6/11/2020 Hardware/software problems have left us just barely able to finish this posting. Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark will return when/if we can. If not, our great thanks to all of you
for your marvelous support over these many years.
More Horrors Off the Page than On
Review by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) when they’re supportive or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) when they go negative.
But, before we go any further, rather than wait until the end of the review below to regale you with a Musical Metaphor about Shirley I’ll start off with a tune very relevant to our currently-fractured-society (and world at large, given all of the international demonstrations against law-enforcement-brutality) in response to the murder (I know, I’m supposed to say “alleged” but the video just makes it all too clear) of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, so I ask you to please mediate a couple of minutes on Marvin Gaye’s "What's Going On" (from his 1971 album of the same name) in hopes we can somehow learn “We don’t need to escalate […] For only love can conquer hate” (his song was written in response to protests against the Vietnam War; much of this video footage from 2019 addresses social crises back then that still resonate in our streets today). Sadly, Gaye himself was a victim of violence, killed by his father during a 1984 domestic dispute between his parents. I do believe, ultimately, all lives matter, but in these times of ongoing upheaval special emphasis needs to be put on preserving and improving Black (and Brown) ones—until, somehow, some way we’re able to achieve true social/political/economic equality—especially because “There’s far too many of you dying” today and for centuries oh so long. I hope for peace, whenever, however we can earn it.
Shirley (Josephine Decker) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Even though there was no shortage of things to watch last week, I wasn’t terribly interested in most of them plus I’d spent a lot of energy, late nights, etc. on the last couple of postings so I was determined to take it a bit easier this time, just do one review, especially of a film I’d heard many good reports about; however, Shirley ended up fascinating me so much (despite a notable conceptual problem I’ll elaborate farther below) I ended up putting just as much investment into it as if I’d done 2 separate reviews so I hope you find all (or at least some) of my rambling remarks to be of interest. This marvelous film (clearly one of the tops of the year, no matter what else gets released for streaming or—we can only hope for the best—theaters as the summer months flow on into winter) is somewhat based in reality as Shirley Jackson was truly a noted author from the 1940s-‘60s; her husband was Stanley Hyman, literary critic and teacher at Bennington College; she did write a novel called Hangsaman about the mysterious disappearance of a female college student; but the rest of this story, involving a young wannabe-academic and his pregnant wife whose lives get entwined with suffering-Shirley and her often-condescending-mate, is completely fictional (itself adapted from a novel) with more than a passing resemblance to the contents of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. More details than that would get us into spoiler territory so unless you’re willing to fully read on (which in this case I encourage you not to do because this film’s truly worth your unspoiled-attention, free on Hulu or a mere $3.99 on Amazon Prime) I’ll just say “Watch this!” for its marvelous interpersonal explorations fully enhanced with the mercurial talents of Elisabeth Moss as Shirley (this could be Oscar-nomination material, I hope). Also, as usual in the Short Takes section, I’ll offer suggestions for some choices on the Turner Classic Movies channel (but too much extra text for line-justified-layout like you see here [Related Links stuff at each posting’s end is similarly-ragged], at least to be done by this burned-out-BlogSpot-drone—oh, tedious software!) along with the standard dose of industry-related-trivia.
