From October 2018

california belongs to joan didion

An-Ode-to-Joan-Didion-and-Her-Words-Man-Repeller-Feature

For a writer to take ownership of a place, to stake out their position in its liminal spaces, they perpetuate their vision into art and popular culture, and in turn, our collective memory. When we read we are unrelentingly challenged to deconstruct writers’ visions and how they shape our perspectives of familiar places. Together, as writer and reader, we enliven the phenomena of fiction, that through fiction places are transformed,  plucked out of objectivity and into a metaphysical realm, resemblant of, albeit distorted, the place itself. And this vision is what really counts; what culture and art reveal to us, what we see in the world is sufficiently, and entirely, as the world is. Or may as well be.

In her new book, “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes: “Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner… a great deal of Honolulu has always belonged for me to James Jones… A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”

California belongs to Joan Didion.

Michiko Kakutani wrote this in the New York Times in 1979. Once you’re familiar with Didion, it’s difficult to hear news reports, or read about or watch on television anything Californian without her vision of the Santa Ana and the Mojave desert and the highways and the empty spaces, elbowing their way forward in plain sight. Below, evidenced by various Didion quotations, we explore California, namely, Didion’s own experience of California that has for the last four decades been translated into something of cultural phenomena and its own very real reality: her burning, amorphous, enigmatic, spiritual, golden metropolis in all its mystique.

“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

“A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people and floods others with an amorphous unease.”

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Still from Play It As It Lays (1972)

“…devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves… It is the season of suicide, and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.”

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Ed Ruscha Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963)

“The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant… Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new lifestyle, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers.”

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still from Lady Bird (2017), Sacramento California

“Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country.”

“The freeway experience … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participation requires total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.”

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poetry as untranslatable: gloria anzaldúa on straddling dual identity

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Alison Hawthorne Deming

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“borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them”

The Chicano movement – the extension of Mexican American civil rights movement during the 1940s and 60s – was a movement of working-class Americans born of a cultural and racial ‘mixture’ across the southern borders of the US, exhibiting political solidarity and a linguistic common ground within their community. Queer theorist and Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa is known for her Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), a poetic discourse of the hybrid identities formed in the borderlands and voicing the people of inherited colonial oppression.

‘Chicanos did not know we were a people until 1965.. with that recognition we became a distinct people, we became aware of our reality and acquired a name and a language that reflected that reality’

the tool of language

The semantic field of Anzaldúa’s poetry, her littering of Spanish nouns amongst her majoritively English political discourse, raises the question: do the words she uses mean more, or something altogether different, in the language in which they are written? Does Anzaldúa speak to greater literary philosophies beyond the cultural, political remit that thematises her work? In conflating her dual identities, she speaks only to those who share this identity, irrespective of the glossary given at the bottom of her text to translate her Spanish. We ask, what does ‘rajetas’ mean for Anzaldúa, and is its meaning lost in translation lest it is kept in Spanish? Does the exercise of translation rid the word of its cultural exclusivity and meaning altogether? Her bilingualism speaks to the transitional state of life on the border: a physical and psychological border. Yet in her alternation, she is unable to commit fully to either language. Her orphan tongue is not native to any fixed geography, instead, she straddles in between, incomplete. Her linguistic alternation becomes central to the way she understands herself and the complexity of her cultural background: the border splits and prevents her from one sole identity; she is both.

In this dualism, Anzaldúa finds strength. The ‘crossroads’ she imagines become a point of divergence. Self-determination born out of identification. A sense of autonomy and agency is manifested within the crossroads, and in this exercise of choice, there is identity. It seems that to transcend borders, whilst the borders home identity, requires being ambiguous and contradictory. Anzaldúa is emphatic in her promotion that to overcome or navigate the border, you must become a crossroads. You must diverge and emancipate from the border rendering it as merely an origin, not as a final, immobile destination.

the struggle of the mestiza* is above all a feminist one

“The future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures.”

