Once a bull hit me across the bridge of my nose and I felt like I was coming apart like a cigarette floating in a urinal. They can hit you on the head and bust your shoes.
– Ralph Ellison, “Hymie’s Bull,” (1938)
On the evening of August 1, 1943, after breaking bread and pulling corks, talking folklore, jazz and blues, with New Yorker critic Stanley Hyman and novelist Shirley Jackson in their Queens apartment, up-and-coming writer Ralph Ellison said goodnight to them and took the train home to Harlem. When he emerged at 137th Street, he walked right into a raging race riot. Fires, massive looting, chaos.
It had begun in the lobby of a hotel, when a Black woman “improbably named Polite” got into a violent tiff with a white cop, and, when a Black soldier intervened, the cop shot him. According to Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad, “Margie Polite ran into the street screaming that a white cop had killed a black man. Harlem exploded.” Five people died, hundreds were injured, 500 were arrested. The scene inspired artwork, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and was seared indelibly into Ellison’s consciousness. A day later, Ellison was called on by the New York Post to cover the event. He observed, wrote Rampersad, that “it was the poorer element’s way of blowing off steam.” Other surrealist details of dissociation and mayhem followed.
Hyman and Jackson eventually moved to Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman had landed a position teaching Folklore at the exclusive women’s college there. He quickly became a popular professor (no doubt garnering girly titters as soon he wrote his name on the chalkboard), and hosted many parties at his home. Often while the more taciturn Shirley retired early for the night. Hyman was known for his wit, directness, and honesty. Ellison stayed with the couple for a few months and worked on the story “Flying Home” (Jackson biographer Judy Oppenheimer wrote that Hyman virtually forced Ellison to write the story on the spot) — and the future classic novel of the Black experience in America, Invisible Man. Folklore and music bound Hyman and Ellison together, as well as the common experience of alienation in WASP America (he was Jewish), and Hyman became his trusted penpal and a valued literary advisor throughout his career.
There’s extraordinary dramatic tension and a guiding truth combusting about in the paragraphs above — clear signs of an intense and productive relationship between powerful personages of letters, Hyman and Ellison, and to a lesser extent Jackson — that would have provided a dynamic beginning to the recently released film, Shirley, the so-called biopic of writer, Shirley Jackson, author of the highly controversial tale, “The Lottery.” The movie might have started with the riot (or the railroad Jew being clubbed by “bulls”), but the film production team, including executive producer Martin Scorsese, director Josephine Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins chose a well-trod path, and it definitely made a difference. But not in a good way.
Instead, they produced a script from a ‘creative non-fiction’(CNF) book with the same title by Susan Scarf Merrell, which gave the viewer an almost farfetched sex scene in the first two minutes of the film. Merrell’s CNF tale means she gave herself the liberty to expand on factually-inspired information regarding Jackson’s time living in Bennington as a faculty wife to Stanley Hyman. The most important poetic license Merrell takes is the installation of a young married fictional couple, Rose and Fred, on their way to Bennington to begin a faculty career and temporarily reside with Stanley and Shirley, while they seek their own apartment. The book is told from the point-of-view of 19 year old Rose (Odessa Young), a pregnant, seemingly naive and ordinary person who comes under the spell of Shirley, who is largely depicted as an intelligent, empathetic woman struggling with her writing.
But Merrell’s tale, apparently with her consent, was wildly reconfigured, and, the Rose that rides on the train with Fred (Logan Lerman) toward Bennington in the film is radically different than the Rose who begins her narration in the book: A nice anticipatory train ride to a New England town becomes, in the film, crude. Rose is seen reading the New Yorker edition (June 1948) that contains Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and we watch as her expression becomes ever more delighted at what she’s reading, odd in itself. She finishes and commences a brief exchange with Fred about her reading:
Rose: They stone her to death.
Fred: Are you reading the Shirley story?
Rose: The whole town — even her own children — they all stoned her.
Fred: That’s creepy.
Rose: That’s terrific. (smiles)
A moment later, Rose wants to get her rocks off after reading the story and is moving her hand to Fred’s inner thigh, until they both head back-train and join the Mile Long Club (D = R*T). In the first minute of the film?