Here’s the trailer:
(Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate
that same button or use the “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: Set sometime in the mid-20th-century* we enter the claustrophobic world of actual horror-story-author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her actual husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhbarg)—both fictionalized somewhat for this version of their story (they're not alive to dispute)—as she’s reclusive, frequently depressed in their home while he teaches literature at actual Bennington College (southwest corner of VT, almost in MA or NY)—he was also a noted literary critic but we don’t get much sense of that here except for caustic comments he makes about some of Shirley's writings and those of another major character, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), traveling on a train with his wife, Rose (Odessa Young), to Bennington where he’s to assist Professor Hyman this semester so Stanley can stay home more with his wife, trying to variously encourage/shame her into getting out of bed, shaking herself from her doldrums, getting back to her literary work (we don’t get much detail on this in the film, but at this point in Jackson’s actual life she’d published a good many short stories but only 1 novel, The Road Through the Wall ) rather than devoting her energies at occasional parties in their home near campus to verbal jousting with Stanley. On the train, Rose is reading Jackson’s story “The Lottery” (published in the June 26, 1948 edition of The New Yorker), is enthralled by it (even though it’s quite controversial, about a small place where an annual ritual results in the “chosen one” being stoned to death by the other townspeople) just as she’s excited they’ve been offered by Stanley (Shirley doesn’t know about this, objects when she finds out) to stay a few days at the Jackson-Hyman residence until they've found their own lodging.
*In an interview Elisabeth Moss says this narrative occurs between 1948 (when “The Lottery” was published) and 1951 when Jackson’s book, Hangsaman, came out, all of which feels right to me based on the clothing of the characters (we see little else except inside Jackson’s home or Hyman's classroom and in the woods near their town to allow for era-based-observations); however, this film’s adapted from a novel which sets its actions in 1964 while early on in the film Stanley says he wanted to marry the “girl” (even though she was born in 1916) who wrote “The Hangman,” then notes they’ve been married for 20 years which would appear to push the time frame into the late ‘60s; however, they actually married in 1940 (after meeting as undergrads at Syracuse U.), so that would imply a setting of around 1960 which doesn’t match much of anything else we've come to understand. Moss admits “I wouldn’t look too closely at the timeline. … What we were trying to capture was the essence of being a writer making a sophomore effort with newfound fame—and infamy. She had a lot of hate mail.” This isn’t a crucial point because the film feels comfortably set somewhere close to 1950, but it does indicate some seemingly-unnoted-spillover from book to script which could be confusing even within the flow on screen if you're paying close attention to it.
|(Some of these images are less than ideal, but I had just barely enough photos to choose from.)|
Fred and Rose arrive as a party’s in full swing, Shirley's miffed as usual, aware of her husband’s various affairs around campus (mostly students, but the dean’s wife [sorry, didn’t catch her name, even upon a second viewing] is interested as well, even though in a later scene Shirley tells her Stanley wouldn’t reciprocate), the Nemsers are taken aback by the loosely-bacchanalian-attitudes of their new surroundings; Rose is further stunned by Shirley’s (psychic?) knowledge she’s pregnant (she and Fred haven’t been telling anybody yet), a situation that’s caused her to suspend her own undergrad studies while Fred’s hoping to use his dissertation to snag a faculty position in Stanley’s dept., which the dean’s apparently open to (Fred needs the job as his wealthy parents cut him off for marrying Rose). After the young couple attend Hyman’s introductory lecture to his “Myth and Folklore“ class the next day (Rose is auditing other courses at this time when Bennington was still an all-women’s college, which doesn’t help Shirley’s concerns about Stanley one bit) they’ve given the option of staying at Hyman’s home a bit longer if Rose will become a maid/cook as their current housekeeper’s recently quit (I can imagine her interactions with Shirley). Fred’s delighted, Rose doesn’t like Shirley but reluctantly agrees, even as the older woman keeps harping on the pregnancy, asking about her “shotgun wedding,” says she’s a witch who wants to cast a spell to help the baby, later does a Tarot reading where she sees negative outcomes. How these women connect, though, is being awake in the middle of the night (Shirley had a bad dream about mud and worms coming out of the refrigerator) when they start drinking and talking. Shirley thinks she’s a terrible writer but decides her new novel will be Hangsaman (Rose will help get needed background info) about the mysterious, quasi-recent-disappearance of student Paula Jean Welden (really happened in 1946, another time-location-clue; in the actual novel of that name Jackson renamed Paula as Natalie Waite, but to make this film even more intriguing when we have flashbacks of Paula in the woods or in a surreal sequence when she’s walking down a hallway, bleeding from the loss of her fetus, then ends up in a bathtub with Shirley, Decker has her played also by Odessa Young, giving allusions about Rose intentionally never clarified), an idea Stanley’s opposed to due to both the length of such an endeavor when his wife’s dealing with mental challenges (they bicker constantly but also show some moments of mutual-tenderness) and what he sees as lurid content, beneath her ability as an author. As it turns out later, he finds Fred’s dissertation to be even further beneath his contempt, merely “derivative,” not even an interesting version of “awful” (he also sees the young man as a product of privilege, someone he’d never support for tenure, even though he’s slow to tell this to Fred; by the time he does, Fred’s ready to move out, but Rose has now bonded with Shirley, wants to continue living with her, which they'll do until after the birth of their daughter).
