Friday, May 31, 2013

A new Superman for a Batman world

Men of Steel: Henry Cavill and Christopher Reeve portray Superman, 35 years apart.


"He's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now."
- Commissioner Gordon describing Batman in The Dark Knight

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary McGrory is credited with one of the all-time great quotes about sports: "Baseball is what we were, and football is what we have become."

History has more than vindicated Ms. McGrory's statement. The ratings for the 2012-2013 television season have just recently been tabulated, and the leader -- by a wide margin -- was NBC's Sunday night NFL telecast. A mere eight years before my own birth, there was no such thing as the Super Bowl. Now it's a de facto Holy Day of Obligation. Football has long since blitzed past baseball to become America's true national pastime, and I think the reason for that has a lot to do with a gradual shift in the collective American psyche over the last few decades.

In short, we've become more cynical, more technical and less optimistic in recent times. In the years since 9/11 especially, we've become a paranoid, anxious nation, thirsty for blood and hungry for flesh. Football is the sport, more than any other, that fuels our aggregate psychosis. It's a dark game for dark times. Baseball, meanwhile, seems fairly musty in comparison. It's not even a contact sport, for crying out loud!

George Carlin famously explained the differences between these two sports better than I ever could, so I think I'll let him do so now.

So what does any of this have to do with Superman? Well, it's like this, citizens: Superman is the baseball of superheroes. He's corny. He's old-fashioned. He's pastoral -- the very term George Carlin used to describe baseball. Though born on the far-off, doomed planet of Krypton, Superman grew up as Clark Kent amid the pastures of Smallville, the isolated cowtown where his adoptive parents, Ma and Pa Kent, raised him with the good Christian values of the Middle West.

Superman's origin story has often been interpreted as a variation on the Nativity with Clark as an all-American version of the Christ child. Even the Kents' first names -- John and Martha -- are reminiscent of Joseph and Mary. Little wonder, then, that Superman has often been portrayed as the ultimate square, a goody-two-shoes as wholesome as a glass of milk and just about as interesting.

Meanwhile, poor Supes has been eclipsed in the minds (if not hearts) of the public by Batman, a fellow DC hero and frequent teammate. Batman's origin is rooted in urban violence: he saw his own parents gunned down by a mugger and ultimately decided to avenge their deaths by becoming a costumed vigilante. The famed "Caped Crusader" has been portrayed in wildly diverse ways and with greatly varying degrees of seriousness since his debut in the fateful year of 1939, but for the last quarter-century or so, Batman has largely been depicted as a deeply troubled, morally conflicted loner who has chosen to fight crime for reasons that are far from healthy.

This is the character America has embraced, and I think his ascendancy mirrors that of professional football. Batman is a flawed, gloomy pseudo-savior for these sick times of ours. No wonder we love him.

Five summers ago, the most lauded of the studio blockbusters was Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. The most ridiculed was Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. Is it sacrilege to say that I had more fun at the latter than the former? I emerged from The Dark Knight feeling woozy and a little depressed, like I'd just spent two-plus hours in a tumble dryer, while at least I came out of Crystal Skull feeling like I'd seen the adventure yarn that I'd paid for.

I think the real problem with Spielberg's film is that Indiana Jones was simply the wrong man for the audiences of 2008. It's difficult to imagine him brooding as he stares into a hopeless gray sky. Certainly, Crystal Skull is absurd and cheesy. But what audiences forgot (or ignored) was the fact that absurdity and cheesiness were in the character's DNA from the very beginning of the franchise. After you've found the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, where else is there to go but aliens from outer space?

Fans howled at the improbability of Professor Jones surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator, but is this really any more ridiculous than the melting Nazis of the first film or the invisible bridge of the third?

While the online community was grumbling about how preposterous Crystal Skull was, they were also rhapsodizing about the supposed realism of The Dark Knight. This argument struck me as baffling for several reasons. First, Nolan's film is in no way realistic. It's not even close. Insane, physically impossible events happen throughout the entire running time. This is not mere conjecture on my part, either. It's scientific fact. If Bruce Wayne really put on that rubber bat suit, he'd barely be able to walk around, let alone win any fights. And if he tried that gliding technique with his cape, he'd soon wind up as an omelette on the sidewalks of Gotham City.