Then they get off the train, move through town on foot, pass some boys tossing stones in an alley — one of them wearing an eye patch (which I thought funny) — and then arrive at the Hyman house, in party mode, and pass among others — (spoiler alert!!) Ralph Ellison and his attractive partner. Ellison is shown for 4 seconds. In the whole movie. The first thing I wondered is how the actor playing him, Edward O’Blenis, a breakdancer from the Bronx, would want the credit he’s given at IMDB. 4 seconds? Then, poof, he’s the invisible man again.
It gets worse. Aside from putting the climax at the beginning of the movie, Merrell went along (presumably) with Gubbins’s plan to amp up Shirley’s psychological profile. What is a somewhat eccentric, occasionally snobby, struggling writer, with four kids, in the book, is turned into a kind of childless monster or psychopath undergoing some kind of disturbed withdrawal — until Rose arrives. In fact, Stan (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Shirley come across as a Michael Haneke-inspired couple who like to play with their guests — either of them ruining a breezy conversation at the table with an intentionally barbed and poisonous take-down comment, just to see the reaction of the target. Elizabeth Moss’s Shirley expression, afterward, looking like an impression of Jodie Comer’s Villanelle (from Killing Eve). Speaking of poetic license. At one point, Shirley enquires of Rose at dinner, in front of Fred, if she’d told him she was pregnant before wedding him.
Fred and Rose arrive at a time when Paula Jean Welden, a Bennington student, has gone missing — posters are on trees, there is talk, and Rose, being drawn closer to the mystery that is Shirley, begins to suspect the couple’s involvement in foul play. In the book, Shirley humorously calls herself a witch (her acerbic ways and fiction about horror have put people off); she’s into Tarot, mushrooms, herbs, folklore.
But in the film, she pulls Rose in. She performs a Tarot reading and slaps down three Hanged Man cards in a row; her eyes chill as she gazes at Rose. The latter freaked out by the ‘reading’, and innocently unaware that Tarot decks have only one Hanged Man card, one of the most potent cards in the deck; Shirley is playing Rose and doesn’t tell her what the array means (Nothing) as she continues to hold her wonder. Is she a psycho or a psychic, or both? Shirley plays bonding games, pretending to eat a ‘poisonous’ mushroom to fuck with Rose. They go on a walk in the woods to where the Welden girl was last seen alive and the director fucks with us — Rose and Shirley standing at a cliff’s edge (Shirley holding Rose’s baby), then Rose is gone, then suddenly Shirley’s waking from a dream. She didn’t kill Rose, but we wonder why she’s dreaming of it.
Shirley is not only dreaming of abduction and murder, but writing about it in a new novel. Her struggle with words over, since Rose arrived, like fresh hot blood not felt coursing through her system since, well, the Welden girl disappeared; she rises from her emotional coffin. More games from the director, as Stanley and Shirley seemingly plot the demise of the young couple, including a reference to Macbeth. Stanley asks, now that Shirley is into full time writing again, what will become of Rose? Shirley replies, “What becomes of all wayward girls; they go mad.” And he, taking her advice for Fred — to “give him enough rope to hang himself” (The Hanged Man) — builds up Fred’s hopes for a tenure hire, praising his dissertation, only to intentionally crush him with a savage dinner table attack on Fred’s total lack of “originality” out of nowhere.
It’s at this stage that I stopped caring about what the film was trying to achieve, and I began to ponder again the whole notion of CNF. Stanley is teaching Bennington students at the cusp of curricular change from Canon Great Man-driven works to the postmodern pluralism and relative values. Turns out, there’s more to time’s events than the Mighty Whitey’s control of the historical narrative would imply. Stanley’s posture represents a defense of the Canon, the Old Guard, rejecting the upstart relativism that would overturn the monied tables of the Ivory Tower. And it’s Freudian to boot. Stanley’s is a brief fury, dishonest, and absolutely signifying nothing more than his pathology. As he teaches something as twee as Folklore — and praises the virtues of jazz at his lectures — it doesn’t make sense that he’d defend the primacy of Originality against Derivation, when the universal application of the latter — archetypes, intertextuality — are what he lectures on.
