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Monday, August 09, 2010


Watching horror when you're pregnant

I've mentioned before that I'm fond of horror. Here's an interesting fact: being about to have a child changes your perspective on it.

My husband and I were re-watching The Shining recently, a movie I've mentioned my admiration for before - but something started to become clear. While my basic interpretation of the movie hadn't changed, the way I reacted to it had intensified. Danny, the little boy dragged to the haunted hotel by his unstable, abusive father (rather a striking fictional portrait of depression in many ways), had always seemed me the hero of the movie - but watching it over, I wasn't so much scared by the shocks as I was horrified, appalled by the position of the poor little boy. My reactions had gone into mother-mode, and were intensely disturbed.

The first time we see Danny, he's sitting at a kitchen table with his mother eating a sandwich. His father is interviewing for a job at the fatal Overlook hotel, and Danny, possessed of psychic powers and the child of a man who, it's heavily implied, broke his arm three years ago in an 'accidental' fit of temper, sits quietly eating while his mother sits with her back to him, ready to answer his questions but not particularly involved. It's a placid, domestic little scene - and my heart ached. It was in the framing and the performances: Danny, maybe six years old, munches stoically away at his sandwich staring straight ahead of him. Despite her disengagement, he doesn't make lively bids for his mother's attention, he neither enjoys his food nor protests against it, he doesn't bounce on his chair: he stares into space and eats what's in front of him and does without any kind of stimulation at all. Happy children that age are firecrackers, full of energy and opinions and questions and desires of their own; Danny, obedient and subdued, looks utterly and terribly cowed. He sits in the stance of a child who's afraid that any notice will bring trouble, and who can only hope to fade into safe obscurity.

It's a theme that runs through the film. Taking a child that age to five months of isolation in a snowbound hotel is a terrible thing to do, even without the rivers of blood and walking corpses. Children need to develop, and they stimulate each other: five months with no playmates is dealing a severe blow to Danny's potential development. He's resignedly aware of the loneliness in advance, saying only that it's all right because there's nobody much to play with in the neighbourhood anyway; once there, he accepts the deprivation submissively, playing with his cars on the bright carpets or trundling endlessly around on a little pedal-bike. Self-sufficient and uncomplaining, Danny behaves himself impeccably under completely unreasonable conditions, just about the most trouble-free child ever recorded in fiction.

And yet everything about him seems to irritate his father nonetheless. 'I love the little son of a bitch. I'd do anything for him, any fucking thing,' says Jack Torrance, unable to speak of loving his son without swearing and insults. Every line Torrance says about him - delivered with iconic malevolence by Jack Nicholson - bespeaks annoyance: 'See? It's okay? He saw it on the television,' he snarls when Danny declares himself unbothered by Jack's tales of cannibalism because he's already heard of it; even to third parties, lines like 'My son's discovered the games room' have an air of impatience. (Danny has indeed discovered the games room, where he quietly plays darts, bothering no one, until two ghosts come in to menace him. For a small boy who's just endured an extremely long car ride without any misbehaviour, a little fun in the games room hardly seems an undeserved reward. Again, his endurance of boredom is stoical enough to suggest a habit of fear.)

And Danny clearly is afraid of his Torrance, even before the end begins: his ability to withstand solitude so peacefully suggests a child who actually feels safer away from his parents than with them, for instance, which is a terrible state for a child to be in. By the time things really start to break down, Danny has an air of utter intimidation: when Jack sets Danny on his lap, Danny sits there still and unresisting, clearly unhappy at being so near his frightening father but too afraid to express his protest in anything stronger than limp non-responsiveness. Jack's slide into madness is marked by irritable grandiosity - he drags his family into bleak isolation in the name of writing a book he never settles down to, and is still quick to blame them for the mundanity of his life - and the most tragic symptom, at least to pregnant eyes, is the way it's sucked all the spirit out of his boy.

Interestingly, a single line now leaps out at me as the saddest, bleakest moment of the film. Discussing the problem of his son with a ghostly, murderous butler, Torrance describes Danny as 'a very wilful boy.' He is indeed, replies the butler. 'A very wilful boy. A rather ... naughty boy, if I might say so.' Of all the terrible things Torrance does, this is the one that stood out to me as the worst. Poor Danny is nothing of the kind: Danny is a good boy. Not because he's possessed of psychic gifts, not even for the exceptional courage and intelligence he eventually shows when his father finally decends into rampage, but just by ordinary, everyday parenting standards. Danny, given every reason to resent his father, never, ever misbehaves. He just quietly gets on with being no trouble and staying out of sight. The sheer injustice of it is heartbreaking.

