By Jessica Moore

BA Hons English and American Literature at UKC. Currently in Berlin studying Philology at FU. Interested in film, gender history and 20th-century fiction. contact:

thelma & louise (1991): redemptive violence, femininity and queering masculine space

[contains spoilers, content warning: rape, sexual violence]

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This essay weaves together some of the cinematic elements that animate romance, dark comedy, redemptive violence, absurdity, feminism and queer space – tethering them to the centre of the compelling cinematic universe of Thelma & Louise (1991).

Callie Khouri’s screenplay

“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake”

In writing Thelma & Louise, Callie Khouri composed a 131-minute long love song for the screen, an ode to women and freedom, and in doing so earned herself the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Thelma & Louise has one of the most beautiful, quick-witted scripts to emerge from this genre, a genre that can only be seen to fit a loose definition of comedy, action, mystery, romance, in one marvellous, amorphous conflation. Below are some of the iconic quotes that evidence Khouri’s mastery at writing the female voice as an agent of the reworked crime/romance/comedy genre.

Louise: You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.

Thelma: [with her gun to the state trooper’s head] I swear three days ago neither one of us would’ve EVER pulled a stunt like this, but if you’d ever meet my husband you’d understand why.

Thelma: You awake?

Louise: Guess you could call it that, my eyes are open.

Thelma: Me too. I feel awake!

Louise: Good.

Thelma: Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feeling this awake. You know what I mean? Everything looks different. You feel like that, too, like you got something to look forward to?

Louise: We’ll be drinking margaritas by the sea, mamacita.

Thelma: Hey, we could change our names.

Louise: We could live in a hacienda.

Thelma: I gonna get a job. I’m gonna work at Club Med.

Louise: Yeah. Now what kind of deal is that cop gonna have to come up with to beat that?

Thelma: Have to be pretty good.

Louise: Have to be pretty damn good.

fluorescent light motifs

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Borrowing from a Lynchian aesthetic, the fluorescent lights are emblematic of Edward Hopper paintings, of the illuminating metropolises of America at the height of mid-twentieth-century modernity. If Thelma & Louise is to writer Callie Khouri a love-song to women, to director Ridley Scott it is a romantic novel translated onto film, to simulate rain-speckled gas station signs and advertisements that glow neon from the highway.

feminising the road-trip

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Perhaps the reason Khouri writes such a vibrantly comic and erotic road-trip tale is that it is her reimagining of what is otherwise a historically masculine genre. To avoid any comparison to its masculine contemporaries and predecessors, Khouri reinvents the road trip film as an active site of femininity and romance mitigated with a plot of criminality. Even the initial crime itself is feminised, as an act of sexual violence against women, male-on-female. Thus the violent action throughout the film, all of which comes as a result of the male-on-female violence at the start, is the only remaining satellite that orbits the masculine genre at its core, and is feminised. Therein lies a kind of liberation in the betrayal of masculine convention. We don’t witness Thelma and Louise meet a historical expectation of weak feminine subaltern characters wrapped up in action, instead, there is inversion. Their friendship is eroticised, the men they meet are enemies for their abuse of power or their enforcement of the law, their violence is reactionary at first and evolves into comedy, influenced by that of which they’ve seen on TV. In all aspects, there is an inversion of the female role and of the action genre, and together, in the absence of men in a man’s universe, they find a space where femininity and action coexist in harmony.

“nobody’d believe us”

Louise: I think I fucked up. I think I got us in a situation where we both could get killed. Damn, I don’t know why I just didn’t go to the police right away.

Thelma: You know why. You already said.

Louise: What’d I say again?

Thelma: Nobody’d believe us. We’d still get in trouble, we’d still have our lives ruined. You know what else?

Louise: What?

Thelma: That guy was hurting me. If you hadn’t come out when you did, he would’ve hurt me a lot worse. And probably nothing would’ve happened to him ’cause everybody did see me dancin’ with him all night. They would’ve made out like I’d asked for it. My life would’ve been ruined a whole lot worse than it is now. At least now I’m havin’ some fun. And I’m not sorry that son of a bitch is dead. I’m just sorry it was you that did it and not me.

