Sunday, November 22, 2015

Everybody's Damaged By Something: On "Room" (2015)

I read Emma Donoghue's novel Room somewhat by accident shortly after it was released in 2010  No one recommended it to me and I didn't know anything about it in advance. Rather, I found myself stuck in an airport waiting on an indefinitely delayed connection, my attention-span for grading papers was exhausted, and so I wandered into the bookstore to find some "pleasure" reading to kill time. (Must be fiction, contemporary, and less than 200 pages, i,e,, finishable in the time I will be in transit. This is my Airport Reading Rule.) In an instance of literally judging a book by its cover, I picked up Donoghue's Room because of its minimalist crayon-scrawled dust jacket and, confirming the worst voyeuristic tendencies of humankind, I bought it after reading the backside blurb, which promised a horrific story of abduction and abuse, told from the point of view of a five-year-old child.

Donoghue's novel is now the fastest Airport Book I've ever read (displacing Marie Phillips' Gods Behaving Badly, which remains a close second.) I finished Room before I deboarded the plane at my final destination.

Then, I had nightmares about it for weeks.

Despite this experience with the novel, I was nevertheless (perhaps pathologically) curious to see the recently released film adaption of Room, which I saw yesterday.  Room, the film, is masterfully directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and the strong performances by Brie Larson (as Ma/Joy) and Jacob Tremblay (as Jack) are of the sort that ought be credited as much to an assiduously prudent and sensitive director as to its talented actors.  Even still, these are incredibly talented actors,  In fact, I really cannot say enough about Larson and Tremblay-- especially Tremblay, who is only 9 years old in real life. Their performances are complex, nuanced, intimate, intense and yet still, given the events depicted, surprisingly reserved. Room is the kind of story that our contemporary infotainment "newscasters" wet-dream about, drool over, in fact desire so desperately that they often accessorize stories with the tragedy and trauma of Room when they cannot find it IRL. Would that it were only fiction, where it might motivate the imaginations and serve to develop the characters of Freshman Lit students, but Room is not that.  It is, both in its details and thematically, a fictional re-presentation of what is an all-too-common reality: the abduction, incarceration, coercion and debasement of female agency.  It's the kind of story that practically begs for hyperbolic, sensationalist exploitation. But if you're looking for hyperbolic, sensationalist exploitation of human vice and vulnerability -- and there is definitely some part of us, all of us, that is looking for that when we shell out $10 to see this film-- you won't find it in Abrahamson's Room.

The Voyeur Dilemma
I'm not entirely convinced you'll find that hyperbolic, sensationalist exploitation of human vice and vulnerability in Donoghue's Room, either. Sarah Blackwood (Pace University) disagrees, and her recent review of the book and film for the Los Angeles Review of Books-- "Room" is the "Crash" of Feminism-- is not only a probing and critical analysis, but also a really compelling one. (Despite my reservations below, I highly recommend Blackwood's piece. Read it!)  Blackwood argues that both the book and film Room repeat fundamentally misogynistic tropes that celebrate stereotypically-feminine "resilience" and "care" without sufficiently considering (and condemning) the endemic institutional and cultural violences that not only conflate Woman with Mother, but also turn "resilience" and "care" into character-traits that are "virtues" in women's lives, rather than the necessities that they, in fact, are. Robin James (University of North Carolina-Charlotte) has argued the same, that is, the ideal of "resilience" hurts women more than it helps. On Blackwood's account, Donoghue and Abrahamson are both guilty of perpetuating this pathology by, first, indulging our voyeuristic desire to see women hurt and, second, by assuaging whatever moral offense we may have to that spectacle with our own misogynistic assumptions about the virtues of maternal love and feminine resilience.

Let me say, first and emphatically, that Blackwood's and James' analyses are absolutely essential for thinking about Room, both the novel and the film. I'm inclined to think, however, that those analyses are primarily essential as a framework for thinking about you, Person-Reading-or-Watching-Room, about your willing consumption of misogynistic tropes, your uncritical non-interference with their reproduction, your tacit confirmation of their truths, your desire for their comforting, mollifying appeasement of your bothered conscience. And, for the record, full disclosure, I am also one of "you."

This is what I call the Voyeur's Dilemma: our desire to see, to read, to hear or otherwise experience-at-a-distance the worst of humans' experiences in order to get close enough, but not too close, such that we might learn something. Of course, it's always possible that it's schadenfreude or sadism at work in voyeurism, but in those cases there is no dilemma. The real dilemma arises when one finds oneself in the situation that Aristotle describes in his Poetics: I need the protagonist to be like me but not too much like me so I am able to vicariously experience a tragedy that does not traumatize me, but rather inspires fear and recognition. I need to process, distill and cleanse (catharsis) antipathetic affects in order to learn. First-person experiences of tragedy or trauma do not allow for that, as they are always paralyzing, debilitating, incapacitating.

