Del reviews ‘Shirley’
“Shirley” Starring Elizabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg and Logan Lerman. Directed by Josephine Decker. 107 minutes. Rated R.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Thus begins “The Haunting of Hill House,” a perfect novel befitting that perfect paragraph, and now blessed by a perfect dramatic rendition of the author’s life, “Shirley,” both an elegant and quixotic peek behind the curtain enshrouding horror writer Shirley Jackson.
Yet “Shirley” is not so much about Jackson as how she is perceived through the eyes of the callow wife of an instructor student who has come to Bennington College, Vermont, to learn how to be a literature professor. The young couple take room and board with Jackson and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, an established professor at the college, and it is from that launching point we discover the people, and the story, and the frailties of intellect and ego, especially as they are coupled with eccentric, seemingly frail yet ultimately powerful collective of personalities.
The physical structure of the movie is as dingbatty as its subject material, flitting from reality to flashback to daydream and wish-fulfillment – muzzy, out-of-focus sequences that provide insight into the thought processes of their selectively sighted muse. Likewise for the score, which flicks from folksy twang tunes with hidden stories to slithery, slinky dream themes suggestive of everything, from the narcotic haze from which Jackson reputedly penned her stories to her repressed lust for Rose, the female half of their tenant couple.
“Shirley” threatens to become “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” but backs away and wraps itself in something entirely different. Where it does resemble “Woolf” is in its quartet of actors and the quality of their performances. Elizabeth Moss is just stunning as Jackson, and if she isn’t rewarded with some kind of statuary, well, there is no justice. Equally stunning is Odessa Young as Professor Nemser’s wife, who arrives in the story innocent and eager to please, and leaves it with a knowing look and tic. Michael Stuhlbarg, who we last saw in “Call Me By Your Name,” is perfect as Jackson’s amoral husband, who is jealous of her talent and sets her up to fail, the covetous embodiment of the bromide, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Logan Lerman has the least screen time of the four but does a creditable job as the student professor who embraces the college monde a little too enthusiastically.
“Shirley” is for literature fans and movie fans, which means its audience will consist of a quiet few, those people against whom the silence lays steadily, as they walk, alone.
I rate it an A.
Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.
Photo courtesy of Benson Kua of flickr.
I am a lonely, miserable old man, with no reason to get up in the morning. I am alone now. I have always been alone, and I will always be alone.
Would you like to know why?
It is partly my own fault. I have always played it safe. I have never risked happiness. Small, safe steps has been my coda for as long as I can remember.
But it is partly because I have never, EVER been able to be the person I really am. I have always tried to be somebody else. The world required that I be somebody else, and for most of my life, I have been that person.
I did it because I was afraid – afraid I might be told I could not live in this house, or that neighborhood, or among those people.
I did it because I was afraid I would lose my job, that I would end up on the streets, penniless, another faceless person holding a sign at a street corner.
I did it out of a real fear for my safety. I have never been a fighter – or a lover, for that matter. I have always tried to slide by without drawing too much attention, an odd contradiction for somebody who is, or at least was, a public figure.
I did it primarily to spare my family the SHAME of having to live in a community that knew one of its members was a homosexual. Because that’s what our culture does to lesbians and gays, both overtly and covertly. It tells homosexuals that they are damaged goods – that they are defective, morally deficient … that they are unacceptable.
I did not want to subject my family to the harassment, the exclusion, the subtle whispering and the tsking and the million other ways our culture punishes anybody who is different, and anybody who happens to care about those different people.
So I have lived alone, and yes, it has bent me.
I have never known the joys of family, or companionship, or any of those things everybody else takes for granted. What I have known is coming home to an empty house every night. Enduring the withering hatred and aggression directed at people like me. Just trying to make it through the day without being ridiculed, beaten up or murdered.
Now that I am old, and nobody wants me, I have that and worse to look forward to.
Times have changed, but in many ways times have not changed. Some of things are still there – like racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other “isms” and “obias” we haven’t grown out of.
And that’s why, when I see somebody trying to take back the meager gains that have been made over the past decade, I become angry. It’s not fair. It’s not right.
I should have told the world to go to hell and do what was best for me, but I didn’t, and now I’m stuck with this life which I cannot change.
I don’t want special treatment. I just want to have the same rights as everybody else.
And I don’t want to feel ashamed of being me.
Author’s note: Contact me at [email protected]. To read more of my opinion and humor pieces, visit delstonejr.com . I also write fiction – horror, science fiction and contemporary fantasy. If you’re a fan of such genres please check out my Amazon author’s page. Print and e-books are both available, and remember: You don’t need a Kindle device to read a Kindle e-book. Simply download the free Kindle app for your smart phone or tablet.