From think-pieces

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

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[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.

 

consumption

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.

 

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.’.

notes on maniac (2018)

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[spoilers]

retrofuturism and mental illness

Cary Fukunaga’s Maniac (2018) is a visual journey that takes us along multiple planes of expedition. Leading separate lives in the same retro-futuristic universe, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) are involved in the latter stages of a pharmaceutical trial for a drug that strives to rid the mind of trauma and disorder, yet Annie and Owen continually find themselves connected as the trial removes them further and further from their known realities. Each episode takes its audience through allegorical storylines that in their isolation begin to unify midway through the series, as they begin to coexist as a side effect of the trial and of a deeper bond between the two protagonists. The episodes, Annie and Owen and the characters they conceptualise represent some of the ways we see and try to understand mental illness and human connection.

As the series progresses, the pharmaceutical trial becomes limited as the setting to which all characters are tethered, an important backdrop but a backdrop all the same. The more realised setting and the more striking sites of exploration are the fragmented stories that are manifest during the drug experiences, the ones that somehow connect Annie and Owen on their respective ‘reflections’ and evidence the system’s refusal to keep the characters separate.

The series as a whole is (deliberately or not) an attempt at a visual display of how mental illness is complex, to say the least. Even in this futuristic universe, Maniac seems to suggest that pharmacy and psychotherapy are far from successful at navigating the intricacies of the mind. Within its sci-fi realm, including the retrofuturism in the early episodes such as the AdBuddys, Maniac moves beyond sci-fi as sci-fi for its own sake. We instead begin to simultaneously orient sci-fi alongside its exploration of mental illness, almost as if the technology within this retrofuturistic world permits and gives structure to a creative vision of mental illness, one that without this alternative universe would be rendered invisible, untracked. Maniac is just that, a vision, a vision through technology and augmented realities and versions of realities that allow characters to navigate, or at least witness, their own psyches within the regimented pharmaceutical trial as a facilitator.

What could be seen as arbitrarily futuristic, or ill-expressed when dealing with issues such as mental illness is up for speculation. Maniac is merited for its unusual and therefore alternative way of presenting mental illnesses. In this overtly fictional universe, can Maniac’s vision be held responsible for its portrayals and potential inaccuracies of mental illness if the vision itself is retro-futuristic? If, despite its warmth and familiarity, the entire universe of Maniac, outside the trial, is somewhat removed from our known reality in which these discussions are held?

The series’ potential flaw is its bundling of many ideas and philosophical takes on the mind. Maniac seems to say a lot about mental illness, encouraging important conversation from its audience. But because of the retrofuturistic setting, it is hard to dichotomise the series’ take on mental illness as nonsensical at best or offensive at worst. Regarding the universe in which it is set, it is unsurprising that Maniac was once a comic. The characters feel caricatured and therefore don’t promote much realism to the audience; nothing feels that ‘realistic’ compared to other series that try to explore mental illness. But perhaps the cartoonishness, the glorified visuals and futuristic technologies that humour the series and what we are given as reality, can actually help us to understand our own. Perhaps the retrofuturistic setting is just an alternative way to stomach these big, impenetrably difficult ideas surrounding mental illness and human connection. The series doesn’t try to compartmentalise the mind into easy, definitive disorders, in fact, it presents us with equally as complicated and abstract technology (Greta the conscious, empathetic computer) as a means to understand the minds of the subjects. In its absurdity there is some reason, Maniac is not condemning current treatments and remedies of mental illness familiar to its audience today, it is showcasing an invented, fictional system (that notably fails) as a cure.

Before the credits roll during the final episode we are given adventurous sentimentality, Annie and Owen chased out of the psychiatric ward car park by security and wardens, driving away in Annie’s father’s (Hank Azaria) truck. With their future unknown, the end rounds off the series with a sense of incompleteness which is endearing and fitting for the show’s overall messages: the trial did not work and no one is ‘fixed’, but people are (either in reality or in their own understanding of it) at least in the process. The trial, then, did achieve something. In its malfunction, creating a duality between Annie and Owen’s reflections, Annie and Owen found each other and thereby ways of coping with the real world, respectively.

