Film Reviews

Nobody Studies Happiness: Ghosts And Madness On The Mountain In A Brief Review Of The Shining

PosterCharles Olson’s gone. But some few years ago, there he was. Saw his mother and she was in a chair as he remembered her when she was alive. I remember that in a poem of his. Once he wrote, “Nobody studies / happiness,” and here I am with that, too. —Stanley Kubrick: Like he said, Kubrick: “Real is good; interesting is better.” Nobody studies happiness: The Shining (1980).

Jack Torrance pounds his life out the typewriter keys. Luck isn’t. Wendy and Danny, the wife, the son. New world here at the Overlook Hotel. New and strangely familiar journey up the dark and beautiful mountains. We know where we’re going but we don’t know why it’s familiar. Life on high and ghosts, too, like anywhere else. Only, the ghosts here can touch, can speak, can move and strike and open the doors to rooms where the future is closed.

Bathroom

What was it? Who was it? Feel my mind burning cold under the snow banks of this film—the atmosphere, it’s as heavy as the snow and wide as the bottom below; it induces one to feel severely restricted, and it will suffocate one as it suffocates characters and viewers in tandem with rot-gore images sourced from the unforgettable redrum flood. To be a guest here is to remember Home, to know Home, and what’s more, to yearn for it. I’m displaced in a pure void, writing to you from a place founded on Manifest Sickness. I don’t know anything but that I have to tell to find a way out.

Overlook

I’m typing along to the great piano captured, like a film, like anyone watching The Shining. On this recording, titled Windmills, Lubomyr Melnyk’s hands just go, and I mean go; the dream-charged composition blown up by a power that rages and caresses, like fathers, like wind, blown up, blown out, clearing dead leaves of thought between the ears—what an album to try and think to! What an enigmatic film to try and write about! Invisible force, palpable power—what a rush! Windmills even at the danger of writing to you like so many do, swept away in the rush of what they’re hearing on high.

Of course, when it comes to music and The Shining, one can’t help but think of Berlioz with his Symphonie Fantastique. So full a hum in the thick of the throat, is that dense, bone-deep blow of the funereal “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat” (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath), which is about as frigid of a melody I can recall. Yet the heat of the dance, the movement of the witches, ghouls, the monsters, shades, bells and the brush-fire of the evening beneath a night of horror that looks like any other night—just the black, and the objects and that energy that drives and drives until we see and feel the fire out, the power shot forth, gone. What depth of hopelessness is that? And what could be more fitting a piece in this film?

—Well, the rush and the rage and the force, they are fathers in this story. They live here, as the ghosts do, residentially, above one of Stephen King’s fave’s: an old Indian burial ground.

Party Time

Horror loved Kubrick. Horror loves King, too. But King doesn’t love The Shining because Kubrick was the greater artist, and The Shining belongs to Kubrick now, est. 1980. When you’ve seen the film, you’ll know.

Yes, Jack—the character; not the character that is Jack Nicholson as Jack Nicholson, but the character that is Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. What a character! Nicholson’s performance, at times over-the-top, yet captured, and never out of place; a fine, walk-on-the-line-of-losing-it, trapeze over the abyss, performance; all those legendary takes en repeat per Kubrick helping not a little. Likewise for Scatman Crothers (Dick Hallorann), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrence) and Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance)—what endurance! [See DVD and Blu-ray and YouTube and others of the heavyweight media et cetera for info and explanatory notes regarding Kubrick’s much discussed quantity of takes. Or, summarily: REHEARSALS ARE A WASTE OF TIME!].

Jack Mad (2)

What else? Well . . .

