Auteurs and Authors

A Font of Horror: Stranger Things

The type is called Benguiat. It's the font of my childhood, big and mysterious and curving in a way that suggests the edge of something sharp, something dangerous. Something we, as children, should not be handling. Viking used it, in part, to make Stephen King's name iconic on their covers, though most would agree (myself included) that King himself did the real carving out, cutting his name into our imaginations like a mad-skilled butcher -- but not with Benguiat, no; he did it with the dull, spoon-like edges of an Underwood's Courier-shaped keys. And in this way, the Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things affects us. It entices us with a font, makes us remember a very specific set of iconography, then draws us into something far deeper, far richer: a collective well of imagination.

The pitch is easy to imagine. It's Stephen King meets Steven Spielberg, the ultimate campaign: boys on bikes and a telekinetic girl battle monsters from another dimension. The execution, of course, could have been terrible. Nothing sits so uneasily as half-baked nostalgia that doesn't pay off. Super 8 is testimony enough to that. It tried. It wanted us to believe. It struck out in the last inning, gave us a monster that couldn't live up to its forebear in the great white shark from Jaws. The glorious thing about Stranger Things is that it seems to understand this danger throughout, and it negotiates the inherent pitfalls with wit, grace, and masterful storytelling. It's an eight-hour campaign that never flags, a novel that never disappoints; both keep you up late into the night. Catching references to Goonies, E.T.Alien, Aliens, The Thing, Stand by Me, Carrie, Cujo, It, Firestarter, The Stand, Silver BulletNightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Poltergeist, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Breakfast ClubJaws, Gremlins, or even Tobe Hooper's re-make of Invaders from Mars is only half the fun. The rest is in how these things all seem at once familiar and new, like how old artifacts stuffed in boxes become treasured memories you'd forgotten.

It's the Upside-Down, as the Duffers call it: that place that's like our world but not, the Vale of Shadows -- the place we escape to, are dragged to, and, upon waking, hopefully return from. It's a post-modern technique that's less critique and more compliment, suggesting that modern American horror stems now from not only a shared or collective unconsciousness but a pop-cultural unconsciousness. It's a fantastic conceit, one I see bearing fruit in the works of a whole new slew of great horror writers, among them Joe Hill, Nick Cutter, Paul Tremblay, Christopher Buehlman, and Stephen Graham Jones. It's almost as if the Duffer Brothers have re-opened a mainstream gateway to horror, at a time when a few of us were already wandering into the woods again anyway -- in part, I imagine, because the evils of our present dimension have become so commonplace and frequent that we tend to overlook those monsters that have always lurked in the periphery. No Eater of Worlds likes to go unnoticed.

My favorite image in the series is a baby's crib topped off by a mobile of clowns. It's a visual metaphor for so much in the series and in the genre. It suggests that horror is the stuff of childhood dreams from the very beginning, that we're shaped by it almost immediately after exiting the womb, whether we want to be or not. It's always present. It suggests that adults are oblivious to the monstrous nature of what they impose on innocence. It suggests that terror hangs over us when we're least expecting, least equipped. And, of course, in a very literal way, I guess, it (or It) suggests that, well, clowns float.

And we all know how that one goes, don't we. Say it with me, friends: "We all float down here...."

The Shining: In Praise of Shelley Duvall

Post-Doctor Sleep, there was a great deal of talk in book presses and blogs about Stephen King's well known take on Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of The Shining. No secret by now that King has strong dislike for the film, mostly owing to Kubrick's interpretation of the characters and his cold tone. Wendy, for example, King says, is one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman ever committed to film (his take paraphrased). I recently re-read Roger Ebert's review of The Shining, one of his Great Movies, and at the end of the review he tells the story of asking Shelley Duvall what it was like working on the picture. "Almost unbearable," is her answer. She describes the year-long shoot as nine months of crying, five and six days a week.

She means crying in the role of Wendy Torrance, of course, but in Vivian Kubrick's documentary, Making The Shining, we catch glimpses of very real tears. Duvall has a fainting spell; the assistant director cracks wise. Jack Nicholson ignores her, directs his flirtations elsewhere. Kubrick himself mutters impatiently, occasionally yells at her. Duvall, as tall and strikingly pretty as she is, like a weird, wide-eyed forest creature by way of Tim Burton, seems small and frail on set, almost overlooked. "After all that work," she tells Ebert, "hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick. Like I wasn't there."

King noticed her, though. His comment to the BBC is that she's basically just "there to scream and be stupid, and that's not the character that I wrote about." In this, King's both right and wrong. No, he didn't write a stupid screamer in Wendy Torrance, but it's no stupid screamer that Shelley Duvall's playing. In light of what Duvall says to Ebert, I don't wish to give Stanley Kubrick any more credit here for how great The Shining is than I've given him in the past (a lot). I say, instead, let's talk about Shelley Duvall's Wendy, about misogyny, and why she's every bit as strong as King's character in the novel.

