Category Archives: Reviews

If I Was In LA, California Plottin’

Inherent VIce posterHere’s 1000 words I wrote on Inherent Vice, my favorite 2014 film. There’s a lot more to say, but, this is a fun start. 

Plot is the best and worst part of cinema, and Paul Thomas Anderson knows it. On one hand, plot is unavoidable––if, by plot, we mean intentional progression from one image to another. And since celluloid (real, beautiful celluloid in PTA’s case) unspools image after image, it keeps charging onward. Some genres are particularly dependent on the velocity and direction of their charge; mysteries, for instance, are hopelessly dependent on their logical, Rube Goldbergian momentum. We’re all foremen when it comes to mysteries: pulled in to dissect and judge the quality of the motors, gears, and sprockets whirring us through time.

But, on the other hand, what could be more antithetical to the visceral, sensual joy of cinema than the manmade shackle of narrative logic? Plots can carve up the unruly, the sensual, the natural into cubits and acres. They strip mine them with utilitarian haste. Scene 4 must get X from Location B to Location C, because Y waits there with crucial info. Sometimes, mystery plots are so preoccupied with how their progressions must unfold that they’re unconcerned with what simply is. They can leave us with handcrafted resolutions and disposable experiences.

This is why Inherent Vice is so damn great. PTA turns the mystery on its head: we’re left with very few answers and a phenomenal experience. He’s performed a magic trick, overloading this film with the best that plot can offer––the whirring, cackling mechanics, via Thomas Pynchon––for the sake of cultivating the wild, the wacky, the untamable. The true pleasure of the Rube Goldberg machine, Anderson knows, has nothing to do with utility. It’s all in the whiz-bang cause-effect razzle-dazzle. PTA’s mechanics spin and spin until they blossom into something wild and weird and awesome.

Premise: it’s 1970. The Age of Aquarius has come and gone in Gordita Beach, California, and the good vibrations have started shaking things up a little too much for stoner detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). When Doc’s ex-old-lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth, asks him to examine the disappearance of her gangster boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, Doc is drawn into a web of postmodern intrigue: real estate tycoons, Asian hookers, Aryan biker gangs, Black Panthers, straight-laced-cops-turned-part-time-TV-actors, marine lawyers, runaway teenagers, blacklisted actors, two-timing “antigovernment revolutionaries,” megacorporate drug-pushing dentists, they’re all running (and tanning and sexing and coke snorting) around this full-baked SoCal mélange. The deeper Doc dives into this knotty rhizome, the more characters we meet, the more thematic connections arise, the fewer things make sense. Doc scribbles important points onto his notepad, like: “Hallucinating?,” “Definitely not hallucinating,” and “Something Spanish.” Critics may be tempted to do the same. While Inherent Vice might melt a positivist’s mind, feebler noggins like mine might as well chill and take in the ganja for what it’s worth.

And it’s worth a surprising lot. There’s a deep logic at play here: this is a high film about a high time. Doc would probably wax meditative like Joan Didion (“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children…”) if he weren’t so blazed. Phoenix has received little buzz for this loose, mutton chopped performance––none of the raves he got for his manic, apish histrionics in The Master––and that’s too bad. He’s a pro purveyor of loopy, low-key comedy. It’s all in the reaction shots: the dropped jowl, the indignant, furrowed brow, the muddled noirspeak, the faux-I’m-totally-tracking-with-yah “mmmhm” response, the disapproving tongue click and head nod.

But as PTA carries us into an elegiac dénouement we realize how deeply we feel for our decentered, denim-clad, sunglassed hombre. Like all PTA films, Inherent Vice’s formal razzmatazz is marshaled to illuminate primal longings––in this case, we’re drawn to the wishful mirage of companionship in an ever-fracturing world.