A lot is contained in these ten episodes, and perhaps the ideas it explores should have been more fleshed out across longer episodes. But there is a kind of resolution, a cyclical satisfaction when the tenth episode ends. We do not witness an obnoxiously successful riddance of mental illness like the series initially seemed to preclude to, we are instead given a story of connected strangers in a time and place which is distant yet close in subject matter to our own environment, and in that simplification, it is triumphant.

 

 

‘high school’ films: a modern renaissance

In his MTV interview at Toronto International Film Festival 2018, Timothée Chalamet speaks to Josh Horowitz about his experiences filming Beautiful Boy (2018) and what it means to be a young actor today. It can be seen here.

He says,

“What was amazing last year was that I felt like audiences are yearning, thirsty for films that feel urgent and relevant, that they can connect with and not the same, not literally, some of the same stories done again and again and again…

I feel that urgency now. I dont know if literally or economically, if you can point to it in numbers, the film industry.. but the road maps, the studio system is not there anymore. Beautiful Boy is an Amazon film, the first film I worked on last year was a Netflix film, I think it’s kind of great that there’s a return to the mid-budget movie now.

In the 80s and 90s, and obviously through the 2000s, there was a lot of great independent films. But then I think through the late 2000s there was this kind of transition, and that’s why I’m not envious of being 22 at that time and I’m grateful to be at this age now, it’s such an interesting time in film and in TV.”

At the end of TIFF 2018, ideas that attempt to define and navigate contemporary film are expectedly in orbit. Chalamet speaks to some of these ideas, the rebirth of the mid-budget movie for example, and his gratitude for being 22 years old now as opposed to ten years ago, as another.

What is clear from the last few years of cinema is that we now face a modern renaissance that is for, and driven by, young people. For example, the sudden exponential growth of the Netflix film has propelled the rebirth of coming-of-age movies, and in particular, ‘high school’ movies, a sort-of-subgenre that has not been truly revisited and reclaimed since Mean Girls (2004) and Superbad (2007) established their cultural impact in the early to mid-2000s. Now, with films such as The Edge of Seventeen (2016) as the earliest example, and Netflix films To The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) and Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018) as the most recent, there is a kind of resurgence and redefining of what being a teenager post-2010’s entails.

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still from Mean Girls (2004)

Chalamet calls this gap, this mid-2000’s-to-now epoch, a ‘transition’, implying a process or transformation rather than a death and rebirth. This transitional period was a period in which ‘high school’ films (and coming-of-age films more broadly) failed to produce the same cultural impact as their predecessors. After decades of films that spoke to entire generations, from the John Hughes 80’s filmography to 90’s classics such as Clueless (1995), there seemed, by the late 2000’s to now, to be a period of quiet. Films such as 17 Again (2009), Bandslam (2009), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and Project X (2012) are just a few examples of ‘high school’ films that have left little referential impact on film culture, or at least to the same extent as Superbad or Mean Girls.

Easy A (2010) is one example that I do think succeeds as a ‘high school’ vision with lasting cultural impact from a period of transition. But even then, Easy A self-consciously relies on tropes of the past and future: it is a love-letter to 80’s ‘high school’ movies structured by modern vlogger-style confessionals. The finale itself is the interruption of a confessional video by Todd serenading Olive with The Breakfast Club (1985) anthem ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ playing outside her window. In essence, the champions of the transitional period rely on being technologically modern or nostalgic and retrospective, or both.

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still from Easy A

Only recently, in their current resurgence, are ‘high school’ films beginning to repossess the ability to impact their audiences and shape contemporary culture. And only now, with enough distance from the transitional period, are we able to try and understand why films between 2008-2013(ish) failed to create the same cultural phenomena and buzz that modern (2015 onwards) ‘high school’ films inspire.

