Merrell’s novel of the name done by Sarah Gubbins, fictionalizes a segment in the life of the famously reclusive author Shirley Jackson. It begins just after she’s published the short story The Lottery (1948) in The New Yorker, which is widely considered her breakthrough. (A breakthrough, though, saturated more in hot debate than unanimous praise: the magazine received a “torrent” of letters responding to the story, the bulk of which could be classified as hate mail.) One of the first things we see in Shirley is a young woman, Rose (Odessa Young), reading the tale on a train. Rose and her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), we learn, are en route to stay with Shirley (played in the movie by a characteristically excellent Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, literary critic and Bennington College English professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Fred is to be Stanley’s teaching aide; the former is also hoping the latter will look over his dissertation. The young couple plans to move out as soon as they can pin down a place of their own.
The stay is almost immediately rife with antagonism, marked by Shirley’s debilitating depression and agoraphobia and Stanley’s loud condescensions and open infidelity. After Shirley observes that Rose is freshly pregnant at the beginning of the film (Rose says that she hasn’t yet told Fred and would prefer to keep it a surprise), she makes it a point at dinner one night to blurt out the truth. Shirley tells Rose almost immediately that she finds women like her — young, pretty housewives who do not outwardly appear to be rubbing against the stifling expectations of domesticity — are all the same to her. Stanley virtually forces Rose to work as a maid, and bookends many interactions with her with flagrant sexual harassment. Late in the film, Stanley decries the perceived mediocrity of Fred’s dissertation in an open arena. Stanley and Shirley seem to revel in poking at the biggest insecurities of their guests. Socially it’s commonplace to hide one’s disdain publicly and then evince it privately. But this is something by which they will not abide. For Shirley, the tendency seems to be creatively motivated. She is working on a new novel, Hangasman (which would be published in 1951), and its narrative is inspired by both the recent disappearance of a college student and increasingly Fred and Rose’s relationship.
There is an unwavering disdain for Fred on Stanley’s part.
When asked why he is so against constructively criticizing his dissertation, he tells Shirley, “That kid’s had everything handed to him — Ivy education, perfect teeth.” Shirley, however, does warm to Rose, toward whom she grows compassionate and will start a passionate and at times sexual friendship with. “The real-life Shirley Jackson was in a similar position to Rose: Despite her success, her intelligence, and the earning power of her work, her home life and finances were controlled almost entirely by Stanley,” critic Jourdain Searles recently observed in a review of the film for Bitch. “Shirley, like Merrell’s novel, explores what happens when Jackson meets a younger reflection of herself and doesn’t like what she sees.”
Decker’s direction is prismatic and fractured. The energetic camerawork, her reliance on fantastical and suggestive interludes, and her use of heightened sound design work together not only to elevate the intensity of Shirley and Rose’s relationship, which grounds the film. Her visceral directing style also deepens the viewer’s ability to empathize with Jackson’s pain, brought on by a conglomeration of her artistic and domestic frustrations. This pain is often physically manifested. In Shirley, we will see our subject dump a glass of red wine over a shiny patterned couch at a house party, hurl objects, simmer in bed, fast but keep drinking and drinking. The nausea of Shirley’s look and feel turns her anxieties, and eventually Rose’s, too, into a sort of a sheen — something not often accentuated in movies seeking to pay tribute to the tortured artist. The feature
movingly centers the stories of women who at the time were rendered secondary by the men in their lives. But Decker also actively strives to not merely show some of their sorrow, but also give us the sense that momentarily, we've felt it exactingly.
Cane River: A
hirley (2020), the new movie from the impressionistic director Josephine Decker (Hulu), is a woozy, suspenseful dramatization of its subject’s lonely genius. The film, an adaptation of Susan Scarf
controversial family. He discovers toward the middle of the film that he is descended from a former slave who married a Frenchman. Together, they operated a plantation and owned slaves themselves; disturbingly, the two assisted the Confederacy during the Civil War. In Cane River, there remains a divide between lighter-skinned Creoles, like Peter, and those with darker skin.
Cane River is predominantly taken up with the relationship
that blossoms between Peter and Maria Mathis (Tômmye Myrick), a local who has darker skin than him and is of a lower social standing. (They meet while he’s touring a well-preserved 18th-century plantation where Maria works; they have a connection almost immediately.) Theirs is a sweet romance. Their courtship, in moments, has a picturesque prettiness; in the course of the movie, we will see them riding horses through sun-dappled, open fields, swimming together, slow-dancing, frolicking in the verdant green of Peter’s backyard. (The cinematography by Gideon Manasseh so sublimely captures the pastoral beauty of the outdoors that at times the movie reminds one texturally of a dream.) There is a sense that both have felt lonely for most of their lives; this might be the first time they’ve felt somewhat understood (and, if not, felt like someone is working to understand them). When they disagree, which is often, the mood in the air can grow heated, but we never sense a lack of compassion — that one person is unwilling to hear the other. Peter notes that Maria is the only person with whom he’s felt comfortable sharing his writing.