⇒As this increasingly-nasty-plot (in terms of the escalating tensions between/within both sets of spouses) further develops, Shirley manages to summon the courage to attend a major faculty party (where she has that aforementioned-snippy-interchange with the dean’s lustful wife, feels further antagonism toward Stanley for his many affairs over the years, along with flirting that night) after which the connection with Rose goes sour when she begins to wonder if Shirley possibly killed Paula Welden in anger over her being one of Stanley’s lovers; she even tries to set up evidence to support this concocted-conspiracy-theory (a horror that weakens any personal relationship or even a larger society, an eons-old-absurdity used to sow unjustified-discord; think, for example, of the tragedies the mere use of rumors and a handkerchief cause in Shakespeare’s magnificent Othello [c. 1603], which predates any of the idiocy President Trump’s trying to spew about the motivations of George Floyd-inspired-protesters) by writing Paula’s name on the check-out-card in a book connected to the syllabus of one of Stanley’s classes, then follows it with her own name as if she’s happened upon a connection between disappeared-student and guilty-professor. Shirley shrugs this off, saying she knows whom her husband’s had affairs with unlike Rose who’s previously accepted Fred’s excuse he was meeting many nights with the school’s Shakespeare Society when Shirley explains they're nothing but a bunch of female students deciding “who they'll fuck next.”⇐
⇒Despondent at her husband’s crass infidelity (even when she continued to want to have sex with him despite her advancing pregnancy, but he’d come home too late or drunk to respond) Rose goes out on Paula’s wooded path, walks to the edge of a cliff as if ready to jump off (leaving us with the impression maybe Paula did this) but is talked down from it by Shirley who had driven her to the trailhead, although this is another scene of ambiguity because in one shot both women are on the cliff, we cut away to something else, then back to the cliff with only Shirley there. Did Rose jump? The stronger assumption is she walked back into the woods, leaving Shirley alone on this steep outcropping because other scenes show Rose, Fred, and baby leaving the Jackson-Hyman residence for a place of their own, seemingly with Fred accepted onto the Bennington faculty, yet that’s not completely clear either. All this tension resolves in an upbeat way, though, when Stanley tells Shirley Hangsaman is marvelous (she finally let him read it, previously sharing it only with Rose) then they joyfully-dance to a jazz record, we watch through a window as the credits begin to roll.⇐
So What? For me, the great things about writing these blog reviews are I’m on no deadline, have no financial concerns about keeping my job (plus no hassles with advertisers over my commentary), there's no editor hovering over me to severely trim my prose (although maybe many of you wish someone would have that thankless task); yet, the bad thing about being in the position of not being able to write about something until I see it when it’s released (no access for me to preview showings or DVD “screeners” as with professional critics [they’re not necessarily better than me, they just get paid]) is when I have the occasionally-insightful (?) observation to share I find someone else who’s already published their review on the day a film's first out (often it's still the Friday of an upcoming weekend, even though weekends may not have the same meaning now due to working from home—or not working at all until businesses reopen [which, in many sad cases, won’t happen]) noting those same observations I’ve had, so if I pass along my thoughts a few days later I seem to be plagiarizing other critics, unless I admit I’ve seen their thoughts in print before I can finally get my damn lengthy-process-viewing/Internet surfing/writing/struggling-with-BlogSpot-review (seriously, you try wrangling 15 pages of single-spaced-text some time using this software, never knowing how what you write on the Compose page will look on the Preview page so you just keep doing trial-and-error until it all finally fits—that is, if you care about overcoming a sloppy layout which has become my mantra [for your benefit, seriously; I’m embarrassed by my early postings' appearance but usually—at best—not their content] since a couple of years ago when I became disgusted by the meandering, sparsely-illustrated paragraphs I’d subjected readers to since blog-launch in late 2011) alive into hyperspace much later after I’ve seen whatever it is I’m writing about.