The Chicano Movement, in its romanticisation of the past, was a highly masculine environment, with conservative ideas of sexuality and gender roles, and Anzaldúa’s Chicana identity is rooted within this patriarchal and homophobic community. As a working-class queer woman, her sexual identity became another means of ostracisation, and for her poetry, she risks exclusion from her own cultural movement for her sexuality. Thus the intersections of her identity become internalised within the Chicano movement: oppressed outside the community for her Chicana heritage, and within for her queerness.

Violent metaphors seem to feminise the poem: the Woman as a site of bodily oppression and violence. The ‘open wound’ Anzaldúa imagines can be seen as a state of suffering, an exposure of dual identity that prevents healing, or, identification from either side of the border. Belonging exclusively to the isolated ‘third country’ in between. However, Anzaldúa seems to believe that in the possession of an ambiguous, contradicting identity, there is empowerment. In contradiction there is conflict, and in conflict, you can shake up both sides of the border.

Anzaldúa speaks self-consciously to her own language within her poetry: “until I am free to switch my language I will be illegitimate”. In translational gaps and miscommunication, the paradigm that she will be misunderstood by monolingual Spanish or English speakers, she finds strength and community. There, in refutation of the exclusion from her racial community, she speaks to the Chicana movement itself. She tackles and activates the language that defines her community around a shared experience and identity, insofar that her poetry, its duality and conflict and fragmentation, is her identity: “I am my language”.

*Mestiza = (in Latin America) a person of mixed race, especially one having Spanish and American Indian parentage.

isolation, conflict and constraint: the coherency of jean rhys’ short stories

20th-century novelist Jean Rhys compels readers with her mesmerising narratives of exile, loneliness and distorting what it means to be a flâneur. As born and raised in Dominica with European ancestry, Rhys’ writing speaks closely to her own upbringing and the complexities of her identity, accounts of being isolated and witnessing isolation in others. The Mulatto woman who spoke ‘sometimes in French, sometimes in English’ is a famous example of isolated characters from Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight (1939), a critique of modernist pretension. Rhys writes of the woman: ‘she hadn’t been out, except after dark, for two years. When she said this I had an extraordinary sensation, as if I were looking down into a pit’. This distanced account, looking down into a pit, evidences Rhys’ interest with distances within human interactions, notably, to illuminate the realities of isolation, despair and their conflation with the process of casting someone as ‘other’ for their race and nationality.

Rhys’ deconstruction of identity and the loneliness this conceives are far from simple categorisations of modernist or postmodern writing. Rhys is a precarious modernist. She sees and articulates a lot more in the process of being cast as other, for race and gender together, than is seen in European modernism, especially.

Rhys delineates race and identity against the backdrop of urban spaces, hence the ascription of flâneurism across many of her protagonists. They wander and observe society, but in a less privileged sense than is usually implied (the flâneur as typically bourgeois men). Rhys’ stories try arduously to identify their narrator and characters to the point of exhaustion. They are often distinguished by their racial, gender identity or with no fixed identity at all, and for the latter, implying no fixed, permanent place. In this authorial decision to reveal, or refrain from revealing, individuality, Rhys distorts the notion of wandering and replaces its implied leisure with the act of survival, a forced and imposed form of exile: a reality familiar in the conflicts of the 21st century.

In her genius, there is devastation and constraint. Rhys’ stories are tireless efforts to provide a vision for the onlookers to those in exile and to voice those exiled. The quotes below are extracted from short stories and provide previews and thematic notations to better visualise Rhys coherency and distinction as a 20th-century writer, as her vision continues to haunt the present for its relevancy, of exile and identity crisis.

 

 

Heat (1976)

“Nobody talked in the street, nobody talked while we ate, or hardly at all. I know now that they were all frightened”

Community, fear, isolation, misrepresentation, falsity.

 

 

On Not Shooting Sitting Birds (1976)

“There is no control over memory. Quite soon you find yourself being vague about an event which seemed so important at the time that you thought you’d never forget it. Or unable to recall the face of someone whom you could have sworn was there forever. On the other hand, trivial and meaningless memories may stay with you for life.”

