Archive for Poltergeist

Room 237 1/2

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2017 by dcairns

What’s THE SHINING about? Is it a puzzle with no answer, a labyrinth without a centre, a sentence stuck on repeat?

When I first saw the film, underage at the school film society (but film societies aren’t subject to the BBFC), we all “got a good scare” (as Kubrick said he wanted) — there were persons of a nervous disposition, teenage girls for instance, and it rubbed off on all of us. But then we were all furious at the ending, which didn’t make any bloody sense.

I like that now. At 17, one’s negative capability isn’t fully developed so things are supposed to make sense. I think the irrationality of the film, which is more extreme than 2001’s non-verbal sense of the numinous and unaccountable, probably does derive from King’s novel. King’s stuff never makes total sense, does it? I think because he’s maybe a little lazy or easily satisfied when it comes to plotting. But Kubrick certainly was after a disturbing quality that would result precisely from things not making sense. How did Jack Torrence end up in that 1921 photo? Had he always been the caretaker? How does that work, when the person telling him that used to be the caretaker?

The film actually spends half an hour at the start explaining everything — how to look after a hotel in winter, how the isolation can get to you, how a previous caretaker went nuts — and how things can leave a trace of themselves, and how a person with a psychic gift can detect that trace. But it can’t hurt you.

Over the course of act II and III, most everything Stuart Ullman, the Overlook Hotel manager, tells us turns out to be true, barring some confusion about the caretaker’s name. Delbert or Charles Grady? Delbert isn’t a typical English name, you know, and Grady turns out to be English. (Torrence also calls him Jeevesy, and Grady really does phrase things like Wodehouse’s immortal manservant.) Even though Kubrick shot a deleted ending in which Ullman turns out to be in league with the Overlook.

But what the reliable and sympathetic Mr. Halloran (Scatman Crothers) tells us turns out NOT to be true. He’s outlined what is called The Stone Tape Theory, based on Nigel Kneale’s superb TV play: ghosts are like psychic echoes of emotionally charged events. They have no will of their own, they only repeat the actions from their lives, and they can’t hurt you. This theory, concocted for fictional purposes, seems to describe really well most ghost encounters described by real people.

Unfortunately it turns out to be a really bad description of what goes on at the Overlook.

Stephen King has really committed the sin of double voodoo in his story. You’re only supposed to have one aberrant concept per story, but he has both ghosts and telepathy. But he makes this OK by tying them together: only people with “the shining” can see these traces of past events. This makes the story seem to be set in our world with only one additional element for us to swallow, so the story goes down easily. And by the time it turns out there are at least TWO aberrant concepts at play, it’s too late. We’re deep in the maze.

Halloran’s Stone Tape starts decaying when Jack starts talking to Lloyd the bartender, but we take Lloyd to be kind of an imaginary character at first. Maybe not even a ghost. He’s an odd kind of ghost, anyway, serving drinks. We may note that some of his banter has a Mephistophelean cadence to it.

Meanwhile, SOMEBODY unlocks Room 237 and Danny is apparently attacked by “a crazy woman” inside. It’s significant that we don’t see this attack, even though we soon after see the woman — the question of ghosts being able to interact with humans and with corporeal objects is kind of left open.

The headfuck is when Grady lets Jack out of the walk-in storage locker. A ghost has turned a key. At the Portobello High School film society, my friend in the next seat went “WHAT??” at this point. Grady spilling advocaat over Torrence is one thing, nothing is really affected, but this makes him a physical presence in our world, with a will of his own. I guess he could still be a projection of Torrence’s ego, but he’s a telekinetically able-bodied one, if that’s the case. Triple or quadruple voodoo.

Despite appearances, maybe it really IS a great party — read on…

Finally, in the third act, Wendy starts seeing all kinds of Overlook inhabitants. Wendy has been, arguably, the least psychically perceptive character, but even she gets it now. (How rare is the shining ability? Four out of five major living characters in this movie seem to have it.) King speculates that all mothers can shine a little, but Kubrick is having none of this pseudo-progressive sentimentality. The Overlook comes to life in the winter, and when it’s in full flush, even a dope like Wendy can’t miss what’s up.

The entertaining doc ROOM 237 offers a series of fun crackpot theories about what the film really means. In a way, the Indian one is the one most supported by the film. The hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, and we somehow know that’s to blame for everything. POLTERGEIST, released two years later, somehow makes us accept that all the crazy stuff is happening because the house is built on a former graveyard. And we just go with it. But anyway, “built on an Indian burial ground” has become this joke in the culture signifying something that is clearly cursed and no good, and it’s a pretty good joke if you think about it because, if you think about it, wasn’t the whole United States built on an Indian burial ground?