Well, that beat-me-to-the-punch-limitation rises up again in discussing Shirley because there’s little I can say that’s not already in print about (1) resemblances in this plot to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966) and (2) Elizabeth Moss’ emergence as a latter-day Meryl Streep who seems to be capable of any role she chooses, no matter how varied it might be from what she’s previously conquered (one aspect of Streep’s success I haven’t seen [heard, really] from Moss is a mastery of a wide range of accents, nor has she yet been in enough notable feature films to even attempt to match Streep’s ongoing record of 21 Oscar nominations—3 wins—but Moss does have many of TV’s Emmy awards/nominations from her previous days on AMC’s Mad Men and her ongoing starring role in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale so however her career may end up it’s sure to be packed with well-deserved-accolades). With those acknowledged limitations on this review in mind, though, for those of you not already saturated with previous elucidations about Shirley noted just above, I’ll still offer my 2 cents worth (which may accumulate to a couple of dollars by the time I finally shut up) because these are crucial aspects of this film to elucidate, along with what seems to be a more-original-diatribe from me about the prior novel that inspired what we now see on screen.
First off, a bit about Ms. Moss: While she had a lengthy career (much of it in TV series and TV movies) prior to her time in Mad Men (2007-2015), it was on that show I became aware of her through her crucial role as Peggy Olson, forcefully rising up from the secretarial ranks to become an advertising copywriter despite the blatant sexism of the 1960s business/national culture she was immersed in; since then she’s been in several films and a couple of TV series, only some of which I’ve seen in moviehouses (she’s been honored quite a bit for BBC’s Top of the Lake [2013, 2017] and The Handmaid’s Tale [2017-2020], but I didn’t see the former because there was just too much on my schedule already, skipped the latter because I’d seen the premise long ago as a film [Volker Schlöndorff, 1990], was disgusted enough by it then [not the production quality but the future-set-premise of women forced to be concubines/childbearers for a sterile, fundamentalist ruling class] so I didn’t want more of that nightmare now when there are already enough sociopolitical horrors on the news every night emanating from the White House)—somewhat minor roles in Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015; review in our November 5, 2015 posting), The Seagull (Michael Mayer, 2018; review in our June 7, 2018 posting), The Old Man & the Gun (David Lowery, 2018; review in our October 18, 2018 posting), and Us (Jordan Peele, 2019; review in our March 27, 2019 posting), then lead roles as a reporter interviewing an odd Swedish art museum curator in the intensely-strange The Square (Ruben Östlund, 2017; review found in our November 15, 2017 posting), followed by a newly-emboldened-gangster in The Kitchen (Andrea Berloff, 2019; review in our August 14, 2019 posting), finally fully staring as the tormented/triumphant-wife in The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell; review in our March 4, 2020 posting): dominated the domestic (U.S.-Canada) market on its 2/28-3/1 opening weekend, still the #5 top grosser for 2020 releases at $64.9 million domestically/$122.9 million worldwide, despite only showing for 3 weeks before pandemic-action moved it to streaming.
