Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Better In Your Head?--BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY

Mark Harris

SPOILER ALERT, thirty years from now, DC sports aficionados will be arguing over which local team wasted their talent most spectacularly: the Capitals from 2012-2017, or the Nationals from 2012-2017.

Bang the Drum Slowly is the second in a tetralogy of first-person novels chronicling the career of Henry Wiggen, major league pitcher for the (fictional) New York Mammoths, from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. He sells insurance in the off-season for extra cash, and he also loves to write, which is why nearly everyone calls him "Author." He's doing none of those things when his home phone rings. Mammoths catcher Bruce Pearson is on the other end, asking if Henry could stand to fly to Minnesota and accompany Bruce on his return home to Georgia. 

Bruce needs all the help he can get. He's been in the Midwest talking with doctors, who have told him he has Hodgkin's Disease. The diagnosis is so dire, the hospital won't permit Bruce to leave the facility without a friend or family member to accompany him.

Before long it's time for both men to report to spring training in Florida to prepare for the upcoming 1955 season. Bruce is just barely holding onto a roster spot, while Henry is holding out for more money. He's a man of integrity, loves the game, but all the same he knows his value to the squad. Henry and the team meet to hammer out a contract. The matter of money works itself out quickly; but Henry wants more. He wants the Mammoths front office to promise him that he and Bruce Pearson will remain on the same team. Ergo, if Bruce is sent to the minors, Henry must follow. If one man is traded, the other must also be part of the deal. The team agrees, although manager Dutch Schnell almost immediately begins investigating why Wiggen would want such a clause.

A terminal illness does not render one sinless; Bruce doesn't seem too fond of non-white folk, for example, and he cavorts with a prostitute. Nor does it render one useless. Despite caring far more about being a hitter than a catcher, Bruce listens to Henry's advice and tries his very best to improve his overall game.

Still unaware of his condition, Bruce's teammates "rag" the slow-witted country boy gleefully. And he is kinda goofy, but who among them isn't? There's a guy called "Canada" (Winnipeg native), another called "Ugly Jones," a pitcher everyone calls "Horse" whose last name is Byrd, and catcher Thurston Woods, better known by "Piney," the clubhouse's resident "character," fond of donning a cowboy hat and serenading the boys with his acoustic guitar.

Even before he knew he was dying, Bruce convinced himself what he felt for Katie was love. Now it's reached the point where he wants to name her the new beneficiary on his life insurance policy. Henry agrees, then does nothing, in what is the closest thing to dramatic the book gets.

Upon learning that their teammate is on the fast track to his last stop, the other Mammoths decide that far from being a stupid, half-assed catcher who greases his hair with pig snot, Bruce Pearson is in fact five foot and eleven inches of the greatest damn backstop ever!

Once the season is over, Bruce returns home to die.

A baseball novel is never really just a baseball novel. The insights into the game are really insights into life if you want them to be. Bang the Drum Slowly concerns itself with friendship. Despite their clashing cultures, Henry Wiggen and Bruce Pearson make good friends, and a good battery,

But does Henry Wiggen make a good storyteller? He eschews contractions and writes ersatz dialogue, two decisions that could alienate readers. "Do not be mad. They do not wish me to leave without a friend"; "We are only human and cannot do everything." This artificial loftiness made it impossible for me to lose myself in what I was reading, and that's half the battle lost.

Then again, doesn't a general rule of writing state that all good dialogue is "unrealistic"? I suppose. Doesn't a general rule of living state all good is "relative"?

I remember reading Baseball Confidential until it literally fell apart. Ball Four is a major league pitcher ripping curtains and leaving stains and he's a Peanuts fan, so of course that's mandatory. I wish Bang the Drum Slowly lived up to its reputation, but it just doesn't.

(And if wishes were horses, glue would go a hundred bucks per ounce.)

Director-John D. Hancock
Writer-Mark Harris

A Major League Baseball squad wearing black-and-white pinstripes? Wait, don't scamper off just yet--it's just the New York Mammoths.

Their star pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) doubles as an insurance salesman and triples as a writer. His sweet-natured battery mate Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro, in his first major film role) is living on borrowed time thanks to Hodgkin's Disease. The two men make good friends, if not great ones. City and country, slick 'n simple, a winning smile met with a dopey slanted grin.

Mammoths manager Dutch Schnell (Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia), a crusty, profane sum-bish, is bemused after his ace signs one of the most unique contracts he's ever seen, one which effectively marries Wiggen to Pearson for the rest of their careers, and believes that there's more to Wiggen's request than meets the eye.

(Schnell's suspicions are understandable; who'd be such a big fan of some bumpkin who wears a cap underneath his batting helmet?)

Bruce swore Henry to secrecy re: his condition, but then neglects to kill him. Word spreads from man and man, until the once-fractious team rallies 'round the dying catcher, racking up wins and climbing the standings. Near season's end, Bruce's condition worsens. He constantly feels cold and struggles to put one foot ahead of the other. The Mammoths win the championship without him, and he dies shortly thereafter.

Bang the Drum Slowly avoids melodrama. Unfortunately, it also avoids drama.

Listen here: if I can overlook Michael Moriarty's obsession with legally denying women dominion over their own bodies to appreciate his talents, and even admit that he steals this movie, conservatives should have no issues doing likewise with Meryl Streep, et. al.

Oh yes, Moriarty outacts Robert De Niro. De Niro is too understated, and his accent (which he went to Georgia to learn) is bush league. Vincent Gardenia is friggin' hilarious as the skipper who knows he's being fed cock 'n' bull stories but can't quite link the letters together, a man who demands the team contact "Hodgkin," as the doctor may have discovered a cure that he just hasn't gotten around to sharing with anyone yet.

A couple great performances do not make a great movie. The Natural, there's a great baseball movie. A League Of Their Own, absolutely. The Sandlot, why not. 42, apparently (I really must get around to that one). Bang the Drum Slowly is just some film I watched.

