While it should come as news to absolutely no one that Sony is readying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (IMDb) for the big screen (Would it surprise anyone if Dan Brown’s grocery list fetched an eight figure deal?), what might come as a shock is the price paid to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. That price, $4,000,000, is a new record for a “for hire” project, and ties the payday Shane Black received for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (IMDb) for most money ever paid to a screenwriter for a single writer credit. Goldsman secured this filthy lucre despite tepid (read hostile) reviews of his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (IMDb). With this record-setting paycheck, and kudos from the ever-fawning LA Times column “Scriptland,” does this signal a new golden age of screenwriting? Not according to this LA Weekly article “Screenwriters in the Shit“. It’s articles like this that make me want to move to the sticks and take up animal husbandry.
“The hallway is my sleep,” writes poet Rafael Campo. Hallways are simultaneously prosaic and oneiric. Hallways are all about perspective.
Jean-Paul Sartre thought modern existence contained a “labyrinth of hallways, doors, and stairways that lead nowhere.” We believe — structurally, metaphorically — that all hallways end. Hallways were not meant for standing, but we adorn them with images. Li-Young Lee’s lines “The photographs whispered to each other / from their frames in the hallway” capture the sense of this place.
I grew up in a ranch house defined by its long central hallway. My bedroom and the living room were on opposite ends of the hall. The New Jersey of my youth was a land of bottleneck traffic, creatively corrupt politicians, and suburbs lined with video rental stores. Whippany, my hometown, was graced with a Movie Van that delivered VHS tapes to doorsteps. The van was a suburban cinephile’s dream, but it didn’t have every horror movie I wanted.
After I exhausted the late-night timer recordings on my VCR, I began borrowing obscure titles from older friends. I covered my eyes during The Beyond, a particularly gruesome Italian film set in Louisiana. When the movie ended and I turned off the television, I froze. I realized what scared me the most: that long walk down the silent hallway back to my bedroom. My brothers had moved out. My sister was home from college, but was on the phone in her room. My parents had gone to sleep after trying to convince me that I should do the same. I did what any kid with an overactive imagination would: I sprinted down the hallway, shut my door, and dove into bed.
When I built up enough nerve to actually finish all of the horror movies I rented or borrowed, it became obvious that hallway scenes are an essential element of American and international horror films. Hallways are tight, narrow, walled, made for transit — and yet sometimes our most sensitive moments are out in the hall, doors closed behind us. Hallways are places for tense encounters, confusion, and fear.
Here are eight essential hallways from horror films.
1. The Shining (1980)
Young Danny Torrence spends much of the film riding his Big Wheel through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel. His hypnotic travels reinforce the idea of the hotel as maze and labyrinth.
A ball rolls along the carpet to Danny, and he looks up, allowing Stanley Kubrick to use the hallway structure as readymade perspective. During the first quarter of the film, viewers are introduced to the layout and grounds of the Overlook as if they were to be also hired as caretakers. Kubrick’s methodical method establishes expectations and curiosities. In our homes, hallways are spaces shared with those we know well; in hotels, hallways are tight byways, places where we share space with strangers.
Jack is a stranger to his wife and son, and possibly to himself — his Vermont teaching backstory is blurry in Kubrick’s treatment. He appears to have been birthed at this hotel, naughty from the start (he is casually reading an issue of Playgirl while waiting to meet with the hotel’s manager). Early in the film, he spends much time in the hotel lobby — typing gibberish for hours, throwing a tennis ball at the wall, starring into a model of the hedge maze — but as the film progresses, Jack is more confined to tight spaces: the Gold Room bathroom, the storeroom, and the hotel’s many hallways.
Dick Hallorann’s long, slow walk seems to get longer and slower with each viewing of the film. The Shining continues past its final reel: a hallway without end.
2. Black Christmas (1974)
The film’s anonymous killer hides in the attic of a sorority house, so he must descend through the upstairs hallway. Near the end of the film, Jess Bradford is alone in the big house, worried as much about the prank-calling killer as she is about her overbearing boyfriend — who is enraged about her decision to get an abortion.
Director Bob Clark, who would revisit this holiday in a lighter fashion within A Christmas Story, plays with hallways and tunnels throughout the film. The police attempt to trace the obscene calls made to the sorority, and the narrative cuts to a technician at the phone company trying to find the origin as he moves through hallways of sound.
