Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Movie Reviews for Writers: Shirley

I do believe I have a new movie to add to my absolute favorite movies about writers. While Shirley may be a highly fictionalized telling of Shirley Jackson's life during the time she was writing her second novel, Hangsaman. This movie is a nigh-perfect blending of life and the sort of creep factor that Jackson wove into her stories, and the voiceover as she reads from her novel in progress while she and her "friend" Rosie go about their lives is nothing if not haunting. 

Don't be fooled when you see this one listed among thrillers or even horror in the categories on streaming services. It is thrilling and horrific, yes, but not in any kind of way that category implies. Instead, it's the active and passive shots the characters take at each other, the way they live with both known and suspected evils, the intertwining of the central mystery of Hangsaman and the lives of Shirley and Rosie that brings the thrill and horror. It's horrific and thrilling in the same way Monsters Ball was. It's the kind of movie that makes a viewer think, "God, as people, we pretty much suck." 

That said, this one isn't just sprinkled with writer stuff. It's the backbone, the meat, and the nerves of this flick. This movie only works because Shirley Jackson is a horror (among other genres) writer. 

My favorite bit comes very early in the film. Shirley and her husband, Stanley, are throwing a party, and one of the partiers asks Shirley what her next book is about. She responds: "A little novella I’m calling None of Your God Damn Business. How ‘bout yourself?" Shirley is exhausted with tourists wanting a peek into the writer's life that is somehow believed to be on public display simply because she exists and has been published extensively. 

Sometimes as a small indy writer, I think I would welcome that kind of attention as a validation of my chosen endeavor, but I also realize that too much of even that good thing could get annoying as hell really quickly. 

A few moments before that exchange, though, she had been in the middle of describing her inspiration for perhaps her most well-known and well-studied short story, "The Lottery."

Jackson: So I picked up a few things. And I’m trudging back up the god-damn hill. It was fucking hot out. I’m cursing my back, I’m cursing my feet, I’m cursing all of god-damn humanity -- when it hit me. The whole thing. I sat down at my desk. Two hours later there it is. The most reviled story the New Yorker ever printed! And all I could think was, god-damn I forgot to put the ice-cream up. I’m gonna have to face that Satanic hill again. 
Partier: I read it as an anti-Semitic parable... in the tradition of Isaac Babel.

Two things here I loved and that rang true for me. One, as writers we have little control over where inspiration can hit us. Sadly, it's seldom when we're sitting at the computer with time to write. I can't speak for you, but for me, it's usually in the car driving to or from work or in the middle of picking up groceries or something mundane like that. It may be a snippet of song lyrics, or it could be the way that the woman picking out oranges shifts from one foot to the other. It's rarely some king of thunderbolt like the fabled myths non-writers think accompany story ideas. Second, once the story is out and published, we lose control over what it means or doesn't mean, or maybe was supposed to mean. It's totally up to the reader to put their own thoughts and experiences on it. Call me a deconstructionist, but I firmly believe that. Once that proverbial toothpaste is out of the tube, the goop doesn't get put back inside. Its meaning and understanding belong to the people who read it and think about it, no matter how much they may (in our minds) miss the point. 

While Rosie takes an immediate dislike to the caustic Jackson, the two gradually become a sort of confidante to each other, never quite friends, but equals, the heads to the other's tails. When one strengthens, the other wanes, at least until... Well, that would be a huge spoiler. Nevertheless, Rosie becomes the author's spy, infiltrating the campus where Stanley and Rosie's husband works to get information about the missing girl Jackson is writing about. 

The two do their due diligence and research. It's almost as if they're trying to solve a cold-case murder. The only thing they're missing is a murder board and miles of string. 

So it is that Stanley, Jackson's regular reader and editor, tells her that she doesn't yet know her subject well enough, she snaps and lets him have it. 

Stanley: It’s the genre, darling that’s stymieing you. It’s not your arena. And frankly, it’s beneath you.
Jackson: You can keep your theories to yourself.
Stanley: You didn’t know her.
Jackson: Don’t tell me I don’t know this girl.
Stanley: I might have walked by her a dozen times on campus, in the commissary, the commons. Various halls. That’s the sheer probability of it. But that’s not a face I ever remember seeing. Who is she to you?
Jackson: There are dozens and dozens of girls just like her littering every college across the country. Lonely girls who can’t make the world notice them. Don’t tell me I don’t know her. Don’t you dare.
Stanley: Oh, so you think it might be that good.

Stanley, who is a professor and a critic more than a creator, sees the story from the outside. Shirley, not only as the writer but also as perhaps formerly one of those girls herself sees the story from a different, truer angle. Inside. Through. It absorbed into her quite possibly. There is no comfortable distance that allows her the safety of objective criticism at that moment. She knows the missing girl, not just the facts of the case. 

In a sports-themed movie, there is often the big training montage. It's a cliche, of course, but it's mandatory viewing to keep the fans happy. There's something similar here, but instead of running up the steps or weight training, viewers are treated to quick cuts of the author typing while reading the voiceover for what she has written, only to rip the page from the typewriter, crumble it and toss it in the floor to start over. She's determined to get the voice, the words, the tone, the girl's character right, no matter how many times she needs to trash the work to go back to square one. 

Ultimately the work pays off. When she finishes, she finally relinquishes her hold on the manuscript and allows Stanley to read it. 

Stanley: Your book is brilliant, darling. Fucking gorgeous. I don’t know how you did it. I have some notes of course.
Jackson: Of course.
Stanley: This is going to be the one. Don’t lose sight of that.
Jackson: It hurts. This one. It hurts more than the others.
Have you ever written something like that? Something that felt like you were struggling to get it out, not because of time constraints, but because of something intrinsic within you, something almost personal between the writing process and you? If you haven't, I hope you do one day. If you have, you know that feeling she is referencing. It's a sort of spiritual childbirth after a long, contracted labor that ended in an emergency C-section as the only option to get the baby out. The sheer act of putting that much intensity on paper takes something out of the writer. It's the kind of thing that can only be explained in metaphors and symbols. But it's real. 

The last bit is something this movie plays up to a hyperbolic level -- it's the myth of the eccentric writer. It's almost as if the screenwriter took every cliche about writers that non-writers believe. You never know what they'll say. You can't take 'em out in public. They are all drunken and unsociable loners. And so on. Ad naseum. Spew. Spew. Spew. 

I cry BS. Just getting to know a few writers will correct you of this mindset quickly. Sure, we can still be eccentric, but more in a collecting first editions or reading RPG manuals kind of way. And the folks I know are some of the best souls on the planet. We laugh together, talk together, have one another's backs. 

But yeah, we do drink together too. Maybe that part of the myth is true. 

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