Recent ‘high school’ films, such as the aforementioned Netflix group, may not possess the same referential impact as Superbad or Mean Girls, two of the most quoted and essential teenage films for their cultural gravitas, but they have indefinitely become a spectacle; an object for praise, critique and discussion. There is an alternative cultural power in how much they are discussed that compensates for whatever they lack. Maybe this power lends itself to the existence of websites like Twitter and Letterboxd that appear to have replaced Tumblr. Young people no longer spend hours making thumbnail collages and gifs to pay homage to their new favourite film. Instead, they spend their time tweeting and reviewing films in a community, thus films’ impact is greater, more dialogic and much more quantifiably traceable. Essentially, these modern ‘high school’ films are not just contemporary in subject matter and style, they are spectacles within a culture that loves to discuss, review and share film in a way that moves beyond isolated viewership.

 

Enough time has passed that there is now a clear distinction between the pre-transition and the post-transition epochs. Despite their distinctions, however, modern additions (2015 onwards) to the high school canon do to some extent feel inspired by some, if not many, of the same tropes of their predecessors. Perhaps this is because many of the creatives who grew up watching the 90’s and 2000’s high school films are now making high school movies themselves. From watching and growing up alongside a vision of 90’s and 2000’s high school, they have perhaps inherited the exercise of translating their own high school experiences into film, in a kind of generational inevitability, a rite of passage.

Mid90s (2018), written by Jonah Hill, premiered at this year’s TIFF and established itself as a film of critical acclaim. Jonah Hill is a fitting example of the kind of individual involved in the catalysation of the modern renaissance of coming-of-age cinema. From starring in Superbad in 2007, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg who began writing the script when they themselves were only 13, to now having written his own coming-of-age film that centres around skate culture in LA. There is a kind of pass-over, of the cultural tools by which to create a film, that allows such a personal yet inspired, individual yet relatable take on teenagehood.

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still from Mid90s

If we can predict anything for the next few years, it is that the modern renaissance will continue and more ‘high school’ films will be in circulation. Now, for perhaps the first time, there are more voices, from all angles, in range. Because of platforms like Twitter and Letterboxd, there are spaces in which viewer and filmmaker are in symbiosis. With the creation and discussion of ‘high school’ films, we are aided by hindsight, of the transitional period, combined with the means to share our responses with entire online communities. We are able to participate in a discourse that we now know is in itself necessary to propel films into lasting cultural resonance.

hereditary (2018) and its deleted scenes: notes on grief

Some of Hereditary’s deleted scenes have recently been circulated and can be seen here.

[spoilers]

For a film that deals with as much spiritual and visual horror as it does, Hereditary’s dissection of grief isn’t overshadowed but enforced.

Horror seldom realistically presents grief. Considering how dominantly and graphically it portrays death, it’s surprising that something that naturally succeeds death is often totally unaccounted for within the horror universe. Maybe the absence of grief in horror is what separates it from tragedy. But even within its own genre, the absence of grief renders horror films unrealistic at best and ridiculous at worst. Sometimes this absence is structural, for example, perhaps a slasher movie doesn’t have time to pause its killing spree if the spree is to continue or the plot is to ever be resolved. Equally, a pause, or a moment of grief, would deconstruct its pace, and pace is necessary for a subgenre that so heavily relies upon visuals and sensorial terror to frighten its audiences.

Conventionally, horror films offer moments of relief in their construction in order to emphasise the horror when it happens and to prevent desensitising its audience from unrelenting scares. These moments, breaks, are necessary. Hereditary’s construction, however, is different. Important (and expected) moments of relief are replaced with insight into grief and guilt. Quiet spaces are inhabited by trauma, and we are routinely excused from visual horror only to witness grief and guilt manifest. And we are not left desensitised and unimpacted because the relief is not replaced with more visual horror, but instead with a psychological parallel that renders us traumatised within the first thirty minutes.

Hereditary’s exploration of grief, in the deleted scenes and throughout the film, is inextricably tied to the pace and the construction of the film as a whole. The narrative of grief and its refusal to offer any moments of relief for the audience demonstrates the idea that pace doesn’t have to manically keep up alongside visual horror in order for a film to be frightening. For Hereditary, its terror lies in the uncomfortably realistic depictions of mourning and loss as our only respite from the brutality of its visual horror: a ritualistic cult, decapitations and possession.