3. The House of the Devil (2009)
Viewers of horror films from the ’80s remember the convoluted music interludes that preface the real horror. Think Silent Night, Deadly Night for the right amount of camp. Ti West’s film is a litany of horror homages, but his two-minute dance interlude is quite effective. College student Samantha Hughes spends the night house-sitting for strange owners. An ill, elderly family member rests upstairs, behind a closed door. Bored, Samantha pops a cassette of The Fixx into her Walkman, puts on her headphones, and rocks her way around the house. The song stops when she knocks over a vase in the upstairs hallway.
In a later scene that nods to Rosemary’s Baby, Samantha walks down the hallway, knife in hand. She is not prepared for what happens next.
4. The Exorcist (1974)
Regan MacNeil is sick, and her mother is desperate. She soon enlists the Catholic Church via nearby Georgetown University, where some Jesuits still dabble in that old-time ritual of exorcism. Father Damien Karras, perhaps the most haunted priest to ever appear on film, battles the demon that inhabits Regan. Beaten by the guilt of not caring for his ill mother, Karras limps his way through early attempts to banish the demon.
William Friedkin holds Karras’s pause for a heavy moment. He stands between the domestic world and the supernatural world; are not bedrooms our most mystical spaces — where we love and sleep?
5. Halloween (1978)
I have always found John Carpenter’s film to be so perfectly suburban — violence and mayhem in one house, silence and peace next door.
Exhausted Laurie Strode has stabbed somnambulant killer Michael Myers in the neck. She tells the children she’s been babysitting to get help, and then do — they run out the front door, their screams piercing the suburban silence. Moments later, as Laurie rests in the hallway’s doorframe, Myers rises. A blank-faced Lazarus, Myers is the perfect villain for horror in the home.
6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In the climactic scene, the film’s title character finds that a hidden door in her closet leads to a hallway. Rosemary enters, and immediately faces a painting of a burning church.
Rosemary’s subsequent walk is funereal: her body has been drugged, her heart has been wounded, and her child has been taken. As in Halloween, the threshold between hallway and room becomes a place of union, but the effect is somehow opposite. The satanists in the room first appear banal, urban, engaged in a cocktail chatter, while the hallway Rosemary exited was the infernal place.
Parley Ann Boswell sees Roman Polanski’s work in this film as influential for Kubrick in The Shining: the long hallway “provides a sort of birth canal.” Rosemary is, at the least, reborn to a clearer sense of sight when she exits the hallway.
7. Suspiria (1977)
Dario Argento’s film mixes pulsating images, almost impossible colors, and an overwhelming score by Goblin to create a psychotropic Black Mass.
American dancer Suzy Bannion attends a ballet academy in Freiburg. After leaving practice, Suzy walks down a hallway. She encounters a strange woman and a child who put a spell on her.
Hallways are transformative throughout the film. A red glow paints Suzy as she hopes to discover the evil secret within the school’s labyrinthine corridors.
8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The only place that might contain more charged memories than our childhood home is our high school.
Nancy Thompson wakes in class to see the animated corpse of her friend Tina sitting next to her. A student in the front of the room drones lines from Hamlet, the class rapt. Nancy follows Tina’s blood trail to the hallway.
It is best to end with a film about nightmares, because that is how we sometimes encounter hallways. We wake from a bad dream and rub our eyes. Unable to sleep, we walk down the hall, and though we know there is nothing to be afraid of, our fingers trail along the wall, hope for comfort in the dark.