But beyond that is a more troubling question: why would we even want a superhero movie to be realistic? Perhaps our imaginations have been defeated or deflated by years of reality television and grim headlines. Figuratively speaking, we have sequestered ourselves in one dismal, little, windowless room while great halls remain cordoned off and unexplored. Kind of sad, really, but understandable and perhaps inevitable.

This is the world Superman now enters in 2013. A football world. A Batman world. The character's latest cinematic reincarnation, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, faces critics and audiences on June 14, 2013. The presence of Christopher Nolan as a producer suggests that the film will take a darker, grittier, more reality-bound approach to the character. These suspicions are confirmed by the film's trailer, in which Clark Kent/Superman appears to be dour and humorless, his powers as much a burden as a blessing.

For a while in the 1970s and 1980s, Christopher Reeve managed to find a manageable middle ground with the character. His Superman had a sense of humor, certainly, but was not a cartoonish clown or a novelty act. Furthermore, he had a touch of old-fashioned romance but did not sacrifice his masculinity in the process. Best of all, he made it look like being Superman -- while occasionally a trial -- was a hell of a lot of fun. To my mind, Reeve is the only actor to truly understand the character and play the role properly. Every other actor has either been too stiff and serious (Brandon Routh in Superman Returns) or too much of a lightweight to be a credible action hero (Dean Cain in Lois & Clark).

I plan on seeing Man of Steel, but I worry that the character has lost something essential in the process of being remade for the audiences of 2013.

More than anything in the plot or dialogue, I am concerned about the movie's appearance. Superman comes from comics, an entirely visual medium, and has been transplanted to film, a primarily visual medium. A movie, more than anything else, is a Thing To Look At. So what has Zack Snyder provided us to see here? Obviously, in any Superman movie, the main point of visual interest is Superman himself. I was struck by how different Henry Cavill's 2013 uniform was from the one worn by Christopher Reeve in 1978. Here's a color chart breakdown of the two:

A color chart comparing the Superman uniforms of 1978 and 2013. Notice a difference?

Captain Kirk and his bumpy new uniform
The top row represents the Reeves version: cheerful and bold shades of blue, yellow, and red, similar to the hues seen in a four-color comic book. The bottom row represents the updated Cavill version of the famous suit. The colors are grungier and more nebulous now, reflecting perhaps that we live in a less-certain world. Red and blue have been usurped by reddish and blueish.

If you study the picture at the beginning of this article, in addition to the color change, you'll also notice a change in the texture of the material. Whereas Reeve's leotard was smooth and seamless, Cavill's outfit is ridged and porous.

This emphasis on hyper-accurate detail, perhaps an outgrowth of high-definition television and digital theater projection, is not exclusive to Superman. The trend began, I believe, with Spider-Man about a decade ago. Now, every fantasy hero -- including Captain Kirk -- has to wear such an outfit. Again, I am a little wary of this. Screen heroes should, in some sense, be abstract and mysterious. The new fabric makes these characters more plausible, perhaps, but it also takes away some of the fun because it subtly drags them down to the level of practical reality. I have plenty of practical reality all around me. Why do I need more of it in a superhero movie?

At the end of Oliver Stone's biopic Nixon, the disgraced politician  -- a pessimist saint if ever there was one -- looks up at a portrait of his one-time rival, John F. Kennedy and says, sadly: "When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are."

Can't we say the same about our movie heroes? Superman is who we want to be (or used to want to be), and Batman is who we are (or fear we are). We used to look to the silver screen to see characters who were impossibly idealized and embodied our fondest hopes and dreams. Now, I suppose, we want to look up there and see at least something of ourselves -- our flawed, fallible selves -- projected on the wall. In a few weeks, we'll see how well Man of Steel accomplishes that.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

TAKE THE QUIZ: How well do you know the first lines of famous movies?

Photo of the Hollwood  sign = Instant authenticity!
Some opening movie lines are destined to become part of the lexicon. Others... are not. You can decide which ones are which as you take this following quiz.

First Lines of Famous Movies

The premise is very simple. Match each of the following first lines with the correct movie title. The answer key is at the end for all you cheaters out there.
  1. "Harry, answer that!"