The last line of the book is the last line of the film, since Mark Harris knew he'd nailed it: "From here on in, I rag nobody." Harris keeps much of the dialogue, which is the risk run when trusting novelists to adapt their own work for the big screen.

One is set in the age of "The Beav," the other in the decade of the Bee Gees. Henry's wife goes from good and pregnant housewife to sassy chick with hair so long and straight it screams for a beaded headband. Adult men wear smiley face shirts and lavender suits (although not at the same time).

Both book and film share an identical message: people should be good to one another. Bruce may be dying, but so is everyone else. He's just going faster. So, really, why talk badly about anyone?

Piney's locker room performance of "The Streets of Laredo" (the song which gave the book its title) is, unsurprisingly, better in my head. Still not the worst thing I've ever heard from a guy named Thurston playing an acoustic guitar.

The book is dull as a paperclip. Being a published writer in the 1950s was a no-lose gig, considering people had fewer distractions. The laboriously folksy style would have removed me from the story had I stuck more than two toes in. One of the "Top 100 Sports Books of All-Time" shouldn't be so aimless and amateurish.

The movie is Brian's Song with two white guys. Speaking of race--and we were--Mark Harris smartly left Bruce Pearson's racism out of the script. Ways to turn off potential sympathizers don't come much more surefire.

No sport has inspired more writers than baseball. It's America's most venerable game, the first games dating back to the 1870s. A nine-man lineup, identified by the numbers on their back and underneath their feet. No clock. One man throws a little white ball at another man waiting to swing at it with a smooth wooden club. A full major league season totals 162 games, nearly double that of NHL hockey and NBA basketball, and ten times that of NFL football. 

Baseball is also the ultimate in male bonding, especially between father and son, meaning many tales (be they fictionalized or not) err on the side of maudlin crud. But it's also blessed us with books like The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. There will probably never be a baseball novel I'll love as much. It's also totally unfilmable. Another blessing, I suppose.

Bang the Drum Slowly is Al Pacino's favorite movie.

I'm assuming Al Pacino has seen more than twenty movies.

Can someone with untreatable Hodgkin's Disease even play a professional sport?

Catcher Bruce Pearson wore #15 for the MLB's New York Mammoths. He died young of a terminal illness. Catcher Thurman Munson wore #15 for the MLB's New York Yankees. He died young when his personal Cessna crashed and burst into flames.

"It is not love, said I." Seriously, now!

Jay-shush, but do I adore superfluous slo-mo. 'Most as much as doctor visits.

It was this or The Natural. I really crapped the bed, huh?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Russell Banks

Sam Dent is not an actual city in New York. Nor is it an actual city anywhere else in the world. School bus accidents taking the lives of dozens of children, quite real. One such crash occurred on September 21, 1989 in Alton, Texas, when a Coca-Cola truck struck a school bus, sending it into a gravel pit. Of the 70 children aboard, 21 perished. Lawyers descended onto the area like cicadas, shamelessly exhorting families to dig into the deep pockets of the soda behemoth. Coke ended up paying out $140 million, almost a third of which went to the lawyers. Subsequent reports revealed Alton as a town torn apart by not just the loss of so many of its children, but of the bitterness and resentment that metastasized among the parents, not all of whom sought solace in the the courts.

The tragedy in Texas inspired New York-based writer Russell Banks, best known at that time and perhaps this time for 1985's Continental Drift, a bold examination of existentialist dread gone (literally) South. There's nothing truly bold about The Sweet Hereafter, and not much dread either, since the worst--you know, the actual worst--has already happened in Sam Dent, a humble place where everyone knows everyone (whether they want to or not) and no one has very much money. Then comes the winter morning when the school bus driven by Delores Driscoll (a kindly woman with an invalid husband and two estranged adult sons) swerves into and through a barricade, tumbles down a ravine and stops on an ice-covered sandpit. Fourteen children are killed.

The story of the crash, and what unfolds, is told by four people: Driscoll; Billy Ansel, a widower/war vet who lost both of his children in the accident; lawyer Mitchell Stephens; and Nichole Burnell, a 14-year-old girl of great promise who will be wheelchair-bound for life. Mitchell Stephens is one of a mischief of attorneys that have scurried into Sam Dent, seduced by the scent of suffering (cotton, if you were wondering). Fourteen young lives have been lost, a perversion of nature that someone must answer for.

Stephens decides early on that the "someone" should not be the driver of the doomed bus. Delores is a good egg. Also, what would the townspeople sue her for? She's a struggling Sam Denter just like all of them. The miserly local government, the obtuse school district, the lackadaisical rescue squad, faceless groups of people who cut corners with unsettling adroitness…those pricks are ripe.

The first parents Stephens approaches agree to participate in a lawsuit, eager for anything that will blot out the pain that threatens to blot out their lives. While the other lawyers, brazen and transparent, turn off much of the populace, Mitchell Stephens just seems different. He doesn't believe in "accidents," and he knows what it's like to lose a child.

Billy Ansel is different, himself. On the morning of the non-accident, he was, as per custom, driving behind the bus on his way to work. His testimony would be huge in exonerating Delores Driscoll, so naturally Mitchell Stephens wants him on board. Billy is disheartened that so many of his friends have given in to avarice, and even visits the Burnells, trying to convince them of what a bad idea a lawsuit is. He can't bear to see how litigious lust has changed his neighbors, making them reclusive and "hateful."

As every tale of loss calls for the villain, so it requires the hero. Not Mitchell Stephens (Atticus Finch was not an actual attorney, guys) but, instead, Nichole Burnell. At her deposition, she claims that her front seat spot on the bus provided a clear view of the vehicle's speedometer. She is ready to testify that Delores Driscoll was speeding to the tune of 72 MPH at the time of the crash. This is a direct contradiction of the 50-55 Delores herself told police (not to mention the 60-65 she confided to Stephens).