In all these appearances Moss demonstrated great skill in transforming her character traits, personalities, and attitudes as demanded by her situations (just as Peggy on Mad Men grew organically from female-of-the-times-subservient to earned-her-pride-assertive over the course of the show’s decade of depictions), but in Shirley she proves herself to be Oscar-nomination-worthy (with my understanding these streamed-only-offerings will be eligible for awards consideration so long as they had scheduled theatrical openings prior to the enforced-shutdowns), especially in scenes where she reveals so much only with facial expressions not even needing any dialogue, shifting as circumstances call for from caustic spouse, to terrified “would-be” (in her mind) artist, to crafty manipulator of Rose when confrontations surface about spousal infidelities. The only vexing question might be should Moss be promoted as Best Actress (which her headlining presence and screen-domination should easily imply) or would nominators quibble she probably has less total screen time than Odessa Young (not really a question in my mind, but Academy politics is just as unpredictable sometimes as the national variety on our newscasts; certainly I think Young could be a serious contender for a Supporting Actress nomination, though it’s early in this cinematic year to be promoting anything too loudly—except Moss). As for those … Virginia Woolf? parallels, a full analysis would require me to read Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, also named Shirley (2014), to first see how much fictionalization of Jackson’s life occurs on the printed page, then see how it’s been further changed by scriptwriter Sarah Gubbins to produce what we see on screen. Not having the extra time to both acquire and read this book since I watched the film last Friday nor being able to locate an extensive summary of it I’ll have to rely on this Washington Post review, which indicates novel and film are largely in parallel, although at least 1 of Jackson’s actual children (there are 4; more on that farther below), Sally, is noted in the book review interacting with Rose, so that’s clearly a difference that disappears during the adaptation process (although in that previously-cited-Moss-interview above she says the book doesn’t mention the children either, so—as with the time frame in which this film’s set—I’m provided with more ambiguity, yet of a minor-enough-nature so as to not noticeably distract from my largely-embraced-enjoyment of how cinematic-Shirley is presented).
|(Another one of those ugly photos, but it does imply the emotional chaos of the film.)|
I also don’t know anything about Jackson and Hyman’s actual marital interactions nor am I privy to Merrell’s intentions in depicting such (but I will certainly assume she’s aware of the plot of the completely-fictional Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, either from the 1966 film or Edward Albee’s Tony Award-winner for Best Play  from which it was adapted) so it’s hard to say why the literary-Shirley, with its invented young couple where the husband’s an aspiring academic at Stanley’s college (just as young Nick was at the fictional school—but also in New England—of … Woolf?), the youngsters are often-aghast at the verbal confrontations between the older male professor and his wife (Jackson in her book/film story also has professional recognition, but Martha in her play/film counters with being the college president’s daughter, something she throws at husband George as if to belittle his own limited academic accomplishments [not unlike how Stanley critiques Fred’s dissertation, dismissing him as well]), with further overlaps such as whether young Honey’s (Nick’s wife) had an abortion which she’s trying to hide just as in Shirley how Rose wonders if Paula also had to abort (but more likely suffered a miscarriage) with implications the pregnancy might have resulted from a tryst with Stanley. So, should we be bothered by all of this narrative similarity by Merrell/Gubbins to Albee (Ernest Lehman wrote the … Woolf screenplay, but I can tell just from a summary it’s very close to what we’d see on stage while I don’t know for sure how much the Shirley script differs from the source-book except for the seemingly-different-temporal-setting) which could undercut the appeal of Shirley’s story in written/cinematic form (especially given the real Jackson’s life seems traumatic enough to have produced a successful book of some sort [with adaptation to film, given our human tendency to thrive on the misery of others]) or should we just accept how Shirley’s managed to weave history and fiction, bringing in assumed-notable-allusions while still resulting in something worthwhile on its own? (After all, Shakespeare built a career/legacy on doing much the same thing.) I guess it depends on how much you treasure Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, if you feel Shirley is as “derivative” as is Fred’s dissertation (at least as per Stanley).