The portraits of grief and guilt as a structural replacement for moments of relief are what terrifies us because it creates a framework that leaves no room for any catharsis. It denies us any moment to purge our pity and fear in order to prepare for more discomfort. We remain in a permanent state of either being terrified or disturbed in a quiet alternation. What succeeds in Hereditary is its episodes of grief and guilt as our only antithesis to visual tragedy, both of which are unnervingly difficult to forget.

 

navigating joan didion’s sense of nothingness and nihilism in 2018

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Joan Didion by Jerugen Teller for Celine S/S 2015. (R) Joan Didion by Julian Wasser.
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Joan Didion and her prized Stingray, Los Angeles, 1968
Photograph by Julian Wasser

“I had…a technical intention…to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all”  — Didion

Joan Didion’s beautiful and unnerving ‘Play It As It Lays’ (1970) speaks to raw and intimate dialogues of existence. 48 years on, the novel provides a map by which to navigate some existential questions of the present day. The novel follows protagonist Maria through a visual narrative of cinematic episodes in which LA, a sense of crisis and modes of emptiness are conceptualised.

In the barren landscape of the LA desert and freeways, Didion navigates isolation and empty space in abundance. In 2018, Didion’s language seems evermore profound for its exact depiction of nothingness. It is the space she describes, and her occupation within that space as a fatalistic mode of being (in which humans are essentially powerless), that speaks to a kind of pessimism in 2018. When reading ‘Play It As It Lays’, the connections to the modern day are striking, and voids the text of befitting the cliche that all novels in some sense predict or confirm a universality of human nature. Her impact feels different from Dickens’ stratified working class or Orwell’s dystopia, concepts that circulate academic discussion for their relevance today. Didion’s link to the present feels far more prevalent for its exact emptiness and nothingness. The spaces she leaves, the gaps within the structure of the text, actually somehow communicate as much about individual experience than what is said.

Didion communicates such a sense of emptiness in her work, in the episodic structure of the text and the minimal plot provided, that it becomes almost impossible to discuss. How can one discuss the lack of in a text? The emptiness? Didion raises similar questions artists today find themselves asking. How can we speak to the present day and verbalise any of this experience without relying on the tropes of a movement? The early Romantics didn’t call themselves Romantics at the time. What are we and how and when do we find out?

Didion’s text, published in 1970, speaks clearly to some social contexts. The freeways and the coca-colas as examples of modernity and consumerism that provide her relief and Maria’s abortion speaks to ideas of feminism and autonomy. What is said then, definitely does speak to her contemporary environment. But more interestingly, Didion plays with empty space to speak to themes of nihilism and fatalism, ideas that seem relevant today in the process of creating art. Perhaps within these spaces, we, as a modern audience, fill the gaps as we read. And perhaps that is the crux of Didion’s novel, its inclusion and reliance on the empty spaces to be read and navigated with as much detail as the prose. In the process of navigating her own experience of 1970, Didion finds the technical inclusion of emptiness as vital as the narrative, and perhaps this speaks directly to the sense of immobility found within existing in the present. In 2018, we can adopt this navigation of emptiness and space to find ways to cope with our own contemporary environment. Looking at spaces in literature, such as Didion’s elliptical novel, we find ourselves seeing from an altogether different viewpoint. A viewpoint that is familiar. A sense of emptiness and existential dread in how to move forward in the present day, in a culture of climate change and crises and identity politics.

Notably, the spaces in Didion’s novel importantly draw an even bigger focus on what is said. By leaving spaces and structuring the text so episodically, the episodes themselves are emboldened and the protagonist’s experience and the experience of the reader are enlivened. Nicholas Rombes writes that the novel is ‘so full of excess truth that it shoots across the page more as a prophecy than a novel’.

Accepting the spaces then, the sense of emptiness and nothingness they manufacture provides the first step in coping with the present, and then allowing this space to frame what is said becomes the second. Didion demonstrates a way to overcome a sense of nothingness within the present: in the very acceptance of it.