Then there's some crap with a demolition derby. I may have started daydreaming about Thai food.

Russell Banks is a more enticing writer than The Sweet Hereafter suggests. Perhaps using third person throughout instead of slicing up the first person pie would have made for a more hard-hitting story? The characters wind up speaking as writers write, thinking as writers think, reflective and perceptive, careful to describe their surroundings. Mediocrity bound, in other words.

(When Mitchell Stephens began bemoaning the "death" of America's children, I just hoped that my vomit would prove peculiar. Odd color, curious texture, something.)

My attention drifted too often for me to consider The Sweet Hereafter a great read. Which honestly surprised me. I was ready to be moved, via either push or pull. Just so long as I went somewhere.

Director-Atom Egoyan
Writer-Atom Egoyan

A languid sort of hell. A place to stretch and shrink. Sam Dent, British Columbia becomes such a place.

A young couple asleep, a child between them. A distinguished older gentleman at the car wash. A featureless young blonde onstage with her band, perpetuating innocuous folksiness.

Look out, we might have art.

Mitchell Stephens has taken his legal talents to Sam Dent, a blink of a town, hoping to get justice for the parents of the fifteen children involved in a deadly school bus crash. He speaks with the driver, Delores Driscoll, and several of the distraught parents.

We see the blonde girl babysitting two of the children. She reads "The Pied Piper of Hamlin" to them. She is kind and shy and pretty. Stephens speaks to her as well, after the accident. She's in a wheelchair. She will always be in a wheelchair. She's Nicole Burnell, the sole survivor of the crash. The luckiest person in all of Sam Dent.

Billy Ansel might be the unluckiest. First his wife dies of cancer, then his twins perish in a school bus. He worries about his neighbors. They may have fancied themselves resolute, resilient folks, but what they face is an ordeal unlike any other that has come before or will arrive after.

Then Nicole Burnell lies her ass off and saves the town.

The single triumph of director/writer Atom Egoyan was to rearrange the novel's narrative structure, which was pretty straightforward. The film is comprised of scenes placed out of sequence, which can make for an effectively, exhilaratingly challenging viewing experience when done nothing less than well. The accident itself is held until the second half, and borders on the voyeuristic. It's also the only scene in The Sweet Hereafter that reaches the heights of "unforgettable" cinema.

But to hear others tell it--even now but especially then--The Sweet Hereafter is one of the decade's best films, a stirring meditation on loss, pain and the myths and truths of survival. It won the Grand Prize at Cannes. It took home no Oscar gold, but had a chance in the Director and Adapted Screenplay categories. Reviews, pro and amateur alike, lavished praise on Ian Holm as Mitchell Stephens. Sarah Polley's undercooked portrayal of Nicole Burnell also apparently stole some hearts. (Bruce Greenwood had the most impressive performance, to my mind, and even then he's merely functional as a man determined to be low-key courageous in his disintegration.)

Clean, artful camerawork makes a community in mourning into a pretty purgatory, but unless the citizenry are picking up the pieces bare-handed, I'm not intrigued.

Think about the best films of the decade. Who in hell puts The Sweet Hereafter up on the platform with Goodfellas? What single moment measures up to anything in Schindler's List? The first two Toy Story films made me cry. I didn't even manage a sniffle for Egoyan's alleged masterpiece. If I want breathtaking visuals, I'll watch Trainspotting. If I want a movie with lots of snow, there's always Fargo. (Or Goldeneye.)

This film is...serviceable.

What am I missing?

More than twice I found myself grumbling at Russell Banks's failure to give his characters personality. The movie does that by default, since every actor and actress has pride in their craft. Orbiting the narrative around Mitchell Stephens was wise, even if I rolled my eyes when he realizes the young woman seated next to him on a plane was a childhood friend of his estranged daughter. Gotta shoehorn in that dramatic spider bite story! At least it spared us seeing any of Billy Ansel's regrettable plunges down Ramble Falls up on the screen.

Oh yes, Stephens has a vitriolic relationship with his only child. She calls him infrequently, and these calls always begin bad and end worse…hear that? The thunder booms, the ground gives way, and one man's raison d'etre is revealed.

Much more inspired was Egoyan's inclusion of the "Pied Piper of Hamlin" (which also explains if not excuses the Renaissance-style score). We see Nicole read the fable to the Ansel children, and hear it throughout, in voice-over. The metaphor is flawed--Delores Driscoll is the Piper, but she didn't drive off the road intentionally. Also, what payment had she been denied?

The rest of it works, though. Nicole represents the real-life version of the lame boy in the fable who was sad that he could not follow his friends to the "joyous land." She is sad, then angry. Before the accident, she seemed to lead a charmed life. She realizes she will never again be seen as a whole person by any of the townspeople. She will be a symbol: of luck, of loss, of grace, of fate. Nicole's revenge is to make liars of the bus driver and the compassionate attorney, thereby denying several families--including her own--monetary compensation. It seems cruel, but in truth, her fib will keep the town from tearing itself apart.

In the book, Nichole was far less concerned with saving the soul of Sam Dent. Suddenly undesirable to her sicko pops, she has no reason to fear him. No more sleepless nights fantasizing about ideal suicide methods. She can deny him a chance at a better life, just as hers was snatched away.

The film futzed with the incestuous relationship between Nichole and her father for no good reason. She appears receptive to his advances, to the point where a viewer could deduce that she lied at the deposition to spite her father for what he can longer do, rather than what he did. The "love" scene in the barn, with tender kissing atop the hay and shit? I'd rather watch the Yanomamö tribe's revenge in Cannibal Holocaust. Sarah Polley's performance doesn't help; she captures the detachment, but any resentment barely registers.

(Further, the actor playing her father looks like Canadian Tommy Wiseau.)

