to us, but only if we have a destination in mind (we shall get there). Critical analysis is still the job of critics and analysts, but there is literary gamesmanship and endeavor to be admired before we get to that. A casual Shining topography begins with the ghost story itself.

Make no mistake, The Shining is a ghost story, with literal ghosts infesting a haunted hotel. In that story, Jack Torrance's own weaknesses are exploited by a supernatural time-trap hotel, and he ultimately hunts his own family through the halls with an axe. That much is literally true. One level down is an implied story we are invited to explore, a scenario in which no literal supernatural forces exist, and we watch a man lapse back into alcoholism and child abuse under creative frustration and cabin fever.

A lot of public ink has been wasted discussing If There Are Ghosts. For some (Kubrick in interview[1]) the turning point is Jack being freed from the dry storage room by spirits. The nay-sayer and point-misser may argue that we are not privy to seeing how Jack is released (Kubrick in the editing suite), and perhaps "he did it to himself." The moment all doubt should be eradicated is Wendy witnessing a barrage of phantasmagoria as she runs screaming through the halls in the finale. "Confirmed ghost story and horror movie addict" though she may be, Wendy still hasn't had call to think the hotel is haunted; it's an unlikely leap that she's hallucinating. She certainly hasn't been privy to the same highly personal demons as Jack and Danny, yet she's given overlapping visions with them both: she sees Danny's torrential lobbyful of gore, and Jack's 1924 party reveler. These are fun points for endless fan debate, but the underlying idea that the supernatural otherworld of the Overlook is a metaphor for a man's inner demons — or perhaps his very basic nature — tearing away his mask of refinement, is common to either version.

So locked into the maze of The Shining is also an extended version of the Minotaur and Labyrinth myth. An allegory about the breakdown of the nuclear family. A carefully wrought McLuhanesque tour through the history of communications technologies, their failure, and final 2001-style leap to the next frightening evolution via telekinesis. A black comedy about the creative process and the glass we break in case of writer's block. There are several fairy tales invoked, and the story follows a classical fairy tale model illustrating the dire consequences of doing business with magical folk. In brainstorming, I can imagine a Discordian reading as the chaotic spirits of the Overlook roll a golden apple at each of the Torrances, tempting them with their pettiest qualities, and tear the group apart. I can imagine a Gnostic reading, as the destructible corporeal bodies and the failing free-form intellect are finally united in the Shine itself.

Any and all of these are worth further exploration, and I've barely exhausted the possibilities. None of these secret paths proceed parallel to, or isolated from the ghost story. "Things that haven't happened yet," as Dick Hallorann says, converge with "things that happened a long time ago." Like Jack's Volkswagen gliding down the Colorado road, like Danny's Matchbox cars on the carpet patterns, from Hallorann's guided verbal tour through the aisles of the food storage rooms, to Danny's Big Wheel trek through the hotel corridors, to the hours of parents and children chasing through the hedge maze: to describe the route of one is to map a chart down its brother.

The Overlook is a centrifuge of chronology, whirling so hard in the same spot that it sucks the divided, pure awful truth from whoever — or whatever — steps into its spin-cycle. The film is not only about the failure of time, but the horrors revealed when history slips. Prior to Blakemore, and well worth the reader's time is Frederic Jameson's 1981 Historicism in The Shining, which aims at the larger heart of the film's horrific relationship with the historical. Jameson's agenda and misgivings about the film aside, he understands the grotesque lure of nostalgia, and the whitewashing of the historical record which is being critiqued.[2] Nearly every character is guilty in some large or small way. The Overlook manager Ullman reluctantly reveals the hotel's previous homicides while bragging about the scenic beauty, and admits a mountain of corpses rests beneath the foundation even while admiring the artistry of interior decoration "based mainly Navajo and Apache motifs." Both Torrance parents try to diminish the import of Jack's past abuse and addictions, Wendy making apologies to a skeptical doctor and Jack making excuses to himself. The ghostly Delbert Grady tells Jack he never murdered his family, to boast only minutes later that he "corr-ec-ted" their naughtiness in the harshest possible manner. Danny locks away from himself the nature of his psychic gift in the metaphor of Tony, "the little boy that lives in my mouth," and will not reveal unhappy family secrets to his doctor. Even benevolent chef Hallorann lies to the child about the latent danger behind the veil of his visions. "I ain't scared of nothing here," he tells Danny, and we're looking at a man scared of everything here.

The Donner Party v.1980

Whenever the question of man's essential brutality is brought up, the answer is pat and reassuring. "You mean they ate each other up?" asks Danny about the Donner party. "They had to. In order to survive," answers Jack. But of course, Danny has already been inured to this notion: "He saw it on the television."

Bogging down far too many readings of The Shining is a discomfort that a horror genre text so dense and multi-valenced has been created at all. Pauline Kael, for notorious example, actually gave a beautiful explanation of the de-evolution Jack undergoes in the climax, but was unable to reconcile the misanthropic message she located with her own worldview. In "On Reading The Shining" Kian Bergstrom posits Kubrick as a taunting auteur to reconcile his frustrations with the film, and latent guilt over enjoying horror films. It cannot be that Kubrick failed to craft a proper genre exercise, but that he has made an "anti-horror movie." Stephen King went so far as to complain that "The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre." ("American Film," 1986)

For the reader's reference, that is not this writer's experience with the film at all. I have always found The Shining a satisfying, viscerally and intellectually frightening horror film. I could never "talk you into" finding a movie scary. But do consider that Kubrick is not wagging a finger at the genre. That endeavor would be a ridiculous waste of time, money and energy. The Shining has a joy of metaphor; the film does not shame us for finding ghosts scary. Any interloper into the maze is going to have to be armed with this critical strategy.