On a different note, my response to the character of Dick Hallorann, the psychic cook of the Overlook who gives Danny some advice before departure, also changed. Halloran is a bit complicated as a character - King has been accused of using the Magic Negro character in the past, and Hallorann's final role in the story, to be the black guy who dies saving the white people, is a trope we could all do with a lot less of.

At the same time, Kubrick's direction and Scatman Crothers's performance create a degree of complexity. It's notable, for instance, that around white adults, Hallorann wears the relentlessly upbeat, mildly clownish mask much associated with African Americans in a racist society who want to keep their jobs and know that a less-than-cheerful demeanour will threaten that (a good example of the switch from self-respecting adult to jolly servant and back again is portrayed in Spike Lee's Malcolm X). He wears the mask even around adults like Wendy Torrance, who addresses him politely as 'Mr Hallorann' and shows towards him the same lonely, awkward hunger for conversation that she shows towards white men. It's only with little Danny that Hallorann drops this persona, moving from unthreatening comic to grave, authoritative adult, an extremely drastic shift of mood.

And the fact that he genuinely does assume an adult role puts him in sharp contrast to Torrance, who seems to resent the existence of his family for making it harder for him to act like a single man with no ties. (Not that they actually stop him.) Hallorann communicates with Danny psychically with a very carefully-chosen message: 'How would you like some ice cream, Doc?' It's the message of an intelligent, responsible man, friendly and nurturing, aware that he's probably doing something that will startle the boy and determined not to frighten him. Hallorann's ability to act unthreatening, which comes across as both submissive and professional (an unfortunately required combination in some situations, it would seem) when directed towards white adults, becomes kind and strong-minded when directed towards a white child. Similarly we can see, as he tries to discuss 'shining' with Danny and tell him about the haunted Overlook, just how hard he's thinking about how to handle the situation: the boy needs a clear warning or else he's going to be in danger, but Hallorann, again, doesn't want to frighten him, and his efforts to explain things at a level Danny can understand are well conveyed in Crothers's performance. How Hallorann acts around non-white people is something we don't see, and, particularly in America with its history of slavery, the idea of a black person doing a white parent's job at least raises questions ... but viewing Hallorann's conversation with Danny on a purely adult-to-child basis, I found my pregnant mind absolutely filled with respect and admiration. The ability to forge a relationship with a strange child under, at best, complicated conditions; the willingness to assume responsibility and mentorship; the tact and sensitivity with which he handles the little boy: these are all things Danny desperately lacks. His mother does her best by him, and eventually comes through, but it takes a while for her to emerge from under the pressure of Torrance's malignity. Danny needs an adult he can trust, and Hallorann's willingness to be that adult leaped out at me. It might be magic negro, but at least Crothers manages to invest the role with genuine intelligence rather than folksy 'wisdom'. (Though obviously I'm a white viewer, so I really don't get to declare a portrait of a black character non-racist.)

All of this was clear to me before, but pregnancy has cast in a new, stark light. Within the week, if I hit my due date (which I probably won't, first babies often being a little later than predicted), I'll be the mother of a son myself. I don't know yet what he'll be like, but I know my job is to try and listen when he tells me, and then love him for being that person. All I can hope is that he never feels that afraid in his own home.

Here's another example. A while ago I spotted a poster for the movie Orphan and commented to my husband that it had an excellent strapline - 'There's something wrong with Esther. You'll never guess her secret.' Finding it badly reviewed, I didn't go to see it, but I did think a good copywriter had been at work on the poster; the slogan is admirable in its shameless appeal to curiosity, its punchy succinctness, its trochaic emphasis (the two sentences even echo each other rhythmically), its willingness to throw us straight into the story and appeal to us as if we already knew who Esther was, as if we were already involved in her situation. It wasn't enough to make me spend too much money sitting in a cinema with people yakking over the film left and right, which is what seems to happen when you go to the movies these days, but it was enough to make me look up the plot on Wikipedia, so the copywriter's attempts to get me interested in Esther's 'secret' were undoubtedly successful to that extent. Really, it was one of the best straplines I'd seen in ages.

Well, kindly enough, my husband remembered I'd been interested in the poster and hired the DVD when it came out. He watched some of it with me before giving up, I persisted to the end ... and oh dear.

Oh dear oh dear. Unlike The Shining, a beautifully made film of parental irresponsibility that places the blame squarely on the adult, Orphan is a trashy film of parental irresponsibility that positively endorses that irresponsible attitude. Its notion of virtue strikes me as less homey family values than callous, horrific entitlement.