Yet the evil lurking in the Overlook doesn’t have anything to do with Native American mythology. And it seems to espouse a very white male privileged attitude. Chauvinistic, racist. And when you die in the Overlook, you don’t go to the Happy Hunting Ground. You go to a New Year’s July 4th party in 1921. But it seems like this is maybe a kind of pocket universe, existing eternally within the Overlook. And people get recruited into it when they die there. That makes me feel awful for Mr. Halloran. Because the idea seems to be that this is a nostalgic vision of a time when the white male was king. Although Grady ended up as a waiter and Torrence, despite his tuxedo and grin in the film’s final image, is apparently still going to be caretaker, only without his wife to do all the work.

Like all afterlifes (afterlives? technically better but sounds wrong) it’s very hard to visualise, even if that’s a photo of it at the end of the film.

Here’s what I think is going on. As in King’s Pet Sematery, the Indian burial ground thing is a signifier for a powerful spiritual site full of energy that white people don’t know how to channel. This energy starts to affect Danny, Jack and finally Wendy when they move in and are left alone with it. Jack proves to be the most vulnerable, and the energy creates images and character’s drawn from Jack’s mind — if he hadn’t known about Charles Grady the caretaker he would never have hallucinated Delbert Grady the waiter.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he tells us that the environment Dave Bowman finds himself in — visualised in the movie as Louis Quinze interiors with an illuminated floor — has been created by the unseen aliens from Dave’s memories. When he gets some chicken from the refrigerator, it proves tasteless, the ersatz ghost of chicken, because the aliens have just gone by a memory of chicken’s appearance.

I think Kubrick has returned to this promising idea. The Indian burial ground energy — probably nothing to do with Indians, originally, something in the very mountain itself which was detected by the Indians and treated with due deference — works on Jack, with mayhem as its object. It uses imagery drawn from his mind to twist him to violence, and when he dies, it transplants him into that world of fantasy, forever, ‘n’ ever, ever.

And in that fantasy it is New Year’s Eve July 4th, 1921, always, because Jack’s dream is to write the great American novel (which he will call All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy). Or at any rate, to be the great American novelist. The one who writes and drinks and parties and is celebrated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, right?

The Beautiful and the Damned

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Further Adventures

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2011 by dcairns

INSIDIOUS is from James Wan, who made SAW, but we went to see it anyway. We didn’t mind SAW — haven’t seen the sequels — apart from Cary Elwes not being up to the job, and the “poor man’s process” night driving scenes being hilariously/ embarrassingly unconvincing.

This one certainly delivered lots of shocks, and a fair bit of suspense. The screening got off to a bad start with a couple noisily conversing and making out — we moved seats to get out of earshot, but could still hear the jangle of belt buckles, unfastening of velcro, weirdly loud conversation, so we got them thrown out. They were OUTRAGED.

This unsettled us, which was probably ideal for the film, which, once we could concentrate on it, was pleasingly scare-filled, if daft. The early stuff is a little too eager to get in there and freak us out, but once the slender plot was underway, the anxiety of home invasion by non-living entities from beyond was pretty intense.

Wan and regular screenwriter Leigh Whannell nearly screw things up by bringing in some bickering nerd parapsychologists, out of The Big Bang Theory by way of GHOSTBUSTERS. Of course, psychic investigators are great fun, and who can resist the chance to invent goofy ones, but in a movie that’s trying for domestic realism as an environment for supernatural scares, these guys are fatal. The team in POLTERGEIST, which INSIDIOUS is very heavily derived from, are both less sitcom-quirky and more in keeping with that movie’s big-budget elephantine bombast, so they work.

Lin Shaye, as the medium, however, is another matter — a strikingly convincing portrait of a genuinely good woman, and the only character in the film I could imagine actually meeting. So the near disaster is diverted, although what with the psychic gas mask and other peculiar techniques, and guff about the astral domain known as “The Further”, the movie starts to get much closer to being ridiculous.

There’s also a demon, for no pressing narrative reason, whose favourite tune is Tiptoe Through the Tulips as sung by Tiny Tim. And now things get spooky —

The morning before the cinema trip, I was singing Tim Brooke-Taylor’s I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue rendition of the lyrics of Girlfriend in a Coma to the tune of Tiptoe Through the Tulips. The plot of INSIDIOUS involves a comatose child. How weird is that?