Rooted in the film’s feminism is a harrowing consciousness of rape culture and the judicial system’s treatment of rape victims. One of the first incidences we witness a self-awareness of Thelma’s otherwise naive characterisation is her acknowledgement of the reaction to those who claim to have been raped, upon reflecting her own close encounter with assault. The act of self-defence, Louise shooting the attacker, represents a process that is altogether contentious and perplexing according to judicial law: the grey areas of innocence, guilt, attack and defence. Thelma & Louise takes a social and feminist issue and turns it into something we as audience are subjected to stomach: the same consciousness of our own culture’s attitude to rape and sexual violence. Even after 27 years, little in attitude has changed. Beneath the fluorescent lights of the bar and the drinking and the comedy, there is a known reality. We don’t take Louise’s violence as we take a typical action film’s violence, as superficial entertainment, hypermasculinised, emphatic power assertions. We don’t view the violent act of shooting the attacker, preventing Thelma’s rape, as escapist mythology, but as a mode of survival. Thelma and Louise don’t experience the cinematic luxury of slinging a gun and outrunning the bad guys. They commit violence as a mere reaction to the violence inflicted upon them, ‘them’ as a symbol of women.

Louise: In the future, when a woman is crying like that, she isn’t having any fun.

violence as a vehicle of control, more pertinently, taking back control

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Thelma & Louise has been criticised by some for its abundant violence. Some have even stretched far enough to claim misandry. Troublingly so, these inconclusive critiques raise the question: is cinematic violence only ever permissible when it’s male-on-male, female-on-female, or worse, male-on-female? If so, does female-on-male violence have to be so outrageously untethered to a known reality in order to be permitted? If so, only the blood-spattered Uma Thurman armed with a Samurai sword in exoticised rural Japan is allowed. Apparently, female-on-male violence for cinematic and aesthetic entertainment can only exist if it promises to leave the U.S. and travel into the realm of the unbelievable in order to be unthreatening, in order to uphold the monuments of violence that are ‘normal’, or at least the ones we are used to seeing. It is probably worth remembering that the only man who is actually killed in Thelma & Louise is the sexual predator, in an act of self-defence, right at the beginning. God forbid there were actual spontaneous female-on-male killings, or perhaps our newly found sensitivity to violence would render us uncomfortable and upset. Any other kind of violence though? Sure. Grab a gun. Go crazy. When we enter the realm of the fictitious, of the cinematic, we should maybe debunk this sensitivity to violence that seems to only exist for female-on-male exclusively. Especially, in this case, when the violence is an act of self-defence. If even reactionary violence can be seen as ‘too violent’ or misandrous, then we are at a crossroads in which we must actually decipher what cinematic violence means regarding gender relations entirely.

Incidentally, not only is the violence compelling (here, I refer to the killing of the sexual predator thus it is definitely not misandrous but deserved), it is necessary. Our position as audience depends on it. It circumvents the structure of the story, it emancipates Thelma out of her subordinated life and it draws the women closer together. Without the crime spree, catalysed from the killing at the start, we would spend our viewing expecting the weekend to come to an end, as the credits roll and a far more bleak finale presented to Thelma and Louise: returning back home to their suffering, their normal.

In fact, in its necessity, violence becomes a vehicle of control. In a hyperbolic and feminised fashion, embellished with one-liners, the violence throughout keeps the plot in motion whilst garnering control for the women. In stark contrast to their occupations back home, a housewife and waitress respectively, once they unwittingly begin this spree of criminality and outrunning the law, they find an obscured sense of control within their own lives, a kind of redemption for the violence they have both endured as women.

it passes the Bechdel test


I wouldn’t usually examine a film according to its Bechdel assessment. Bechdel tests can be rather unfortunately sobering and feel somewhat futile to discuss for their indication of cinema’s stagnant lack of gender representation, but here it seemed significant to mention. For a film that orients femininity through a narrative of criminality, we see the feminine space operate to cinematically and symbolically omit men: Thelma and Louise running away from male partners for the weekend, the killing of a sexual predator and the preoccupation of skirting the notably all-male law enforcement in their constituents. In constant motion, following Thelma and Louise on the run, we spectate their dialogues and their omission of men as subject (passing Bechdel) and we witness this omission in practice. Throughout the narrative formation itself, men are not subject, but object. Nearly always in the distance (excluding Brad Pitt’s thieving cowboy subplot), men are at a remove spatially and temporally; across another state, back home, in a helicopter or police station, in memory. From the lens of Thelma and Louise, whose perspective from which we are exclusively confined, we are given access to a meta-cinematic visualisation of passing and somewhat reframing the Bechdel test altogether. Our heroines certainly do have at least one conversation about something other than men, and they have at least one of these conversations in the 1966 Ford convertible as they drive on into the desert, far from the men who subjugate them.