Jack doesn’t love Wendy.
Not like poetry loved Verlaine.
Jack loves Wendy like Jack hates Jack.
Jack hates Jack never finishing projects;
hates Jack with nowhere to go and the time short
and tight like the noose between his eyes;
hates Jack like settling into soft leather
with a copy of Playgirl,
waiting for Ullman, his wife and son to find him
in a lobby at the end of things;
hates Jack like Danny
overthrowing an existence Jack hates
without promise, without even the dream of escape—
no, even in his dreams, Jack hates,
and it’s growing, violently growing:
“I dreamed I killed you and Danny . . .”;
hates Jack like he hates Jack like he hates Jack
taking odd jobs, asking for dead-end work
from men who dress like the American flag
and refer to celebrities and presidents
as “all the best people”
with hair like Kennedy's
while Jack ties green around his neck
across the beggars side of the desk,
desiring creation (veni! veni! veni!)
—hates Jack like the suit and tie
absolutely nothing behind the suit and tie
save madness and the madness
of keeping madness under woolen wraps;
hates Jack like you might Hate Jack
hunting Danny, hunched over, sick walk, sick ape,
fixated, the stare of death from madness
streaming down a riven mind imploded:
Jack.
Hates.

Monocaine

Who slipped monocaine into this man’s bourbon? Jack Griffin. Jack Torrance. Disappearing act—where is Torrance? Wherever Johnny is . . . . What horror is this when alone at the top of the mountain, man can finally know what it all was, what is and what isn’t, and do, finally, what one’s entire life has brought him to? I cannot actually tell what Kubrick shows.

The Shining has it all. But don’t try and write about it. The ghosts that bully reason were kin to Kubrick, and they will come for you if you do. It’s all there. Go and see. Don’t be late.


This review was originally published by, FROM THE PROJECTION ROOM, film blog of THE WINCHESTER FILM CLUB.

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Film Reviews

Lon Chaney—Laugh, Clown, Laugh


I. (Some of) The Many Faces of One Monstrous TalentChaney (590x873)

“My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me.”
—Lon Chaney

You can be anything you want to be . . . . While those words have been known to trigger a reverie or even draw sly quips out of sidelong mouths, for some, they invite another form of participation.

For the actor, Leonidas “Lon” Chaney, anything became anyone, and he became quite a lot.

A method actor before method acting, this seminal performer of the silent film era is a paragon of excellence in character creation and portrayal, with a world-famous specialization in representing the grotesque and spurned.

QuasimodoA master of interpretation, of transmuting the lovelorn suffering of characters painted with darkness into fine art, Chaney is widely knownThe Phantom (672x873) for bringing to life such legendary creations as Quasimodo, the hunchback from the 1923 Vampire Professor Edward C. Burkefilm-adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame; the hideous Phantom “Erik” of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), based on the novel by Gaston Leroux; and sharp-toothed vampire professor Edward C. Burke of Dracula (1931) director Tod Browning’s now lost film, London After Midnight (1927).

Chaney’s dedication to his craft in order to achieve his legendary physical transformations is just as legendary as the creations themselves.

A makeup master before such a title gained recognition and respect in Hollywood, Chaney toted a tiny bag of scant materials to transform his person, set to set, by aid of his ebullient imagination and some good old fashioned ingenuity.

In his book, The Horror People, John Brosnan writes that Chaney, “being a natural artist from the word go, got his make-up kit and his own stuff together and took it to Universal. And when they asked, ‘Anybody play a Chinaman?’ he’d say, ‘Yeah, I can play a Chinaman.’ He’d make himself up as a Chinaman, go and work for ten minutes, come back, then go out and play a Greek. And this way make three or four pictures a day.”

In addition to transforming ethnicities, Chaney also accepted roles that physically challenged him in strange, bizarre even, ways.

In The Miracle Man (1919), Chaney is “The Frog,” a conman contortionist who teams with other reprobates to use a holy healer in swindling small-town folk out of their lucre. It was a breakthrough role for Chaney that made widely known his ability to do well what others either would not, or simply could not, do.

George Loane Tucker, director of The Miracle Man, remarked that Chaney filled the role of a contortionist much better than the actual contortionists who tried out for the part. Which created quite a buzz over the actor and his unusual talent, leading to additional opportunities to showcase it.