First, it's important to note that Wendy, in the movie, performs no action that Wendy, in the book, does not do. Wendy in the book looks out for Danny. Wendy in the movie looks out for Danny. Wendy in the book stands up to her husband when her son appears with bruises on his neck. Wendy in the movie does, too. In fact, Wendy in the movie locks Jack Torrance in the pantry all by herself, whereas in the book, her hands are shaking so badly her five-year-old son has to slide the bolt in place for her (granted, that's because she's been beaten with a mallet by her deranged husband, but Wendy in the movie never allows herself to be beaten). My theory is that Shelley Duvall simply isn't the Wendy King describes: long blonde hair, great legs, beautiful. Not that Duvall isn't beautiful, but she's not King's Wendy. She's an altogether different kind of woman whose long features and odd physicality are amplified by near-constant screaming and crying (all of which is perfectly logical within the circumstances of the film; her terror is meant to be our terror). Simply put: she doesn't look strong because she looks odd and she cries and screams a lot. But how or why do these things equal weak? Does a woman have to look or act like Rebecca DeMornay to be strong?

Was Kubrick a misogynist? On this set, probably. Does he destroy Duvall's performance, crush her spirit? No. Conversely, does the way he treats her somehow add to her performance, make it better, more natural, more harried? Not in the least. She persists in spite of Kubrick, I think, not because of him. To endure a year-long shoot in such isolation with so many men, I think, is the strength we're ultimately seeing in the film version of Wendy Torrance. Is it a quiet performance? Not always. Is it pretty? Not always. Is it graceful? You bet.

Consider what's happening in Shelley Duvall's early monologue about Jack dislocating Danny's arm. Notice the fragility she conveys, the complex psychology at work behind her mask. She tells the psychiatrist it was just "one of those things you do to a child a thousand times," but we get the sense that Wendy has never done any such thing to Danny, or would she ever. It's her husband she's really talking about in this scene, and the subtext of her fear of him is all there in the way she trembles, the way her eyes widen, the way her cigarette ash lengthens, forgotten. The way she smiles. Hers is, in fact, the first great moment of naturalistic acting in the movie, following a scene of oddly calculated, mannered dialogue between Nicholson and the manager of the Overlook Hotel. How is this, then, a misogynistic portrayal, to shoot her in light and colors so becoming, to make her the first great moment of the movie?

One thing I will give Kubrick credit for here, because it's relevant: he understands Jack Torrance. Detractors of Nicholson's take on the character often cite the fact that he seems crazy from the beginning. But in the novel, well, Torrance is, in fact, crazy from the beginning. He's the heavy, an angry man whose issues with rage, not alcohol, seem to be the true root of his madness. Yet in the novel King allies Danny with Jack, creates a bond between them that his Wendy is jealous of. Kubrick, to his credit, makes Jack the villain with no apology, and allies Danny with his mother, not his father. It just makes sense.

In fact, in the movie, Duvall saves Danny's life on at least two occasions. She drops him down the snowbank away from Jack and takes up a knife to defend herself. She finds him outside the hedge maze and drives the Snow Cat down out of the mountains. What's more, she's confronted with the horrors of the hotel after the horror of her husband, and she survives both.

In Vivian Kubrick's documentary, there's an unforgettable moment in which Scatman Crothers, who plays Dick Halloran, is asked what it was like working on the film. His eyes water. Tears spill down his cheeks. Extraordinary, he says. Just extraordinary. Shelley Duvall's answer to that same question, ten years later, from Ebert: "Almost unbearable." In light of the fact that Kubrick put Crothers through almost 160 takes of a single scene, I can't help wondering if the actor was spilling tears of relief just to have survived.

Duvall's Wendy is just that: a survivor. Her performance is one of the great naturalistic performances in horror, made even more special by the fact that it's found in one of the most mannered horror movies ever made. She's the warm light at the center of this cold, cold movie. She's the one we root for.

Batman and Me: On Tim Burton's BATMAN Turning 25

Tim Burton's Batman came along the summer I turned eleven and awoke my creative soul.