Be warned I'm going to talk about the 'secret', so anyone who doesn't want to be spoiled, heads up, but honestly, I think the movie deserves spoiling. So here we go: Esther isn't a child at all, she's an adult woman with proportional dwarfism who, for reasons best known to herself and unknown to logic, inveigles her way into families, tries to seduce the father and then kills everyone when, astonishingly, her attempts fail. Because non-paedophilic men do not, apparently, feel much interest in sex with their adoptive daughters; who knew? Esther, escapee from a 'mental hospital' (because yes, apparently we still call them that), is supposedly a sociopathic genius, though whether you can infer much intelligence from her ideas of a good romantic strategy, I leave to the reader to decide. (Honestly. A pretty woman in her thirties who happens to be physically small thinks she'll improve her chances with most men by pretending to be nine years old? And this is an evil genius? Wow.)

Anyway, the low intelligence of our criminal mastermind aside, the really notable thing - and completely natural thing - is that the film created a storm of protest among the adoption community. (I don't know if it created a similar storm from people with growth disorders, but if it didn't, it probably should have. Physically-nonstandard-as-evil is not a very nice trope, even allowing for the fact that Esther's disorder, described as hypopituitarism, really doesn't look like a medical condition in the film - she suffers no health complications from it at all - and is probably better described as 'witchiness', a medical disorder known only to Hollywood.)

The complaints to make about the portrait of adoption are obvious. The story is this: following the stillbirth of their third child, an improbably wealthy-looking American couple wander into an orphanage, pick out the apparently flawless and gifted little Russian orphan Esther much as you'd pick a puppy from a litter, take her home three weeks later and discover, to their horror, that the puppy isn't quite as housebroken as she looks.

Which is where the parental entitlement begins to show its seams.

As the plot eventually reveals, of course, Esther isn't an orphaned child at all, but the family's horror of her doesn't come from any such suspicion. Here are some of the sins that send them into a tailspin: she euthanises a pigeon with ruthless dispatch after the son of the house fatally wounds it with his paintball gun (on purpose, making him a much more disturbing child to this viewer) and is too squeamish, and too busy whimpering in self-pity, to put it out of its misery himself. She locks the door when she's having a bath, which provokes the mother to the rebuke, 'We don't lock doors in this house,' raising the question of why they have locks, and also the question of why on earth you shouldn't lock the door when you're in the tub, children having the right to expect a degree of privacy if they're ever going to learn independence. She accidentally witnesses the parents making love in the kitchen, and when the mother tries to discuss it with her, reveals that she already knows both the facts of life and the F-word, shocking the mother by her ability to say it calmly as if 'she didn't even expect to get in trouble for it.' She accepts a piano lesson from the mother and makes some mistakes in her piece, despite the later-discovered fact that she actually already plays very well, and when challenged on this explains that she thought it would please the mother to give her a lesson.

All of these are treated as signs of latent evil. What stands out is that it occurs to no one in the family to assume that a child who'd suffered the loss of her parents and then time in a care system that couldn't possibly provide her with the attention she needed might, just possibly, be carrying some emotional damage that they ought to take responsibility for supporting, given that they'd adopted her and all. Imagine: a nine-year-old girl with history of loss and living in an institution with too high a child-to-adult ratio turns out to be unsentimental, protective of her privacy, unsheltered, and prepared to fib a bit if it gets her the attention and approval of people she depends on! Really, who'd have expected it? 'Faults' that should, in people who actually understand what parenting is supposed to be, should elicit compassion and empathy - or even respect: a child tough enough to put a bird out of its pain is actually doing the right thing; a child who tells a white lie in an attempt to bond is, at the very least, a child with a desire to connect and a degree of social insight, both of which are good qualities; for goodness sake, a child who seems sexually precocious is a child whose past you might want to wonder about with a view to considering if extra care is called for - get treated, not just as worrying, but as somehow unfair, as if it's a terrible burden on the poor family that they should have to live with such diabolical intelligence and self-sufficiency. The girl has a developed personality that doesn't always and immediately harmonise with her adopted family ... oh, those poor parents.

(Their response to her sexual precocity, in particular, seems pretty clueless. One would hope that the modern adoptive and childcare system has managed to stamp out the paedophilia that used to plague it, and in fact most sexual abuse happens within families, but still, sexually disturbing behaviour from a new adoptee should surely invoke concern on her behalf rather than your own. There's a later scene where Esther, having sneakily hospitalised the mother, dresses up fancy and makes a bid to seduce the sorrowing father; he repels her in dismay and sends her to bed, but not for a minute does he ask himself where on earth a little girl - which is what he thinks she is - would get the idea that this is what men want from her. A man with any sense would, you'd think, conclude that this was a girl who'd been exploited in the past and was making a bid to seduce him either because she was frightened that he'd set upon her without the mother's protection and was trying to minimise the anticipated trauma by exercising at least a degree of control over how it happened, or because she'd somehow learned that men only want one thing and was frightened that if she didn't please him in the only way she knew how, the family crisis of the mother's illness would end with her being kicked out. The fact that the father shows no awareness at all that Esther might be displaying vulnerability rather than Svengalism is, again, far more disturbing than Esther herself.)

