Residency 4: Carolyn Eskdale
14 - 20 October
Room for Rooms
All films invite us into their rooms. We enter the room of the cinema auditorium or we sit down in our own living rooms and we make a decision to look at the worlds of other people’s rooms through the room of the film frame itself. It’s common to talk of the screen as a portal or a mirror, but it also makes sense to talk of it as a room as well. It has walls — the four corners of the frame — and while these walls retain their shape during the duration of the film, they also propose two other fundamental but more mutable characteristics: that there is a world beyond the frame that may impinge on what the eye is guided to see, and that the mode of viewing towards what specifically lies within the frame may shift and change over the course of time. Our examination of the room of the frame may thus become mobile and curious, it may rest static and contemplative, we may cut from one perspective of the same space to another, or we may go through a door or across an ocean to another world and set of rooms all together.
As I get older, I find myself becoming more and more interested in films about the unexceptional matters of ordinary life and the ways in which cinema seems almost uniquely able to transcribe these features into an absorbing sequence of images that register the experience of being in the everyday. Although I am equally interested in the world of the street, the mountain or the field, I think that the representation of the room holds a special and perhaps still unexplored role in the visual registration of vernacular experience. We all spend so much of our lives in them that we think we know what they are doing and what they mean. But do we really know what they are telling us? Have we really noticed all that they contain? Don’t we still need the privilege of having an artist or filmmaker to make us see the familiar anew? Wouldn’t it be great to have a set of artists come into our home and tell us things we didn’t know or had stopped seeing?
I’ve started thinking about what a taxonomy of things to look at might be when considering the room in film. We might begin by thinking about the place of corners that would include a consideration of the co-existence of how the corners of domestic space interact with the corners of the film frame. What is being sheltered and articulated in these crevices? What sort of boundaries are being suggested? What kinds of secrets are being detected? Gaston Bachelard considers the corner a space of seclusion but it might also, equally, be a means of arranging the eye’s attention in order to focus on what lies within the boundaries that the corners necessarily contain.
One of the governing metaphors for the film image is to think of it as a window on the world and of course most films about rooms contain actual windows within them. They are a way of establishing the room’s engagement with the wider world beyond and they are a way of mediating desires that the room might be in itself too small to contain. The window provides the extension of an imagined narrative space into what Bachelard terms the dialectic between inside and outside. It reminds us that walls are, in fact, permeable and that the room, far from being a static entity, is in fact a portal into the borderless realms of the world beyond.
That’s why the door into the room is also so important. In order to understand and differentiate an individual’s comportment within a room (their self-containment), we must, first of all, pause and observe how they have entered and left the room through the door. Their handling of this moment, what they say and do, how they linger and how they carry themselves as they move through the frame of the doorway into the new frame of the room is but one element of the process for it has, in fact, already been decided from what perspective the screen image will ask us to observe these elemental transitions. Unlike the stage, onto which we never see the secret place beyond the door, the film image can reveal both sides of the portal in order to establish revealing hierarchies of knowledge and motivation. Think of Barbara Stanwyck hiding behind the door of her duplicitous lover’s apartment whilst he talks to his nosy and intrusive boss in Billy Wilder’s supremely elegant film about lost dreams and rooms, Double Indemnity (1944).
But of course the thing that fascinates us most, and the thing that might end up proving a constant in this project is the stuff that rooms contain: what Daniel Miller in his brilliant book about the mental and physical interior lives of a whole London street of people calls ‘the comfort of things’. Rooms exist in time and in so doing they become the depositories of deep feelings and memories. What lies within their walls — the cracked plate and the thumbed paperback, the worn curtain or the faded photograph — helps let us weave the fabric of these stories. How does the camera choose to rearrange these objects for our attention? What corner of the room, and of the frame, do they occupy?
Of course, rooms are not just comprised of materially specific spaces and it is perhaps the recorded image that is most well suited to noticing this. Most of a room is in fact empty, but we can only end up making sense of this play between absence and presence by also thinking about the nature of the relationship between an object, the space it occupies and registers, and the person originally responsible for it being there. The static or fluid composition of a shot or sequence of shots can help explain what this ostensibly empty space contains and what is it that makes it possible to be considered as a vessel for invisible, perhaps ultimately untraceable, feelings or memories.
Finally, in addition to this, if the screen image is a room, then it is a space that is not only witnessed and experienced through the eye but also through the ear. Rooms may audibly speak to us both through our interaction within them — the tread of feet and the echoes of voices on a ceiling — and the world’s interaction with them from without — the sound of traffic and that row the neighbours have just concluded. This is the message of one of the very greatest films about rooms ever made, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).
Many of these thoughts have been prompted by my recollection of two recent films that have haunted me in terms of how they both dramatise domestic space. One is by an Iranian and set in the rooms of contemporary Tehran, the other is by a New Zealander and set in the rooms of a house on Hampstead Heath in the late 1810s.
Like all the director’s work to date, Bright Star (2009), Jane Campion’s moving portrayal of the fleeting romance between the poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, uses rooms to tell of feelings that words in themselves cannot contain. On the one hand, Campion relates moments of convivial exuberance and free flowing expression between adults and children, as they seem to find the ordinary rooms of domestic experience as natural and organic a space to be in as the garden or flowering woodland outside. But on the other, these very same walls become pathways to separation. In one extraordinary sequence, as Keats and Brawne occupy rooms side by side but in two separate compartments of the same building, they communicate by the exchange of provisional knocks on the surface of the wall that divides them. Keats has previously heard Brawne and her sister moving upstairs and has initiated this communication, but the depth of their desire cannot be resolved. We cut from room to room and see each partner’s hand tentatively move across the painted surface imagining a grip that never fully transpires. The walls literally seem to absorb their emotion.
In Asghar Farhardi’s A Separation (2011), the story of a romantic estrangement, all desire is spent and the director’s camera helps create a more complicated visual field. A Separation uses a restless mobile camera to delineate a fractured domestic continuum that is comprised of blocked compositions, half-glimpsed doorways, bare walls and congested compositions that constantly shift in terms of their perspectival arrangement. Farhardi is the master of doors into rooms. Each view is partial and thwarted. The surface of the image seems to contain a festering anxiety and sense of multiple directions. This is the opposite of Campion’s film where different forms of connection are established. Here, the original idea of the rigid film frame as room seems almost to be in question as if the wider society this device is registering now ultimately rests in unstable confusion and flux.
What unites both films is a female perspective; an empathy and degree of alignment with a female subjectivity that is somehow aware of the nature of the subject’s engagement with a material and a social space that hasn’t been entirely of their design. This raises large questions about the nature of the rooms within each film and what they might ultimately be said to facilitate and restrain. It begins to suggest a wider range of metaphors about containment, role-playing and expression.
This takes me, finally, to the prospect of Carolyn Eskdale’s encounter with the familial and contoured rooms of West Melbourne where, as I know only too well myself from my own residencies, there’ll be possibility, play and unlike the case with Campion and Farhardi’s own protagonists, the possibility of enduring happiness of many different kinds. I wonder what her frames will contain?
Carolyn Eskdale is represented by Sarah Scout Presents.