A story will inevitably suffer when every character tells their part in similar fashion, including detailed descriptions of setting. It feels like empty calories. A movie can just show, and in this particular instance, that is superior to constant references to grey-white days and blue-black nights.

Smart to ditch the demolition derby which ends the book, which wound up as a dumping ground for staid metaphors and a gentle reminder that each individual heals in their own way, at their own speed. In the movie, we get voice-over of Nicole lamenting how the town of Sam Dent has changed.

End of, I remained thoroughly undevastated. I'll go with the book, since it didn't at any time try to make incest sexy.  

What's it all mean? Life-death. Death-life. Boundless joy or measureless anguish. Available to all, exceptional to none.

How cruel religious belief can be. Don't be sad, for death is an illusion, applicable only to life only on Earth. God doesn't call home any soul before their time, and His home is His kingdom, where there is everlasting peace. His will be done, your children be dead.

Lawyers ain't much better. Witness Mitchell telling Nichole to see the forthcoming trial as "people doing their jobs, no good guys and no bad guys." Of course there's good and bad. Not wanting to bear the ethical burden doesn't change that.

Car washes used to freak me inside out, so it shouldn't surprise you to learn I avoided roller coasters until I was in my early thirties.

Stephens never goes to visit the Ansel abode in the film, meaning the director missed out on what would have been a hell of a shot.

Two movies based on Russell Banks novels were released in 1997. Affliction, featured two Oscar-nominated performances, by Nick Nolte and James Coburn (the latter of whom actually took home gold) I read three different reviews each of the book and film, practically begging my brain to believe it was worthy of the "BIYH?" treatment. Maybe I should have tried cookies instead.

Nichole finds The Simpsons "insulting." Yeah well, bitch, you can't walk.  

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE SHINING


"She thought she could abide the place for a season with no great difficulty."

SPOILER ALERT, it's "murder" spelled backwards.

For novel number three, Stephen King wanted to switch things up. Whatever the plot, it would not unfold in small-town Maine, as Carrie and Salem's Lot had. In October 1974, King and his wife traveled to Estes Park, CO and checked into the Stanley Hotel. The place was on the verge of shutting down for the winter, and the Kings were its sole guests. By the end of the first night, Stephen had a location and a story.

The Torrance family--Jack, Wendy and their five-year-old son Danny--have moved cross country to Colorado. Jack lost his teaching gig (rather scandalously) but with an assist from a friend, he's scored a gig as the winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, a "scenic pleasure palace" with a rich, glamorous history. The manager is a grade-A prick who tells Jack about another former winter caretaker, Delbert Grady, who lost his mind and murdered his family.

The manager gives Torrance and his family a guided tour the last day before shutdown. Of primo concern is the boiler in the basement, an antiquated heat-beast that requires frequent attention lest it go ka-blooey and take the building with it.

The kitchen is a much more pleasant place, with chef Dick Hallorann delighting in showing the Torrances the overflowing pantry shelves. He takes an interest in little Danny after discovering they share "the shining"--Dick's terse term for telepathic and cognitive super-abilities. He reassures the boy that the hotel is essentially harmless; however, Room 217 is to be avoided.

Danny was scared even before speaking with Dick. His imaginary friend, Tony, warned him about the Overlook. Tony's not really much of a friend, though. He's always popping up and crooking a finger, beckoning Danny ad noctem, until the little boy either begs for mercy or loses consciousness. Lately he's been showing Danny a weird word. What to make of it all? Danny seeks solace by intruding on his parents' thoughts. He's not thinking of drinking, she's not thinking of divorce--so everything must be fine.

Initially, the Overlook does the Torrance bunch well. The writers block that kept Jack from finishing his dream play begins to melt away. Not so much for the snow, which in less than two weeks piles over twenty-four inches high--and that's just Phase One. The ghosts of the hotel begin to prey on Danny's gifts, and the little boy's spine-freezing visions increase, but he's a tough nut to crack.

The hotel shifts its focus to Jack. His play, which he'd been so excited about that not even the possibility of commercial failure could deter his efforts, suddenly sucks. The topiary animals outside are moving. Oh, and a dead guy's voice is coming over the CB airwaves, ordering him to kill his wife and son.

After a terrifying visit to Room 217 leaves Danny with fresh bruises and stale eyes, Wendy pushes for the boy to visit a doctor. Craving the sweet, selfish kiss of firewater, Jack retreats to the hotel ballroom--empty, save for a bartender who doesn't have to introduce himself as Lloyd. After knocking back a few, he investigates Room 217 for himself--and, like his son, barely escapes.

Emotionally battered and spiritually bruised, Jack can't stay away from the bar for long. Jack meets a butler named Grady, who pooh-poohs assumptions about his identity with the insistence, "You're the caretaker, sir. You've always been the caretaker." Grady also tells Jack he could also be quite the big player at the Overlook, if he'd simply act like the head of his family. 

Jack understands. He attacks his wife, only to be thwarted by an empty wine bottle. Wendy and Danny drag Jack to the pantry, where he stays for several hours until Grady pops by to set him free. Roque mallet in hand, he stalks off to remind his wife and child who's really in charge.

Wendy's no pushover, though. Even after taking a massive beating, she pulls out a carving knife and plunges it square in her husband's back. Jack seems invincible, driven by the hotel itself to commit the worst crimes man is capable of--until he hears a snowmobile and leaves to investigate.

It's Dick Hallorann to the rescue! Danny had summoned the old chef psychically, and although it took a few days, he's at the Overlook, unsure of what he'll find, certain it will be horrific.

Turns out that Danny, with Tony's help, saves himself. Danny explains to his father how the hotel has subjugated the older man's mind. Jack responds by turning the mallet on himself. Danny endures the sickening sight, because he has to. He has remembered something that his father forgot. The one thing that the winter caretaker could not afford to forget.