Doc channels this longing into imagined romance and bromance. Inherent Vice is equally anchored by Doc’s feelings for Shasta Fay and Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson. Josh Brolin has, fortunately, received well-deserved acclaim for this (sometimes literal) scenery chewing, wannabe straight-laced/bad-boy cop. (Cops always want to have it both ways––a tension that writhes at the heart of this dead-eyed, sharp-jawed buffoon.) Geoffrey O’Brien likened Bigfoot’s flattop haircut to a granite mesa, and he’s right on the money. Bigfoot could have sprung from the rich red earth itself or come straight outta John Wayne’s big fat cock, ready to take the West with that “evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations.” And yet, when Bigfoot and Doc eye each other warily––Doc’s eyes squinting, Bigfoot’s piercing––forced into unwitting cahoots, we sense The Master’s Freddy Quell/Lancaster Dodd dynamic in a lesser key: beneath the sturdy façade of mid-20th-century American essentialism, both guys just kinda wanna be each other. PTA makes this desire hilariously, movingly literal in the aforementioned scenery-chewing scene, which begins when Bigfoot not only kicks down Doc’s door, but crushes its glass panes with decisive, vertical, Godzilla-like stomps.

I won’t describe the actual scenery chewed for the sake of preserving the punch line. It’s the kind of surreal, visual gag that leaves you wide-eyed, gasping and laughing at the same time. Inherent Vice is the kind of movie that makes you want to leave punch lines unsoiled for first-time viewers. And so I suppose I should end by saying that among its other qualities, Inherent Vice is, in its purest, most visceral element, one of the best visual comedies I’ve ever seen. Pynchon lays the loco-logical groundwork and then PTA, master of the mise-en-scène, carries in the wonky furniture. Nearly every shot is bursts with explosive visual verve. The mathematical mystery-lover may frown here and there as the equation stops adding up, but she may be just too doubled over to care. It’s certainly the best bad trip I’ve ever been on, and I mean that in the grooviest way possible.

Chewing on Good Serial

serial-social-logoI, like many others in Whitbread, NPR-Hooked Americaland, recently finished listening to a podcast called Serial. I’m not going to bore you by recalling what the show is or what it’s about, mostly because you can find out about these details in about a million places–The New York Times, Slate, The Colbert Report, The Guardian, The Verge, and on and on, not to mention NPR and the official Serial website, of course. The show has taken off, picked up steam and spawned countless conversations around the nation (I’ve had at least three very in-depth ones within the last week alone). As professional press junkets have slowly ceded their authority to less rigorous media platforms, it’s kind of thrilling to see a country hooked on professional journalism again. As much as we like digestible media tidbits, we seem to be collectively rediscovering the pleasure of wading through the weeds of an in-depth story. Forgo the cat memes for a little bit–Sarah Koenig wants us to trade out our 100-calorie airplane snacks for a 12-course meal. Unfortunately, however, the meal has finished, and many people don’t feel full. And that is what I want address.

Part of the innate appeal of Serial is its inherent relationship to hard-boiled crime fiction. By a stroke of incredible luck, Ms. Koenig found herself deep in a case as confusing and ambiguous as any John le Carré novel. What seemed fairly simple going in grew more and more complicated. Interviewed subjects were lying, but we weren’t sure who the liars were, or to what degree the liars were lying. “It sounds like a game of Clue, I know,” Sarah admitted once, sounding almost embarrassed, after she described several pieces of possible evidence collected near the crime scene. Serial was thrilling because detective fiction tropes were miraculously reified. That sort of thrill lies implicit in the very name “True Crime”; the “True Crime” label implies that crime is inherently untrue, except for true crime, which is (thrillingly) a bit different. It’s a treated like a special subcategory nestled under the overarching Crime Genre category, rather than the real-life source of the Crime Genre itself.

How bizarre. We’ve got it backwards.

Backward thinking has led many of us to treat Serial as if it were a piece of genre fiction. Emily Nussbaum, speaking for many of us, admitted: “Haven’t heard this week’s Serial, but I’ve been feeling guilty about theorizing that Adnan’s mom did it, since they’re all real people.” The genre tropes are all there, underscored by intense music, streamed through online media – it’s all too easy to fictionalize this real life situation, to project our assumptions onto charact – sorry, real individuals – just as we do with fiction. It’s an old postmodern yarn, that mass-media-saturated-culture treats truth like fiction and fiction like truth and relativizes and free plays and bla bla bla… but, well, isn’t it sort of true after all?