Now for the trainspotting...

III - "I've Never Seen Anything Like This Before! Are All These Indian Designs Authentic?"

A Walking Tour of the Overlooked

Sea to Shining Sea

After some amateur sleuth digging around for anthropological and historical data about the Native American genocide and European colonization, I've concluded the footwork is unnecessary. The Shining speaks in broad, iconic strokes about a native population destroyed, a historical whitewashing, and the ultimate consequences of that obfuscation. One hesitates to articulate the slippery symbolism of The Shining, because definitive charts cannot be drawn: the overlapping grids would be so dense as to be useless.

In the loose-weave configuration of this allegory, the grounds and structures of the Overlook are the playing field of all that is America, past, present and future. The players who set foot in the quicksand hourglass of the Overlook are also quartz-crystal multifaceted:

History at either shoulder, Jack heads into uncharted territory.

Jack is colonizer, with all attendant violence and guiltiness, but also centuries of American hegemony, from war to suburbia to beyond. There's a nasty masterstroke in Kubrick's criticism of how we familialize our "Founding Fathers." As above, Jack will be flanked continuously by reminders that the foundations of his duty are sunk deep into a literal and virtual "Indian burial ground." So into Mr. Ullman's schoolroom we go.

Watch the axe, folks.

Stuart Ullman offers the Torrances a deal reminiscent of the Homestead Act, requiring them to survive the wild elements and test Jack's mettle in a stewardship of the land.

A map of the territories on his wall, and dressed in red, white and blue, Ullman also displays a small emblematic American flag on his desk next to a tiny model tomahawk in his pencil cup (it is barely visible in the above screenshot). Ullman's going to be our tour guide and history teacher, and his main rhetorical tack is to acknowledge historical atrocity, and minimize it in the face of progress.

"lt's still hard for me to believe it actually happened here," Ullman says of a prior axe-slaughtering in the Overlook. He adds blandly: "But it did."

Never turn your back on a One-Eyed Jack

Wendy Torrance, in the many configurations of The Shining's stories, becomes an eternal straw man victim, naive, guileless, powerless, deprived of agency. We do meet a "real Indian" after all: Wendy, braided hair, long, layered skirts and animal-skin shoes. (Further pictorial reference on Wendy's suggestive fashions are below.) These figures are slippery, because Wendy's not a simple stand-in for Native Americans in a coded reenactment, she's also every female victim of a raging patriarchy, for example.

What's remarkable about "squaw" Wendy is her inability to confront and combat what's happening around her. She is in denial that doing the grunt work for Jack — tending the boilers, cooking food — isn't necessarily helping him better himself. She is baffled by Jack's explosions of indignant anger, confused at the very nature of man. She is ultimately unable to protect herself or her child from a force that has been giving her warning signals since the beginning. Does Kubrick fault Native Americans for not putting up a "proper fight" of some kind? We may be reminded of Harriet Tubman's lament that "if I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more." The Overlook is already seeped in the blood of enough literal natives, and we shall see she is largely a victim of Jack's equally venomous rhetoric. In her very first scene, a television shows a Western (André De Toth's Carson City, 1952, Warner Bros.), a portent of Manifest Destiny to come; she turns her back on the screen. Wendy is a meta-victim.

<—— This way ————— yaw sihT ——>

The right to left screen direction of the above tracking shot walks us through a Colorado Lounge as the stage is being set for the mutant historical reenactment the Torrances are about to play out. The colonized lounge is being stripped of visitors, and returned, as Wendy says, to "the most gorgeous hotel I've ever seen." As Ullman is unable to discuss the unspoiled environment's Native American art in any detail, but vouches for the fact that in the "illustrious past" (read: future/ read: present) real live movie stars and U.S. presidents have stayed there.

"This is where we keep all our meat"...
Er, I mean, "The site's supposedly on an Indian burial ground."

Ullman, like all other characters, grudgingly admits the regrettable episodes of history, but denies their weight, and refuses to notice that he's setting up the same circumstances and asks nicely for causality to fail. The manager after all, essentially asks Jack politely if he can handle the job of not going insane and killing his family. Everyone in the Overlook lacks pattern recognition.

Ullman's leg of the tour begins in the untamed frontier wilds, breezes through several decades (Indian burial ground —> four presidents —> movie stars —> motor vehicles) and ends in the contemporary living quarters. "Perfect for a child," assesses Jack.

In a top contender for the chilling film's most chilling moment, Ullman promises Jack the reward of Manifest Destiny for the duties of homesteading, and pains of taking up the White Man's Burden:

"And if you feel like spreading out, you have the rest of the hotel to move around in."

"Why don't you want to talk about it?"

Dick Hallorann gives Wendy and Danny a tour of the inexhaustible wealth of resources and riches in the food storage facilities. And yes, among the dry goods are the notorious Calumet Baking Powder canisters. Hidden somewhere inside of all New World bounty is the face of the original Americans. (Note the Tang canisters. The powdered orange drink was carried aboard all Gemini and Apollo space flights from 1965-1975.)

