Tea And Sympathy With The Devil: A Reconsideration Of “The Shining”

Tea And Sympathy With The Devil: A Reconsideration Of “The Shining”

This weekend, between bouts of berating the smugly self-satisfied buyers on “Tiny House Hunters”, I re-watched “The Shining” (1980) because, as the saying goes, it was there. We all know that television passively feeds us, and all we have to do is sit back and allow ourselves to be fed. Me being me, even when that engagement starts out as passive, it eventually becomes rather active, not so much because I am anticipating certain lines or scenes – “Wendy…love of my life…” – but because the brain cannot stop being a brain simply because I want it to switch into idle mode.

I am not a Stephen King fan, and so cannot speak to “The Shining” the film’s relationship to “The Shining” the novel. The lone occasion when I casually picked up a collection of Stephen King short stories at the beach and read one at random is an event that I wish I could undo, or at least bleach what I read from my mind. Therefore if you are an expert in his work, please, refrain from commenting on how if I *only* read the book the film would make more sense, since that is never going to happen.

For a long time I have always felt a great deal of sympathy for Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in the film version of “The Shining”, because I never quite understood why it is that he ends up the way that he does. From other horror films, we know that opening the door to the occult by playing with Ouija boards or tarot cards is never a good idea. Yet even this weekend, in discussion with someone who watched the film with me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that led to Jack’s downfall. After all, he had not drawn a pentagram on the floor or started worshiping goats. It was only when I had the long trip back to DC yesterday that I had the chance to think a bit more about the damnation of Jack Torrance.

Two thoughts occurred to me, in considering what it was that made Jack something other than a dull boy. The first is that, in a sense, Jack actually did invite the devil in – an old one that was already very familiar to him. For Jack, as we learn early on in the film, is a recovering alcoholic. Although alcohol has been removed from the hotel as part of their insurance coverage, he nevertheless turns to the idea of alcohol in his frustration, an idea which his mind (or the haunted hotel, take your pick) is all too happy to indulge.

Jack’s addiction is not an excuse for his harming others, but it is an explanation. Perhaps today, we are more conscious of the complicated roots and effects of addiction than we were when this film was made, and we can understand that there is some degree of mental illness or brain damage that has taken root in the serious substance abuser. However the choices that one makes as an adult are, like it or not, still choices made using our own free will and not staring down the barrel of a gun. As a result, these sorts of choices have consequences.

The second thought, which is perhaps tied to the first, is that Jack’s character is motivated primarily by self-interest. While it is easy to mock Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) because of her appearance and mannerisms, it is she who not only displays real backbone but, more importantly, a sense of self-sacrifice. After all, she follows her husband out into the wilderness, because she believes him when he says that this will be a good opportunity for them to start afresh. The fact that she references the Donner Party while doing so turns out to be rather an inauspicious coincidence, as we watch the family unit slowly devour itself.

Recall the moment when Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) shows up with unexplained bruising around his neck, and Wendy naturally runs to her husband for help. Given Jack’s reactions, she concludes that it is he who has inflicted physical abuse on their son, as indeed he had done previously. Wendy is trapped, both in an abusive marriage and in a location so isolated, forbidding, and dangerous that it may as well be outer space (something which Kubrick as a director understood very well.) Yet even toward the end of the film, when her own future seems bleakest, Wendy is more concerned with saving others than she is with saving herself.  

Perhaps then, the demon that gets Jack in the end is the one that stalks all of us: selfishness. For much of the film, Jack complains to Wendy that he is doing what he has to do for his family, except that he really isn’t. His choices are largely based on what he wants, and what he (as it turns out, mistakenly) believes is the best way for him to make up for his failures, as he descends into madness. Even if the Overlook Hotel somehow amplifies that selfishness, because of evil things that have taken place there previously, the hotel itself is not responsible for the individual’s decision to sit down to tea with the Devil in the first place.

However one cannot help but recognize, as Jack flails about in the maze at the end of the film like a wounded animal, incapable of forming human speech, that to look upon this figure without sympathy is to somehow become an animal oneself. Yes, Jack receives his just desserts, but without downplaying the horrible things he has done, one cannot help but feel just a tinge of pity for someone who could not finish the good fight. If we were isolated and battling our own demons, would we really come out of the fight any better than Jack? I wonder…and yet personally, I do not care to find out, thanks all the same.

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Talking Movies and Music: Cinematic Snobs

Last evening I had the pleasure of appearing on the Cinematic Snobs podcast with hosts Jay Caruso and Andrea Ruth. We had an entertaining discussion about our Top 5 films about musicians, and fortunately no one came to blows. You can download the episode by following this link.

Below follow my choices for the show, with some explanation to hopefully whet your appetite for seeing these films, or looking at them again in a new way. Being considered quite the snob (by some), I suspect that at least part of my list will come as a surprise to my readers, but here we go:

1.      Autumn Sonata (1978) – Hollywood legend Ingrid Bergman, in her final film, plays a famous musician who spends a raw and painful weekend with her estranged children. Directed by (the equally legendary) Ingmar Bergman, in his last film made specifically for the big screen, this pairing of Sweden’s greatest actress with Sweden’s greatest director took a lifetime to happen, and does not disappoint. Both Bergmans were nominated for Oscars – she for acting, he for the screenplay – and the movie won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film.

