Screenshot: The Shining

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on film and TV. 

Maybe it’s a phase, or a retreat from a dispiriting reality, but lately I’ve found myself mostly watching movies I’ve already seen. Like Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, which I guess is a sick idea of comfort viewing: a trip into the world of destructive addictions, based on an unpublished memoir by its star, Arielle Holmes, a recovering drug addict. (It’s said she was on methadone during filming.) In light of the Safdie’s superior follow-up, the desperate night-long odyssey Good Time, the movie feels like a creative turning point, where a surface aesthetic comes into as it own as a style and the influence of the addict poet laureate Abel Ferrara (who actually cameoed as a mugger in their sophomore feature, Daddy Longlegs) begins to extend beyond a fondness for New York grime. Of course, Ferrara also had a drug-addict muse and collaborator, too, in the late Zoë Lund, who starred in Ms. 45 and co-wrote Bad Lieutenant.

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The key difference is that Ferrara’s protagonists are as aware as Shakespeare characters of their own tragedy; the moral vision of his mature work (starting around King Of New York) comes down to a hero’s often losing struggle against themes that they themselves embody. 4:44 Last Day On Earth, though uneven, works this into a beautiful metaphor with its story of a former addict trying to stay sober hours before Armageddon. The Safdies’ protagonists, in contrast, lack that level of self-awareness, though the brothers’ affection for street personalities keeps their work from devolving into cautionary fatalism. It has to mean something that these sibling filmmakers’ central theme is the self-delusion of a relationship. It first appears in the reportedly autobiographical Daddy Longlegs, in which a divorced projectionist (Ronald Bronstein, co-editor and co-writer of Heaven Knows What and Good Time) ends up kidnapping his two young sons, and is best articulated by Good Time, in which a small-time criminal (Robert Pattinson) sets out to get his brother out of Rikers Island, but keeps getting sidetracked by his own schemes.

Heaven Knows What
Photo: Radius-TWC

Heaven Knows What’s punk-rock mix of obviousness and confrontation falls somewhere in the middle. Shot in telephoto close-ups by Sean Price Williams, a longtime collaborator whose work has vividly matured along with the Safdies’, Heaven Knows What shoves the audience into the Holmes character’s pathological desperation, with the only constants being addiction: to heroin and to Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, the only professional actor in the cast), a bad on-and-off boyfriend for the ages. Holmes’ character is named Harley—after the Joker’s moll, Harley Quinn, which should give one an idea of Ilya’s personality. (A more ambiguous connection is drawn to The Silence Of The Lambs; a typography nut can’t help but notice that the end credits are based on the opening titles of the Demme film.) Her obsessive relationship with him gives Heaven with some of its most arresting moments of emotional claustrophobia (as well as its most sadly poetic image, of the two of them asleep on a Greyhound bus), and yet it still strikes me as the movie’s dramatic weak spot. But speaking of toxic relationships, addiction, and supervillains…

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Not long ago, I got to see The Shining from a 35mm print and with an audience for the first time, and discovered that the film was a lot less scary and unsettling than I’d remembered, and a heck of a lot funnier. Part of it is Jack Nicholson’s sneering performance as Jack Torrance—another connection to the Joker, given how much Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight borrows from it. But there’s also Kubrick’s predilection for cutting on droll punch lines, the comic reaction shots, the notes of camp and surrealism that seem to anticipate the work of David Lynch from Blue Velvet on. (If there’s any influence, it’s circular, as Kubrick was a big fan of Eraserhead and is said to have used it as a reference point during the making of The Shining.) The Room 237 interpretation of The Shining as a cryptic, multivalent text strikes me as misguided; it’s the most obviously flawed of Kubrick’s late films (the second half can be enervating), but also an unambiguous depiction of depression and of toxic male ego.

Screenshot: The Shining

Sinking into writer’s block, the alcoholic Torrance refuses to take full responsibility for his own actions, to the point that he lets his mind be taken over by the dark forces of the Overlook—ghosts that The Shining links to resentment, violence against women, and racism. (In contrast, Scatman Crothers’ Dick Hallorann is the closest thing to a decent person in Kubrick’s late-period oeuvre.) Revisiting the film, I couldn’t help but notice how often it undercuts horror in favor of humor; the berserk, ax-wielding Torrance is often ineffectual, and the fact that he chops through a door in a homicidal rage, only to run off squeamishly when his hand gets cut with a knife seems to be a key point. The final shot of the failed writer (and, it turns out, failed spree killer), frozen in the maze of the Overlook, is a grotesque gag. The joke’s on him.

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