  2. Harry and the Hendersons
    Taxi Driver
    Vanishing Point
    License to Drive
    The 'burbs

  3. "All right, I'm going to turn over the next card."

  4. Casino
    Forrest Gump
    Duck Soup
    Wayne's World
    Sesame Street: Follow that Bird!
    Altered States
    The Prestige

  5. "Never did eat your lunch, did you?"

  6. Marty
    The Sound of Music
    Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
    The Addams Family
    Blue Velvet

  7. "Here you are, sir. Main level, please."

  8. Klute
    Austin Powers in Goldmember
    Home Alone
    Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
    The Muppet Movie
    Grand Hotel
    2001: A Space Odyssey

  9. "October is inventory time."

  10. Back to the Future
    Cadillac Man
    Used Cars
    The Hangover
    Very Bad Things
    Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
    About Schmidt
    American Beauty
    Schindler's List

  11. "Take off that beanie."

  12. Best in Show
    Two Lane Blacktop
    Ready to Wear
    The Frisco Kid
    Night of the Living Dead
    National Lampoon's Animal House
    Dazed and Confused
    Two Weeks Notice

  13. "Did you hear about Mrs. Mason's little Willy?"

  14. The Ladykillers
    Eddie Murphy: Raw
    I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka!
    Iron Man
    A Christmas Story
    Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    The Invisible Man
    The Adventures of Robin Hood
    Ernest Goes to Camp

  15. "You don't like flying, do you?"

  16. Soul Plane
    Roll Bounce
    The Hurt Locker
    Die Hard
    Brewster McCloud
    Tora! Tora! Tora!
    Murder By Death

  17. "Friends, let me introduce myself."

  18. A Clockwork Orange
    The Brady Bunch Movie
    The King of Comedy
    You've Got Mail
    Invasion of the Body Snatchers

  19. "High school is like the training wheels for the bicycle of real life."

  20. Heathers
    Ghost World
    Requiem for a Dream
    Fight Club
    The Best Years of Our Lives
    Breaking Away
    Lord Love a Duck
    The Rocky Horror Picture Show
    Cold Turkey
How did you do? If you used Google or IMDb, then congratulations on being such a clever and resourceful little rat! Either way, here are the answers (upside down):

ADDENDUM: For the skeptics of the world, I will now prove each and every last one of these.

1. Here is the film's complete audio. And here's a transcript.
2. An IMDb quotes page and the complete audio.
3. A list of the greatest opening lines in film history.
4. An IMDb quotes page and a transcript.
5. A transcript and the IMDb quotes page, and the film's audio track.
6. The film's audio track and a transcript.
7. The film's audio track and IMDb quotes page.
8. The film's audio track and IMDb quotes page.
9. The film's audio track and and an Anyclip quotes page.
10. The film's audio track and the script.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Greatest Pretender: Korla Pandit, music's most magnificent fraud

A few of Korla's two dozen albums. You might notice a recurring visual motif on the LP covers. 

"For wisdom is better than rubies, and all things to be desired are not to be compared unto it. We bring you musical gems from near and far, blended into a pattern of glorious harmony, a program based on the universal language of music. It is our pleasure to present to you..."
Korla Pandit spoke not a word when he was on camera. He just wore a bejeweled turban, played the organ... and stared. That was the extent of his act. It was all he needed -- the shimmery tones of his music, the vague evocation of the Far East, and that indelible Mona Lisa countenance with its piercing dark eyes and intriguing half-smile. It was a potent combination which carried him along for nearly half a century. And yet, Korla Pandit never really existed at all. It depends, I suppose, on your definition of "existed." Either way, his story is one of the most implausible and oddly inspiring in the history of popular music.

I first encountered Korla Pandit without any clue to his identity or knowledge of his past. Portraying himself, Korla made a memorable cameo in Tim Burton's 1994 film, Ed Wood. In the scene, notorious director Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Johnny Depp) is holding a wrap party for his 1955 sci-fi/horor anti-epic, Bride of the Monster. The wild celebration, attended by Bela Lugosi and the other oddballs and grotesques who orbited Wood, is held in the meat-packing plant of the film's major backer, wealthy rancher Donald McCoy (Rance Howard). While the carcasses of slaughtered animals hang from hooks all around them, the revelers are treated to a suggestive dance routine performed by Wood himself, costumed as a harem girl. Korla Pandit, immaculately attired in a Nehru jacket and the ever-present turban, accompanies him on the organ with a composition called "Nautch Dance," referring to a seductive style of dance popularized in early-1900s India. As near as I can tell from reading about Ed Wood's life, no such party ever occurred, though Ed did like to surprise and shock people by dressing in drag and dancing wildly in public places and at parties. Still, it's a fun scene with a memorable capper as Ed removes his veil. Here's a clip.