Meanwhile, the family themselves are a responsibility-free zone: they show zero empathy, and yet we're expected to pity them from the get-go. First and most appalling is the fact that they adopt a child to get over the grief of losing one in the first place. I'm not saying that if you lose a child you should never adopt one - I'm sure some people do, and make excellent parents - but the adoption in Orphan is a clear case of substitition, and if you're adopting a child to make yourself feel better rather than to make her life better, you have no business adopting a child. And that's not the last of the family's problems: the mother is only recently recovered from alcoholism, the father's infidelity is still a fraught issue in the marriage; all in all, they're in an emotional mess that's no place for a child who's already been through quite enough - which is what everyone has good reason to assume Esther is. All of them seem to suffer from a failure of impulse control, and a dismay at having to live with the consequences of that. The son is appalled to learn that if you shoot a pigeon, you'll probably injure it, though what else he expected I couldn't say. The parents are deeply concerned that Esther isn't utterly ignorant when it comes to sex, but it doesn't stop them fucking in the kitchen. (Parental tip: if you want your children's ignorance preserved, don't fuck in the public rooms of the house. You have a bedroom, the bedroom has a door. You might even want to reconsider the whole no-locks policy; locks serve a purpose, I'm just sayin.) And, to return to the main point, they adopt a child they're entirely unequipped to care for and make no efforts to get equipped. The idea of having to accommodate any unusual needs or difficulties she shows appals them. They don't consider that this is a minimum requirement if you take a child in.

What we're looking at is a family who adopt a child for self-centred reasons as if they were making a purchase. Esther is picked out because she seems valuable - a talented artist with precocious manners. They adopt her at all because they want to heal their own pain (though how they got through any kind of screening process boggles the mind), a kind of familial retail therapy. The horror of Orphan is the horror of buyer's remorse: the pain of being stuck with a costly impulse buy that you can't return. And we're expected to sympathise with this more than with all the adoptees in the world who are being associated with freakish evil by this movie.

Again, I suspect I wouldn't have liked the movie's attitude had I watched it not-pregnant. But watching it pregnant was a different experience: I found myself far angrier with the parents than I otherwise might have been. I'm fully aware that parenting can be demanding, tiring and difficult (a fact people seem to take an odd pleasure in reminding a pregnant woman of at every turn), and any functional family has to have some limits on what is and isn't, as Supernanny would say, acceptable behaviour (otherwise they might grow up to be pigeon-murdering little prats, among other things) - but I've heard my son's small heart beating, and the idea that parents would expect a child to heal their pain is an idea I find, not just morally wrong, but morally outrageous, disgusting on a visceral level that simply wasn't there before.

Parents are imperfect, of course, and maybe some day my son will read this post and cry in outrage, 'But Mum did exactly that thing she's complaining about, the hypocrite!' I wish it may not be so and will do my best, but it's possible, in which case, all I can really say is, Sorry hon, and I hope your life is full enough of good things that they make amends for my failings; I hope you'll forgive me, but you have the right not to, so I just hope you choose whatever's best for you. It's a curious thing about pregnancy; part of me wants to write a love-letter to my unborn son, but not knowing him yet, another part of me feels like a general in-advance apology would be more appropriate. Parents have far too much power over their children, more power than any human being should have over another, and in such a relationship any malignity or incompetence on the part of the parent is going to be horribly magnified. (All four grandparents have been given carte blanche to tell the kid, 'Yeah he/she's always been like that' if he feels the need to complain about us, and I hope they take it. Someone to take your side against your parents seems like a necessity of life.) Which, to return to the theme of this post - just at this moment in my life, I'm struggling to think about anything other than my son - is possibly one reason why parent-child relationships are such a source of drama. Jack Torrance outrages because he abuses his power over his son; Orphan outrages because it refuses to acknowledge the power parents have over a child and portrays them as the victims instead.