Memory, human connection, fabrication, identity, communication.

 

 

Mixing Cocktails (1927)

“I long to be like Other people! The extraordinary, ungetatable, oddly cruel Other people, with their way of wantonly hurting and then accusing you of being thin-skinned, sulky, vindictive or ridiculous. All because a hurt and puzzled little girl has retired into her shell.”

Loss of connection, caution, solace, inability to map identity.

 

 

The Day They Burned The Books (1972)

“He had pulled Mrs Sawyer’s hair. ‘Not a wig, you see,’ he bawled. Even then, if you can believe it, Mrs Saywer had laughed and tried to pretend that it was all part of the joke, this mysterious, obscure, sacred English joke.”

Conflict, race, cultural identity, colonialism, structuralism.

 

 

I Used To Live Here Once (1976)

“There were two children under the big mango tree, a boy and a little girl, and she waved to them and called ‘Hello’ but they didn’t answer her or turn their heads. Very fair children, as Europeans born in the West Indies so often are: as if the white blood is asserting itself against all odds”

Race, memory, youth, invisibility.

 

 

 

 

synecdoche, new love: modern couples exhibition review

Modern Couples presents a different way of looking at Modernism in art, as seen through the artist ‘couple’, an elastic term encompassing all manner of intimate relationships that the artists themselves grappled with, expanded, embraced or refuted.’

– Exhibition Guide

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is the newest exhibition at the Barbican Centre. Organised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou-Metz, the exhibition draws on a wide range of original paintings, handwritten letters, sculptures, artist manifestos, and furniture. The idea of the solitary artistic genius is done away with, giving attention to the muses, rivals, lovers and companions whose consideration seems long overdue.

Including the likes of Vanessa Bell & Roger Fry, Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin, Claude Cahun & Marcel Moore, Eileen Gray & Jean Badovici, and over forty more- the exhibit considers more than just romantic or sexual couplings but platonic, familial, professional and competitive ones. It also steers away from a heteronormative model, including couples such as Lili Elbe & Gerda Wegener.

D. Tanning and M. Ernst with his sculpture ‘Capricorn’, 1947, @John Kasnetsis

Sprawling across two levels and filling twenty-three rooms, the exhibition is comprehensive to say the least. Each couple is given a section of wall on which their names, artistic output and biography of relationship are printed. Oddly, the ‘birth’ and ‘death’ dates of the relationship are also supplied, each one coming together on one wall to produce a timeline: ‘from the liaison to the life-long’. The works of art are exclusively framed within the rhetoric of the ‘modern couple’. Little evidence and reference is given to work beyond the timeline of the relationship, as if that artistic output is deemed unworthy of mention.

But this is not to say the exhibition does not have its successes. For example the sheer variety of material is extremely impressive- a testament to the effort and rigour of the curators involved. From Marcel Duchamp’s Erotic Objects (1950-1) which are based on the moulds of female genitalia, to the harrowing handwritten communications between Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin: “please don’t be unfaithful to me anymore”. Upstairs the exhibition also features examples of Aino & Alvar Aalto furniture and a selection of designs from the Bloomsbury group.

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, 1933. Houghton Library, Harvard University

‘Liberated, Radical, Obsessional!’ is the tagline emblazoned across the promotional tote-bags and posters, but throughout the exhibition I asked myself: where? Where is this obsession that inspired, enabled and empowered the artists behind these wonderful works of art? The fervour that supposedly fuelled these works of passion are displayed in a format that quickly becomes repetitive and mechanical. It is like one has stepped into the physical manifestation of each artists’ dictionary entry and we are unable to delve further beyond their opening sentences. Unfortunately, despite its good intentions of representing the overshadowed partner, the exhibition does little to advocate their genius and brilliance.  If one compares Modern Couples to the Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibit which ran last year, the former seems entirely soulless. Whilst Boom for Real celebrated Basquiat as a multifaceted and energetic creative, Modern Couples is a straightjacket to those it includes. It does little to relieve the more unknown partners of their obscurity as their work is only presented as the output of a ‘couple’.