the punctuative and concluding kiss

Arriving at the end of the film, where Thelma and Louise have been surrounded and the anticipated confrontation with the law is at our feet, we stand over the grand canyon. We are given more dialogue of how much both Thelma and Louise feel they have changed, their reluctance to go back home and their exchange of silent compassion. They implicitly agree to “drive on”, over the edge of the canyon, and in doing so, punctuate the film’s absolutely beautiful, necessary absence of men. Thelma and Louise’s tireless effort to escape the men who dominate their lives (domestically or even societally, ie, the law) inevitably draws them into each other. What is seen by many as the final piece of evidence for the film’s queer undertones, is concluded with a kiss before they drive off into the canyon, “to keep on going”. This ending has left its mark on cinema and routinely and referentially lives on in modern culture. I don’t think (mainly female or queer) audiences have ever been so thrilled and heartbroken and emotionally invested in a car flying into a ravine. Perhaps because of the love story framed with criminal excitement we experience this unusual sense of beauty in this mania and euphoria. It isn’t Tom Cruise jumping out of a helicopter, it’s our heroines turning their backs on mistreatment, injustice and unfulfillment. It is, in all its absurdity, the happiest, most beautiful resolution for Thelma and Louise, and for us their audience, as their faithful companions.

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breaking the fourth wall: a brief and visual history through cinema

the great train robbery (1903)

great train robbery

metropolis (1927)


napoleon (1927)


steamboat bill jr. (1928)

steamboat bill jr

rebecca (1940)


lady in the lake (1946)

lady in the lake

black narcissus (1947)

black narcissus

the red shoes (1948)

the red shoes

roshomon (1950)


rear window (1954)

rear window

vertigo (1958)


the 400 blows (1959)

the 400 blows

eyes without a face (1960)

eyes without a face

psycho (1960)


the graduate (1967)

the graduate

le samouraï (1967)

le samouraï

once upon a time in the west (1968)


a clockwork orange (1971)

clockwork orange

jaws (1975)


saturday night fever (1977)

saturday night fever

annie hall (1977)

annie hall

apocalypse now (1979)

apocalypse now

raging bull (1980)

raging bull

the shining (1980)

the shining

ferris bueller’s day off (1986)

ferris buellers day off

married to the mob (1988)

married to the mob

do the right thing (1989)

do the right thing

goodfellas (1990)


misery (1990)


home alone (1990)

home alone

the silence of the lambs (1991)

silence of the lambs

singles (1992)


age of innocence (1993)


pulp fiction (1994)

pulp fiction

romeo and juliet (1996)

romeo and juliet

titanic (1997)


the truman show (1998)

truman show

fear and loathing in las vegas (1998)


the big lebowski (1998)


fight club (1999)

fight club

the virgin suicides (1999)

virgin suicides

magnolia (1999)


american beauty (1999)

american beauty

lord of the rings: the fellowship of the ring (2001)


the secretary (2002)


kill bill vol 1 (2003)

kill bill

a girl with a pearl earring (2003)

girl with a pearl earring

donnie darko (2001)

donnie darko

amelie (2001)


black swan (2010)

black swan

the artist (2011)


boyhood (2014)


get out (2017)


call me by your name (2017)

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a star is born (2018)

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rosemary’s baby (1968): a nightmare of the body


[spoilers and content warning: rape, themes of complications in pregnancy]


Rosemary’s Baby (1968) fools us into believing that we are now, fifty years after its production, at a safe distance from its terror. We see a typical young, married couple move into a New York apartment building, into an apartment met with rumours of disturbed previous tenants, and the precedent is set that the couple, and audience, should be wary. However, as soon as we are situated within the initial viewing of the apartment, as soon as we see the chest of drawers and the mysterious closet it unnaturally blocks, and the moment we witness what becomes an increasingly abusive marriage, we realise that there is no safe space for Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow). Instead of the pleasant, character developing realism that usually premeditates climactic horror, we see Rosemary, whose perspective we are significantly and exclusively bound to, slowly subjected to episodes of abuse that precede scenes of the supernatural, and in effect, lays the groundwork for the trauma that materialises.


the sexed body

Rosemary’s Baby evokes a kind of terror that moves inward and deeper into the mind of the audience than conventional tropes of horror. Rendering us bizarrely entranced by its surrealism, this terror is tracked against Rosemary’s body in its deterioration. Rosemary’s body is, quite literally, the skeleton of all trauma. Rosemary’s husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), whom she initially believes to have raped her and in doing so impregnating her, the ‘wire’ that she feels twisting inside her as her unborn child torments her, and the doctors who cooperate with the cult to subsist Rosemary’s isolation and medicate her with ‘tannis root’, are traumas inflicted upon the female body as a reproductive, commodified host.