For many years, that was my only encounter with Korla Pandit. "Nautch Dance" did appear on the Ed Wood soundtrack, though it was credited -- along with all the other tracks -- to Howard Shore, who composed the film's score. Many years later, though, I started noticing a particular LP cover which kept turning up on Internet lists of the best, worst, craziest, and "most WTF" album covers of all time. It was this one for a '50s-era Korla Pandit Christmas album:

The infamous Korla Pandit Christmas LP cover.

Something about the image stopped me in my tracks every time I saw it. Who was this odd, androgynous man sitting stiffly behind a keyboard and wearing the kind of suit a businessman would be buried in? Why did he seem to be wearing eye shadow and lipstick? And, most of all, why did he look so familiar? A quick Google search answered a few of my questions. He was, indeed, the mysterious organist from Ed Wood. Burton's film was made a mere four years before the musician died of a myocardial infarction at 77. His main claim to fame was starring in a Los Angeles-based 15-minute television show, Korla Pandit's Adventures in Music, in the late '40s and early '50s at the very dawn of the television age. He then made a series of short films which were nationally syndicated and thus made him famous across America. After that followed a series of albums and another local Los Angeles show. He remained a television fixture throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Then, after his career slowed down in the 1970s, he shifted to making public appearances and giving private lessons. He continued working steadily as a performer until the end of his life. To give you an idea of what Korla was like in his 1950s glory days, here's a clip from one of his TV shows. Supposedly, he made roughly 900 episodes like it. If something like this were to air on TV today, it would seem almost avant garde, like some weird experimental parody from Adult Swim.

Korla's story ended in 1998 in Petaluma, CA, but it began in St. Louis, Missouri in 1921, where one John Roland Redd was born, one of seven children of an African-American couple. Growing up black in Missouri in the 1920s and 1930s was exactly as uncomfortable as you might guess it would be. Instead of letting racial politics define his life, however, Redd chose to sidestep the issue altogether by completely remaking his image. In his late teens (after a brief apprenticeship at an Idaho radio station), he made his way to Los Angeles, the city which has perhaps eclipsed even New York as the reinvention capital of the world, and it was there he first donned a turban (an affectation he'd seen in a movie called Midnight Shadow) and began performing under the assumed name, Juan Rolando. As you can see, that first alias was a mere variation on his own real name. However, once he married Disney artist Beryl June DeBeeson in 1944, the complete repackaging of John Roland Redd really began. He and his wife devised the persona of "Korla Pandit," complete with a totally fictitious back story which declared that he was born in New Dehli to a Brahmin priest and a French opera singer. None of it was true, of course, but since when did "truth" and "show business" ever have anything to do with one another? Pandit kept up the ethnic charade for the next half century. The actual facts of his life were not revealed until a 2001 article in Los Angeles magazine.

The story of John Roland Redd a.k.a. Korla Pandit is unlike any I've encountered in popular culture. He presented an abstracted yet alluring version of India without even a semblance of authenticity. Korla represented the Far East as viewed through the eyes of the West. That speech comparing rubies to wisdom, for instance, comes not from anything in the Hindu religion but is a paraphrase of Proverbs 8:11 from the Old Testament. Even more obviously, the electric organ is not remotely Indian in nature. From what I can determine, the instrument was largely developed and popularized in the United States. However, the eerie and unearthly tones Pandit/Redd was able to conjure from it seemed to transport listeners to an exotic world of mystery, some indefinable place far away. That was the real magic behind what he did.