I watch, I read, I hear, I vicariously experience what I could not bear to live-- in other words, I choose to be a voyeur-- because tragedy educates, illuminates, immunizes and enlightens.  The moral dilemma of the Voyeur is that s/he requires, for the sake of his or her own moral education, the suffering of others, a requirement that has no ethically defensible basis.

Pace Blackwood, who saddles Donoghue and Abrahamson with hermeneutic responsibilities that I think are better and more effectively attributed to readers/viewers of Room, I'm disinclined to put a lot of stock in "artists' intention." Artists' intention, if it ever matters at all, matters most in cases of propaganda, which I do not think the complexities of the novel and film Room are guilty of, by a long shot. That is to say, I can't know (and I don't care all that much) what Donoghue or Abrahamson meant for us to think in the novel or film Room. What they have both managed to accomplish is the production of a work of art that mimics life, however regrettably, capturing and imperfectly depicting something weighty, compelling, and insistent-- a tragic event, a tragic dimension of "real" life-- that calls us to account for its reality and the form of its reproduction as much as it does for our voyeuristic desire to see it.

Might this particular artistic representation serve to reproduce our culturally-conditioned prejudices? Yes. Does it aim to do so? I don't know. Are Blackwood and James right in calling our attention to the manner in which our less-admirable tendencies and prejudices are reinforced and legitimated by the works of art we elect to consume?  Yes. Does the book or the novel Room do this?  I don't know. Is it possible that the very same work of art that reproduces sexist tropes might also, in fact, serve to activate a more critical perspective on sex and gender?  I think, as I recently argued in re the supposed misogyny of Ex Machina, most definitely YES.

The Stories We Prefer
Before I get to my evaluation of the film Room, I want to first take a detour back to 2010, when I first read the novel Room. I remember being struck by how much it reminded me of Yann Martel's brilliant 2001 novel Life of Pi. (You can read my review of Ang Lee's 2012 film adaptation of Life of Pi here.) Because Room is told from the point of view of Jack, whose first five years were entirely circumscribed by The Room in which he and his mother (Ma/Joy) were confined and held captive, it is in many ways a testament to the incredible capacity of human beings, for better or worse, to construct stories that make otherwise unlivable lives endurable.  The great paradox highlighted in both Life of Pi and Room is that our particular species of talking-ape is capable of manufacturing-- through some inexplicable combination of the two otherwise-supplementary capacities of imagination and language-- stories, which are also real survival techniques.  Martel's protagonist (Pi) manufactures a fantastical story about his real life because the real story of his real life is, we intuit without needing to be told, incommunicable in any technically literal or "representational" sense. When Pi is challenged on the veracity of his telling of his own life at the end of The Life of Pi, he replies: "Since you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?"

Jack's story of his own life is, of course, the same.  It is a way-of-making-sense-of-the-world story, a necessarily limited and perspectival account of what is, as all of our stories always are, but Jack's is necessarily conditioned and edited by the One Who Controls His Room, his mother, whose narrative (in this case) is further restricted and edited by the One Who Controls Her World, i.e., Old Nick, the final determiner of what is and is not the case in The Room/World for Jack and his mother. Ma/Joy knows that Old Nick's story is false, but she tells Jack the "story she prefers" about The Room, and Jack understands his world as it is told in the story of The Room.  When Jack is released from The Room, his mother's story does not cease being "the story he prefers."  We readers-of-novels and film-viewers, knowing that the stories we are consuming are stories-preferred, are (of course) capable of making the distinction between Old Nick and Ma/Joy and Jack (and Donoghue and Abrahamson). We, of course, are capable of determining between the storied preferences.

But that's not how all of us live, that's not how we experience living, that's not how we know or understand or tell stories about how we know and understand.our lives and our world.  We, all of us, tell "the stories we prefer," the stories that make life intelligible, comprehensible, unambiguous.

Ideally, what we ought prefer are the stories of our collective lives, stories that make life intelligible, comprehensible, transparent and liveable for everyone. But the "real life" in which we exist does not distribute tragedy and trauma equally.  In real life, tragedy and trauma are distributed prejudicially and systematically, and so we ought be all the more called to account by the stories of the least advantaged, most exploited and oppressed, least endurable and most unlivable.

"Everybody's Damaged By Something"
The inclination to view Donoghue's novel as a generic allegory of human experience-- "everyone is damaged by something"-- is as deceptive and potentially dangerous as it is alluring. For this reason, and I hardly ever say this, I think the film is better than the novel.