The Penalty posterIn the film adaptation of Gouverneur Morris’ novel, The Penalty (1920), Chaney is “Blizzard,” a cold crime boss whose mistakenly lopped off legs further exacerbate his wickedness, igniting a violent thirst for vengeance against the doctor who did the deed and the city of San Francisco housing the great wealth he seeks for his own.

Chaney’s approach to creating the realistic effect of being an amputee marked a turning point in his preparation for roles, as he went above and beyond what might have been expected of him to not just act like, but become (as close as possible) Blizzard—this to most effectively transmit the character’s physical and emotional torment before viewers. Seems an actor’s staple now, but by many accounts, such a marked effort was quite rare for an actor in Chaney’s time.

So as to truthfully create the effect of being without legs, Chaney manacled his. Legs bound behind him, he walked on his knee caps until the pain, said to be excruciating, won out.

Though any mark of this extreme discomfort debilitating Chaney’s performance is entirely absent on screen, what is seen is Chaney’s remarkable talent for physically, mentally and emotionally embodying the life of his character—a talent that had begun to show itself in a most distinguished and magical way, readily bedazzling movie-goers, stirring people up.

Gaining much critical praise for those challenging roles, Chaney’s creativity was recognized for its potential and celebrated by giving him free reign to take his craft to greater heights. Not one to rest, Chaney got busy thinking and creating, donning even greater masks, taking on even more anguish, eventually giving life on screen to a few of cinema’s most memorable and cherished characters and performances.

Chaney’s vivaciously creative mind afforded him the means to imagine the appearances of characters and re-create what he envisioned with his makeup, while his pure acting talent offered him the skill with which to bring deep feeling to those characters, humanizing any of their monstrous physical deformations by the lucid baring of their souls.

Sometimes the viewer saw fragile, heart-rending beauty (Quasimodo), sometimes black depravity (The Phantom). Time has shown that whatever the camera revealed, Chaney’s acting immortalized.

Tell It To The Marines posterChaney could certainly act well beyond any elaborate mask he might engender for himself, though.

His makeup-less performance as Sergeant O’Hara in Tell It to the Marines (1926) proved the actor more than capable of achieving a bare-boned, realistic portrayal; and the United States Marine Corps, so enthralled by Chaney’s realistic creation, made him the first actor ever to be inducted into the Corps as an honorary member.

Chaney’s place among the elite in cinematic history was cemented by the aforementioned characters he brought to life on screen. And though his grotesque creations brought him widespread recognition for his many creative gifts, they are but a window’s view into the temple of the actor’s talent.

As Tito Beppi / “Flik” in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), a role Chaney reportedly cherished as one of his favorites, the viewer may indulge in a full serving of Chaney’s gifts, seeing him for the makeup mastermind he was as well as the incredible actor whose graceful movement, pantomime and deep understanding could bring the depths of the suffering man in plain sight before the camera.


II. Laugh, Clown, LaughLaugh Clown Laugh poster

Laugh, Clown, Laugh premiered April 14, 1928, the first film released solely under the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) stamp. It is a silent, black & white picture based on the Italian play Ridi Pagliacci by Gausto Martino.

The film was directed by Herbert Brenon and produced by Irving Thalberg and, in 2002, received a brand new score courtesy of composer H. Scott Salinas.

Chaney chose to fill the shoes of Tito, a travelling circus clown whose story embodies the “unrequited love” theme that Chaney so excelled in portraying throughout his career. This wasn’t the first time Chaney acted the part of a clown, though.

In 1924, Chaney began his partnership with MGM by acting the role of scientist Paul Beaumont / HE in the film, He Who Gets Slapped.

In the film, Beaumont is publicly betrayed by a wicked baron, one who has no reservations about taking credit for Beaumont’s own hard work. Standing up for himself in response to the egregious offense, Beaumont receives an additional blow—a slap to the face, much to the delight of an entire audience.He Who Gets Slapped poster

Peals of laughter crash the high, hallowed halls of science as Beaumont, now utterly alone and suffering through it, stands and takes his punishment—which has an eerie and alarming effect.