The best part of Serial, in my opinion, is that the show is resolutely not a work of crime fiction. Not even sensationalized drama. It’s plenty lurid, sure, and pretty sad, but it steers clear clear clear of tabloid territory. Therefore, the end of Serial  is a pill our postmodern society needs to take. It should remind us what good journalism looks like, and, more importantly, hold a mirror up to our own skewed expectations.

Immediately after I began to listen to the show, I tuned in to a Serial-related podcast on Slate. In the podcast, as Dwight Garner put it, “Mike Pesca… practically begged Ms. Koenig for closure. ‘Don’t let this,’ he said, ‘wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.’” I found the interview to be, like many things published on Slate, rather enervating. The most aggravating aspect of this Mr. Pesca’s beg was his implied belief that Ms. Koenig could be, in fact, driving for some sort of half-assed “artistic contemplation.” Mr. Pesca should have clearly known, not only because Ms. Koenig has worked on this project for an entire year, but because she is an award-winning journalist – the kind that churns out, you know, fact-checked journalism – that that sort of mediocrity was never in her playbook. Ms. Koenig isn’t some liberal college freshman straight out of her first Derrida seminar. Serial would not devolve into some impressionistic postmodern hoo-ha. This should have been self-evident.

On Serial, we witnessed reporters doing what responsible reporters ought to do: reporting what they know, admitting what they don’t know. Not theorizing under the guise of explaining (all hypothetical imagining labeled itself as such). Not projecting their stories into some garbled stew of “possible fact.” We got a reporter who, yes, believes that the truth is out there. A reporter who spent an entire year chasing down facts and opinions in order to recover this truth.

But, just as significantly, we got a reporter willing to admit what she didn’t know. A reporter stating what she could reasonably propose, and staying silent where she felt she ought to say silent. A reporter who didn’t spin, who didn’t pull wild accusations out of thin air on the air. A reporter who did what Rolling Stone should have done months ago and, sadly, did not do.

We didn’t end up with sensationalized “True Crime.” We got journalistic integrity. And as far as I’m concerned, integrity is far more satisfying than any contrived or exaggerated “explanation” would ever be.

Many people won’t be satisfied – aren’t satisfied. These people will, in their desire to have a solid resolution, turn their anger against Ms. Koenig instead of the evidence (or lack thereof).  This is a shame. What does it say about us if we desire concrete, possibly untrue resolutions instead of honest ambiguity? It says we kinda like the spin we’re generally thrown, so long as it is simple and concrete. This is the real postmodern mess: not that we believe that truth is ambiguous and relative, but that we believe that we can all come to some sort of straight-forward truth on our own terms, by our own assumptive powers. That we can pull together shambles of evidence and make it all stick together by the power of sheer will. At least little parts of all Serial listeners (I’ll include myself here) do wish that Ms. Koenig did exactly this.

But Ms. Koenig didn’t balk in the face of this pressure. Even when Serial became the most popular podcast in history, and one of the most popular shows in the American media, period, she demonstrated what honest journalism should look like. She worked and worked and worked to try to acquire facts that would lead us to new resolutions, but she admitted when she didn’t find them. Sometimes you just come up dry. If you can’t tell whether the cat in the box is alive or dead, it’s best to avoid false assumptions in either direction.

And one of the things I liked most about Serial is how it demonstrated that, when you’re living in ambiguity, you can treat your own “Adnan Syed’ with sympathy, and, for that matter, your “Jay” too – even when Jay’s story seems fishier by the day. A special sort of grace arises when someone empathizes with people who are possibly dishonest. Persevering in the face of interpersonal ambiguity – this lies at the bedrock of any sort of relational development, I think. We can all improve in that department, and Serial gives us a chance to practice that form of difficult sympathy, with Ms. Koenig standing in as our collective avatar.

Murder fiction tends to either stem from the notion that there is an absolute truth, readily available to anyone by way of deductive reasoning, or – in its nihilistic, postmodern form – a stubborn insistence on utter doubt.

On Serial, Ms. Koenig showed how good reporting, even very entertaining reporting, can rise above both extremes. It can tirelessly search for an absolute truth that, yes, does exist. But, at the same time, it can avoid pretending that it knows what it don’t know, or suggesting that reporters can cobble together true stories with their own interpretive abilities and relational biases.