Whilst I admire the variety of material, Modern Couples flatlines in the struggle between quantity and quality.  The art is used, not only to represent the whole relationship, but each artist’s entire oeuvre.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova in the workshop. (in front of Kino-phot magazine covers), 1923 Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde can be seen at the Barbican Centre, EC2Y 8DS, until 27 Jan 2019.

space, suburbia and architecture: constructing tension in film

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s distinction between suspense and surprise can be applied to the architecture of film. Here is a guided tour through architectural features that manufacture and encourage tension, a blueprint of a cinematic dream house, orienting its components through noteworthy film stills.

corridors

Corridors are seldom occupied. In the empty space and junctions they create, they become a means to keep moving, or escape.

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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)

rooms

The lack of windows and seemingly garish design promote the confinement of rooms and ability to ostracise an audience in A Clockwork Orange. The camera angles are invasive and uncomfortably close to interactions that feel altogether private or perverse, relocating the audience to a position of intrusion and discomfort as a framework for their anticipation.

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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)

staircases

Suburban staircases are continually and gradually icons of deterioration in The Exorcist. Visually allegorising a descent into possession, the crab-walking scene is one of the more memorable moments from what is still heralded as the scariest film to date. Separated from scenes that are far more graphic and perverse, the staircase scene is terrifying for its very banal setting. We are lead to believe that we are safe when we leave Regan’s bedroom, but even the safe spaces in the house become infiltrated.

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The Exorcist (1973)
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The Exorcist (1973)
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The Exorcist (1973)

bathrooms

Through the networks of water and noise, entities are carried to the outside world and inward.

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Psycho (1960)
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Psycho (1960)
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Psycho (1960)
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The Shining (1980)
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The Shining (1980)
Slither
Slither (2006)
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IT (2017)

open plan spaces

Paradoxically, open spaces are a symbol of claustrophobia in Sleeping with the Enemy. The wide shots of the spacious beach house, its floor length windows and modern interior design add to the film’s sense of emptiness and the psychological claustrophobia that manifests between episodes of violence. What seems easier to escape from, at least seemingly easier than a cellar as one classic site of entrapment, becomes impossible. Psychological claustrophobia, as manufactured here by the risk of escaping a violent man, is what distorts the idea of open space as freeing and emancipating, and is instead demonstratively empty and tormenting.

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Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
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Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
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Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

the closet

Childhood psychological fears of monsters and darkness play into the role of the closet in the cinematic dream house. Often, the closet is where an entity resides to then be unleashed and wreak havoc, in The Grudge, the closet dweller retreats, taking those who peer inside.

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The Grudge (2004)
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The Grudge (2004)

the attic

Both a place to escape to and a place that is difficult to escape from, the attic’s function is dual and conflicting. Its moments of relief and its resurgence of tension and confinement occur within moments of each other.

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Sinister (2012)
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Sinister (2012)

doors

The Conjuring franchise use doors as a way to visually demonstrate paranormal movements, but also, as the house grows more unrelentingly ‘possessed’, the doors themselves seem to physically confine the family indoors.

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The Conjuring franchise
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The Conjuring franchise
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The Conjuring franchise
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The Conjuring franchise
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The Conjuring franchise

windows

Windows create tension for their very literal and visual function to preview an interiority or exteriority. To see inside a building, or for this view to be blocked or hindered, is very symbolically connected to the idea of darkness vs light. The windows are metaphorically connected to the ways we physically watch film, we cover our eyes from what we can see and we are caught off guard when tension obstructs our vision.

If necessary, windows are a means to escape. Thus even their size in a room impacts our sense of tension and our prediction for the likelihood a protagonist is able to escape, how sealed their fate is. In Mother! windows are a way to see what’s coming before there is a knock at the door.