Beaumont changes career paths, becomes a professional clown, and, strangely enough, recreates his horrific experience, this time incorporating the infamous slap he received years past as part of a comedic act in which, as a clown, he is slapped repeatedly by other clowns for the public’s enjoyment, rising only to be struck down again and again.

Though somewhat less humiliating (at least publically), in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, Tito experiences deeply rooted pangs similar to Beaumont’s. Tito’s, however, stem from within.

Sharing in likeness with Beaumont, Tito comes to love a young woman who blooms in the light of another man—a handsome, self-indulgent and lascivious man of rank.

Clocking in at 73 minutes, The story of Laugh, Clown, Laugh unfolds rather quickly. But under Brenon’s direction, 73 minutes proves more than enough time to show the heartfelt story of a great and painful desire for love.

As the film opens, a young Tito and his clown-partner, Simon (Bernard Siegel), come upon beautiful Italian hills peopled by thrill-seeking peasants.  Warmly received, the clowns entertain well. Meandering through the territory, Tito discovers a toddler down by the riverbank. The girl, tied fast to a stump, sits and wails. Unable to leave the babe, Tito takes her from the wild, christens her Simonetta, and decides it best she journey with he and Simon.

Most displeased with Tito’s desire, Simon, with grave expression, is quick to caution: “Women bring bad luck!” But Tito, having none of it, and unknowingly to his own detriment, knows by the unwavering knowledge of his heart that “What the saints have sent, the sinners can’t refuse.”

This choice of Tito’s sets into motion future events that inspire the comic and painful irony of this clown’s life, offering Chaney the opportunity to showcase his uncanny ability to bring to life a fractured soul both over and under the makeup—which is a pure, unadulterated delight for viewers.

As Tito, Chaney adroitly acts the broken man. Tito is confused, sullen, distracted. As Flik (Tito in full clown makeup), Chaney excels masterfully as a surface-happy clown losing soul under the false appearance of felicity.

The juiciest, most dramatic elements of Laugh, Clown, Laugh swell to bursting during the latter half of the film, defining both Chaney’s character Tito, and the delicate, lovely haunt that is Loretta Young (just 14 years old at the time of filming), who fills the role of Tito’s radiant symbol of happiness, the young and beautiful Simonetta.

Fast forward to Simonetta’s adolescence, as the film shows the transition of time as such. No gradual transition, but an abrupt change from the babe to the girl—all the better to bring into focus the defining frames of the picture following Tito’s palpable pain.

Now a member of Tito and Simon’s show, Simonetta takes paternal direction from Tito, modeling herself after his guidance and approval of her grace in movement. But a quick change in appearance is all it takes for paternal towers to crumble in the wake of a haunting, spring-like love that cannot be, yet crushingly is—a divide that breaks the man trapped behind the makeup, the man who has to, and who must continue to, paint his smile.

Simonetta & Tito (1192x1300)When Simonetta, as a young woman, makes her debut, beauty with all her bag of tricks comes for the clown, and the hope for laughter evaporates in such a stark moment.

Tito collects and forms words to articulate his burgeoning feelings. Stunned, he speaks: “Why, Simonetta! You’re not a child anymore. You’re . . .  a woman!”

This scene in particular is one in which Chaney brings his coverless best to expose the man behind the makeup for all his weakness.

Chaney’s pure visage marvelously transforms in successive stages while Simonetta performs her interpretation of the coquette. Chaney as Tito is ecstatic, jubilant; then wounded, appalled, and finally, aghast at this beauteous impression.

The viewer is likely to be as mixed up as Tito is upon viewing this scene, as Chaney is so incredibly effective at creating pathos that the disturbing reality of a man falling in love with a young woman he has raised since childhood, one who looks to him as to a father, is hardly at the forefront of this engrossing, emotional experience.