As Jack rushes to the basement (and his destiny), Danny joins his mother and Dick in the hotel's lobby. The three make it out just as the first blasts shake the structure. Happy ending? In the final chapter, Wendy announces her intentions to move with Danny to Maryland. How much happier an ending you want, anyway?

The metaphors aren't complex. Merriam-Webster will rarely be consulted. The Shining is a classic, regardless. In even his lesser "horror" works, Stephen King never fails to locate the humanity. Any man could be Jack. Any woman could be Wendy. Real people, in real places. They aren't aliens. They aren't unimaginable.

Director-Stanley Kubrick
Writer-Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson

You know how certain movies just come together like a 1000-piece puzzle of a human torso mid-autopsy?

Writer/neutered boozehound Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is looking forward to his new job: caretaker for the luxurious Overlook Hotel, located in the Rocky Mountains. Sure, a white winter would make travel nigh on impossible. Sure, a previous caretaker snapped and whacked his loved ones. See, Jack's a writer, and five months of quiet and peace to work at his craft is just what the duck quacked.

He won't be there alone, of course. There's wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and seven-year-old Danny (Danny Lloyd). On the surface, unremarkable. Danny has an imaginary buddy named Tony, but what's abnormal about that? Sure, Danny "speaks" for Tony in a voice reminiscent of a fingernails-on-porcelain symphony, and his index finger is the worst ventriloquist's dummy I've ever seen, but hey--kids are weird.

The clairvoyance and visions of blood waves and creepazoid twin girls in matching blue dresses? Bit odd, I'll admit.

Once at the Overlook, Danny at least has a name for his gift: "the shining." Least that's the what the hotel's Florida-bound chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) calls it. He has it, too. He reassures the boy that while there are indeed ghosts of varying temperament haunting the corridors and even a few of the room, the place on the whole doesn't present any danger. Just stay away from Room 237. Gnarly business happened in Room 237.

A month in, Jack's writing is going nowhere. Danny keeps hallucinating crazy crap. Wendy can't do thing one right. A snowstorm the likes of which the area hasn't seen in decades strikes like an A-bomb.

The Torrances probably would have been better off with the bomb.

Danny sees the door to Room 237 is open. He knows, knows, entering is a bad idea. But he's a kid. Downstairs, his father is asleep at his typewriter, screaming his way through a nightmare of killing his family. Wendy wakes him and somehow resists the urge to run to the kitchen for a sharp object when he tells her what he dreamt. Different story when Danny approaches them, shaken and mute, marks all over his throat.

Years ago, Jack--while under the influence--accidentally broke Danny's arm. Wendy instantly concludes he's to blame. Jack stalks off to the hotel's "Gold Room," where he bitches to Lloyd the bartender. He's vindicated, somewhat, when Danny reveals his attacker as some "crazy woman" in Room 237. Jack checks the place out for himself and sees a young, lithe woman emerge from the bathtub. Naked and wet and boy howdy, turns out if you massage her tongue, she becomes the undead!

Jack Torrance needs a drink.

He finds more than he bargained in the Gold Room. Dozens of guests have gathered for a costume ball. He crashes into a butler named Grady. The homicidal caretaker? No. Jack is the caretaker. Hear Grady tell it, Jack's always been the caretaker at the Overlook. Currently a bit derelict in his duties, mind. He could really go places, accomplish much more, if he'd man up.

Grady has a point; no obedient wife would dare sneak a peek at her husband's manuscript. Truly, Jack must lay the law out and down. Turns out Dante Bichette wasn't the first Silver Slugger for the state of Colorado, after all.

Crazy guy in the pantry, everything's fine, everything's fine. Time to sleep. Time to be awakened by your son in a trance state, fully possessed by Tony and repeating a single word: REDRUM. Wendy, bless her splintered heart, is a little slow. Thank God for mirrors!

And ghosts! Freed, armed with an axe, Jack staggers upstairs, swinging his way to his wife and son. Danny manages to escape, but Wendy is powerless to do anything but wait for death. Salvation arrives in the form of Dick Hallorann on a snowmobile. Jack isn't surprised; Grady the butler had warned him earlier that the "nigger cook" would try and put the kibosh on Jack's ascension.

Dick walked right into an unfair fight, sadly.

Too desperate to worry about being underdressed, Danny runs out of the hotel. Jack follows. Fortunately, he's far too delirious to think of much else than brutal homicide, which allows the very young boy to trick him into his (eventual) death.

The shot of Jack going above and beyond for a Klondike bar is jarring, absolutely. Iconic, even. What follows, though, is the stuff separating goodness from greatness.

Back in the hotel, the camera zooms in on a black and white photo hanging in a hallway. A room full of revelers are gathered for a celebration. Finally, the shot settles on a man near the bottom of the shot, decked out in a tux. Closer, closer…Wait. That man looks like John Torrance.

The photo was also dated for posterity: July 4th, 1921.


Aw hell, I'll require additional headers here!

SK VS. SK (round one)
Jack Torrance is basically Stephen King, or rather, Stephen King as he was when he wrote The Shining: a paranoid drug addict who fears that his rage at his own (probably exaggerated) impotence as a provider for his wife and children will boil over and scald those closest to him. The Shining is a confession, of sorts; better, an exorcism.

King has never hid his displeasure with how that tea-lover Kubrick treated his book. The end credits refer to King's work as "a masterpiece of modern horror." Something, assumedly, any screenwriter wouldn't want to mess much with. Yet Kubrick basically took it upon himself to reinvent the recipe for meatloaf. Turned out tasty (master chef, after all) but rare is the writer who'd not feel sincere consternation at seeing their work disrespected so cavalierly.

King's Shining is heat (emotion), while Kubrick's Shining is chill (logic). The workmanlike writer of books, the meticulous maker of films. A building that could spring to life and devour those trapped inside. A spirit that has fallen into decay.

Christ, ask me to choose between parents, why don't'cha.