Critical responses are always influenced by the influence of the critic. The Shining is a film I first saw in my teens, while Orphan is a new one on me, but my response is interestingly changed by the massive change in me that imminent motherhood presents. When I first watched The Shining I could identify with Danny as a child, a character inhabiting a state I had recently left; his fears and vulnerabilities were the issue. (And the corridor scenes where he pedals around are particularly brilliant; how vividly I remember that childhood sense that you never know when the world might be about to turn threatening.) Watching it as a pregnant adult, it's outrage that seems to be the main issue, because Danny has become, not a character I identify with, but a character that, were he real, I'd feel responsible for. It takes a village and all that, and what I see now is not his vulnerabilities, but his needs. And, as with Esther (or at least, as with Esther were she a child, and emotionally speaking I simply didn't buy the she's-really-an-adult twist; whatever the aim of the film, the experience of watching it felt like the experience of seeing a needy child neglected), those needs were being cruelly ignored and resented. It makes for painful rather than frightening viewing.

Life changes can do funny things to your head, in short. If I can stop fiddling with it, the next post will continue on this theme and address the thorny issue of a pregnant perspective on Rosemary's Baby...

re: mental hospital, is there another term? I wasn't aware that one carried any connotations, negative or otherwise.
Looking at the "signs" that are supposed to be the proof of her Evil Evilness (stepdad's attempting seducing aside)... creators of this movie would really, *really* hate Wednesday Addams. But I suspest that would be mutual.

This story *is* scary - only not for the reasons it's supposed to be.

("We don't lock doors in this house"?
re: mental hospital, is there another term?

'Psychiatric hospital' or 'psychiatric ward' are usual, I think. 'Mental hospital' has a Victorian ring to it, and carries more of a connotation that you're labelling the patient rather than treating the illness. (This is a horror film, after all: 'She was in a psychiatric hospital' sounds much less scary than 'She was in a mental hospital.' Horror of horrors, it sounds like she might be sick rather than evil, and then you'd have to feel compassion for her.) If you're talking about a place for dangerous patients, 'secure psychiatric hospital' is the probable phrase.

Colloquially some people still use 'mental hospital', but in the film, the person who uses the phrase is a staff member - and it's in Estonia. Given that the staff member is talking English, you'd expect them to use the correct professional terminology, because that's what you do when you learn a second language and use it on the job: you learn the phrases your colleagues would use.
Nobody warned me (although I should have known) about the huge perspective change that comes with being a parent. That, the sheer loudness of baby gas (both ends), the impossible volume of poo that can come out of somebody who isn't even eating yet, and the fact that even newborn boys react to needing to urinate the same way as grown men--those are the Big Four Shockers as far as I'm concerned. Why don't the books warn us about this stuff?

And but so anyway, if you haven't seen The Butterfly Effect, I strongly advise you not to. First of all, while it's advertised as just about anything else, it's a tragedy. Second, the protagonist's tragic/triumphant moment--what's the technical term? the moment at which he embraces the truth that he is an irretrievable screwup and does his best to make it all come right--anyway, that scene contains images that I only wish I could unsee. Before becoming a mother, I would have just gone, "Yuuuuuck," but with a baby on my lap, that scene takes on a whole new dimension of horror. If you really want to know, scroll down.
Having time-traveled back into his own body just before his birth, the protagonist kills himself in utero. I will not describe how.

Jenny Islander
It's an interesting thing, actually, that images of childbirth or associated stuff seem to bother me less than they did before I was pregnant. You'd think they'd bother me more. I can only attribute this to the fact that I've been listening to hypnotherapy CDs a lot, and one of the things they keep saying is 'You are protected from negative images and stories about childbirth...' Which is a useful thing to say, because some people really like to share bad stories.

When we watched Orphan, in fact, it began with a gruesome nightmare of childbirth - death and blood dripping everywhere. My husband was practically watching through his fingers; he's not usually very squeamish, but under the circumstances he found it pretty upsetting. Then he glanced over at me to see if I was okay, and found me undisturbed, watching in placid scepticism. I just laughed and intoned, 'I am protected from negative images of childbirth...'

Mind you, if I hadn't been self-programming, I doubt that scene would have made me happy at all. :-)
"Mental hospital" and "mental facility" seem to be, as best I can determine, in the barely-tolerable middle of a continuum of descriptor-names ranging from, on the least offensive side, "psychiatric care facility", to, on the most offensive; "nut-house", "looney bin", etc. Until relatively recently mental illness was something that simply wasn't discussed in society, polite or no. But now that we've "mainstreamed" our mentally ill (at least the majority of the non-violent patients -- sometimes to the extent that you can see them wandering the streets begging for change), society has, I think, started to come to a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I realization that the mentally ill are among us; but, unlike, say, zombies, aren't a "problem" that can just be got rid of by shooting them in the head. Instead we're going to have to figure out either how to care for them and give them the dignity that they need and deserve (and be willing to spend the money to do so), or we'll have to start locking them up away from "polite" society again -- and I can't say that I like the second idea one damn bit.
or we'll have to start locking them up away from "polite" society again -- and I can't say that I like the second idea one damn bit.