We are presented with several characters' approaches to shrugging off history, outlined above. What Hallorann tells Danny during their sit-down is the most difficult, because he shares the boy's wild talent, and his arguments have the ring of sound logic. Hallorann essentially argues that while Danny can gain painful insight into the past, and should heed that knowledge as a warning, but not to confront it. Danny may see visions of Room 237, but "you ain't got no business going in there anyway." He tells Danny that his visions are "like pictures in a book, it isn't real," and in effect, that the past can't hurt you.

IV - "Like Pictures in a Book": Visions on The Trail of Tears

"The loser has to keep America clean!"

Wendy and Danny run laughing and playing to the maze, and Wendy, most likely referencing a 1971 television PSA taunts her son with "Loser has to keep America clean!" The PSA, in which a Native American moves through a polluted modern landscape, finally shedding a single tear as the narrator intones "People start pollution. People can stop it," was sponsored by Keep America Beautiful.

Danny Torrance is our representative of the universal child, but also stand-in for future generations of Americans and man in general. How he ultimately saves and empowers himself is one of the most encouraging stories in Stanley Kubrick's work.

Learning games

Danny dressed in a Lil' Settler outfit and Wendy in another of her suburban squaw ensembles, walk hand in hand, laughing through the hedge maze. It is the information Wendy casually passes on to him in this play session that Danny will inventively apply to save his own life at the story's climax. While Jack works unproductively, Danny plays and learns. This is the shape of what Danny does through the film.

For most of The Shining, the boy will be obedient and complicit in covering up his own traumas (he won't talk about his abuse, won't talk about Tony). He will be lied to or fed bad advice by every insecure adult he meets. Danny will obey his parents, and retrace American history until the resultant injuries are so appalling that he snaps (coming up!). But because Danny's gift is to cut through The Shining and see the truth at the heart of the impossible, infinite layers and corridors, he has been gathering all the data he needs, without anyone realizing it.

Forwards, backwards, sideways: multiple wardrobe views

By way of example how various of The Shining's "secret stories" intersect, here Wendy once again unwisely turns her back on a warning of Western expansion (a map of the state), while a communications theorist is likely looking at the radio which will only transmit banalities and fails at all critical moments. Considering both tracks at once, the associative game potential increases: Wendy is sending up smoke signals.

The Axe's Progress II

Following the recurring images in The Shining is worthwhile, because as they crop up in different contexts, they undergo subtle shifts of meaning. Part of the logic behind the film's constant motif of "imperfect doubles" is to demonstrate a principal that can be stated as "do you see that these are essentially the same?" As Danny is shown the slaughtered Grady girls, the axe first seen in a cup on Ullman's desk becomes a fire axe misused as a weapon.

Open the 237 door, HAL!

Danny's sweater makes his job as representative of future generations extend into man's excursions into space. Should you think I'm "stretching" here: it is not, of course, that The Shining has specific criticisms of space exploration, but that we should consider the power dynamics in all abstract forms of colonization.

Hallorann has assured Danny that history is either benevolent (he used it to chat with his grandmother) or no worse than the smell of burned toast, and the child obeys the advice for awhile, covering his eyes, and riding his Big Wheel away. The first important change Danny undergoes is the decision to confront the horror he has been told to ignore. Our instincts to curiosity and exploration may drive his trek into Room 237, and traumatize him at first, but the hope lies in what Danny does with what he has learned at the center of his own labyrinth.

Victims of the colonies: past and future

In one of the film's most startling moments of impossible-to-fully-unpack mise en scène, under an American flag canopy, the Indian asks astronaut: "what happened?!"

Everyone knows, lady: same thing that happened to you.

White Man's Bourbon

Take up the White Man's burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Jack, in his moment of truth at the Gold Room bar, surrenders to his weaknesses, and not with some small pleasure. As he picks up his drink, he grins, and deems it "White Man's Burden, Lloyd! White Man's Burden!" Jack, an ex-schoolteacher, ironically invokes Kipling's ode to imperialism in conscious, joking reference to his alcoholism, and domestic troubles. In amusing counterpoint, the metaphor is working in reverse: Jack understands that he has bound up his cruel sense of duty and his domestic relationships, and cracks a literary joke; he does not understand that he is an unwitting player in a historical drama, in which the reference is literally applicable.

Progress of the Ax III: Careful with that Bat, Eugene!

Wendy's choice of weapon when she thinks she's in danger evokes the American pass-time. Having her use the oppressor's weapon against him by damaging his head may or may not be meant to remind us that Native Americans were introduced to scalping by pioneers. I find it more important that Wendy is not holding the bat in any useful defensive manner, and when eventually attacked is barely effectual.

"I think... he did it to himself." That's what really hurts.

After investigating Room 237, Jack (in pioneer shirt and logging jacket) blames his half devil, and half child for his own injuries. Literally Jack is saying he thinks Danny strangled himself. Beneath that is the implication that cuts through all versions of the story: certain breeds of weak victim get what they deserve, need, require for evolution, human progress, civilization. It is the implicit call-to-tough-love of "White Man's Burden." See also under: Alex de Large, Private Pyle, and any ape killed by a bone. Jack has told Danny they are trailblazing and doing this hard, sleepless work to make a home for the family: "I want you to like it here." Trapped in smothering bear hug, the boy vacantly asks the haunting question that encompasses both future remorse, and present fear: "Dad? ... Do you feel bad?"