If the film is emotionally a good roller-coaster/ghost train, and plotwise a mere string of creepy incidents, how does it fare thematically? Is there anything INTERESTING to take away afterwards? Well, one thing is that it does seem to be the only American film released lately WITHOUT resonance, conscious or otherwise, pertaining to the war in Iraq, or 9/11. If it resonates with anything, it’s the idea of stranger-danger — the plot focuses on sinister persons who want to get into our children. The Tiny Tim reference makes sense because TT probably fits mainstream America’s idea of what a deviated prevert looks like. The play with baby monitors and burglar alarms, frightening in itself, taps into an anxiety about intrusion and assault, a fear that is all over the news (whose chief purpose is to scare us into buying stuff) but generally neglected in fictional forms of mass media, because without the supernatural dressing up, it doesn’t seem very entertaining. The demon, who is entirely surplus to narrative requirements, ties in with the Satanic abuse meme to goose middle America a little more.

Worth seeing if you like jumps: the red devil lurking just over a character’s shoulder in a breakfast table chat is a fantastic out-of-the-blue shocker.

War of the Colossal Midgets

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2008 by dcairns

The producer of VALMONT was asked if he’d learned anything from its commercial failure, following in the wake of Stephen Frears’ DANGEROUS LIAISONS, which had successfully tackled the same book. He said yes, as a matter of fact he had learned something. “Never make a film somebody’s just made.”

The only exceptions I can think of to the rule that the first film out of the trap in a movie-race wins, are ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, which was unharmed by following on the heels of a cheaper, more sombre ROBIN HOOD (“You do know this isn’t the Kevin Costner film?” concerned staff would ask customers buying tickets for the Patrick Bergin version) and the ANTZ / A BUG’S LIFE and DEEP IMPACT / ARMAGEDDON face-offs.

And so to INFAMOUS, a fine little film by Doug McGrath, which came and went with little fuss, all its tremulous thunder stolen by CAPOTE. Apart from coming first, CAPOTE had a star of sorts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had paid his dues and was ready for Oscar appreciation. You may have heard people say that INFAMOUS is a better film, and I’d like to add my voice to that small hubbub of approval. INFAMOUS is not only livelier, funnier, more moving, more erotic and more intelligent, it is better cast.

It may have hurt McGrath’s film that people hadn’t heard of its star, but there’s no arguing he chose the right man (though I wouldn’t mind seeing Zelda Rubinstein, the little woman from POLTERGEIST, play Capote). Toby Jones, son of the unique Freddie Jones, a Shadowplay favourite, has two crucial advantages over the somewhat bear-like Hoffman. (1) Jones is a little guy, like Capote. This turns out to be more important than you’d think, allowing references to Capote’s smallness and accompanying toughness. (2) Jones has a much better script to work from. McGrath’s writing flows more smoothly than that of CAPOTE scribe Dan Futterman (this may be to do with the direction also), traversing the story in a pacy but unhurried fashion, where CAPOTE seems slow, threatening to stall altogether at times. McGrath seems bolder in his handling of artistic license, too. It’s ironic that both films take Capote to task for fictionalising reality, and both films are forced by necessity to invent their own versions of the truth. McGrath embraces this and concentrates on telling a good dramatic story.

My least favourite thing about CAPOTE, which had good acting and a strong picturesque feel for Kansan landscapes, was its attempt to create some kind of comparison between the crimes committed by the killers Capote chose to write about, and Capote’s supposed moral crime in exploiting their story. I simply can’t see any justification for making a comparison at all. Whatever Capote’s behaviour may be, it is in no way comparable to snuffing an entire family. Let’s be sensible. INFAMOUS manages to avoid milking this tempting comparison, detailing Capote’s dishonesties and betrayals without suggesting that his guilt has any equivalence to that of the cold-blooded murderers he woos.

McGrath’s brightness has other advantages too. While CAPOTE’s highlight is the author giving a public reading of In Cold Blood, which showcases Hoffman’s skill and command of our attention, but reveals the weakness of the script in comparison to Capote’s prose, INFAMOUS doesn’t quote the book at length but does provide a higher standard of wit throughout.

CAPOTE is a decent TV movie with an outstanding central performance from a superb actor who does everything possible to overcome a physical inappropriateness to the role.

INFAMOUS is a modestly conceived but very smart and interesting movie with an outstanding central performance from an equally superb actor who is able to fit the role perfectly, and I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.

And then there’s Richard Brooks’s film of IN COLD BLOOD, which is a BLOODY MASTERPIECE, and Capote’s book itself, which is even better.