Actually, don't.

Reacting To Acting
Neither Jack Nicholson or Shelley Duvall were blond(e), which turned out to be the least of the differences between the book Torrances and their cinematic counterparts.

There's zero intimacy or chemistry between the couple on screen. No glances laden with meaning, no tender touches. Contrast that with the novel, which shows a pair that are playful, at times even naughty. They have a healthy sex life. They love their only child, even as they struggle to understand him. They are ultimately likable, which makes what transpires even more unfortunate.

Book Jack was an average guy who gradually went very ape (not very nice). Within five seconds, you know that movie Jack is just barely holding it together, and it won't take much to send him screaming over the edge. (And Nicholson, once gone crazy, is twice baked ham. On pineapple. On pizza. On drugs. This works well when axing a wooden door to smithereens, less so when ranting at his wife.)

Ah, the wife. As portrayed by Shelley Duvall, Wendy Torrance is a pale, brittle beanstalk. I want to feel for her, to root for her unreservedly, especially when Jack brings the full court press, but jeez. Duvall herself is not to blame. The buck teeth, the saucer eyes, the physique that prevents her from every truly wearing "form-fitting" clothing--forget all that. It's in the writing. Mrs. Torrance on the page is solicitous and self-reliant; on the screen, she's meek and malleable, to both her detriment and mine. Stephen King himself called Wendy Torrance "one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film," and I don't disagree. If you left me and her alone in a room for five minutes, you would return to find her unconscious and me still slapping her.

Danny, despite his catalyst status, is the blandest character in either version. The cool thing about casting a child who can't act: their dearth of ability can pass as emotional devastation.

Dead Can't Dance, Sure Can Sing
The soundtrack is legitimately deranged. (Plastic utensils only, please.) Original pieces by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind sound alongside Bartok, Ligeti and Penderecki. Instruments crest and crash against white rock, meld with the moans of dark red air, and the only words I could make out were, "Smile! It's your last known photo!"

SK VS SK (round two)
King wrote a little more than he needed to; par for the course. Kubrick simply didn't do throwaway scenes, or lines. So many indelible scenes were not taken from the book. (Nor was the most famous line of dialogue.) Replacing a mallet with an axe means less gore, amazingly, and frankly just looks scarier. Not to mention the blood elevator of bloody blood, bleeding like a stuck most things. Horrible vision to have, but also kinda cool, no? I'd rather see that than corpses.

The side plot involving the sordid scrapbook Jack finds in the basement could and should have been included in the movie. It's another example of how the hotel manipulates him and preys on his vulnerabilities.

Make Up Your Mind, Bitch
The edge goes to the book, for the same reason that the edge typically goes to the book. I love me some good-ass background. The extra height and heft provided by backstory will ideally enrich and entertain, and so it is in The Shining. We learn more about Jack's battle with the bottle, get the details on how he lost his teaching position, and are privy to glimpses at his bitter, brutal upbringing. Despite odds, Jack's a good guy. He's trying to gather his shit into a single pile so he can make a better life for himself and the family he loves.

Absolutely the decision was not an easy one, and plenty of people would put the movie over the novel. A huge plus for the film is the added ambiguity courtesy of that photograph. Of all the theories, I've always cottoned to the one positing Jack Torrance as the perpetual reincarnation of a homicidal hotel guest, brought forth to reign murderous hell by energies run amok. This year, in an interview for Entertainment Weekly, co-writer Diane Johnson basically confirmed this as the case while acknowledging the absurdity of the whole twist. The hotel absorbs negativity--be it in the form of a thought or action--and sends it back out as a uniquely sentient malevolence. It cannot be fully explained; yet it is, regardless. The events of The Shining are, in a word, magic.

The Shining is, at core, a cautionary tale about families fractured by itty-bitty fears that mutate into huge ones.

In a film rife with "Ayo the fuck?" moments, Wendy catching sight of a man in a dog costume kneeling at the foot of the bed, preparing to service another man, sticks out. This scene is a reference to an affair between the hotel's former owner and his (male) lover. Danny sees the dog-man in a corridor, moving around on all fours, barking, and demanding to see his little boy wee-wee.

At a moment of peak terror, no less.

Kubrick's on-set perfectionism is legendary, and the making of The Shining took to a level some have said was too high (or too low). His demands on Scatman Crothers and, especially, Shelley Duvall nearly beggar belief. 127 takes for Jack and Wendy on the stairs? 60 takes for a zoom-in?

Can anyone give me a good reason for the hedge maze to have internal lights? A reason not associated with the making of a motion picture?

In the book, Danny owns a Snoopy nightlight. In the movie, the walls of his bedroom are covered with several stickers of cartoon characters, including Snoopy.

Imagine The Shining directed by Stephen Spielberg. Boy-snaps-Dad-back-to-reality would have stayed, followed by a tearful embrace. The last scene would be a flash-forward to a springtime picnic. A whimsical John Williams score skips around the edges of a blanket upon which the Torrance family sits, their faces aglow and their mouths agape.

Mention of post-coital "seed" at the beginning and end of the same chapter. Yeesh, Steve.

I forgive him, though. Don't I? It's thanks to Stephen King that I still cannot wake up at some ungodly hour of night and cover the distance to the bathroom in any speed other than "dash."

I wonder if a stutterer on the debate team inspired the writers of Hill Street Blues to invent a narcoleptic comic named Vic Hitler.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Debut of "Serenity"

Head on over to Babbling of the Irrational and read my short story, "Serenity." This marks the first time one of my li'l tales has been put out in the world, and I hope you enjoy.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Better In Your Head?--A DEATH IN THE FAMILY

James Agee

"(N)obody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice."

SPOILER ALERT, somebody dies.