All treaties off.

The Calumet cans pop up again as Jack wakes up in the land of plenty. When he finds himself trapped, the only option of escape Jack sees throughout the film is to take the hand of a dark and deeply wrong past. It is with bemused resignation that he climbs off the wagon at the bar, malevolent glee that he gives up writing to type one sentence. "There is nothing I look forward to with greater pleasure," he says, finally promising aloud to do his time-honored fate-bound duty, and murder everyone weaker than he.

I learned it by watching YOU.

There is an eerie moment when Danny approaches a sleeping Wendy with a knife, and it seems that he may have been sucked into the same destiny cycle as his father. In the immediately prior scene, Jack "gives his word." And against the bedroom door Danny warns Wendy with that "word": REDRUM. Kubrick has restructured this plot point from Stephen King's novel, in which the mysterious word troubles Danny for days. It strengthens the moment for the film, but looses a fun opportunity: when the tyke asks his father what it could mean, he's told "I don't know, Doc. Sounds like something an Indian might drink. Red Rum."

Back to where you once belonged...

And Jack Torrance is sent forth, the best of his breed. You know what I think? I think... he did it to himself.

Flood: Keep THIS Clean, Loser

Dick Hallorann tells Danny "You know, Doc, when something happens... it can leave a trace of itself behind. Say, like... if someone burns toast. Maybe things that happen leave other kind of traces behind." In searching for a simile the child can understand, Hallorann also minimizes the implications of critical reading of history.

Danny's ability to creatively apply information he has learned is tied to his Shine when he finally recognizes that though his visions are like history book illustrations, there is a terrible truth in them. Namely that he could be dropped into the picture himself, unless he takes preventative measures.

------------ Weird Sidebar of Mystery ----------------

Perplexing Shining fans for decades is why Kubrick chose to include a remnant of King's backstory for the Overlook, in which a man in an animal suit performs debasing sex acts for the bourgeoisie partygoers. The subplot is otherwise excised, but Wendy sees a brief glimpse of the man in the bear suit (it is a dog costume in the book) about to perform oral sex on a man in a tuxedo.

Brother Bear Vol.2

The bear in Native American mythology is generally a figure of benevolent and friendly power. In the film's device of mirrored images as warning beacons, Wendy has previously encountered a different vaguely sexualized bear, as Danny is examined by his doctor, pantsless atop a teddy-bear pillow. Is the spirit of the Bear stalking the Torrances through the years? Like the Calumet cans, and the omnipresent "Indian motifs," the Bear asserts its presence even in this degraded form, at this climactic moment when the cyclorama of national horrors spins before the Torrance's eyes.

Brother Bear, Vol. 1


V - Cadillac With No Motor

"'s a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery — the only thing you can't do is drive it anywhere," said Stephen King of Kubrick's film. King may have been criticizing the film's aptitude at speaking in coherent Horror Movie language, but he's stumbled on a fine metaphor for the United States depicted in The Shining, and the civilization of man in Kubrick's oeuvre.

What's the real "key" to unlocking The Shining? In "Family of Man," Blakemore finds it in the final image of the film, a framed photo on the lounge wall that depicts Jack at the center of a party, and inscribed "July 4th Ball, 1924." Independence Day is not the start date of westward expansion and doesn't strike me as a moment with more "shine" than Ullman explaining that the hotel is built on an Indian burial ground. Or Jack single-handedly taking up the White Man's Burden. Or a tidal wave of staining blood unleashed on the "most gorgeous" hotel. It seems to me there are illimitable entrance points to the same center of the maze.

1000 Year stare

Homo Sapiens say WHAT?

The lust for immortality at best turns Jack Torrance into a man locked in eternal cycle. Perhaps for Kubrick, they are the same thing. In the trail we are following, it is that Jack chooses a legacy founded in destruction, he takes up the mantle of the monster, because his nation's history seems to smile on that monster. Jack accepts his duty though his destiny is utterly manifest, forewarned in the first scene, written in the registry, framed on the wall: like pictures in a book.

The ol' Indian Removal Act

We're here to outline The Shining's despair over the genocide of Native Americans, an event Kubrick ties up in the inevitable self-destructiveness of masculine power and the failure of irresponsible intellects. There is a glimmer of hope for the species, when Danny Torrance outsmarts his father in the maze, using what we may take to be a Native American trick: retracing his footsteps backwards through the snow.[3] In this act, Danny relearns from the historical native, he recalls his past mistakes in the maze with Wendy, he turns play into strategy, he turns a mirror into a creative tool. All work and no play has made Jack a dull boy, but in Danny's backward trek out of the maze, having absorbed the knowledge he can from his nemesis, we see a hint of what the observant son of man, the unified body and mind, the folkloric trickster and lateral thinker can achieve. Jack goes dull, Danny Shines. The paths of The Shining's infinitely multiplying corridors of story converge as Danny walks backwards out of the freezing colony that claimed the Donner party. But this is a horror film and a black satire.

Axe's Progress IV: evolution, works.