2.      Tous les Matins du Monde (1991) – A slow, occasionally surreal, yet passionate interpretation of the life of the late 17th century French musician and composer Marin Marais and his teacher, M. de Sainte-Colombe, this film is based on the novel (and screenplay) of the same name by best-selling author Pascal Quignard. Played both by Gerard Depardieu and – in flashback – by his son Guillaume Depardieu, Marais wants to learn to play the viola da gamba at a high level, and Sainte-Colombe is the elusive master of the instrument. The soundtrack to this film is mesmerizing, and the performances are deeply personal; it won seven Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Film and Best Music.   

3.      La Vie en Rose (2007) – The film that catapulted Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard to international fame, based on the life of the great French singer Edith Piaf, is something of a mess in its editing, and at times the production feels more like a telenovela than a work of serious cinema. Yet these shortcomings are overcome by Cotillard, who transforms herself from young peasant girl to international star to tragic cripple in a performance which was duly recognized by practically all of the major international cinema awards. The intensity of Piaf’s music and Cotillard’s acting are a perfect match.

4.      The Sound of Music (1965) – Just about everyone loves this movie, but not everyone stops to think about the reality on which it was based. The relatively happy life, and relatively simple escape from the Nazis, of the Von Trapp Family Singers as portrayed on film, was not quite as easy as it appears. When life took away their livelihood, music became their new life. This is hinted at in the film, but the film should be your gateway to the real story of the power of music to help us come through adversity.

5.      This Is Spinal Tap (1984) – Admittedly this is what my sister would call a “guy movie” – particularly if you are about 14-16 years old, or, as is probably the case, you are still mentally about that age even if you are now a grown man. A spoof by director Rob Reiner on the pretentious rockumentaries of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the film has a deadly earnestness to it, in which the slowly disintegrating band and their increasingly awful concerts are treated so seriously, that we cannot help but laugh at them – and indeed at ourselves, for taking rock-schlock so seriously. However there is also a sweetness to this movie, in which the unexpected resolution of the plot shows that sticking with what you love, even if your life doesn’t quite turn out the way you expected, is the right decision.

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Ingrid Bergman at MoMA

With the 100th anniversary of the birth of screen legend Ingrid Bergman coming up next month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has announced a special film festival in honor of the late Swedish actress and three-time Oscar winner. MoMA will be screening 14 of Ingrid’s movies, selected and introduced by her four children, including actress Isabella Rossellini.  Several of Ingrid’s most famous movies will be shown, such as “Casablanca” (1942), “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945), and “Notorious” (1948) – my favorite Hitchcock film, as it happens – among others.  In addition several of her European films, less well-known to American audiences, will be screened. These include four of the Italian films she made with her second husband, director Roberto Rossellini, which are considered some of the most important works of European Neorealist cinema in the Post-War era.

While it is great that so many of Ingrid’s performances will be shown to audiences who have never had the chance to see her on the big screen, there are a few notable absences.  I find it somewhat odd, for example, that MoMA of all places would not include “Spellbound” (1945) with Gregory Peck, since certain elements of the production were designed by Salvador Dali. Neither will be attendees be seeing “Anastasia” (1956) with Yul Brynner, for which Ingrid won her second Oscar, nor the now-legendary Sidney Lumet ensemble film, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), for which she won her third.  It would also have been nice to see the sophisticated romantic comedy “Indiscreet” (1958) with Cary Grant which, while admittedly more of a specialist taste, has always been one of my favorite films of hers because of its very grown-up, cosmopolitan script, and whose Technicolor positively glows on screen.

That being said, I’m pleased to see that MoMA will be screening “Autumn Sonata” (1978) with Liv Ullman, Bergman’s final film and the only one she made with another towering Bergman of the cinema, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The two Bergmans had always wanted to work together, but as so often happens, sometimes these collaborations only happen in the autumn of one’s years – appropriately enough for the title and subject matter of this work. For those whose image of Ingrid is of the compassionate but resolute, strong yet tender beauty, this performance is quite a departure. It shows not only that she could act – John Gielgud’s catty comments notwithstanding – but that she could confound your expectations.

At first the role of the famous performer, all warm smiles and graciousness, seems to be Ingrid the actress playing a musical version of herself. Yet as the film develops, she plays against type in such a way that at first you don’t realize that her character is actually quite monstruous. The viewer is both drawn to and, upon reflection, repulsed by her character at the same time. It is not surprising that Ingrid received her 7th and final Best Actress nomination for the role, and that it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.  Even if you can’t get to New York to see it, if you enjoy good acting you should definitely add this one to your screening queue.

Ingrid Bergman: A Centennial Celebration runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from August 29th to September 10th.

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