We joined Ms. Koenig; she got us hooked. Then we subjected her story to our own Hermeneutics of Fiction. But Ms. Koenig didn’t give in to our simple interpretive frameworks, and, by doing so, she challenged our naïve, fiction-formed presuppositions. Are we going to stare into the mirror she’s holding up to us? I hope so.

As much as I’d like to know the truth, we shouldn’t be happy with half-truths. (As my wise mentor Mike once said, “No half measures.”) But vigilance and integrity? I can live with that. Serially.

Ride Nemec’s New Wave

“Diamonds of the Night” begins with breathtaking swiftness. Sharp gunshots echo in the distance as two unidentified young men scramble, half-running, half-crawling, up a hillside. We hear nothing but gunshots and breathless panting as they head into the woods for shelter.

In this 1964 feature-length debut by 1960s Czech New Wave auteur Jan Nemec, the young men are never given names or significant dialogue. Their forest escape meshes with intercut surrealistic visions: walks through a concentration camp wearing cloaks labeled “KL,” a tram speeding through the streets of Prague, ants crawling into an eye socket, laughing children tobogganing down snowy slopes, grain bags, slinking cats, rising elevators. No framing devices contextualize these images, leaving us the weighty task of determining whether we’re witnessing flashbacks, hallucinations or merely images that Nemec fancies.

….keep reading here.

Review of Three Milos Forman Czech New Wave Classics

Cheswick, sporting an exaggerated frown like a stubborn toddler, stands and interrupts a group therapy session in a fleeting impulse of civil disobedience.

“May I have my cigarettes please, Nurse Ratched?”

Ratched juts out her jaw, widening her fiery eyes: “Mr. Cheswick, you sit down!”

Cheswick sits, arms crossed, anxiety practically dripping from his pores. McMurphy tries to appease the squirmy man by playing off of Harding’s better nature. Harding, ever the intellectual, refuses to let Cheswick have his last cigarette: “I’m not running a charity ward, see.” Martini, grinning impishly, snatches this “last cigarette” from Harding’s hand and gives it one puff before tossing it across the circle. A game of “cigarette catch” begins, tensions rise, and Cheswick stands again to bellow in pure, bloated agony: “I want MY cigarettes, Nurse Ratched! I want MINE, Nurse Ratched!”

….keep reading here.

“The Conjuring” Review

“The Conjuring” is a direct and unapologetic Haunted House film. Regardless of James Wan’s opinion on the actual existence of paranormal activity—it seems that Wan is a curious paranormal agnostic at the very least, or (a cynic would suggest) impersonating that attitude in order to enhance his cinematic craft—he is certainly a believer in the classic horror motifs. I spent a good deal his film feeling like Marty in “Cabin in The Woods,” questioning why its characters consistently made the mistakes that all characters are bound to make in every haunted house.

But these tropes must come from somewhere, and the real Lorraine Warren and Andrea Perron (consultants for Wan) claim that the film is “art” instead of fiction. Regardless of how you respond to their claim, it is this implied veracity that makes the film stand apart from other members of its wood-creaking, wind-blowing, door-thumping niche. Wan gives our demon-hunting protagonists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, a level of intelligence, humanity, and confidence that is functions as the brain and heart of the entire film. And while Patrick Wilson is serviceable, the true center is Vera Farmiga, turning in another performance brimming with a remarkable blend of pathos and cool intelligence. As no stranger to genuine spiritual search,—her own directorial debut “Higher Ground” percolates with metaphysical wrestling—Farmiga’s Lorraine has the remarkable (and underrated) ability to look her husband in the eye and say “I believe that God brought us together for a reason” without sounding trite, sentimental, or shrill. Like a belabored psalmist, she trusts God in spite of her weary, frightened, and frustrated soul.

Ed and Lorraine are human enough to become annoyed with the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church (their priestless, self-initiated exorcism made this protestant feel an embarrassing twinge of theological satisfaction), but sensitive enough to recognize the vastness of evil that lurks beyond humanity’s control. The actual evil shown in The Conjuring amounts to smoke, mirrors, and CGI, but Farmiga’s performance gives testimony to a transcendent pain and suffering. Like Francis McDormand in the Coen’s noir-pastiche Fargo, Farmiga both grounds and elevates all of the ridiculousness surrounding her.

