Saturday, June 6, 2020

Miss Jackson: SHIRLEY

With Shirley, director Josephine Decker makes the rare good movie about a real writer because she pushes down on a psychologically stormy speculative script with a heavy thumbprint on the scales of style. No dull recitation of biographical incident or overly prescribed reading of biographical detail as direct literary inspiration, she instead takes one sliver of a moment in author Shirley Jackson’s life — the creation of her 1951 novel Hangsaman — and expands and contorts it until it is a quivery, moody, push-and-pull of fraught relationships and fevered inspiration, falsehoods capturing a Jacksonian mood. The camera subtly drifts, flits, or shakes, the light contours with stormy grain or searing spots, and the jittery performances roil with turbulent interiority. Like Decker’s last film — 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline — it’s a movie about creativity and the act of creation. There the camera danced around an experimental theater group with the spirit of communal tensions. Here the camera, always close to the performers, or drifting between reality and the imagination, digs into the process of Jackson’s writing, putting her live-wire center-stage behavior — gruff and mercurial, mentally troubled and passionately literate — in an ensemble cast, but in a role that nonetheless dominates the film. It matches the ice-pick precision of her frightening writing — typified by her most famous work, the perennially anthologized short story “The Lottery” — in the way it lets unusual detail accumulate and dark impressions accrue. The world of a Jackson story is sinister and unsettled, a cruel logic gripping an illogical world, a disturbed discomfort, a madness bubbling out of desires’ inability to contain life’s mysteries. The movie crackles with the hunger of these unknowable compulsions. It’s a film that makes this writer’s literary imagination so powerful, it bends the experience of others towards hers, and blurs the boundaries between her fiction and her failings.

We enter her anxious world through the eyes of a pair of graduate students (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) who arrive to join Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) in their respective works. The novel-in-progress, a work of gothic fiction about a college girl, dovetails with themes and patterns as the older couple alternately attracts and repulses the younger one, together in conjoined downward spirals of despair and description, creation and envy. The gregarious older man brings in the younger as an assistant, and pushes him away as it looks as if he might be able to join the department, even as he draws him into his bad habits. The troubled older woman — Moss a fearsome force, bending whole scenes to her glowering unease or prickly poise, a storm of desires and disorders lending an unpredictable air to her every scene — hammers away at her manuscript, when she can manage it. Otherwise she marinates in her anxieties provoked by what she views as betrayals of her body, her agoraphobia, her visions of blood and sex.

The movie never exactly says Jackson’s dark stories were only possible because of her mind’s dark tracks, but merely that her fearfulness of her own mind was the same jolt of paranoia that threads through her prose, and that her writing is so controlled because she struggles to control herself. It avoids confining her, or the film’s startling, swooning, sumptuously sensual creepiness, to limiting biographical criticism. It’s far too artful, and tantalizingly interpretive, for that. As the film portrays her, Jackson knows too well how one’s mind could betray oneself, how one’s deep cruelty can project outwards and inwards in uneven proportion. As she pulls her new young assistant into her world, she places the seeds of their falling out. And so the movie is about the intensity of four character’s connections, a quadrangle of jealousies in cutthroat gamesmanship of tenure and manuscripts, appetites and apprehension, in a dance of disordered personalities. The quicksilver screenplay by Sarah Gubbins from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell is one of intense feeling and sharp dialogue — consumed with simmering fears and bursts of manic work, of fleshly failings and intellectual aims brought to vivid life by Decker's filmmaking.

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