Reading Nikil Saval (my Stanford friend and colleague)’s review of The Dark Knight at n+1 today, I found myself of two minds about his take. I too had exclaimed angrily about the impossible bustiness of the whole troupe of Russian ballerinas Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) kidnaps on his yacht, and the befuddling reappearance of Cillian Murphy (villain psychiatrist from Batman Begins), as well as the almost unwatchable chaos that was most of the action scenes, and the manipulative gotcha “black criminals are human too!” scene. I had exclaimed about other things Nikil hadn’t mentioned – like why bother getting the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal to play just another insipid damsel in distress (albeit, weakly disguised as a “strong, independent woman”: she’s a DA! and she kicks the Joker in the balls while wearing an evening dress!)But the meat of Nikil’s review was his reading of the Dark Knight’s plot as political allegory. I am a rather bad reader of allegorical plots and having been told in vague terms by many people that the political implications of this Batman were intense, I hoped my symbolic reading skills were up to the task. My reading of the plot as allegory went something like this: our country has been taken over by a demented clown who burns money and oil and whose motives are incomprehensible. As you can imagine, I was very disappointed reading thus – I thought that this was not a very useful or provocative take on the current state of the union. I had also been told that Batman “goes over to the dark side” in this movie, but as far as I could see, except for wearing the black he always had, he was still the good guy (we knew his motives remained pure). Never, not once, did he seem taken in by the thrilling chaos that the Joker was peddling. (I had had a vague image of Batman and the Joker a la Danny Aiello and Bruce Willis in the under-appreciated Hudson Hawk synchronizing a heist by both singing “Swinging on a Star” in the same tempo. Holding hands while causing mayhem together! What fun! Try pulling that plot off next time, Christopher Nolan!) Again, I was disappointed.As Nikil’s review will show you, I missed rather a lot. The crux of the allegory and the moral ambiguity lies in Batman’s recourse to criminal methods to get the job of crime fighting done: his creation of a god-like surveillance system that violates the privacy of every resident of Gotham to find the Joker, and his beating information out of the Joker about the location of hostages and ticking bombs. In this, we can see the spectral reenactment of our own political situation: The US, which imagines itself as the world’s superhero, the champion of good, betraying its ideals (civil rights, the sovereignty of law, peace, justice) to defend these same ideals. Here was the genuine ambiguity and the interesting symbolic plot I had missed. As Nikil puts it “to fight anarchy is to lose one’s bearings, and move one’s own soul dangerously close to evil.” And this anarchy, of course, is terrorism and terrorists embodied in the Joker.No matter what you might, in the end, think of Batman’s (or the United States’) ultimate moral affiliation after these adventures, Nikil’s plot reading holds. My being of two minds takes issue more with Nikil’s idea that The Dark Knight is somehow a propaganda classroom, manufacturing citizenly consent for US policy and reinforcing in even its youngest viewers “every conceit that this childishly self-regarding nation has about its mission in the world”:And so the Joker, like other criminals in the film, is treated by Batman the way America treats terrorists: he is tortured. Intellectuals who favor the use of torture in the United States often reduce the ethical question to a hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenario, in which a terrorist reveals he has a plot to blow up thousands of people in one hour, and the only way for officials to extract information from the lunatic in time is through ruthless physical violence. “Ethics 101,” Charles Krauthammer calls it. “Hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.” It doesn’t matter that, in a real Ethics 101 class, one would learn that legal ethics is not reducible to a childish theoretical picture; that there is not a shred of historical or present evidence on which to base such hypotheticals. (There are bombs in the real world, but they never tick.) Yet the real-world debate over torture is frequently reduced to this argument, because it has a terrifying simplicity to it. As in the scenario itself, the argument doesn’t even give you time to think: you are simply asked to decide, and your decision then becomes actual policy. When it is presented in something like real time, as it is in The Dark Knight, it actually functions as “Ethics 101” for the children who see the film.And I take issue with this not only because, dunderhead that I am, the only childishly self-regarding conceit I came away from the movie with on my own was “our president is a psychopathic jester who is burning down our economy and must be stopped at any cost – damn the law.” No, I take issue with this because it means that there is no difference between art and life – that the moral and social rules and actions we observe and tolerate in comic books and novels foist themselves upon us as we read and work their way into our real lives. Saying that children who watch Batman are being primed to condone their country’s use of torture is like saying that reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels will make us kill our rich friends and assume their identities – or, at least, that we’ll approve of those who do.This just gets what movie-going and novel-reading is about all wrong. I think most people go to the movies for escape – we get out of our own heads, away from our own worries, we suspend the real world for a while to move into a variety of different, often joyfully impossible, worlds. Here we find respite from our own lives. I also think the rules of genre are comforting. Real life-plots are unpredictable: We never know in real life when we’re walking into a chapter of personal tragedy, when things might take a romantic turn, when they’ll go Beckett-y or Kafkaesque, but if I rent, say, 27 Dresses or The Holiday, I have the comfort of knowing how it will go, even though I have the pleasure of not knowing quite how it will go. It’s soothing. And I don’t, unless