Looking back, of course, it also introduced me to consumerism, just as Star Wars had done for the first wave of my generation only ten years prior: I bought lobby cards, comic books, a novelization of the script, posters, action figures, rubber masks, rubber gauntlets. I had the breakfast cereal. The Batwing. The Batmobile. Bob the Goon. I asked Mom to order a copy of the Warner Bros. catalogue and checked off three pages of merchandise for Christmas that year. Pins. Playing cards. A laugh-box that, to my great disappointment, looked nothing like the Joker's in the movie. Mom also made me a homemade costume out of a gray sweatsuit, black fabric, and cardboard (for the ears). There's a picture of that somewhere, God help me. And, to this day, I still have a wooden fridge magnet I made myself at my grandmother's house with the bat-logo painted in acrylic. I was swept up in the rising tide of what the media called "Batmania." These days, we just call it fandom, which is, by turns, one of the great social movements of the twenty-first century or, more or less, a correct term for a marketing demographic.

Batman the movie brought with it a resurgence in the character's popularity. He was in demand, and he wasn't just for kids anymore. He was dark, he was brooding. He was Gothic. He was, in essence, Frank Miller's nightmarish vigilante, a hero of the modern psyche. I remember the first time I saw the leather-bound collection of Miller's Batman stories on display in the window of a Waldenbooks in 1988: The Complete Frank Miller Batman. Before this moment, as a kid, I had not paid much attention to anything called a "graphic novel." I doubt I even knew what a graphic novel was back then, but here was a beautiful, black, adult-looking thing with pages trimmed in silver, and when I priced one, I was thrilled. Sixty dollars! Serious stuff. Had I ever paid sixty dollars for anything at that point in my life? Moments later, I overhead two twenty-somethings talking about how great the book looked on their shelves at home, and that, I suppose, was how my epic Christmas list started. I couldn't pick the book up and flip through it because it was shrink-wrapped, and so the mystery of what lay inside was a tantalizing one. The reveal when I finally opened my copy was nothing short of a revelation: The Dark Knight Returns. Thirteen years later, I would place this book a reading list of influential fiction for my creative writing comps at Ole Miss. It was a book that taught me to take the fantastic seriously, to see the world not as a child sees it but as an adult, to look beyond the surface of a symbol and see the myriad complexities and contradictions at work within. I devoured it, read it and re-read it so many times the spine began to crack. There were other books that came along, among them Bob Kane's somewhat questionable autobiography Batman and Me, a book less interested in truth-telling, you might say, than myth-spinning. But it was filled with full-color panels of original 1930s storylines, and at the time, those weren't so easy to come by.

I began to draw around this time, too, at first just reproducing the character's various poses in the artwork that permeated the culture. Eventually, once my parents started paying for lessons, I came to art for its own sake, not to create color-pastel reproductions of Jack Nicholson's eyebrows and hairline but to make art as a fundamental expression of my own inner life. I never came to enjoy sketching as deeply as writing, which had come a few years earlier for me, but I did understand the connection between the two, the visual and the written: after all, Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and Frank Miller had also written their stories. So Tim Burton's Batman goes deep, I suppose, the whole phenomenon surrounding it, as well as the thrill of the film itself. Every year, as more and more Marvel movies come out, each more bombastic and labyrinthine than the last, each so determined to say something but clueless about what that something is, Batman grows more refined, more artful. Its chief pleasure stems from its timeless, mythic qualities: the city in decay, order out of chaos, the orphan hero. And beyond the superficial trappings of the merchandise I amassed and eventually lost or sold in so many garage sales, beyond its place as a touchstone of my childhood, it's a flashpoint of creativity: the moment when I understood the difference between standing on the outside of a display window looking in and wanting to make art for myself.

A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2014.

Death Proof

"Look, I don't know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun."

"Look, I don't know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun."

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. 2007.

My wife is a self-proclaimed post-feminist. This means that she talks about things like "the male gaze" in movies while folding my socks very neatly. She says that Tarantino nails girl-talk, and I believe her. He also subverts genre and creates something new out of what might have been pure exploitation. We move from the celluloid fantasy of girls' asses swinging to jukebox rhythms to the reality of women who carry guns to avoid being raped while doing laundry late at night to women who are indestructible. Call them death proof. Zoe the cat and her infinite lives. Death Proof, a guy once said, is just the kind of movie you enjoy with friends. As I have no better friend than the woman who folds my socks, what can I say but, "This is true."

Ladies, that was fun.

White Dog

"You got a four-legged time bomb!"

"You got a four-legged time bomb!"

Written by Curtis Hanson and Sam Fuller. Directed by Sam Fuller. 1982

I envy Curtis Hanson, then just a young screenwriter who got to sit in a room with Sam Fuller and "co-write" this script. Fuller's style is usually described as hard-hitting --for reasons literal as well as figurative -- but no one talks much about his tender side. Like Kurosawa he seems noted for one thing, relegated to his own brand of greatness. Cigar-chomping, pistol-packing, etc. There's a great deal of beauty here --imbued with truth -- that might go unseen if you're not watching closely. Hanson lobbied against the window featuring St. Francis, but Fuller knew exactly what he wanted and why he wanted it. That's greatness among directors.