And for Jack, all paths chase back to the center of the maze, where time fails, history is illusory. To the center of the maze, where a man confronts himself, veneer of intellect stripped away, and the difference between civilization and evolution stripped away: a raging ego endlessly circling its own problems. Man is frozen forever in his natural state, where he will eternally hold every tool as a weapon. The Cadillac never moves, the jacket is rigid full-metal, and the Doomsday machine is an axe with which we chase our own children so they will take their medicine.

Jack cannot understand the paradox of a civilization that eats each other up in the name of survival. And you can't force civilization on a Man.

Dr. Strangelove: Progress.

[1] "It's not until Grady... slides open the bolt of the larder door, allowing Jack to escape, that you are left with no other explanation but the supernatural," Kubrick said in compliment of King's story structure, recorded inMichel Ciment's book Kubrick. The director does not address whether he thought this "particularly clever" device was one he changed outright or not.

[2]Jameson's article is also the only writing I have found which explores why Jack's spectral encounters are with 1920s partygoers.

[3] For a fine primer on the Maze motif and possible redemption of species in the film, I suggest Tim Fulmer and Rod Munday's literate and spirited chat "The Shining and Transcendence"

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dive In, Never Leave: 20 Years of Winona Ryder

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Winona Ryder's screen debut in Lucas (1986). For Ryder it was the launching of a strange film career in which she, as the most human of movie stars, has constantly bucked against the machine of movie stardom. For the rest of us, the scene depicted above, when Ryder pushes through a crowd and steps up to the camera for the first time, was the moment fate sealed forever with an audible snap.

Said ex-fiancee Johnny Depp of Ryder's improbable coffee-brown eyes, "you could dive into them and never leave." The loveliest screen visage since Louise Brooks, and for some the only contender, Ryder shares with Brooks the stubborn refusal of dumb-tongued, empty-eyed glamour, no matter how many vintage 1920s Oscar gowns she slides into. The seductive aesthetic of Generation X (reclaim it with pride, brothers and sisters) is an ability to look good while dicking off. Nobody in the business looks as good or can slack as hard as Winona Ryder. Every time you nominate the woman for Best Actress, she's outside on a smoke break, reading a battered Catcher in the Rye.

How has it manifested onscreen for twenty years?

Ryder's fine, funny and sweet in Lucas. She draws the eye like a laser pointer, heart a-ache for Corey Haim's Lucas - such a loser she cannot snag the school loser- and punky-adorable in proto-grungewear. It's an obvious straight path to her early celebrated outsider roles in black comedy classics Beetlejuice, Heathers and Edward Scissorhands.

My favorite Ryder performances are of course the above - her Lydia Dietz sucking all energy out of a room in Beetlejuice to the point where her nerve-frazzled yuppie father can barely speak to her coherently; Veronica Sawyer inHeathers frantically scribbling diatribes in her journal, until she embarrasses herself in writing: "God! I sound like a fucking psycho!" But also her dim-bulb Mina Harker lighting up and discovering her soul through the black poetry of Bram Stoker's Dracula (the way she hisses "Take me away from all this... death" is terrifying, sad, and raises arm-hair- among other things; it's a great reading). Her eyelash-batting human monkey-wrench May Welland Archer in Age of Innocence. Her ultimate species outsider Annalee Call in Alien: Resurrection is like an android Pikachu, easily wounded, pouty and tenacious. I can go on and on. For twenty years. (On the other tack, if you want Ryder at her most jaw-droppingly hot, investigate Reality Bites, How to Make an American Quilt, and (gulp) Autumn in New York)

It's the lady's particular Cool that she is opinionated, well-read, blithely disinterested in the icon business - sure, that's all James Dean fine-and-good. The unspoken appeal of Winona Ryder isn't gamine perfection (though she's got it in excess). It's not casual iconoclasm. You cannot help but recognize yourself in and love someone so aggressively screwed-up and real.

May we all dive in and never leave.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Smallest of Killings: The Public Sacrifice of Alan Moore & V FOR VENDETTA

It’s a difficult proposal, this motion picture of V for Vendetta. In a not-too-distant future Great Britain, a fascist government has risen to power, using a prior biological warfare terrorist attack to keep its citizens oppressed by fear. A man in black, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, and known only as V (Hugo Weaving) seems to be the lone counter-force, exploding government buildings, killing agents, and finding a follower in a young television PA, Evey (Natalie Portman).

The film is full of fine acting, particularly Weaving’s entirely faceless voice performance as V. Stephen Rea is remarkable as Finch, the tired cop chasing V with dawning horror that he may not be after a terrorist, but a freedom fighter. Most subtly heartbreaking is Stephen Fry as Dietrich, a talk show host whose personal beliefs cause him to make a final stand illustrating Roger Rabbit’s axiom: “A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it's the only weapon we have.”

Vendetta is also loaded with beautiful images, some of them politically charged, some not, some brought to faithful life from David Lloyd’s comic book art, some not. Director James McTeigue and producers/ screenwriters the brothers Wachowski have made a powerful and pretty film, which sometimes wears an action movie mask, a political thriller mask, a police procedural mask… but which also wears its ideals on its sleeve.