Yet while Farmiga and Wilson are impressive, and while the tormented family is believable as well, the true crux of good horror lies in its formal presentation. Wan is credited as saying: “…the irony has always been that horror may be disregarded by critics, but often they are the best-made movies you’re going to find in terms of craft. You can’t scare people if they see the seams,” and he is right. Classic horror is intensely indebted to cinematic craft, pacing, and what the camera can and can’t see (or chooses not see).

In this regard I am happy to report that The Conjuring has some remarkable shots. Before anything crazy even occurs Wan uses an expositional steadicam shot with the skill and audacity of Martin Scorsese. The slow, intentional zooms he uses throughout the film effortlessly evoke films of the 1970s, when motorized zoom lenses were all the rage; rotating gimbal shots make us feel like spirits floating through out the haunted house. The whole film feels as if it is shot through either a blue-grey or warm orange filter (depending on mood and location), a nice homage to the browns and light-blues that fill out our cultural imagining of the seventies.

However, while it is evident that Wan is a student of Friedkin, De Palma, and other masters of horror, he refuses to immerse himself in their classic cinematic language, settling for pastiche rather than full-on technique adoption. And while I admire his desire to find an original cinematic voice instead of beating a dead horse (oh, but what a beautiful dead horse!), his visual style ends up in a sort of lukewarm deadlock; “The Conjuring” shifts between traditional dollying/steadicamming and the newer “Blair Witch”-style first-person shakeycam. These shifts often accommodate the purpose of individual shots, but they often detract from the pacing and groundwork laid by previous scenes. While this stylistic potpourri isn’t as obnoxious as Abrams’ direction in “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” Wan’s craftsmanship reflects on his generation in a similar way. He can clearly appreciate past styles and pull from them, but he seems to lack the slow, patient energy needed to build a coherent visual language that encompasses an entire film. He bears the DNA of a visionary, perhaps, but certainly lacks the perfection-driven legwork needed to get there.

Regardless, Wan’s sensitive, sincere approach to character and paranormal storytelling elevates The Conjouring into something that leaves you with a beating, compassionate heart long after you’ve exorcized its jolts and chills out of your system. And this summer, that’s saying a lot.

“House of Cards, Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Chapter One'” Review

Reposted from the Washington Square News.

I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself

And falls on the other.

-“Macbeth”, Act 1, Scene 7

The first scene of David Fincher’s House of Cards centers on Kevin Spacey suffocating an injured dog on a lamp-lit street, occasionally glancing at the camera with an unflinching, weary, bored expression. “I have no patience for useless things,” he tells us. The dog is dead just before its owners arrive to say goodbye.

Rarely do we see an opening shot that sets a tone so jarringly. Throughout the first episode of “House of Cards,” the combination of Spacey and David Fincher feels like a one-two punch to the gut, and yet, paradoxically, an attack that is so quietly, manically unsettling that it’s almost more like a slow, steady hand compressing your windpipe. From “Breaking Bad” to “Mad Men” to “The Wire,” quality television of the 21st century is chock full of immorality, cynicism, and antiheroes. Yet in “House of Cards,” Fincher deals from a deck that is so unabashedly nihilistic, with such a smugly negative view of human nature, it seems as if he and Spacey are mocking any desire we have to find goodness, sympathy, or honor in its characters or the political games they play. Spacey’s Francis Underwood seems like the Machiavellian lovechild of “The Wire’s” Stringer Bell and the taunting murderer of Fincher’s “Se7en.”

“Forward! That is the battle cry,” says Underwood in one of his many southern-drawl-smothered monologues. “Leave ideology to the armchair generals. It does me no good.” Fincher shares Underwood’s disinterest in lofty ideology. His Darwinian monsters don’t have time for ethics or moral principles.