Bottom Line Final Comments: No matter what you or I might think about narrative "borrowing," though, the jurors at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival were enthralled with Shirley as they nominated it for their U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize (didn’t win) even as they honored Decker with a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking (just how they determine who’d qualify for such I have no idea nor have I been able to find anything that explains an award which implies a career’s worth of unified, critical successes—but anyway, congratulations, Josephine!). The CCAL’s supportive also with reviewers surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes offering an 89% positive response, those at Metacritic a 77% average score (reasonably high for them, as their result is based on how the site’s employees assign a number to each review [How do they do that? In many cases, completely beats me!] so it’s likely the MC final score will be lower than the RT percentage where all you have to do is somehow convince those employees your review is positive even if it has a lot of hesitant comments within it, as I read some of them); I was quite taken by Shirley, enjoyed the whole experience (despite my chronological confusions, my concerns it rips off … Woolf? more than necessary given the vast range of possibilities one could have explored with Jackson’s life—including her most famous work, The Haunting of Hill House , more about the terror of the possible-supernatural than actual manifestations of ghosts—although that latter book could also provide timeline-problems because if this film script does somehow locate us somewhere in the 1960s, as Merrell’s novel does, then The Haunting … would already have been written yet no mention’s made of it in the screen version of Shirley, another clue we’re actually back around 1950), eagerly watched it twice (it’s free if you’re on Hulu; otherwise, I chose the Amazon Prime option where anyone can rent it for $3.99 after you click the button [with up to 30 days to start your viewing, although once you do your rental time lasts for just 48 hrs. so plan accordingly]).
|(The end of the line with crappy photos for Shirley, fortunately for all involved.)|
My other unresolved concern isn’t so much about these filmmakers but instead is directed at novelist Susan Scarf Merrell, taking us out of the realm of fiction into real-world-responses; as mentioned above, Jackson and Hyman had 4 kids—Laurie, Jannie, Sally, and Barry (all of whom seem to now be in my borderline-elderly-age-range), all still alive (I think), so I wonder (because I’ve read nothing yet) how any of them feel about their parents’ depictions in both Merrell’s novel and Decker’s film given how manipulative he’s shown to be, how borderline-neurotic she seems to be, how questionable it is to weave fiction around history when the characters have left a next generation or more to live with what you publically present them to be, somewhat inspired by fact but clearly made into figments of imagination. When a process like this is clearly absurd—as with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, 2012)—you can play along with the idiocy or just ignore it even if you’re a descendant of the historical figure; when such a fictionalization process reaches into the realm some consider blasphemous—as with The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), where Jesus rejects his crucifixion to live an earthy life, or Dracula 2000 (Patrick Lussier), where we find the seemingly-eternal Count is actually Judas Iscariot who didn’t die as intended centuries ago—you might find true-believers of a given theology/ideology incensed by such depictions. I can’t help but wonder what the Jackson-Hyman descendants think about Shirley even as I enjoyed it enough to seriously consider a 4½-stars rating. But as I kept mulling that over, I was reminded of another Moss quote from that link cited far above: “I feel like we could make five movies about Shirley Jackson. Her life was so incredible and so unusual.” That may well be the case, so why go with one that makes a significant addition of fictional characters/situations? Just because a story exists in Merrell’s novel, making for an easy translation rather than writing a more difficult original script? I realize I’m showing my partial-ambivalence about cinematic-worth here, but despite how much I enjoyed Shirley, especially because of Moss’ masterful command of her role, I just couldn’t put Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? aside completely enough to not be bothered by the distinctive-overlap as a familiar-fiction intrudes a bit too obliviously (?) on fact here.