Through the body, we see its relational status. We relate Rosemary’s body to her mind, how it paradoxically spirals into madness from an outward perspective the closer she gets to the truth of her pregnancy, Guy’s relationship to her body, and her body’s relation to her use of language: how she communicates or fails to communicate the messages her body is telling her: in pain, there is something wrong. It is far more distressing to watch Rosemary’s abdominal cramps and the paranoia that her unborn child could be stillborn when we remember that her doctor advises against reading about or speaking of pregnancy with her friends (“no two pregnancies are the same“, he tells her). This contrived web of isolation knits Rosemary further and further into herself, turning to her body as the only tangible material that can evidence her descent. In the vulnerability and exploitation of the female body, we step outside of surrealism and psychological horror and into the more terrifying realm of what is conceivable and real. Our discomfort isn’t merely reactive to the (albeit disturbing) imagistic sequence of the Satanic cult at work, it is the shocking and violent impregnantion and the pregnancy that follows: Rosemary’s physical trauma and her decline parallel to her isolation.



Food plays an important motif throughout the course of the film. It motivates the plot: Rosemary is delivered a dessert by Minnie in an (unsuccessful) ploy to poison her into a comatose state in which she can later be molested, as well as the ‘natural’ remedies for pregnancy such as the cakes and herb concoctions. Food, in its absence, also maps Rosemary’s deterioration. Polanski points us dialogically towards Rosemary’s physical transgression as she is described as thin and unwell by those around her, quite literally embodying her internal and psychological disturbance. As food becomes malignant, nourishment does too. In the aftermath of her molestation, Rosemary weakens physically as she carries her child, and her consumption of the medicinal drinks become a pattern for her lack of control: her body as possessed by other forces at work.



a nightmare of the body

It all boils down to a lack of agency. In its constituent parts, Rosemary’s Baby is a nightmare of the body in a hyperbolic translation to perfectly befit the horror genre, and even with its neat containment, it speaks emphatically to ideas of autonomy regarding gender and sexual violence. In its criticism, the justifiably controversial director Roman Polanski seems to operate through a lens frequent in mid-twentieth century film: the male gaze of a vulnerable woman under the guise and exemption of intimacy and high aestheticism. Thankfully, this doesn’t render Mia Farrow’s performance as a prop by which to experiment with aesthetics and thrills, instead, she becomes our heroine. Throughout her performance, Farrow quietly escapes the threshold of her character by deconstructing it. We are left mesmerised, by what could be, and often is, misunderstood as a vacancy and naivety in Rosemary’s character, with what is actually a powerful force in the face of extreme, physical adversity. When Rosemary is finally ensnared by the dreaded birthing scene, the scene we have long anticipated throughout the film, we reach the body’s second most violent act (following the impregnation). Upon regaining consciousness after the trauma and sedation, Rosemary enters the closet that we saw at the beginning of the film and steps into the lair of the cult, the Castevets’ apartment through the connecting architecture of the apartment block. By this physical act of infiltrating the cult’s congregation, sneaking through the connecting door into the next apartment, we see Rosemary’s emancipation, out of an apartment that we now allegorise with her pregnancy: in both, she was imprisoned.

Rosemary Woodhouse is exemplary for dictating the film’s atmosphere and subject. With her body as its fabric, she is the terror. What is terrifying isn’t the mythic nightmare of being targeted by a cult, it is the exploitation of the body and its deep, unnerving manifestations on the mind and reality. In this conspired exploitation, the body homes a distrust in everyone, and more pertinently, a fear of what exists within.


california belongs to joan didion


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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”


poetry as untranslatable: gloria anzaldúa on straddling dual identity

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.





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

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


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.

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


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.

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


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

Psycho (1960)
Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.45.32
Psycho (1960)
Psycho (1960)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
Slither (2006)
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.

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

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.34.41
The Grudge (2004)
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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.57.35
Sinister (2012)
Sinister (2012)


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.

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


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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.20.07
Mother! (2017)
Mother! (2017)
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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.27.04
Hereditary (2018)
Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 17.26.19
Hereditary (2018)

using space: wide shots and reflections

Suspiria (1977)
Suspiria (1977)
Black Swan (2010)
Carrie (1976)
It Follows (2014)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 19.29.51
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
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.