I’m Don Quixote, get up from either movie and expect life to yield up to me the personalities or plots I just watched. Just as I don’t get up from Batman thinking that I wouldn’t mind seeing more terrorists water-boarded, even if, obedient student of the comic book genre that I am, I accepted whatever “the good guy” had to do to get the job done as “good” – which is probably why I missed identifying Batman’s “criminal activities” as such (“Yeah, but it’s Batman who’s spying on everyone. Now if the Joker, it’d be another story“).Admittedly, this is part of a larger resentment and even anger I harbor against intellectuals at the movies – and indeed part of my somewhat perverse occasional campaign against taste and connoisseurship generally. Should Batman induce such anguish and demand such moral seriousness at it does at n+1? (“Why so serious?” as the Joker puts it.)Although I agree with much of Nikil’s reading, I find in it something repellent (morbid, paranoid, despair-inducing) that I associate with the Leftist intellectual temperament. I have written before about Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Reflections on a Damaged Life and it is from Minima Moralia that I find the purest expression of this attitude that troubles and repels me:There is nothing innocuous left. The little pleasures, expressions of life that seemed exempt from the responsibility of thought, not only have an element of defiant silliness, of callous refusal to see, but directly serve their diametrical opposite. Even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror; even the innocent “How lovely!” becomes an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely, and there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better… The malignant deeper meaning of ease, once confined to the toasts of conviviality, has long since spread to more appealing impulses… Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.Adorno’s book is a long collection of fragmentary meditations in the same inconsolable tone as this one. And while I have moments of deep sympathy for his tragic worldview, his sense that everything in our world is broken and sinister and corrupting, I think, for myself, that to linger in this mindset for long would be devastating. I would kill myself. I continue to marvel that the anguished consciousness on display here managed to survive itself for 250 pages. There is something of Adorno in Nikil’s take on the Dark Night – that watching this movie – maybe movies generally? – can be dangerous and morally suspect: That we Americans are watching our crappy, multi-million dollar nation-affirming movies while the world we set on fire burns. We retreat into movies (becoming ever easier in this era of Netflix, iTunes, and pay-per-view), neglect the world, and become dumber for our retreats into escapism, thus less capable of fixing the world we fled in the first place. “History will record,” Nikil writes, “that, while a monumental catastrophe overtook the world financial markets and a new colonialism destroyed the lives of nations, the United States still found time and money to resolve in its films what it could not, for the life of it, perform in the world.”Maybe History will. And maybe my logic is disgraceful and maybe I am deluded – or just weak (a junkie). The number of head pats, cheek pinches, and chin chucks I continue to get even now that I am almost 30 suggests that intellectual seriousness continues to elude me: but I love movies. And I defend them. They allow me to go into worlds that are more beautiful and make more sense than ours. Going to the movies, reading novels, is a kind of idealism for me, a longing for order and beauty that I will never find in this world. Maybe this isn’t morally justifiable, but it’s psychically necessary. Even Batman, flawed as it was, gave me a much needed respite from myself.Is Batman the problem? Is Batman a bigger problem than is an impenetrable seriousness, than a relentless critical certainty that would seem sometimes to insist that despair is the moral highground?
I’ve read Anna Karenina countless times, published articles, and dedicated two chapters in my book Understanding Tolstoy to the novel. So it is particularly exciting for me when an adaptation comes along that allows me to see the novel in a fresh light and even stirs me to tears over moments I thought I knew by heart. That happened to me a number of times while watching Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation of the work. Which is why I was disappointed when the movie was nominated for Oscars in what amounts to the consolation prize categories, the ones having to do more with the style than the substance of the film: Cinematography, music (original score), costume design, and production design.
But then, I’m not surprised. Most criticisms of the movie have focused on the idea that it’s long on style, short on depth. Robert Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times writes, “This is a sumptuous film — extravagantly staged and photographed, perhaps too much so for its own good.” “Visually stunning, emotionally overwrought, beautifully acted, but not quite right,” claims Betsy Sharky of The Los Angeles Times. And yet, I would argue, that it is precisely by means of its stylistic prowess that Wright’s film captures the deeper truths about Tolstoy’s novel as successfully as any other adaptation I’ve seen.
One of the most controversial aspects of the movie is the filming of the whole thing in a dilapidated theater. In making “the radical artistic choice to tell the story as if it were being enacted by players on a stage,” writes Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly.com, “Wright falls passionately in love with his own fanciful artifices.”
Maybe, but he also gets at one of the novel’s central ideas: that this is a spectacle society concerned more about show than substance, with tragic consequences.
Two thirds of the way through the novel Anna goes to the opera. By this point, she’s deep into her affair with the juicy cavalry officer Vronsky and has left her husband Karenin, who refuses to give her a divorce, making it impossible for Anna to remarry legitimately. A woman without social standing, Anna is the talk of the town, and, apparently, the main attraction at the opera that night. A woman sitting in the box next to her makes a scene after the woman’s husband exchanges a few polite words with Anna.