Shirley director Decker totally threw away an opportunity — to be relevant. CNF is a gift from the postmodern Gauds, but she and the writers fell back on old tropes and worn out storytelling. CNF is supposed to help get you where fiction or fact-ion alone is not always quite adequate for the narration; perhaps a little more Dionysian sizzle sauce needs to be added to the Apollonian stir-fry, such as with Irvin Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept.
Even given the obvious fact that filmmaking tells the same story differently, Decker and company left so many opportunities by the wayside to make this film a deeper, more intelligent film about deep, intelligent people. Stanley and Shirley, in real life, represented a mature literary lifestyle, including its critical appraisal, but that’s all absent in Shirley. The film’s not really about Jackson at all. Frankly, as a biopic, the story borders on slander. It vaguely reminds me of the so-called “journalistic” promises of Zero Dark Thirty that, nevertheless, felt it necessary to include scenes with superstitious omens.
Consider some simple enhancements of fact that might have made Shirley a better film. How could Gubbins and Decker not make the town a character? Although they include the Welden disappearance in order to implicitly demonize Stanley and Shirley, they leave out the reality that between 1945 and 1950 five people went missing from the Bennington area, and it became known as “The Bennington Triangle.” It was a small town in which the rocky horror show of “The Lottery” is played out. The story that aroused Rose, appalled most people, with its implications of how people can just turn on each other, and led to subscription cancellations and outraged letters to the New Yorker. Why wasn’t this alluded to? And why not mention Shirley’s arch allusion to John 8:7 — “Let he without sin cast the first stone”?
Back to Ralph Ellison. Another enhancement opportunity lost. It would have been fantastic to have included a scene at the dinner table, or in the parlor, where Ralph and Shirley compared and contrasted, over buffalo wings and beer, themes and devices of their similar short stories, “The Lottery” and the “The King of the Bingo Game.” Both involve forms of scapegoating, entranced communities, and beat-down endings, one involving white small town life and the other a sense that Black Lives Don’t Matter, and both horrifically suggesting depravity at the core of humanity. Though Ellison’s piece was published four years before Jackson’s, such a discussion would have been an excellent use of creative non-fiction in the film.
Even feminism was given a miss. Merrell made it an important discussion point in her book, bringing in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to criticize Jackson’s upper crust tips on homemaking in Good Housekeeping articles, but apparently she lacked the cajones to insist on such a discussion in the movie. Again, the era was the late 40s, when feminism was on the cusp, and it would’ve been meet to hear the couples rumble in the jungle of marriage viability after WWII, especially since they placed such value on “honesty.” But also, and perhaps more tenuously, Shirley (“neurosis”) might have been linked to other prominent female suicidal voices at the time — Anne Sexton (“manic-depressive”), Sylvia Plath (“depression”) — the three forming a Suicidal Poets Society.
Similarly, Erich Fromm taught at Bennington when Hyman was there. It might have been enriching to have had had highbrow collegial banter at a Hyman barbecue during which they jovially discussed The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and played, say, Pin the Tail on the Donkey. That, too, would have been a fine use of CNF.
Where was the discussion of folklore in more detail and music? All we really get is Stanley Hyman as, according to Rose, a potential monster who may have enabled the disappearance of a Welden girl. In real life, Hyman was a known philanderer who slept with many of his students, according to Ruth Franklin, Shirley’s biographer. Rather than masking him a fake monster, why not, in this age of #MeToo, have played up his actual activities. If it’s good enough to show Harvey Weinstein going through his career with a casting couch on his back, why not show the masks the Folklore instructor wore. Again, great CNF. But Decker and Merrell choose to go with a phony affair with elderly-ing librarian. I don’t think so.
Elizabeth Moss seems to be in the running for an Oscar for her role in the film, and as far as that role goes, she did a reasonably good job. But I didn’t come away feeling that I knew the real Shirley Jackson better. I’m reasonably certain she wasn’t a psychopath, for instance. And I don’t believe the tale enhanced her fictional body of work either. I don’t really see it as a biopic, but as a facade, with its biographical innards gutted to make way for riffing. It was like a Halloween mask of Jackson. At times, a silly Americanized version of Igmar Bergman’s Persona.
The bluesy soundtrack wasn’t bad though.