While I quite agree that incarcerating people in nasty conditions for illnesses they can't help is a bad idea, and that keeping mental illness a dirty secret is a horrible idea, I do think there's a place for some kind of secure living arrangements for certain people.

Someone I know, for instance, lives in sheltered housing. And it's the right place for them: they have developmental issues that mean they're simply unable to care for themselves fully, and it's beyond the capacity of their family to look after them as much as they need (their family actually became ill from exhaustion trying). They're not forbidden to leave the building or anything like that, but they need a more supportive living environment than most people, and if society couldn't provide that, the consequences don't bear thinking about.

Likewise, Oliver Sacks has argued in The New York Review of Books (you can find the beginning of the article here - http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/sep/24/the-lost-virtues-of-the-asylum/) - that in some cases, an 'asylum' could provide a safe, predictable and comfortable environment for people who found living in mainstream society simply more than they could cope with on top of their illness. Such institutions obviously had to be run on humane, well-informed and compassionate principles, otherwise they were just abusive, and of course one shouldn't institutionalise people who could, with appropriate support, manage in the outside world - but accounts suggest that some people, at least, found that life in a decent hospital was where they felt best.

I completely agree that we need to fight against stigmas and spend money and generally shift ourselves to provide proper support for people with psychological or developmental difficulties. Such people are our fellow-citizens, and should matter to us a great deal. I just think that among the funds we ought to allocate, a degree of expenditure on properly-run, dignified and supportive accommodation for the minority of people who don't feel able to live in the broader community ought to be one of the things on the list.
Nobody locks the bathroom door? What sort of family is this?

It sounds like such a minor point, but for me, if I ever saw the film, it would feel like the canary in the coal mine. The thirteenth strike of the clock that casts doubt on everything else. Though I'd like to think I'd see the film's other flaws long before then.
I know; it struck me as a weird rule too. I mean, I can see the sense of saying kids can't lock themselves in their bedrooms - it's a fire hazard, and suggests feelings around the issue of space that you should probably be looking at resolving - but the bathroom?

The explanation is probably nothing more complicated than a narrative need to show that Esther was hiding things, and to plant the suggestion that, physically, she wasn't what she seemed. But it wouldn't be difficult to do it another way - say, there's no lock on her bedroom door but she jams a chair under the handle once she's gotten into her night clothes; that's extreme enough that the parents wouldn't look like total oddities for wondering about it.
I've heard my son's small heart beating

I cannot express how much this sentence moved me. Not so long ago I felt my mother's last heartbeat and I have been thinking a lot about the nature of the parent / child relationship.

[end of part one]
This may seem "off track" with this post but my thoughts are a response to it and to your post on slactivist quoting Frederick Douglass wondering if his grandmother still lived after having been turned out of her owner's house "like an old horse."

I resent movies that use our natural responses to children as a way to manipulate us. The quickest way to engage the audience's sympathy is to put a child in danger. It is always struck me as the cheapest way for the lazy or incompetent film-maker to move their audience.

"Orphan" is, I think, an example of an inversion of that quick audience grabber. What do many adults fear (especially American adults given the current state of the health care system) but the specter of being old and helpless, left to fend for oneself in an uncaring world. And just as women will blame rape victim in an unconscious bid to magically protect themselves against rape, people are grappling with the question as to how/why someone can leave their mother/father in such condition.

One of the ways of responding is to look at the helpless old man or woman and decide that they must have been a horrible uncaring parent and deserve their present suffering. But what if the film-maker wants the audience to identify with the adults? You make their plight due not to the consequence of their parenting but because of the inherent evilness of their children.

Most of us are aware that we are not perfect, that while we may not repeat the mistakes of our parents with us we will invent a few of our own with our children. And we fear that those "little" mistakes will have grown into mine-fields. We fear that when we return to the helplessness shared by the very old and the very young we will be left at the mercy of people who may judge us harshly.

So it is more comforting to believe that there is something inherently wrong with the unthinking or cruel adult children than to believe that we too may someday be that helpless old man or woman mistreated by their own.

I was watching film of Pakistani refugees fleeing the devastating floods and saw not once, not twice, but many times, a man or woman carrying their elderly mother or father on their back. I wonder how many American parents believe in their heart of hearts that their son or daughter would do that for them? That is becoming their true, secret horror.

I think that part of the problem in the US has been the growth of the entitlement mindset. People from particular classes and backgrounds see the world as owing them something. Now members of the shrinking middle-class, people who always felt that the world "owed" them something are facing a world in which these things are no longer certain. And living in a culture that has enshrined the "just world fallacy" as the centerpiece to justify their privileges they are caught a nightmare. Either change their worldview or decide that they too "deserve" their misfortune.