Here’s what Wright does with that moment: A hush comes over the theater and all eyes turn from the stage to Anna, illuminated by a spotlight as she sits there in her light-colored gown of silk and velvet with a low-cut neck, in her glittering necklace, with expensive lace in her gorgeous, black hair — and utterly humiliated. That shot says it all: There sits the real diva of the night, the grand dame of Petersburg high society whose titillating story of adultery, self-destruction, and pariahdom those leering theater-goers thoroughly enjoy from behind their lorgnettes. That they, too, may be complicit in Anna’s sad tale is a possibility none of them bothers to consider.
But if Wright doesn’t demonize Anna, nor does he glamorize her, as is so often the case with filmmakers and readers alike. When Tolstoy first started working on the novel, he envisioned Anna as a kind of empty tramp, but the more he wrote, the more sympathetic he became to her plight. Still, at no point does he absolve her of moral responsibility for her own decisions, as some readers are too apt to do. Anna is a tragic figure, not merely because she is an emotionally deprived woman in a loveless marriage surrounded by empty hypocrites. She is also a victim of her own her romantic illusions, of making, in Tolstoy’s words, “the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires.” By giving herself over to the fantasy of complete liberation, Anna becomes a slave to her passions, a star in a tragic story partly of her own design. She is a stark illustration of Tolstoy’s belief that one of the central problems of modern social life isn’t just that we’re all playing roles on a stage, but that those roles often end up playing — and destroying — us.
Wright (and Stoppard) might have made a safer bet by focusing exclusively on the sexy Anna-Vronsky plot, as other movies have done, but they instinctively understood this to be counter to Tolstoy’s intention. Anna and her tragic story reflect the truth that broken families, ungrounded passions, and human isolation are central to the modern experience. It is against these realities that the autobiographical rural landowner Levin, with his questing spirit and commitment to higher ideals, must fight. He belongs to a minority in his time — as he would in ours, which is why his story is vitally important today. Levin strives for meaning that neither the social artifice, the reductive scientific world view, the moral relativism, nor the pseudo-religiosity of his era can provide. Dostoevsky called him one of those “Russian people who must have the truth, the truth alone, without the lies we unthinkingly accept.” The director’s choice to film the Levin scenes at his estate in the countryside in a realistic as opposed to a stage setting is actually quite brilliant in communicating the impression Tolstoy gives in the novel that Levin is one of the few characters in his world who is connected to something real and authentic.
Then there’s Karenin, whom Wright correctly senses is a lot more like Levin than most readers ever suspect, at least when it comes to his uncompromising belief in ideals and principles. Wright doesn’t reduce him to the mean-spirited, rational machine so many filmmakers have made him out to be. Karenin is a deeply principled man who is simply incapable of accessing or expressing his emotions. But they’re there, all right, and Jude Law makes us feel them. When Karenin is sitting alone at the front of the stage before the dimming flood lights, having just learned that Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s child, he turns slightly towards his wife (and the viewers) and says, “Tell me what I did to deserve this.” That heartbreaking moment reveals all the depth of his confusion. Like everybody else in Tolstoy’s novel, he has been thrust into a tragic situation beyond his capacity to understand.
Do I think this is a perfect movie? No. Keira Knightley is a little too young-looking and too thin for Tolstoy’s voluptuous, 28 year-old Anna. The movie could have made the connection between Anna’s and Levin’s storylines even more explicit, as Tolstoy does when he has the two meet near the end. There are moments here and there where the acting doesn’t quite ring true, as in that scene when Vronsky reacts to the news that Anna is pregnant with his child. And maybe the British tabloids had a point when they wondered why Wright decided to turn the dark-haired Vronsky into a blond.
But to criticize is easy. To create is hard. And Wright has shown himself to be every inch the creator, not on the level of Tolstoy, of course, but certainly on the same emotional and philosophical wave length.
A literary adaptation, in my view, shouldn’t be an imitation, but an interpretation. And a good interpretation, as any literature teacher or literary critic knows, is one that doesn’t cover a book, but uncovers it. For me, Wright’s film did that. The power of this movie isn’t merely in the fact that the director has willfully re-shaped Tolstoy’s classic according to his own bold, wacky conceit, but that in his very stylistic quirkiness he has actually brought us surprisingly close to the philosophical vision of the original work. For that even the most dedicated Tolstoy aficionados can be grateful. The Academy should have looked a little bit deeper.