The city, Knoxville. The state, Tennessee. The twentieth century, still in its teens. The family, the Follets. At the head is Jay, thoughtful and resolute; beside him (or rather behind him, given the era) is Mary, a high-strung child of God. Their children, six-year-old Rufus and three-year-old Catherine, are wide-eyed and sweet-natured.

Most things are mostly fine until Jay receives an early morning phone call from his notoriously capricious brother Ralph, passing along the news that their father is breathing shallowly outside death's door. He says goodbye to his wife and drives off into the imminent dawn.

The elder Mr. Follet turns out to not in the grave condition his youngest son promised. Underneath a cloud of prickly relief, Jay heads back home. He has no clue of the lethal malfunction inside the machine pushing him forward, one that will result in a death as flukey as it is instantaneous.

Thereafter, the smaller tragedies visit those left behind, piling upon one another with dizzying haste: a widow's anguish, alleviated through faith; the self-recriminations of a love-starved drunkard, scalding his insides faster than the liquor he guiltily gulps down; and most distressingly, a child's bewilderment and incomprehension.

Mary Follet's reliance on the Good Book, her stout subservience to the sky wizard, has estranged her from her immediate family--emotionally, anyway. Physically, her parents and brother are all too willing to fill her home with their reassuring breaths and palliating gestures. To say nothing of Aunt Hannah and her pragmatic support. Only the arrival of a stolid preacher--the intrusion of a stranger--makes visible the fissures.

Yet it is Mary's determination to keep it together (bolstered by what can only be described as a pep talk by her father, a proud agnostic yet a prouder parent) gives this most desultory of stories the closest to a happy ending it can realistically achieve.

James Agee made his name as a writer of nonfiction both short (film reviews for Time and The Nation) and long (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). He wrote only one novel, and even that was left unfinished at the time of his death at the age of 45. The highly autobiographical work would hit shelves two years later, and earn the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Time has been kind to Agee's gift; the tale he tells is a common one, told with uncommon sensitivity. His sentences feed oxygen to tiny flames. The eventual conflagration is at once catastrophic and consolatory.

Imagine Something Happened, with the significant distinction that something actually happened. Or a master of his instrument in the style of Jimi rather than Yngwie.

Or just, um, read the book.

Director-Alex Segal
Writer-Philip Reisman, Jr.

Weird duck, this 'un. Like that one duck what has a rooster head.

The film All the Way Home is based on the play All the Way Home, which was based on A Death in the Family. An adaptation of an adaptation? Sure!

Ninety lachrymose minutes begin possibly auspiciously, as the camera focuses on the framed picture of a young boy, mouth wide from mirth. The shot expands, placing us in the darkened theater house where the little guy and his old man soak in the hijinks of Charlie Chaplin. The trick is used again, but the trip from plaintive reflection to rollicking comic antics did little for me other than want to smack the movie across the chops.

The evening's entertainment over and done, Dad and son walk home, while Steve Lawrence croons a theme tune every bit as indelible as a hiccup. Dad is Jay Follett (Robert Preston), a big ol' boisterous ol' fella who lives every minute for his boy, Rufus (Michael Kearney).

The woman of the house awaits: Mary Follett (Jean Simmons) is a husk of a human who is with child number two but, thanks to all the Catholicism clogging her arteries and blocking the blood flow to her brain, she cannot bring herself to use words like "pregnant" or "stomach," instead telling her son that their "gift" is still "in Heaven" and will arrive on Earth when God decides.

Jay and his wife have a somewhat meaningful argument, then everyone goes to sleep, and the next day it's time to drive out to the Follett family farm alongside Jay's numb-nutted brother Ralph, a blowhard borracho whose jokes barely lift, much less land. Everything is Appalachian and creepy!

Later that evening (I think), Jay receives a frantic early morning call from Ralph, blubbering over their paw, who is apparently finna clock out any darned minute. Jay drives off to be by his side, even as he rightfully suspects that the alarm is unwarranted. The next day, Jay calls to let his wife know that he's on his way home. The next call she receives is far less jovial, informing Mary that her husband's been in a serious single-car accident. As her brother Andrew goes to see how serious, Mary waits with her aunt Hannah. Two nerve ends masquerading as human women.

Once Andrew arrives, unable to get the words out, clutching his sister and sobbing, All the Way Home basically adheres to the original book, with Mary breaking the horrible news to her children, the phlegmatic preacher, general indicators of bereavement, the viewing of the casket at the Follett home, none of it approaching the intensity and heart of Agee's novel.

The end comes, mercifully, when a distraught Rufus runs out of the house, yelling for the man in the box. Mother Mary follows and some schmaltz ensues, including the revelation that pretty soon Rufus will be a big brother.

Surely this tugged at thousands of heart strings. Certainly I care more about what the new S'mores Swirl Iced Latte from Dunkin Donuts tastes like. Good, I bet.

Robert Preston is fine in the role of the doomed patriarch, even if he was ten years too old for the role as originally written. At least the character's demise kept him from grasping further opportunity to oversell every single thing he did and said on screen, a chance that Jean Simmons (perhaps best known for her portrayal of Ophelia in Olivier's Hamlet) wasn't going to let pass by. The woman couldn't even drink "whiskey" without calling attention to her "craftsmanship."

Child actors I can cut some slack. Michael Kearney, for example, was either unable or unwilling to blink while speaking and quite possibly had an adult pressing an icepack against a sensitive body part during his reaction shots.

Kudos for filming near the same neighborhood in Knoxville where James Agee was raised, but would it have cursed the production to have one single actor attempt a Southern accent?

I've not clue one as to even the approximate value of your time, but I promise, watching All the Way Home will lessen it.

In brief, the movie is third-rate Capra corn. The gap in quality between the source and the adaptation is wide, deep and impossible to exaggerate. Alex Segal primarily directed made for television flicks, and whatever sensitivity and artistry he brought to this rare big-screen project was simply (perhaps kindly) insufficient. He leans towards overt preciousness, his blatant goal the wrenching forth of sobs from even the hardest heart. Without the transilluminating abilities of James Agee's words, the moving portrait of a family gathered in grief, tiptoeing around land mines, is hardly ever so.