As for how the kitling will see you someday I hope he learns to see you as I learned to see my mother. While I sat with her over her last weeks of life I came to truly understand that her "faults" as a parent were the faults of a fallible human being who, like every other parent, is called upon to do that most difficult of tasks, raising a child. Her mistakes were made out of love. She tried to balance the love, honour and duty she felt for both her children, her husband, her parents, her siblings and even (she was a veteran) her country.
sorry -- my entire comment was too long for blogger - so this is part two

Perhaps one of the reasons that you find movies like The Shining and Orphan different/difficult now you are pregnant is that what you are thinking about is not "what will this birth be like?" but "what is it to be a good parent?"

The parents in "Orphan" care nothing about either of their children. If they did they would have more worried about their living son than they were about filling their own needs. And, as you talking about in reference to The Shining not responding to a child is devastating for that child as well.

You are engaged because those concerns are no longer "academic" for you.
To respond to a different aspect of your post. I wish I could enjoy The Shining as much as you do. I think my reasons for not liking it fall into two categories:

1) having read and liked the book long before the movie was made I wanted a movie of the book. Kubrick's vision was so different from that I got from the book that my receptors just shut down. More so because I have always felt that that there was a really great movie hiding inside the book. It was just a different really great film than Kubrick delivered. However once Kubrick's version was out we would have to wait at least a generation for a version that didn't stand in the shadows of his.

b) I really, really, really dislike Nicholson. I dislike his style of acting and I dislike the way in which all his characters seem to be variations on a theme. Since that theme has a heavy misogynistic undercurrent I find myself unable to care about any of his characters. Indeed I seldom see the characters, I just see Nicholson.*

BTW, this is a spot to put in a kudo for Frank Sinatra a man whose work I generally didn't like but who occasionally just hit it out of the ballpark as in The Manchurian Candidate.**

*I first saw Nicholson in Easy Rider. Didn't like his acting style there either.

**In my opinion a better movie than book (the 1962 Frankenheimer version) partly due to the fact that the very complicated mother/son relationship is handled much better in the movie than the book. The book descends to demonizing her while Lansbury's portrayal is brilliant and multi-faceted.)
Wow, thanks for contributing such a fascinating set of comments! Intriguing. I'll split as well...

We fear that when we return to the helplessness shared by the very old and the very young we will be left at the mercy of people who may judge us harshly.

Too, I suspect that we fear we'll be at the emotional mercy of people who will judge us harshly. Though I'm a long way away from that, there's going to come a day when my child or children are old enough to get up and walk away. From everything I've heard people say, parents don't stop loving their children intensely; one father even told me that he never stopped seeing his children as adorable, even though they're in their thirties now. I suspect parents fear a day when they still want their children's love, and their children can choose not to give it.

It's an attitude best not imposed on the children, of course, because that leads to manipulation, guilt-tripping and general not-being-the-grown-upness. (And, in Machiavellian terms, is also about the quickest way to drive someone away.) As adults we stop wanting our parents' guidance, but I don't think we ever stop wanting their approval, so parents being emotionally needy are going in the wrong direction. But I can certainly understand the fear.


I think that part of the problem in the US has been the growth of the entitlement mindset.

That was actually a theme I considered for the post; I originally called it 'The Age of Entitlement'. I've seen quite a few horror movies, which is where you see society's underbelly of fear, present situations where the protagonists seem to feel a sense of bewildered unfairness at, basically, having to live in the real world, in a way that makes me not feel very sorry for them at all. I decided against it partly because a different idea occurred to me and partly because I'm mentally knackered and my brain balked at the idea of dragging back through its memory to find the appropriate examples ... but certainly 'entitled' was a word that occurred throughout Orphan. Entitled to the point of being downright predatory, while still convinced of one's own victim status.
Kubrick's vision was so different from that I got from the book that my receptors just shut down.

Mm, that is one of the things about him as a director: a Kubrick movie is a Kubrick movie, and often flatly contradictory to the spirit of whatever he was adapting. The bitter rhetoric of The Short Timers becomes the deadpan farce of Full Metal Jacket. The baroque, unreliable-narrative horrors of Lolita become a tragic tale of unrequited love. Superb movies in themselves, in that exoriating way Kubrick has, but you do have to take them entirely on their own terms or not at all.