I'll leave you with one more clip of Korla Pandit. Here, he plays "Miserlou," a traditional Greek tune which you'll probably recognize as the theme from Pulp Fiction (where it was played by surf rock guitarist Dick Dale):

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"The Shining": Portrait of an Unholy Family

The Torrance Family Portrait by smalltownhero (source)

The head-scratchingly bizarre documentary Room 237 brought renewed attention and scrutiny to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), a loose adaptation of Stephen King's bestselling 1977 novel of the same name. For nearly 40 years, Kubrick's controversial horror movie has inspired an inordinate amount of speculation among viewers and critics, and the documentary seeks to provide several possible readings or interpretations of the film.

Among the theories floated by interviewees: it's about the Holocaust, it's about the genocide of Native Americans, it's about the faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing, etc. Like most of Kubrick's works, The Shining is chock-full of odd and arcane details that may or may not be clues to the film's true meaning or intent. Room 237 helpfully points out many of these, and the interview subjects use these tidbits to support their respective cases, almost like lawyers submitting pieces of evidence in a trial. This makes the viewer the judge and jury.

One recurring theme in Room 237 is that new details are liable to pop out at you every time you watch The Shining. Freeze the frame at any given moment, say the interviewees, and study the image. There's bound to be something out of the ordinary there. And, sure enough, I found this to be true when I revisited my favorite scene in the film: the one in which a terrified Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) defends herself with a baseball bat as her husband, Jack (Jack Nicholson), now completely psychotic, follows her up a flight of stairs at the far end of the hotel's vast, airy Colorado Lounge.

There are a lot of great things about this scene, not the least of which is that it manages to work simultaneously as horror, as family drama, and as pitch-black dark comedy. (Few lines in cinema make me laugh as hard as Jack's reading of "Wendy... darling... light of my life!") Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall are both mesmerizing here, employing radically different acting techniques. Famous in Hollywood lore are the stories of how unequally Kubrick behaved toward these two actors during the making of The Shining. The director treated Nicholson like an old pal while sternly berating Duvall in front of the crew and scoffing at her complaints. Stanley did this supposedly to coax the desired performances from his actors. This is eerily reminiscent of the making of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1940), in which director/star Welles apparently treated his co-star, Dorothy Comingore, quite cruelly because she was playing a woman who was dominated by her husband and who wound up as a broken-down drunk after leaving him. Unfortunately, Comingore's own tragic life mirrored that of her character too closely, and she died of alcoholism at 58.

Some of Kubrick's on-set behavior is captured in the well-known BBC documentary, The Making of "The Shining," directed by Kubrick's daughter Vivian. Indeed, Jack prowls around the set like he owns the place, while poor Shelley looks like a kid whose parents never picked her up from summer camp. Regardless of whether you approve of Kubrick's professional ethics, his techniques seem to have paid off here. Shelley's character, Wendy Torrance, is very childlike and innocent throughout the film, and over the course of The Shining, her husband Jack erodes what's left her of self-confidence and tries to bully her into submission, first through condescension ("Wendy, let me explain something to you..."), then through profane outbursts, and finally through physical violence.

What we are witnessing here is the steady and terrifying dissolution of an already-shaky marriage. Wendy at first seems ill-equipped to handle this. She is the most gentle and naive of the Torrance family, much more of a child than her own son, the intense and withdrawn Danny. With her wide eyes and beanpole physique, Wendy is almost asexual. Even her outfits look like adult-sized versions of things a kid would wear: shapeless pinafores and turtlenecks that keep her covered from her neck to her ankles. (Little wonder, then, that her husband all but salivates at the sight of a naked woman in the infamous "room 237" scene.)

Wendy Torrance, eternal optimist.
From the moment we meet her, when she is unsuccessfully trying to convince her son how great the Overlook Hotel is going to be, Wendy Torrance is a woman in deep denial. She tries to maintain an optimistic outlook at all times despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

In virtually every scene she's in, Wendy tries to minimize her problems by understating them. The staircase scene is the moment when that strategy stops working for her, forcing her to resort to violence with the bat. But even here, she makes an attempt at downplaying the situation, even taking some of the blame herself: "I'm very confused. I just need a chance to think things over."