Regular readers of this blog (if you're not one, might you become so?) know I like to end each review with a Musical Metaphor to add a final bit of (semi? maybe?) relevant aural commentary to the analysis. This time, because I’m only posting 1 review I thought I’d be more generous with the music, especially when 2 ideas came to me, both with connections to different aspects of Shirley. I’ll start with the more-flippant-choice, The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” (1966 hit single contained in the 1970 Hey Jude album-collection of mostly individual singles, put out by Capitol Records to further cash in on epic-popularity of the group when they broke up) at https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=GtVByppDesc (a seemingly-live-performance [starts at 00:50], but likely lip-synched to the recording; if you’d like to see them actually do it live here’s a 1966 concert in Japan during the final shows of their touring years) as it does have a brief literary reference (“based on a novel by a man named Lear”) but mostly because it reflects Fred’s desperation to join the Bennington faculty (“And I need a job”), it speaks to Stanley’s serial-infidelity (as well as Fred’s growing indulgence in those Shakespeare Society choices) with “It’s a dirty story of a dirty man And his clinging wife doesn’t understand” (well, Shirley and Rose understand what’s happening with their unfaithful mates, they just don’t know why they choose to indulge in such acts, yet these women make their own choices to continue in their marriages whether you’d call that “clinging” or not), and Stanley’s dismissal of the kind of writing Shirley’s fixated on with Hangsaman as well as Fred’s dissertation: “I could make it longer if you like the style I can change it round”—as if anyone this eager to please a publisher falls into the useless gap Stanley finds between truly great work and the mundane that at least is interesting in its banality However, there’s more to such an excellent film not addressed by this silly, condescending song so I also turned to Steven Stills’ “4 + 20” (on the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Déjà vu album, a completely solo tune at the insistence of his bandmates as they felt nothing further was needed) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=db3K8m9NzpA (live from the 1969 Big Sur Folk Festival, about a month after the legendary Woodstock gathering; if you’d like to hear how it sounded on the record here's a link with the lyrics, photos of Stills) because at various times I can hear any of these 4 major characters in Shirley saying: “Night after sleepless night I walk the floor and I want to know Why am I so alone? Where is my woman [man] can I bring her [him] home? Have I driven her [him] away? Is she [he] gone? […] I grow weary of the torment, can there be no peace? And I find myself just wishing that my life would simply cease.” A lyrical oddity comes from the indication the singer’s age would be 24 but in a later statement Stills says this character is a despondent 84 (a situation fitting the chronological confusion I cited about when this film happens).
Suggestions for TCM cablecasts
At least until the pandemic subsides Two Guys also want to encourage you to consider movies you might be interested in that don’t require subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, similar Internet platforms (we may well be stuck inside for longer than those 30-day free initial offers), or premium-tier-cable-TV-fees. While there are a good number of video networks offering movies of various sorts (mostly broken up by commercials), one dependable source of fine cinematic programming is Turner Classic Movies (available in lots of basic-cable-packages) so I’ll be offering suggestions of possible choices for you running from Thursday afternoon of the current week (given that I usually get this blog posted by early Thursday mornings) on through Thursday morning of the following week. All times are U.S. Eastern Daylight so if you see something of interest please verify actual show time in your area for the day listed. These recommendations are my particular favorites (no matter when they’re on, although some early-day-ones might need to be recorded, watched later), but there’s considerably more to pick from on TCM; feel free to peruse their entire schedule here.
Thursday June 11, 2020
4:00 PM The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950) A more thoughtful western than many others in this genre, based loosely on real-life Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) whose reputation as the “fastest gun in the West” keeps him in misery, drawing a constant parade of luckless challenges eager to claim the title, forcing him to kill or be killed, with Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) a chief antagonist, Helen Westcott as Peggy Walsh, his estranged wife trying to shield their little son from unknown-Dad.