It’s a difficult proposal on several levels, this thing of political allegory. Leave them too vague, and the haze off mythology will conceal your message. Leave them too specific and you’ve destroyed the illustrative purpose of using metaphors in the first place. Leave them without interpretive moral wiggle-room, and you have a fable. Fables are prescriptions for behavior, and aren’t open for discussion.

Do any of these, and prepare for a flood of misinterpretation and indignation to wash away your intentions.

V for Vendetta is not a fable.

“People should not be afraid of their governments,” growls the mysterious V through his Guy Fawkes mask, “Governments should be afraid of their people.” And Chicago Sun Times’ Roger Ebert in his esteemed and muddled manner, takes issue, saying that no no, governments and citizens should coexist peacefully (he’s wrong too: they should be one and the same, but…)

What’s missing from Ebert’s equation (and let him stand in for your nay-saying popular critic of choice) is that V for Vendetta is a story in which no character is absolutely justified, correct or righteous. In interview with Publisher Weekly Comic Week, Alan Moore, the blazingly brilliant comics writer who scripted the novel, once laid the thorniness of Vendetta on the line: “The central question is, is this guy right?”

If you need a compass less obscured by action movie language and the cultural baggage of comic books, consider Do The Right Thing. Spike Lee’s film is carefully built so that we love every character, understand why they do what they do, but which ultimately doesn’t tell us the Right Thing. Because the truly-Right Thing is a conclusion you must reach on your own. The idea is to foster discussion and thinking: which ideas, behaviors, and characters do you agree with? Which ideas are inexorably linked?

The difference is that Do The Right Thing is easier to accept as probing and questioning, as an open-ended essay, because it ends as a zero sum game: a building is destroyed, a neighborhood is torn apart, a boy is murdered… but a full-scale race riot is averted. V for Vendetta ends positive sum, with its totalitarian government brought down by a possibly insane revolutionary, via terrorist tactics and murder. Vendetta ends in celebration and people’s revolution.

It seems to me that V for Vendetta is primarily about how fascism works, how it happens, and a warning that it is the complicity of a citizenry that will allow it to happen again. There are other important questions posed, about the tensions between individuality and nationalism, about media manipulation, about the fate of ill-mounted revolutions. But that’s the core idea. While the celebratory blowing-up of Parliament at the film’s finale, it must be admitted, is unequivocally “positive,” there is never the assumption that V’s means have justified his ends. He spends equal time carefully preserving works of banned art, but destroys beautiful historic architecture; he teaches Evey the power of personal spiritual freedom by torturing her; he cultivates extinct roses only to use them as calling cards for murder: V can only understand art and people as the ideas they symbolize. He can only love or do violence to them based on that relationship. It’s a shortcoming for a human being as much as it is a strength for an activist. And so Vendetta asks: IS this guy right?

Critics who don’t know or understand a lot about comic books have been trying to filter the character V through their myopic familiarity with Batman, but the language of superheroes has nothing to do with this vigilante. When V explains why he has not been halted by a hail of bullets, it is that “behind this mask, there is an idea,” it is a plea to look harder. There are ideas behind Green Lantern’s mask too, but that they superficially once shared the same medium does not make them equitable. Looking harder does not mean realizing Vendetta asks real-world political questions – that is frankly self-evident – it’s realizing that the film does not necessarily propose unambiguous answers.

Now. Speaking of comics.

Take Me To the Moore/ Dig a Shallow Grave

Alan Moore and his readers have good reason to be pissed off. After having gone years without screen adaptation, there has been a small glut of unworthy films based on Moore’s work. Perhaps the most difficult of these was the Hughes brothers’ attractive, well-intentioned but middling From Hell… adapted from a leading contender for Greatest Comics Novel in History. Close does not earn cigars.

Yes, you are weird, Alan.
Yes, I think it's coming across in the picture.

McTeague and the Wachowski’s are ardent fans of Moore and Lloyd’s novel. They’ve made the finest and most faithful screen adaptation of his work. There are missteps, missed opportunities, and poor choices, to be sure. But this is a case of a filmmaking team understanding what makes a writer special: they understand his storytelling technique itself.

Liberties (ha ha) are taken with the story, and the specific politics, perhaps to make for a less bitter medicine capsule. It’s not the plot points that sting, so much as the ideology this alters: V is no longer a frank anarchist (though his circled-V graffiti is still an inverted A), no longer do psychedelic drugs play necessary role in bringing policeman Finch and V together, and V’s liberation of Evey from fear may still take a similar tone to Morpheus freeing Neo from his bio-pod in The Matrix (or, you know – OUT of the Matrix), but it's also become a bit of a sexual come-on. Which kind of complicates the matter. But even as these changes are made (and really, that’s NOTHING compared to From Hell), they understand his storytelling technique itself.

Alan Moore is a magician. And that’s a literal fact, that he is a practicing honest-to-Crowley weirdo magician. But that structured, ritual exploration into realms unmentionable is not a bad frame to start understanding Moore’s work.

There’s no way for a narrative film to get away with the kind of radical formal experimentation of Moore’s novel. This is a book in which a chapter is structured as sheet music, for random example. But retained are Moore’s trademark impossibly complex networks of visual motifs, echos and mirrors; in Vendetta, the flashiest is the letter V itself, showing up as graffiti, as crossed knives, as a massive row of dominos, as a smear of blood, as a Roman numeral on a prison cell, and in a crucial moment, in the linked arms of two young lovers. The film cannot best the novel’s exhaustive inventiveness, but when the parallel rebirth of Evey in a nighttime rain, and V’s origin story by fire are startlingly intercut, it demonstrates a respectful attempt to retain a sense of Moore’s craft.