The plot is all vaulting ambition, desire, backstabbing, manipulation, and revenge. Underwood is the ruthless Majority Whip congressman who helped Garrett Walker secure his upcoming presidency. He was promised a Secretary of State appointment in return for his labor, a promise that the President Elect decided to forego. Unfortunately for the president’s poor staffers, they have no conception of the hell they have unleashed upon themselves. I mean, Underwood suffocates injured dogs on the street — Garrett doesn’t have a chance. With a false pledge of continued loyalty to the administration, the help of a spry muckraking journalist (Kate Mara), and prodding of his icy Lady Macbeth, Claire (Robin Wright), Underwood spends most of the episode preparing to enact his vengeance.

“Macbeth” is an appropriate comparison for this show, as Shakespearean style is continually invoked by writer Beau Willimon. He features monologues more jarring and indulgently wordy than anything seen on modern television. Robin Wright, while delivering an understated performance, invokes Lady Macbeth to such an archetypical degree that I could never respond to Claire as anything beyond a literary pastiche. Invoking The Bard (not only in plot, like “Ten Things I Hate About You” or “She’s The Man,” but in style) is an incredibly risky move. In plays like “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare took the narrative structure of a political thriller and used his linguistic ability to deliver satisfying platters of philosophical conundrums, ethical questions, and profound characterizations. He turned the seedy genres into lyrical poems. “House of Cards” aims for similar lyrical profundity, but Willimon’s writing is often more cringe-worthy and self-congratulatory than truly enlightened. While Spacey — an actor well acquainted with The Bard –– can occasionally make Willimon’s lines pop with brilliance, asides like, “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood,” fall flat. Underwood’s conspiratorial initiation with his wife, “We’ll have a lot of nights like this, making plans, very little sleep,” is almost laughably forthright. Other lines work to greater degrees, but the result is decidedly mixed.

Therefore, beyond Spacey, the unsung hero of the “House of Cards” pilot, the force that keeps it from falling into melodramatic disrepair, is David Fincher. Perhaps the most talented auteur to delve into nihilism and the anxieties of the information age, Fincher’s tight direction is at the top of its form. The warm oranges of D.C. streetlamps and the smooth of crispness of his digital filmmaking masks and mocks “House’s” internally decrepit characters. His pacing is as involving and meticulous as “The Social Network.” In many ways “House of Cards” feels like a philosophical companion piece to that film, albeit without the strength of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.

And as we know from “The West Wing,” Sorkin’s view of government is far too idealistic for this show. Political dramas make interesting television (and film, as Tony Kushner demonstrated so brilliantly with “Lincoln”) because, whereas most televisual art trades in id-driven bloodbaths, the political realm is a fascinating sight of convergence for principle and ambition, idealism and opportunism, altruism and ruthless strategy. “The West Wing” and “Parks and Recreation” are two of my favorite television shows for this very reason.

Without the brutal strength of Spacey and Fincher––who both have the uncanny ability to make narcissistic cruelty vehement and sexy––the “House of Cards” pilot may have been a disappointingly one-dimensional, plainly written portrait of government corruption. Therefore, as the series progresses and Fincher relinquishes his directorial reins, it will be interesting to see whether “House of Cards” will truly build into something nuanced and fascinating (it certainly has potential), or whether the whole deck will crumble before our eyes.

“The Shining:” Well, What About Hell?

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on October 31, 2012.

In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d share with you all my review of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, a film that I haven’t seen in its entirety before a couple weeks ago. Like the Fargo review, this was for my Writing About Film class. If you want to watch something truly scary on this fabled night…. well, the review speaks for itself. It isn’t exactly spoiler free, but spoilers aren’t the name of the game here. What I tell you will hardly reduce your experience watching the film. Enjoy.

  Well, What About Hell?

One morning, Stephen King stood in his bathroom hung over and shaving. His wife burst open the door, wide-eyed, and emphatically whispered: “Someone’s on the phone who says he’s Stanley Kubrick!” Stunned, King jabbed the razor into the side of his cheek and ran out of the bathroom. Blood dripping down his face, shaving cream still coving half of it, he gripped the phone and heard a gravelly Bronx accent exclaim: “Hi, Stanley Kubrick here. I actually think stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don’t you?

“I don’t understand exactly what you mean by that, Mr. Kubrick.”

“Call me Stanley.”

“What do you mean by that, Stanley?”