Rather, that wave breaks as an afterthought. It’s Tito’s great sorrow, his moral dilemma of knowing the love he feels for Simonetta should never be (“It wouldn’t be right.”) and, what’s more, knowing that his life will be ultimately fruitless without it, without her, that steals the show—a testament to Chaney’s gift at creating in viewers just the feelings his characters feel.

As Flik the clown, Tito must inspire laughter from his audience despite the all-consuming love that wrenches the heart from the man. Chaney shows this masterfully, coming to life as a clown cavorting to and fro, foolishly flopping as they famously do, softly playing the fop, all the while garnering precious laughter, “a tonic for a tired world.”

Though for Tito the man, day to day living is a singular struggle—one that brings him into the office of a neurologist who assess his condition, also uniting him with future rival for Simonetta’s attention, Count Luigi Ravelli.

Ravelli suffers from uncontrollable laughter, while Tito cannot rid himself of tears. Both are essentially prescribed the same remedy: a love true.

“There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight,” Chaney once quipped.

The night coming on Tito is expressed through Chaney’s magnificent talent as he takes viewers on a roller coaster of emotions (delight, joy, horror, desolation, fright) in just a few simple and predominantly makeup-less transformations—a paramount example of Chaney’s ability to masterfully create and become his character, as well as act above and beyond the makeup to expose a weak creature suffering something deep, painful and true.

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Music Reviews

Green Rocky Road, by Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton - Green Rocky RoadLike the swans of Socrates singing for the joy of cutting their corporeal ties, Karen Dalton too sang herself smiling softly into some kind of easeful, transitive state. While performing, the singer often retreated inwardly behind closed eyelids, leaving her audience spellbound by the quiet, sustained rapture that was her voice.

Dalton was one with a voice so captivating others felt it incumbent upon them to commit her vocals to record, despite her oftentimes ardent protestations, ever championing the act of crafting her art over that of preserving it; one whose voice could wrap up a suffering listener with the mollifying impression of warmth and understanding; one who with song conjured woebegone souls blighted by human cruelties like unrequited love, shipwrecked friendship foundering in the swells of misunderstanding, failure to achieve one’s chief desire and any other festering et cetera that might bog one down deeply.

In short, Dalton evoked despondency, alchemized it in the act of singing, sang the blues—and she did so with such moving power that twenty years after her death, as well as over fifty years since she began singing in front of audiences, listeners are still hunting her recordings and searching for unreleased gems bearing her inimitable imprint.

Like the rest of us, Dalton wasn’t here for very long. Despite the steadily increasing appetite now for what little recording she did decades ago, Dalton did not leave posterity a name that would garner much attention when she died on the streets of New York City in the winter of 1993. Considered largely under-heard even now, Dalton was, in the early 1960’s, far less recognized for her indubitable talents—amongst the public, that is.

You might know her for her influence on other artists, particularly those who bear the glow of fame, like Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and Lenny Kaye, all of which sing her praises and commend her influence on their creative output. Dalton was no stranger to her contemporary fellow singers and songwriters as well, these too not failing to commend her artistry with words of reverent affection, or, as in the case of Fred Neil, some curt and truthful words of simplicity: “Her voice is so unique that to describe it would take a poet. All I can say is that she sure can sing the shit out of the blues,” said Neil, whose song, “Blues On The Ceiling,” a staple in Dalton’s set, is known largely for her unique rendition of it.

While she roamed the West coast (Colorado and California in particular), performing the songs she would later be praised for making her own—“Katie Cruel,” “Ribbon Bow,” “Green Rocky Road,” “In the Evening,” amongst others—Dalton attracted a stellar reputation amidst singers, songwriters, and listeners alike. These included David Crosby, Dick Weissman (The Journeymen), and Joe Loop (co-owner of infamous folk club The Attic), who respected Dalton not only for her talent for interpreting the songs of others—Fred Neil, Huddie Ledbetter, Ray Charles, Jelly Roll Morton and Booker T. Jones, just to name a few—but also for who she was: a strong-minded, caring woman who abhorred overt ignorance, be it directed towards herself or those in her protective company. “Sweet Mother K.D.” they called her.