In the greatest of Alan Moore’s comics, there are often small stories within the story, and these strange gems will draw out the truths of the book in miniaturized, concise and specifically human form. In Watchmen, a pirate comic book darkly parallels the end of the world. In From Hell, a coach ride around the monuments of London reveal a secret map of occult and patriarchal history. In V for Vendetta, a political prisoner’s desperate autobiography is scrawled on toilet paper, a letter she cannot assume will ever be read. It gets read. That such a despairing story can be the heart of hope inside this dystopia should tell you something about the surprises of which Alan Moore is capable. The Hughes' film From Hell chose to gut its source’s most perfect sequence. V for Vendetta is much wiser.

V for Vendetta, the film by James McTeigue and Andy and Larry Wachowski, ends with a glorious moment of its own invention. It is open to multiple readings, but don’t believe anyone calling Vendetta a cynical film. The entire city of London makes a final stand outside the houses of Parliament, dressed as V dressed as Fawkes, a frightening but inspiring mob of late-blooming revolutionaries. Then the masks of this faceless mob are torn back to reveal another image: the individuality and personalized responsibility of democracy. And you are there.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Maine Vampire Massacre: What's Wrong With SALEM'S LOT (1979)

Tobe Hooper is one of those strange cases of a filmmaker who has made one Great Film (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), a couple of good-to-interesting ones (Poltrergeist, Eaten Alive), but an otherwise unending chain of junk. The worst of it is, that it's difficult to discern how the taste and talent he brought to Chain Saw have more or less failed Hooper since 1974. And his 1979 TV miniseries of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot is as good a case study as any.

Salem's Lot basically reconfigures Bram Stoker in Stephen King terms. i.e., it's Dracula set in contemporary small-town Maine. David Soul (bleck) is Ben Mears, a writer returning to his hometown of Jerusalem's Lot to write about a local haunted house. To thwart a vampo-menace in the form of Messrs. Straker (James Mason, fun but phoning it in) and Barlowe (the legendary Reggie Nalder, scary as all shit), Ben ends up teaming up with his dull lady-love Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) and boy wonder monster-movie nut Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin). Most everybody else in town dies. Also Fred Willard as the vampire's real estate man wears a funny plaid suit.

Ken Hutchinson is on the case! The case of vampires!

In his first foray into the supernatural, Hooper's vision of the otherworldly is just too prosaic. King's novel is about the inside-out rotting corruption of a community because of contagion they will not address. The film pays lip service to this idea, but in no way demonstrates it. In the next year's The Shining, Stanley Kubrick would also ditch some a King source novel's ideas, but also imbued the story with richer themes. Hooper replaces the sloughed core idea with nothing, despite having 3 hours of running time to fool around with.

I'm reminded of the commentary track on the Texas Chain Saw Massacre DVD, in which Hooper laughs off suggestions that the film is about the breakdown of the American family, animal rights, or '70s social malaise. Which does not, of course, stop Chain Saw from being about these things. But it speaks to Hooper's refusal to consider any implications to his story. And in a way, 'Salem's Lot is a meditation on Dracula, why Stoker's story works, and what its characters represent, so a filmmaker who resists subtext is walking a dangerous road when adapting the book. Ben ponders why he's drawn to investigate the supposedly haunted Marsten House, and Mark's parents question his interest in monster toys, and these scenes are supposed to be about our very attraction to the genre: does it mean there's something wrong with us? Do these interests unintentionally fuel evil? Hooper includes these moments, but makes them weightless and unjustified.

In the specific case of Salem's Lot, there are a half-dozen genuinely frightening scare scenes. The drunken wobbly floating of vampire children outside of foggy bedroom windows, scratching at the panes is indelible. The many-hour build up to Barlow's arrival in town doesn't so much build suspense as lull one into expecting it might not happen, but when the Master makes his on-screen entrance it is a contender for all-time jump-scare king. Hooper delivers the goods in the form of scare setpieces that are actually frightening, a skill that is more unique in the annals of horror than it ought to be. A knack for disorienting editing and surprising shock images are in full force. Or they are for probably 10 minutes of the 3-hour film.

The book 'Salem's Lot shows King taking his first steps towards the enormous casts of characters, and fictional towns with detailed, storied histories which are the trademark of his epic novels. The miniseries keeps introducing characters, but their affairs and daily doings are so dull that it is of little consolation that so much care is being taken to preserve King's cast list. Besides a subplot about Larry Crockett (Willard)'s affair with his wedded secretary, which leads to a funny-intense showdown at the end of her cuckolded husband's shotgun, everything happening in town is perfectly extraneous. This might be fine if it weren't such a chore to sit through. Even the romantic leads seem to be feigning interest in their blooming relationship. They must know it's only happening to create a damsel to put in distress for the third act.

Brilliant graphics! Pretty poster! Unworthy telefilm!