There is tension undergirding their romance, though. It’s particularly aggravated by Maria’s mother, who resents the Metoyers and the harms of their legacy. She is incessant that Maria walk away from Peter. The pains of the past, and the colorism which continues to come from it, are not so overpowering as to overwhelm the film, which is rather heartwarming in its depiction of a new relationship between a couple of people who are not sure, exactly, what they want for themselves. The well-to-do Peter, for now, seems content spending days reading and writing, not accomplishing much. And Maria, who is 22 and belatedly heading to college soon, doesn’t know for certain what sort of career she wants for herself but knows she must experience life outside Cane River, out from under her domineering mother’s thumb. Still, Jenkins astutely shows how the wounds of history can be omnipresent even in something that is otherwise joyous — a characteristic unusual in the romantic drama, especially one that ultimately seems to want to uplift.
There are other insightful paradoxes in Cane River. Jenkins also subtly, aptly notes the contradiction in the way Peter is ashamed of what his ancestors have perpetuated while also being infuriated when he finds out that some of his family’s land has been unfairly taken over by a white attorney. And there’s an inspired, seemingly unnecessary sequence showing a day in the life of Maria’s brother (Ilunga Adel) that eventually proves itself a methodical, smartly placed contrast to (and indirect critique of) the listlessness of Peter’s routine, which can be afforded on account of his privilege. Maria’s brother is similarly a former star athlete, but he now works a thankless job at a factory to survive and boozes the evenings away.
Cane River can misstep. So often do conversations between Peter and Maria jarringly, rather than unaffectedly, crescendo from easygoing chatter to inflamed disagreement. Though the soundtrack from local singer Phillip Manuel is nice to the ear on its own, its essential mawkishness clashes, I think, with the splendor the film organically conjures. But Cane River’s detriments can be easily forgiven. The movie's array of heady ideas are well realized by Jenkins. And that its soundtrack is mostly unsuitable doesn't undo much — it's more a surplus of loveliness than anything.
For years, Cane River was a mythic masterwork. Shortly after the film premiered in New Orleans (screenings saw support from actor Richard Pryor and critic Roger Ebert), Jenkins died. Distribution plans were scrapped as a result. And because there weren’t any surviving archival prints of the film, it was assumed lost for decades. An interest remained not only because of some of its initial celebrity supporters but also because of the few positive reviews published at the time. A negative of the movie finally showed up in 2014; it was subsequently restored. There were some resulting screenings from then on, including at Ebert’s annual Ebertfest. But it wasn’t until this May that the movie was actually widely seen. It became available to stream on the Criterion Channel service, which is where I first heard of and watched it.
In a recorded Criterion interview with Romain and Myrick (which viewers can also watch with a subscription), there is an undeniable, somewhat painful wistfulness in the air. The experience for both people, who never again appeared in a film (Romain went on to work in funeral services; Myrick turned to directing), was life-changing. You can tell that there is still a love between them; you can also feel the lingering disappointment of not being able to see one of your life’s major accomplishments go unrecognized for so long, especially when there was a time when you were betting on it as a step forward. It was unspecified in the interview, but I grew emotional thinking about the moment when both people finally concluded that they were never again going to see this movie they'd taken part in, and that most people would never see it at all.
At one point, Myrick’s expression turns downward a little as she wonders what could have been. What might have become of the movie had Jenkins not died, and if it were released as planned? How might her and Romain’s lives have unfolded had the wider public seen their work? Would he have turned to this other industry, she directing? Fittingly, the very last moment in Cane River (which is among the best finales in a film I've seen in a while) sees the silver lining in waiting, however painful. It suggests, optimistically, that things someday will fall into place if they are meant to. Cane River’s own overdue recognition seems like an optimistic retort.
year-old Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain), who is returning to his eponymous hometown at the beginning of the film. He’s just graduated college; he’s become something of a local legend in his time away (he was a top football player at his university). But Peter’s reappearance, which is commemorated by a surprise procession replete with showy “welcome home” signs, is a bit anticlimactic. We learn that he has foregone offers to play professionally, and doesn't have any big aspirations at the moment. Peter is coming back to Cane River, a small Louisiana town, with respite on the brain. His primary
ambitions are to work on his father’s farm and write poetry, a pastime he has long kept a secret.
Peter is also notable to many in the chiefly black Cane River for being the scion of a
ane River (1982), the sole directing effort from Horace B. Jenkins, is a lush romantic drama. The movie, considered lost until around 2014, follows 23-
On Cane River and Shirley
That Most Important Thing June 9, 2020
Richard Romain and Tômmye Myrick in 1982's Cane River.