“Well, supernatural fiction and ghost stories all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death. If we survive death, that’s optimistic.”

King retorted: “Well, what about Hell?”

There was a long pause on the other end of the telephone before a grim retort resounded with foreboding finality.

“I don’t believe in Hell.”

According to King, this is the only pre-production discussion he had with Kubrick about adapting his book The Shining into a film.

  *****

  The idea of Stanley Kubrick soberly denying the reality of Hell seems ironic and slightly absurd. For it seems that, in the pantheon of 20th century “auteurs,” Kubrick labored most relentlessly to immerse audiences in a Hell of his own creation. In particular, The Shiningdid leave me optimistic: optimistic that if someone didn’t believe in Hell before watching it, their mind would at least be full of hellish provocation by the end credits.

  The Shining is a surreal, expressionistic, and perversely evocative horror film. It situates its protagonist, Jack (Jack Nicholson), in his own personal hell before letting his narcissism trap his family there with him. From the first time we see his disheveled face, Jack bristles with an uneasy, nervous energy. And as the film progresses, Jack Torrance seems more and more like the demonic lovechild of Nicholson’s previous roles. Bobby Dupea famously asked a diner waitress to hold chicken between her knees. Mac McMurphy­ nearly goes crazy with rage while pretending to be crazy. But unlike these characters, Jack is not even initially portrayed as the story’s “everyman” or even a moral man; in his first scene, a job interview, he seems a little too confident that he’ll avoid cabin fever when taking care of the Overlook Hotel for the winter, a little too confident that his wife and son will like it, a little too confident that they’ll be unperturbed by the murderous tragedy that took place in The Overlook. In reference to the murders, he says: “You can rest assured, Mr. Ullman, that’s not gonna happen with me. And as far as my wife is concerned, I’m sure she’ll be absolutely fascinated when I tell her about it. She’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.”

Who would talk in such a way about a real-life tragedy? Who would say, “My wife loves disaster films, so she’d love watching footage from 9-11”? Meta-jab aside, Kubrick is giving away the game from the beginning: Jack is self-absorbed and incapable of empathy. Nicholson’s nervous energy is enough to give it away and learning how he hurt Danny simply adds a concrete fact to what we have already felt. Yes, Nurse Ratched, this time he really is insane.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kubrick extends no more empathy or warmth to Jack’s sane wife Wendy (Shelly Duval). Duval makes for a homely and likeable mother, but she seems almost too likeable, too much like the hollow echo of an innocent Hollywood archetype. Danny asks: “Mom, do you really want to go and live in that hotel for the winter?” She responds like a peer on the playground: “Sure I do! It’ll be lots of fun.” Wandering around the Overlook on arrival, she gawks at it like a kid in a candy store. After her first couple days there, she giddily tells Jack, “It’s amazing how fast you get used to such a big place. I tell you, when we first came up here I thought it was kinda scary.” Wendy has naïve energy but she isn’t portrayed as a person with much depth or fortitude. When things get rough she is very good at being terrified (her wide eyes do more acting than anyone except Nicholson), but Kubrick gives her character little textured zeal. She’s eighty-percent vulnerability, twenty-percent tepid resilience.

The sheer contrast between Jack and Wendy is obviously intentional; they mix like oil and water. Even before things get violent, the couple embodies the disintegration of the nuclear family in a way that is as scary and unbearably empty as the Overlook Hotel in winter. However, Kubrick’s nearly satirical portrayal of this family seriously hinders the rest of his film. Part of the masochistic pleasure of horror is seeing good things perverted: young people dying, good people in pain, sane people turned insane, innocent children turned bitter and evil. Yet Kubrick never gives his leads, even the young boy Danny, enough pathos for us to be horrified by their demise. We see them disintegrate, but we never saw them integrated to begin with; we see the tail end of a long train wreck without witnessing the train smoothly traveling down the tracks. This may be an attempt at realism on Kubrick’s part (after all, real families don’t typically go from loving each other to killing each other in the span of two and a half hours), but it makes the rest of his film seem more like a formal experiment than an emotionally-grounded story of tragic psychological corrosion. Kubrick seems too cold a director for that type of emotional investment.