There Will Be Blood

"What's this? Why don't I own this? Why don't I own this?"

"What's this? Why don't I own this? Why don't I own this?"

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 2007.

"I have a competition in me," Daniel Plainview says. "I want no one else to succeed." Plainview isn't driven by greed so much as contempt. He sees the worst in people, hates everyone. His soul is the black liquid he hauls up and deposits in the dirt, sometimes shooting skyward, his crooked, wobbly frame the flaming derrick burning long into the night and morning, infinite reserves. There Will Be Blood is a great movie that leaps time a little too quickly in its third act, but it ends at the perfect moment. Plainview's monologue begins the movie with the address, "Ladies and gentlemen...." He ends the movie with, "I'm finished." Appropriate, as it's a movie showcasing not only a single actor -- a titan, a colossus in American movies -- but also a single character. I'll always prefer the internalization of Barry Egan's violence, but this is, next to that, Paul Thomas Anderson's finest movie.

I Shot Jesse James

"Gold is nothing but that last corruption of degenerate man. But to be a little corrupt for the sake of art, that I wouldn't mind."

"Gold is nothing but that last corruption of degenerate man. But to be a little corrupt for the sake of art, that I wouldn't mind."

Written and directed by Sam Fuller. 1949.

"If a story doesn't give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes," Sam Fuller said, "throw it in the goddamn garbage." Here's a story that does that, figuratively speaking (though I imagine I'm meant to feel more than that, somehow, when John Ireland washes Reed Hadley's back). Let's say this: I genuinely care about the coward Robert Ford, and I could give a damn about John Kelley the magnanimous marshal --reactions I know the director, in his slap-dash wisdom, hopes of me. Sam Fuller famously fired a Colt .45 into the air to signal the first shot of this, his first movie. Number one with a bullet, you might say. I'm not sure, though, it's all about a girl. Ford's dying confession: "I loved him."

Punch-Drunk Love

"I didn't do anything. I'm a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me 'that's that' before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say 'that's that', Mattress Man."

"I didn't do anything. I'm a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me 'that's that' before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say 'that's that', Mattress Man."

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 2002.

I believe the best love stories spring from lonely characters, and Barry Egan is as lonely as characters come. His and Lena's walk hand in hand down the hallway of the Princeville Hotel in Hawaii is the sort of scene you crave in movies: the consolidation of two lonely hearts observed discreetly. For much of the movie, we're in Barry's head. Not here. Here, the director knows it's time to step back and watch these wondrous characters from afar, to give them their privacy, and we're oh so happy for them. "Perfect for Romance" is the Princeville's motto. Punch-Drunk Love is perfect for it, too.

The Straight Story

"The worst part of gettin old is rememberin when you was young."

"The worst part of gettin old is rememberin when you was young."

Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney. Directed by David Lynch. 1999.

The Straight Story opens with the sounds of crickets over a field of stars, and among its first images is a fat woman eating pink cupcakes while sunbathing in her back yard. So despite the witty double entendre of its title, the movie is very much a David Lynch film, playing to the director's great warmth and curious sense of humor. When I first saw it in 2000, I was watching it for the wrong reasons and had no frame of reference for Lynch. Now, I find it poignant, funny, and occasionally preachy. Still, Alvin Straight's ministrations to the folks he encounters on his journey always reveal new facets of his character, not theirs, and the scene in the bar where he and another old man recount their wartime ghosts is as powerful as such scenes get. He recalls the faces of his buddies who never came home, how they've remained young while he's aged.

Drunken Angel

"Fall in love for someone like me. I may be scruffy but you get free medical care."

"Fall in love for someone like me. I may be scruffy but you get free medical care."

Written by Keinosuke Uekusa and Akira Kurosawa. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. 1948.

"Japanese make too many useless sacrifices," says Shimura's doctor, a criticism of both Mifune's Yakuza thugs who populate the dingy, disease-ridden back-alleys of Tokyo and the militarists who made them -- both the thugs and the alleys. Kurosawa's historic epics, from Seven Samurai to Kagemusha, are his calling cards, but I'll always prefer his noir. His gangsters and drunks swagger and bluster, protesting under the burden of who they are, and it's in their darkest places their humanity shines brightest. Drunken Angel climaxes with a useful sacrifice: Mifune's life for the doctor's. At the movie's end, Shimura buys one of his patients, a seventeen-year-old girl who's survived TB, a sweet, payment on a bet. "Where does one buy sweets?" the old man asks. The girl laughs. "You really don't know anything, do you. At the sweet shop." They stroll off arm in arm and are immediately lost in the marketplace, in a sea of shuffling bodies -- all the more lives the doctor may now save, thanks to a thug.