5:45 PM Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947) Gregory Peck again, this time as a journalist posing as a Jew to gather evidence on rampant anti-Semitism in NYC and Connecticut even as his new girlfriend (Dorothy McGuire) begins to show bigotry herself, especially when her acquaintances show hostility to the supposed ethnicity of her fiancée. Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm), but also got some heat from the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Saturday June 13, 2020
6:00 AM Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)—just Dracula when it originated in the UK, title changed in the US to avoid confusion with Universal Pictures’ 1931 Bela Lugosi famed original. Here’s another one of those times when I slip in something not really “classic,” except in the cult sense, as Hammer films inaugurated their remake series of this vampire with Christopher Lee in the title role, Peter Cushing as his hunter, Dr. Von Helsing. Based very loosely on Bram Stoker’s novel.
3:15 PM North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) One of Hitchcock’s top achievements (that’s saying a lot) about a case of mistaken-identity gone terribly wrong as ad executive Roger Thornhill (Gary Grant) is thought to be a U.S. spy, hunted by thugs working for a foreign agent (James Mason). A marvelous collage of great scenes including the crop-duster-in-the-cornfield; also stars Eve Marie Saint, Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau providing a great combination of tension and laughs.
5:45 PM The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972) Early example of the 1970s disaster mini-genre, a Titanic-like story of a huge ocean liner that flips over from a tsunami rather than just sinking so those hoping to survive must climb difficult passages upward into the ship’s former-hold/now-topside. This is also more of a cult “classic,” with lots of stars including Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, Shelly Winters, and Jack Albertson. It won 2 Oscars.
Sunday June 14, 2020
8:00 PM Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981) Based on 2 British track stars in the 1924 Olympics, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) a Christian running for the glory of God, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) a Jew running to challenge social prejudice. While there are lots of minor fictionalizations here the essential facts are accurate. The Vangelis-composed soundtrack (Oscar-winner) was ubiquitous in popular media of the time, also Oscars for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, and Costume Design.
Monday June 15, 2020
12:30 PM From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953) Set in Hawaii before Pearl Harbor attack, focused on soldiers played by Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra with Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed as the women in their lives. Lots of misery occurs even before the war begins; a big hit at the time, winner of 8 Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Sinatra), Supporting Actress (Reed), Editing, Sound Recording, Cinematography, Costume Design (last 2 for B&W films).
Wednesday June 16, 2020
8:00 AM Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972) Another 8-Oscar winner: Best Director, Actress (Liza Minnelli), Supporting Actor (Joel Grey), Art Direction, Sound, Score Adaptation and Original Song Score, Cinematography, Film Editing (I'd say close call on these last 2 with The Godfather which won Best Picture [yes!]). A great film, best musical of all-time for me, set in 1931 Berlin with an American performer and an English academic in love, Nazis on the rise, notable differences from the play.
If you’d like your own PDF of ratings/summaries of this week's reviews, suggestions for TCM cablecasts, links to Two Guys info click this link to access then save, print, or whatever you need.
Other Cinema-Related Stuff: In quick fashion, here are some other items you might be interested in: (1) AMC Theaters with $2.2 billion loss, full reopening planned for July, plus a map of which U.S. states still have closed movie houses (a situation still very much in flux); (2) The state of California sets up standards to restart film production this month, but is Hollywood ready to act?. As usual for now I’ll close out this section with Joni Mitchell’s "Big Yellow Taxi" (from her 1970 Ladies of the Canyon album)—because “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”—and a reminder you can find loads of options by searching to stream/rent/purchase movies at JustWatch.
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Here’s more information about Shirley:
https://neonrated.com/films/shirley (if interested, scroll down to the Virtual Cinema section where you can click from among numerous movie theater, film festival, or book festival sites, rent it for $5.99, seemingly with the proceeds going to that organization—although I can’t guarantee that)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmb5vYf9sGg (47:27 interview with actor Elisabeth Moss; however, this is all-audio, a podcast so there’s no visualization except a photo of Moss; extended conversation about Shirley, The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Men, Her Smell, and Suburban Commando [Burt Kennedy, 1991] a silly movie with Hulk Hogan as an alien marooned on Earth [audio clips played throughout but a bit hard to fully appreciate out of context without their visual components])
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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of email@example.com. (But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,
https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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