Monday, October 19, 2020

Shirley (2020)

All the grains of salt: I don't know much about Shirley Jackson beyond reading a few of her stories, and I know even less about director Josephine Decker. Decker's fifth or so feature (she's also done documentaries, shorts, and collaborations) felt to me like classic edgy middlebrow film festival fare, which instantly made me nostalgic for film festivals even though it's only (!) been seven months. Elisabeth Moss is excellent, as she often is, lacerating and scary as a vision of Jackson as an alternating cringing agoraphobe and literary monster (think Dorothy Parker with no filter or social skills). In a way, Jackson is depicted as living inside the story "The Yellow Wallpaper." In another way she is Luella Miller, draining everyone around her. Well, maybe—I know she was a faculty wife. I haven't read the biography by Ruth Franklin nor the novel on which this movie is based by Susan Scarf Merrell. Shirley the movie seemed more to conform to a stereotype of the thunderingly anguished artist typified by Van Gogh sawing off his own ear. And possibly it is so re: Jackson. My favorite part of the movie is the first sequence, when the young woman principal reads "The Lottery" and gets so hot she lures her husband into having sex with her on the train. The young couple is on their way to live with Jackson (Moss) and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlberg), a pompous literary academic at Bennington College. The young couple needs a place to stay and, as it turns out, Shirley is somewhat in need of being cared for. The house needs cleaning too and they could use a cook. Thus our young reader on the train, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), is transformed into a kind of housemaid with privileges as events transpire. Meanwhile, her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) is trying to make it as a grad student assistant to Stanley. I love that name Fred for this guy. Others have compared Shirley to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and there is indeed some of that here. It reminded me more of High Art, with Rose in the Radha Mitchell role. What it doesn't remind me of is very much that I've read by or know about Shirley Jackson, except in general ways. Perhaps she was a difficult person. The person in this movie certainly is very difficult, and unpleasant. Shirley is set as early as the late '40s and as late as 1964—vaguely, postwar midcentury. Everyone is uptight and stylish in the way of Todd Haynes's 2015 Carol or his 2002 Far From Heaven or the Mad Men TV series. Watching it at home on my computer felt like I'd taken a shot at a film festival film and was liking parts of it but the whole thing was turning out to be a disappointment but in a way that made me wonder if seeing it again, or talking it over with someone, might help me like it better, and hoping the picture I was looking at later that day would be better. I miss film festivals already.


  1. Interesting report of your mixed feelings about the "Shirley" movie, Jeff. I haven't seen it yet, and I don't think I'd ever read anything by Shirley Jackson until we did some of her stories in a learning-in-retirement lit course I took a few years ago. I was gratified then to learn that Jackson tended to write about the species of horror I prefer to contemplate, more Franz Kafka than Stephen King. I think you might appreciate Jackson more as a person when you look into her relationship with her husband, the "noted literary critic" Stanley Edgar Hyman, a textbook (so to speak) male chauvinist if there ever was one, to hear Wikipedia tell it: "According to Jackson's biographers, her marriage was plagued by Hyman's infidelities, notably with his students, and she reluctantly agreed to his proposition of maintaining an open relationship. Hyman also controlled their finances (meting out portions of her earnings to her as he saw fit), despite the fact that after the success of 'The Lottery' and later work she earned far more than he did." Jackson died of a heart attack in 1965, Hyman married one of his students a year later, and then he died of a heart attack in 1970, so there may have been some karmic lottery in there somewhere. Wikipedia claims that Hyman "was also a noted jazz critic," glad I never met him in a dark alley of the Voice's Pazz & Jop poll.

    Have always lived beyond the moat,
    Richard Riegel

  2. Thanks Richard, very good stuff to know. I have long been a fan of "The Lottery" (more on that soon) and have lately started looking into Jackson's work more systematically. I hear the novels are great. Hope to get to a biography too -- curious to see how close the movie portrayal is. Definitely sounds like a terrible marriage. Hyman's name is vaguely familiar but I don't think I know his music journalism.