Not only is this stuff boring, but it's at the expense of better material. The character of Father Callahan (James Gallery) is retained, but a subplot about his crisis of faith is gone, even though it has serious ramifications. The Doubting Holy Man is a hoary figure in the genre by this point, but in this story he is an important piece of one of King's recurring tales: small towns rotting into chaos from the sins of their citizens (Cujo, Needful Things, IT). Instead, much time spent on Ben and Susan flirting by the lake and uh, walking around town.

It is in these non-thrill scenes that Hooper's shortcomings are most obvious. Perhaps he's just as bored as the audience, but Hooper continually cuts away from even important dialogue scenes mid-conversation. "Get out of town, and take everyone you can convince to go with you," Ben frantically tells Susan CUT TO!: Ben walking down the street the next day? The usual purpose for this would be to show Susan, you know, leaving town, or convincing people to go with her. Editing a miniseries is surely a huge undertaking. Perhaps it demonstrates that building suspense for almost two hours before any payoffs is nigh impossible. In any case Salem's Lot is far too sloppy for its reputation as a major work from an important genre figure. It would seem Tobe Hooper's limited skill set just didn't serve an ability to tell stories outside of his one enduring masterpiece. But Sweet Jesus, swimming in an overlong, tepid ocean there's some real harum scarum shocks in Salem's Lot.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Vermilion Pleasure Night, EVERY Night

I don't usually bother with "news" here, but this regards the single funniest thing I've ever seen.

This slipped my notice until today, but ADV Films began releasing volumes of "Oh! Mikey" on DVD last month. These US editions of the all-mannequin-acted Dadaist comedy sketch-turned-3-minute-sitcom save one from having to purchase outrageously expensive Japanese discs. And I mean "save," because once you've seen the brutal, bizarre and hysterical (in all senses of the word) expose of the human condition that is "Oh! Mikey", you must show them to all who will watch.

Ex-Kinetoscope's second most anticipated DVD releases of 2006 has suddenly become "Oh! Mikey" Vol. 2!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Open Letter to SAW II (2005)

Dear Saw II,

That part where a girl got thrown in a pit of hypodermic needles was gross. But not as gross as you wanted it to be.

If you're going to write a movie by making a list of things that are gross, I suggest in
Saw III that a girl be killed by boogers. Because boogers totally gross me out.

Also I think in the animated logo for your company Twisted Pictures, the letters should squirt blood after they get sliced with barbed wire. SICK!

Your friend,

Now I love a gross-out. I don't trust critics who say otherwise, because they're denying themselves one of the principle pleasures of comedy and horror. But there are tricks to great gross-outs, and Saw II could learn a lesson from David Cronenberg's The Fly or Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, which make similar lists of what horrifies human beings on the level of sheer revulsion, but make witty forays into those gut responses. A snake slithering out of a corpse's mouth has never been funnier than at the hands of Steven Spielberg.

Saw II opens with a man having to decide if he wants to carve his eyeball out with a razor. This is a perfect opportunity for a riff on Western culture's infamous Injury the Eye motif/obsession. Saw II just makes it a scene about carving out your eye.

The idea of the Saw movies is that a murderer puts people in death-traps where they either mutilate themselves in a poetic-justice way, or die. This is a game we used to call "Would You Rather...?" in the elementary school cafeteria. The movie is very proud of pointing out that Saw is not a murderer "technically," but er, legally we're talking murder. The movie is also very proud of Saw's "games," but most of them A) would cause a human to die either way, B) are not poetic justice, C) especially in Saw II, many of the traps do not seem to really present a choice, and just kill the victim outright.

You probably haven't seen Hellraiser: Inferno, because I don't even know why I saw Hellraiser: Inferno. Unfortunately for Saw II, it shares a primary plot element with Inferno, as they both use their sadistic, demonic murderers as dark angels to serve just desserts to mean, crooked cops (in Saw II it's Donnie Wahlberg). Just desserts in a Saw movie, of course, means being physically tortured.

[Sidebar Fun: In a similar situation to Hellraiser: Deader, Saw II director Darren Lynn Bousman's screenplay was retooled by Leigh Whannell from an original script not intended to be a franchise installment. I'm not implying these parallels mean much, just that there are clear warning signs you're embarking on a dangerous voyage.]

Saw II thinks it is fiendishly clever, piling on dozens of Usual Suspects-level brainbending twists. It is a special breed of dumb which mistakes itself for exceptionally smart. Half the revelations can be seen from an hour before they're made. The unpredictable half simply don't make any sense.

The murders in Se7en, the movie the Saws aspire to be, are bold, proselytizing statements from a lunatic to the world. They are clever as sick-joke setpieces, but they are part and parcel with the moral concerns of Se7en: we are made to see that our killer and Morgan Freeman's Detective Sommerset have similarly unworkable worldviews. The Saw films set up medieval, would-be flashy murders. The writers ascribe airy moralizing rationale to their devil - he wants people to appreciate life, and get in touch with their survival instinct. Reverting to basest self-preservation has nothing to do with one's capacity for tenderness, which is supposedly the lesson Saw is trying to teach our crooked cop anti-hero. But Saw's moral scale is unbalance-able. It's a trick, an excuse, an impossible knot.

I realize you're damned if you criticize this, but I say you're damned if you don't: Team Saw II is too adolescent to realize its nonsensical philosophical lip-service doesn't enrich the string of gross-outs passing for a plot; it makes it dishonest. That goes for Saw, and that goes for the filmmakers.

There is only one.