(I've talked about something similar here - http://kitwhitfield.blogspot.com/2008/07/kubrick-and-adaptations.html)

I'm less of a King fan than you, I'd guess - I think he's an interesting writer, but I'd never mind seeing an adaptation contrary to the spirit of his work if it was good. And in fact, as I mention in the post above, I suspect one reason why King himself didn't like The Shining is that it placed a pitilessly harsh interpretation on the 'King' character: it was like watching someone refuse forgiveness.

I find Nicholson threateningly misogynist as well, but I personally felt that it worked for that part, because the role required him to be an inexcusable man.

Is it possible, since you'd read the book first (I haven't read it at all) that you were expecting Torrance to be more of a hero, which I gather is how the book goes? That might make Nicholson's misogyny more of a problem; I watched it with no idea of who I was supposed to like, and simply saw a movie about a man who fails to take responsibility for his own psychological issues even to the point of destroying his family - basically a domestic abuse story, which a misogynistic manner actually supports.
one father even told me that he never stopped seeing his children as adorable, even though they're in their thirties now..

I have a longer response to your other comments later -- but wanted to respond to this right away.

At one point while my mother was dying my father ended up in the hospital himself. I slept next to his bed in the emergency/admitting area. As I lay there in the dark wondering if I was going to lose both of my parents my father reached over and held my hand. For that moment in time I wasn't his adult daughter I was his frightened little girl.
Further on Kubrick and King:

Yes, the problem was that Kubrick makes his own films using other people's work as springboards. And he makes (generally) brilliant movies. The thing was that I thought there was a good film to be found in the book -- and Kubrick's was not a film of the book I had read.

I am not what I would consider a King fan although I have read a lot of King in my time. To me The Shinint was a fascinating book because in many ways it was King (whether or not he knew it) looking at his own life, his weaknesses and his sins. In order to turn it into a good movie it would have needed a good director but also a director who was interested in the book the way I had been as a reader.

BTW, just as you have Kubrick theories I have King theories about what happened to him -- his work changes in some fairly noticeable ways at about mid-career (before the horrible accident) and I now find him a rather pedestrian and predictable writer whose books are bloated and rather self-indulgent.

Now, if you are up to it I would love a good Rosemary's Baby. Have you also read the book? And do you "problems" dealing with Polanski films now?
Okay, disks have been cleaned, browsers have been reloaded, and security settings have been reset. So we'll see if Blogger will be kind enough to accept those humble efforts and let me speak to it again.

at this moment in my life, I'm struggling to think about anything other than my son
You are probably getting tired of being told how "articulate" you are, as if you'd sold your soul to the devil in return for the gift of the gab. But I do have to say how impressed I am that you can write so coherently here and on Slacktivist, so close to your due date. I think I spent that last week or so hardly moving, barely talking to anyone, and certainly not thinking much.

(Verification word: Broop. Baby's first, uh, sound?)
Hmm, that seems to have worked. So excuse the double post if I blather on a little more.

And maybe you'll even read it before your son makes his appearance and really gives you something else to think about!

Although actually, I never saw either The Shining or Orphan, and I don't believe I ever saw Rosemary's Baby either. But I did see The Exorcist, way back in the day. Now there was another movie that was (as I remember, although the details are fuzzy) also pretty ambivalent about the child in danger, in a way that strikes me now as very expressive of its early-70's period-- immediately post-60s, post-Vietnam, pre-AIDS sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll. The "older generation" wasn't sure whether the kids were in danger, or the kids were the danger. Just like that demon-possessed little girl: what's got into the kids these days?

one father even told me that he never stopped seeing his children as adorable, even though they're in their thirties now.
This is true; you never forget your children as children, no matter how old they or you will get. There's a TV commercial playing around here for some sort of car-- Saab, maybe? something that stresses its safety record-- where a teenaged girl is getting ready to drive away, and her father looks at her and sees a laughing six-year-old in the driver's seat. It's silly, but they know how to get to you-- I can look at my daughter and see all the girls she used to be.

So here's Anna Viadoro on her sons:
"Sons enter my heart and nest there as a colicky infant whose cries make my heart crumble, as an impetuous two-year-old who ran too fast down hills and came up with scabbed lips...as a too-young fourth-grader put in to pitch with two men out and bases loaded and he pulled out the win as easily as a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat! As a six-foot-tall teen just accepted to the college of his choice who holds me, his proud and sobbing mother, to his chest the way I held him for the first time eighteen years ago under the night sky filled with diamonds. I smiled as widely then as he is now, feeling very much the same as he is-- like I hit the lottery big-time...Sons enter my heart and set up permanent dwellings, dig cellar holes, build houses that are meant to last with firm timbers, set them together with perfect, hand-sown pegs. They leave the lights on for me now when they go out so I remember they'll be home again soon."

You have it all ahead of you: enjoy it!
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