This is not to say that Nicholson’s performance isn’t consistently entertaining; Kubrick wastes no time in giving Nicholson a stage to perform on. And Nicholson takes the stage like a skilled jazz musician giving a virtuoso solo performance; his face lurches and twitches with improvisational ease, with unpredictable moods and mounting tension that build into the film’s spectacularly famous climax (One of his best deliveries, often overshadowed by the “Here’s Johnny!” zinger, takes place when he’s confronting Wendy on the stairs: “Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just gonna bash your brains in!”). Is Nicholson a little too over the top to give Jack’s presence much weight? Yes, probably. But his beardy, beady-eyed, white toothed, grimacing mug deserves its place on the film’s poster and in our collective conscience simply for its menacing excess.

In a larger sense, Nicholson’s performance is the prime part of a yin-and-yang dynamic common to the best auteur filmmaking, fusing disparate elements: total directorial control and unpredictable, improvisational acting. During The Shining, you never feel like you’re out of Kubrick’s obsessive, calm direction, but Nicholson fills the frame with a manic unpredictability. The synthesis of elements makes you feel like you’re watching a perfectly practiced balancing act. Nicholson gives life to his own personal hell and Kubrick shows us what that hell looks like.

And what a hell Kubrick wants to show us! In cinematic form, psychological horror should be incredibly expressionistic. Cinema has immense power to turn internal fears into external realities and suppressed nightmares into perceptual truths. And in the hands of a good director like Murnau, Hitchcock, or Aronofsky, horror films can vividly realize our deepest anxieties.

The Shining pushed expressionistic horror to a level of nightmarish resonance unsurpassed to this day (except, arguably, in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive). The garish Overlook Hotel set is so large and paradoxical in its purpose that it is consistently uncomfortable for the viewer. It externalizes the hollow, empty nature of the family’s relationship, the vast chasms between them, while simultaneously trapping them together in unbearable emptiness. The dissonance builds when Jack refuses to let Wendy into his writing room while he’s working—a room made to accommodate hundreds of hotel guests. Yet at the same time, wide-angle shots of Danny riding his bicycle down the skinny halls or running in the narrow hedge maze create a sense of distorted claustrophobia, expressing his increasing terror his family gets sucked into supernatural violence.

Some of film’s best scenes are its most hypnotic and show Jack’s fantasies come to vivid, surreal life. Room 237, the shape-shifting epicenter of Jack’s perverse fantasy, is beautifully constructed. It contrasts strikingly with the rest of the hotel, purple furniture and green walls giving it a 70s feel that undoubtedly places us in Jack’s self-imagined pornographic film. Its imaginative set design is as vivid as the slow-motion pool of blood seeping out of the elevator. Equally stunning is the modern, all-red bathroom where Jack decides to kill his wife and son.

Less impressive to a modern filmgoer are the more conventional movie scares: the skeletons and cobwebs in the lobby, the ghosts and bleeding figures that randomly appear. A modern day horror trailer has more affective jump-cuts than Kubrick uses in this film, and these innocuous figures undermine the plot when they begin to scare Wendy as well as Danny. They make Danny’s “shining” seem more like a plot device and his imaginary friend Tony seem more like a foreshadowing tool than a fully realized story element. In fact, the hotel’s residents are only sparsely and lamely picked up from Stephen King’s original novel in which they have far more purpose and resonance. In Kubrick’s hands, at the very least, they do add to the film’s sense of unpredictable surrealism. The Shining deftly defies logical analysis and structural cohesion. It’s not about what happens or why it happens but how it makes you feel.

For the long-standing achievement of The Shining is not its dramatic twists (“All work and no play” revelation aside) or its literal scares. No, The Shining is a masterpiece of conjuredatmosphere. Its vivid, surreal, perversely beautiful style stays firmly lodged in the mind. Its hissing, forebodingly experimental soundtrack and its cries of moaning winter wind may literally make you squirm in your seat. And while you may not feel for its characters, The Shining will trap you in a miserable hotel for over two hours and slowly, seductively dig its way into your mind.

There’s no Hell, Stanley?

Well, I’ve seen The Shining and I politely disagree. You’ve taken me there.