But here, too, is where Jack's menace, which has been building for some time now, finally becomes too out-of-control to ignore. Once your husband has said, "I'm gonna bash your brains in," it's a safe bet that your marriage is beyond repair. Wendy's utter vulnerability makes her husband's brutishness all the more shocking, but "vulnerable" does not mean "defenseless." In this scene, she manages to knock her husband down the stairs. Later, she has the presence of mind to lock her unconscious husband in the Overlook's vault-like storage room and, when even that fails, slashes his hand with a kitchen knife as he uses an ax to enter the bathroom where she has barricaded herself.

While I was watching this infamous scene and thinking about all of these things, I started noticing a strange yet undeniable visual motif. While Wendy is on the staircase, Kubrick films her from angles in which there is bright light behind her, making it almost appear as if she is glowing. First, the light comes from the giant windows of the Colorado Lounge, which are reminiscent of the large stained-glass windows in churches and cathedrals. Then, when Wendy is further up the stairs, a lighting fixture on the ceiling behind her suffuses the scene with a warm glow. Meanwhile, Jack advances on her threateningly, but smiles all the while and even taunts her like a schoolyard bully, repeating her name in silly voices: "Weeenddeeeeee... Weeeenndddeeee..."

Devil or angel? Sinner or saint? Jack makes the "devil sign" and Wendy Torrance has a halo in The Shining

I could not help but notice that when Jack Nicholson delivers the famous "darling" line, he very briefly makes the sign of the horns, an offensive hand gesture sometimes associated with Satanism and the occult. Nicholson, let's not forget, played the earthly embodiment of Satan a mere seven years later in The Witches of Eastwick and famously referred to himself therein as a "horny little devil." At the time, having Jack Nicholson play the Devil struck many critics as type-casting. Meanwhile, look at that light fixture behind Shelley Duvall. Kubrick consistently composes the frame so that the chandelier is directly over her head, making it look like a halo. That's when I realized that the Torrances could be seen as a kind of grotesque parody of the Holy Family: Jack as Joseph, Wendy as the Virgin Mary, and Danny as Jesus.

Mary, Jesus, and Joseph
Jesus and Mary, of course, get all the affection and attention from our world's roughly 2 billion Christians. They have statues, paintings, songs, and numerous Holy Days of Obligation in their honor. Poor old Josephmy namesake, incidentallyseems to have gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop in this arrangement. His young virginal wife was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and would forever after be known for her sexual purity. Despite popular belief, the term "immaculate conception" does not refer to the virgin birth of Christ; instead, it is Catholic dogma that Mary, from the moment of her own conception, was untouched by original sin. She alone among mortals got a lifetime free pass from God, and in return, she remained sexually untouched. Growing up Catholic, I could not help but wonder what effect this must have had on Joseph, a mortal man who must have had the same sexual desires as any man but who was forever doomed to a life of chastity.

Others have wondered about this, too. In his massively controversial 1985 film Hail Mary, director Jean Luc Godard updated the story of Christ's virgin birth to modern times and gave us a sexually frustrated Joseph who eventually comes to accept his fate. "I never touch you. I stay," he tells his wife. Much more fun than Godard's film, though, is "A Bad Kid," a triumphantly tasteless short story from 1999 by UK satirist Michael Kelly. Kelley's story takes the form of a monologue by Joseph and is written in the voice of a crude, working-class Britisher who loathes and resents his literally holier-than-thou son and wife and who doesn't hesitate to express these feelings through physical violence. Throughout the story, Joseph's tone is remarkably reminiscent of Jack Torrance. Jack, too, has abused his son physically on at least one occasion. Here's a representative excerpt from Kelly's story in which Joseph describes his relationship with Jesus:
In all the times I had cause to thrash my stepson during his childhood, adolescence and young manhood, he almost never stood up to me, the jessy. I suppose in fairness if he had done I would have put him in hospital, but the way he just stood there passively, as he did now, looking so bloody meek and mild and saying, "I forgive you," the superior little sod, used to enrage me even more. 
"I'll teach you to forgive me, you little bastard!" I yelled, and leathered him some more.

Later, Joseph speaks ruefully about his wife:
God, she gets on my wick at times. Sitting on her arse all day smiling and being tranquil and radiant and full of grace, and glowing a bit. I've never liked to talk about this much, but she definitely glows. Does your wife glow? No, I didn't think so. Mine does. No, you can't notice it so much in daylight, but at night you can read a book by it. Come to think of it, he never needs a candle when he gets up for a piss either. What a fucking family.