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Mother! (2017)
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Mother! (2017)
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Mother! (2017)

the treehouse

Hereditary’s treehouse is extremely allegorical, as a location for grieving, and by the end of the film, as a site of ritualistic sacrifice and worship. Two of the films major themes, mourning and ritualistic satanism, connect only here, at the bottom of the garden amongst ominously fake looking trees that resemble one of Annie’s models.

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Hereditary (2018)
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Hereditary (2018)

using space: wide shots and reflections

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Suspiria (1977)
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Suspiria (1977)
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Black Swan (2010)
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Carrie (1976)
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It Follows (2014)
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A Clockwork Orange (1971)
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Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
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Requiem for a Dream (2000)
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Requiem for a Dream (2000)
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Get Out (2017)

How the camera is positioned in relation to these spaces is the second motion in the construction of tension. Suspiria and Black Swan, similar in their subject matter, use reflective surfaces and mirrors for distortion and conflicting focal points. It Follows uses wide-shots of dark industrial and suburban locations as traps for ‘it’ (the following, morphing entity that orients the narrative) that challenges its audience to find a focus point to latch onto for safety. Either way, there is an exercise of predicting where in our vision is safest, or most thrilling, to look.

art and the everyday

If money were not object, my nursery would have been fitted with William Morris wallpaper. Strawberry Thief may have been chosen, or perhaps Seaweed or Honeysuckle. I’m sure their scrolling foliage and patterns of blossoming flowers, fruits and wildlife would have fascinated any young child. However, despite these designs not adorning my childhood walls, I came to know them very well. Compton embellished my dad’s favourite mug whilst Fruit existed as a tea towel in the kitchen. Larkspur, Wreath, Trellis and Pimpernel today still furnish our home in the form of aprons, trays, pillow covers and tote-bags. I even used a free sample of Golden Lily to cover my GCSE art sketchbook. For me, there is something so nostalgic about Morris and Co. designs. I grew up with their reproductions in my home and until recently thought nothing of it.

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Trellis wallpaper, designed by William Morris and Phillip Webb, 1862, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Morris once wisely said,

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

Although our home is filled with many things one would struggle to claim as beautiful or useful, the mismatched junk of the family house has its own strange kind of beauty. The bowl filled with a jumble of pebbles, keys, coins, dog biscuits, hair clips and old receipts. The box of wires and cables never used and their functions long forgotten. I feel that I am starting to romanticise the mundane here, and one probably shouldn’t start to analyse the clutter of everyday life. Yet, I feel there is more to be gained from looking at interiors this way. I grew up with Morris and Co., not on my wall, but in the everyday objects I interacted with. So much has been written about Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement and interior design as a whole, but little considered into how this translates into the homes of ordinary people today.

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Wreath wallpaper, designed by William Morris, 1876, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So I suppose this acts as a brief prologue to a series of writings surrounding the topic of the everyday interior. To come will be further analysis into the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the interiors of the Bloomsbury group and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright across the pond. I’ll also be considering the importance of  reproductions and the accessibility of design. Perhaps by considering these renown designers alongside our ordinary furnishings, a reevaluation can take place, as Morris said,

The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.’.

eighteen years on: behind the scenes of almost famous (2000)

18 years on and Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age drama/comedy Almost Famous (2000) still deserves celebration (here, in the form of behind the scenes pictures, as shared by Crowe himself on twitter). Although these photos originally surfaced in 2015, they are still striking for their refusal to extract the viewer out of the universe of the film from which they are derived. These behind the scenes photos don’t feel ‘behind’ the fiction at all, but in the foreground of the era the film so unflinchingly devotes itself to. They are artefacts of the fiction they explore inasmuch as the actual film, almost like a B-side of the story, an alternative yet coherent view to what is written for the screen. In their encapsulation of the nearly 3-hour long film’s warmth and personality and the 1970s, these photos are endearing in their contribution to the culture of Almost Famous (2000), a masterpiece whose status as ‘cult classic’ is unlikely to cease.