(Black and white did no favors, either. The tale itself is already dark enough.)

A Death in the Family is a novel that lives inside its own heads, with Agee's prose inhabiting a wealth of unforgettable characters: a deaf old woman whose very presence keeps everyone off-kilter; two agnostic men of varying temperament; a pair of pre-teens who know that their father is dead but struggle to understand that their father is gone; a man indirectly responsible for the passing of his own big brother. The causal relationship between death and religion, especially when the death is judged "premature," is examined believably and brutally. Agee lays bare the oddities and intimacies until the breaking sound drowns out the clucking and clicking.

A movie can capture the rhythm of cricket chirps, of rain drops. But the silver-lined spaces in between words are harder to conjure. A confluence of creative energies powerful enough to crack Earth's crust is required. Alex Segal and cast could barely crack a pie crust. 

Robert Preston is a heavier Jay Follet than I'd envisioned, with shoulders broad enough to land a propjet on. His boundless charisma gives him the aura of an elixir huckster. His chemistry with Jean Simmons is God-like, in that it doesn't exist. The last hour the couple spends together in the book is so exquisitely intimate it feels intrusive. In the movie, Jay gets a call, him and Mary smooch on the porch and share some inexplicable laughter.

Michael Kearney as Rufus is basically a towheaded Teddy Ruxpin minus the creepy charm. The second I admit my inability to care whit one about the central character of a story, is the same second I resent that I have to finish the goddamn movie for the sake of my goddamn blog. (And it was actually closer to eight seconds.)

I am perhaps foolish to expect any visual could equal the splendor of A Death in the Family's prologue. Fine. Caps and bells on. I feel well within my rights to wonder at the wisdom of a director allowing shots to breathe with hyperinflated lungs.

All the Way Home tells the story of A Death in the Family in a manner similar to mother Mary explaining death to her children. Diluted rather than distilled, hokey rather than honest. Damn shame, really. 

James Agee left behind a wife and four children--and an estate worth a mere $450. Family friend and editor David McDowell searched through Agee's personal papers and found an incomplete, untitled manuscript. Desperate to provide for the kids, McDowell went to work, assembling what he judged a book suitable for publication. A Death in the Family went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and make several "Best Novels of the 20th Century" lists. It's impact and influence is felt to this very day.

McDowell claimed, from the first, that the novel as published had not been altered from Agee's original writings. Thirty years later, that declaration would be proven false.

In 1988, the son of David McDowell approached the University of Tennessee about selling some of his father's papers. English professor Michael Lofaro sifted through the materials and found something quite interesting: Agee's incomplete manuscript for what would become A Death in the Family, including notes, outlines, and previously unpublished chapters. Scrutiny revealed that David McDowell had done rather a number on Agee's work: replacing the intended opening chapter with a more light-hearted, previously published piece titled "Knoxville: Summer of 1915"; altering the chronology with the insertion of nebulous flashback interludes; and turning 44 short chapters into 20 longer ones.

Lofaro's plan to publish a new version of an American classic, one truer to the author's intent, hit a snag when the James Agee Trust sued to recover the relevant papers sold to the university. The suit was unsuccessful, and after the appointment of a new trustee, the family expressed interest in supporting Lofaro. In 2008--twenty years after first being called to appraise David McDowell's papers--Michael Lofaro published A Death in the Family, with the subtitle "A Restoration of the Author's Text."

The additional chapters that McDowell felt didn't belong come before the accident. There's more interaction between father and son, which only makes the former's fate even more terrible, so thanks for that. This extra text further provides a fuller understanding of Jay Follet, a man who worked to extricate himself from the flat lands of Appalachia to build a new life, one that includes living residences with more than one floor. Lofaro's decision to do away entirely with the flashbacks and add new chapters helps with narrative flow; the interludes are doubtlessly grand poetry under the guise of prose, but they are also momentum killers.

Lofaro's painstaking efforts may indeed be closer to the author's overall vision for "the story of my relation with my father," but claiming it to be the definitive version of the novel is speculative and foolhardy. Pore over all the pages, decipher all the scribble, bottom line remains: James Agee died mid-sentence. The argument could be made (and probably has been) that David McDowell's decision to publish what he found under false pretenses was a violation of the artist's posthumous right to privacy--but thank the gods he did. I will argue (unoriginally) that Michael Lofaro's re-creation was, at best, utterly unnecessary. Consider: James Agee's linguistic virtuosity and David McDowell's editorial instincts produced a masterpiece. Even allowing that the expanded edition is an improvement, nothing changes that initial fact.

As it is, the reality of two versions of one amazing novel out in the public both intrigues and infuriates me.

Poor Rufus. No bogeyman matches up to the hellish misfortunes to be endured in the daylight. Poor us.

Jay Follet was a hard-worker, a decent family man, and while the good don't always die young, doing so is the only way to assure they'll stay good.

My second novel features a scene of the protagonist viewing her father's open casket. I thought of A Death in the Family during the writing process, driven by the acute realization that it was not Agee's skill I had to measure up to, but instead, his honesty.

Poor Mary. She berates herself for any independent thought that enters her head, just like a good Catholic lady should. I pity such people, though I know that I shouldn't. If cherry-picking in an orchard 73 trees strong helps a person swallow down their daily bowl of oatmeal….

Yessir, Abe Lincoln indeed arrived in the world within the four walls of a log cabin. Know who else did likewise? The very same log cabin, in fact? Ivy K. Davenport. You can watch the episode of I've Got a Secret that aired on February 11, 1963 and see for self, if you doubt me. Wait, you can't. YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion--thanks for not-a-thing. The Christina Chubbuck footage will be uploaded before that I've Got a Secret eppy.