What Abrahamson does exactly right is to, first and foremost, GET OUT OF THE WAY of his actors.  I don't know if Larson and Tromblay read the novel Room in advance-- I hope so in the case of Larson and I definitely hope NOT for Tromblay-- but in either case, Abrahamson has clearly solicited from these performers something that is, curiously, perhaps more true to the story depicted in Donoghue's novel than to Donoghue's telling of it.  Abrahamson's film, for the most part, ditches the POV storytelling by Jack (except for carefully-selected voiceovers), opting instead for a sort of extraordinary midway POV somewhere between God's-eye and the protagonists' view. Not only does this allow Abrahamson the flexibility to convey a truly impressive range of volitional nuance in a story that is otherwise easily simplified to good-and-evil, but it also permits him to avoid reductive (and repetitive) depictions of the well-worn cinematic and cultural tropes of childhood innocence, maternal love and predatory malevolence.

Somehow, Abrahamson does so without making Old Nick a sympathetic character (which viewers would not allow), without making Ma/Joy a saint (which viewers would not believe), and without making Jack an uncomplicated "innocent" (which viewers would not abide).  Rather, Abrahamson takes Donoghue at her (literal) word-- everybody's damaged by something-- and he does so in the way that only visual artists, especially filmmakers, do: he shows rather than tells.  Abrahamson shows what Donoghue could not tell, or could only tell imperfectly.  That is not meant as a judgment of Donoghue's literary skills, which are impressive to say the least, but rather just an acknowledgement of the difference between cinematic and literary capacities.

Although I think Room could have benefited from being about 20 minutes shorter, there isn't a single shot in this film that isn't perfectly framed. In fact, cinematically speaking, Room is like the inverse of (in my view, the most perfectly-shot film ever) Scorcese's Goodfellas.  Scorcese's Goodfellas tells the story of a wannabe-gangster whose life is initially free and unrestricted, but becomes the opposite, and Scorsese films it in closer and tighter camera-shots as the protagonist's life gets closer and tighter, more restricted and less free, until the famous final scene of Goodfellas, which is a medium-shot pan of suburban America than eventually closes in, in close-up, on a shot of the former-gangster-now-witness-protected protagonist picking up the newspaper from his front stoop.  Abrahamson's Room, in reverse, tells the story of captives whose lives become "free," and Abrahamson tells it by, first, accustoming the viewer to tight, claustrophobic close-up shots in The Room, so that the drawing back of his camera (which never draws back more than a medium-shot) feels as disorienting and strange to the viewers as it does to the protagonists.  Brilliant.

Speaking of Scorsese, he once said: "The cinema began with a passionate, physical relationship between celluloid and the artists and craftsmen and technicians who handled it, manipulated it, and came to know it the way a lover comes to know every inch of the body of the beloved. No matter where the cinema goes, we cannot afford to lose sight of its beginnings." As someone who has been teaching (and learning) Philosophy and Film for the last several years, I find myself more and more sensitive to the manner in which artists, craftsmen, technicians and images are able to accomplish things that words, quite simply, cannot.

Cinema Beyond the "Room"
Yes, of course, "everybody's damaged by something," as Donoghue writes in Room. But there are radically idiosyncratic, materially distinctive, and infinitely commutable occupants for those literary placeholders "everybody" and "something."  What I have learned, slowly and with considerable resistance, as I've been teaching Philosophy and Film over the past few years, is that cinema is also a text.  As such, it has its own rules of "reading," which are not easily or immediately translated from our patterns of reading the written word, at least not without loss.

Blackwood (and James) are right that we ought read all cultural productions, including film, with the sort of critical sensibilities that we read texts, cultures and institutions.  And yet, cinema is the artform of the time-image, and the norms that govern it are categorically different from those that govern the written text. Room, I think, is an exemplary case of the manner in which the cinematic form and the literary form part ways when it comes to analysis.

Room (the film) is neither an allegory nor a morality tale. Room (the novel) is both.  The latter may reproduce proprietary literary forms, but it does not exhaust the possibilities for storytelling.  I hear a lot of talk among my (older and less-tech-savvy) colleagues about students' incapacity to appreciate and/or effectively navigate the written word, and I am not unsympathetic to nor unconcerned by the same, but I think we (professors) are better served by parlaying students' capacity for image-reading-- which they are very, very good at-- to enhance and supplement their text-reading capabilities, rather than dismissing the former for the sake of the latter.

Let's not lock students in a "Room." Let's not insist on the stories we prefer. At the same time, let's not allow them simply repeat in words what they read in images.

1 comment:

robin said...

Loved this, Leigh, and not just because you cite me, lol :)

I was wondering about the aesthetics of the film. Via Steve Shaviro's work on post-cinematic aesthetics, I've generally thought of "resilience" to look something like Bay's Transformers (which, structurally, is isormorphic with a lot of brostep music...)---it's all damage/recoup/damage/recoup without a lot of linear narrative. But it seems like Room is a bit more traditionally narrative? What I'm really asking is: Do you think there's anything in the cinematography that's 'resilient'?