“My mother was the kind of woman who would scream at bank tellers” recalls Dalton’s daughter, Abralyn Baird, in an interview with NPR, calling attention perhaps to a quick temper fueled by a domineering will rarely challenged, but when challenged, strongly resistant to what she perceived wrong or untruthful.

Peter Stampfel (The Holy Modal Rounders), in an essay composed for the CD re-release of Dalton’s first “proper” album, It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You Best (1969), reminisces about Dalton’s protectiveness exemplified by her standing up to unwarranted cruelty in the form of noxious thrill-seekers chasing down both she and a friend (on horseback) with a car. Stampfel writes: “Karen picked up a small tree branch and took off on horseback hell-for-leather in pursuit of the car, which she forced to a halt by beating on its windshield with her branch . . . Karen made the driver get out and apologize.”

Musically, Dalton’s aesthetic often matched that of her personality. She was never wholly comfortable performing on stage, refusing even to leave her dressing room for a string of European tour dates during the latter half of her singing career in support of her second and final studio album, In My Own Time (1971)—a horrendous experience for both she and the musicians journeying with her.

Though the virago side of Dalton, when present, was many times enflamed by her alcohol and drug use, friends and contemporaries recall in her essentially a strikingly beautiful, lithe woman of granite presence and mysteriousness who could render an audience attentive by the sheer dominance of her mesmerizing voice and delicate finger-picking style, but, conversely, one who, despite the surface appearance of masterful ease and felicity, preferred not to be where she was—on stage.

Stampfel remembers Dalton describing her ideal venue as one to match that of her intrinsic comfort created and sustained while jamming with friends—her living room, a place of warmth where “[s]he could just play music . . . and (magically) there would be a large audience, rapt, silent, and enthralled, which Karen could then totally ignore.” This marked adversity to the stage carried over tenfold to the recording studio, where too many hands in the deal manipulating her sound fueled her uncomfortable and boisterous mien. As Baird recalls, “She wanted to have her sound . . . That’s what they told her they wanted to hear, and then she’d get in the studio, and they’re like, ‘Well, we’ll just add a couple tracks to this.’ And she’s like, ‘No.’ She’d get furious.”

Years before Dalton even entered the studio, came the precursory Green Rocky Road (2008), officially released some forty-five years after its making in 2008. Green Rocky Road was recorded privately by Dalton and her close friend, Joe Loop, while ensconced in a cottage in Boulder, CO in 1962/1963; it’s a home-made record recorded on two tracks with Dalton picking banjo and playing guitar on every one except “In the Evening,” in which fellow musician Richard Tucker plays guitar. The song selection constitutes those Dalton made essential in her set, songs centering on the suffering female characters her voice brought to life in “Katie Cruel,” “Little Margaret,” and “Ribbon Bow.”

With consideration of the fact that Dalton never gave interviews about her work and/or artistic principles, alongside her choice to record independently, it would appear that Green Rocky Road was the album Dalton yearned to make—one entirely on her own terms, in her own way.

Green Rocky Road presents a side of Dalton even lesser known than what’s captured on It’s So Hard . . . and In My Own Time. Heard here is the living-room intimacy and inspiring passion of musicality that moved Dalton to sing in the first place, as she sings the songs of those who came before her, bearing tradition in her own distinctive way with a new voice demonstrative and intuitively brilliant.

Rife with interruption (a ringing phone; guest appearances—Dalton holds a conversation with her mother, Evelyn Cariker, before beginning “In the Evening”—) and glitches of faulty, makeshift recording equipment, Green Rocky Road is by no means a “proper” record, but, arguably, it is for that reason alone that it is so special in the handful of recordings left behind from this incredibly talented and inspiring singer. It’s as close to comfort as Dalton ever got with us being in the room while she sang.

Light In the Attic Records

Delmore Recording Society

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