In this story, as in many paintings and mosaics, Jesus and Mary give off a kind of visible glow... a shining, if you will. As I pointed out earlier, Wendy herself seems to "glow" or "shine" during the staircase sequence. That's one detail Shining-ologists never seem to give much attention: the title. Is it possible that the extrasensory perception in King's story is called "shining" because of some religious significance?  The gift of "shining" is reminiscent of the so-called "telekinesis" in King's first full-length novel, Carrie, which is likewise fraught with religious symbolism and a specifically Christian horror of sex.

Room 237: Result of Jack's sexual frustration?
Now let us consider Jack and Wendy Torrance as Colorado's answer to Joseph and Mary. Like the famed Biblical couple, Jack and Wendy travel a great distance to an inn, The Overlook, where the inkeeper (Mr. Ullman, played by Barry Nelson) gives them modest accommodations. Since the Overlook is closed between Halloween and May Day, why is there no room at this inn? Because the other rooms are occupied by the ghosts of the hotel's past. Like Mary and Joseph, Wendy and Jack have a sexless relationship. The occasional chaste kissand never on the lipsis as much physical affection as we'll ever see from them. If the Torrances never have sex, how was Danny ever conceived? The aforementioned "room 237" scene may well be brought about by Jack's sexual frustration. Of course, like Joseph, Jack is not allowed to experience sexual pleasure even in a fantasy. The gorgeous woman he encounters in that room turns into a decomposing hag in short order, and Jack flees in terror.

Interestingly, in one of the film's ugliest lines, Jack complains about Wendy to the spectral and possibly imaginary bartender, Lloyd (Joe Turkel): "Just a little problem with the old sperm bank upstairs." Equating Wendy to a sperm bank tells us that Jack sees her as little more than a receptacle for the male seed, which is pretty much how God used Mary. Some observers think of Joseph as being cuckolded by God in this respect. The sign of the horns we saw Jack using earlier is, by some accounts, Italian in origin and meant to signify the proverbial cuckold's horns. A man whose wife is unfaithful wears horns that everyone but he can see. The Torrances' son may have been conceived through methods other than normal human reproduction.

This brings us to young Danny Torrance, the story's stand-in for Christ. Though his physical body is eminently human, Danny is possessed of a great supernatural power even he cannot comprehend. His mysterious summoning of the Overlook's handyman, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), is akin to Christ being visited by the Three Kings, who were led to Bethlehem by a star. Elsewhere in the film, Jack encounters the ghostly Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) who is keenly aware of Danny's power and tries to convince Jack to kill him. This is analogous to the story of King Herod the Great, who in the Book of Matthew (Matthew 2:1-4, 7, 16) orders his soldiers to kill all male children two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding neighborhoods because he has heard from his astrologers that the King of the Jews had been born there.

I cannot say whether Stephen King or Stanley Kubrick ever meant The Shining to mirror the story of the Nativity or depict the Holy Family in any way. However, this famous narrative is so deeply hard-wired into our minds through decades of repetition and cultural indoctrination that it may seep into our fiction whether we want it to or not. One of the great gifts of Room 237 is a belief expressed by one of the interviewees to the effect that alternate meanings may be found in works "regardless of author intent."

Amen to that.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Yes, folks, I still exist!

Enjoy this picture of Joaquin Phoenix, the nicest man in Hollywood.

Where the hell have I been lately?

Sorry that I haven't posted anything lately. This is the time of year when we're busiest at work, and since the weather has been so nice lately I've spent most of my free time enjoying the outdoors. Shamefully, I have about four articles in "draft" stage that I can't seem to complete. They sit there in my Blogger page, mocking me. In the meantime, please enjoy this really cool, obscure single by the Modern Folk Quartet from 1966. It's called "This Could Be the Night," and it was written by two of music's all-time greats, Harry Nilsson and Phil Spector. Of course, Harry died of alcoholism in the 1980s, and Phil's in prison for murder, so neither is a great role model. But what a song! Just listen. It's a great example of Spector's patented Wall of Sound. Spector greatly influenced the Beach Boys, and here you can tell that the Beach Boys have started to influence Spector right back. This could practically be an outtake from Pet Sounds. I love the hell out of this.