Rachel Joseph (2014) uses the term screened stages to refer to times when a stage appears within a film. She suggests that this inclusion creates a "moment of “liveness” within the cinematic". With reference to Wes Anderson’s films (above, left), she describes how the auteur uses these stages to create "miniaturizations of the mourning process and a working through and communal witnessing of the relinquishment of the mourned-for lost object". I've been asked recently how much nostalgia there is in my work, and I'm frightened of the term. I'm not sure why. It could be because of the warnings present in various writings on media archaeology. It could be due to the arguable lack of gravity in terms such as 'retro' and 'kitsch', though why I might feel my work needs to be grave I couldn't say. Perhaps it is the effect of arts education. Perhaps it is a feeling that borrowing from the past in order to create an atmosphere in the present is somehow cheating. Joseph claims that Anderson's stages within the screen act to "frame both an absent present and love (in combination with grief) for that which has disappeared", which really resonates with me and feels like a kinder definition of what could also be referred to as 'nostalgic'.
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), the wallcovering takes on various roles including characters both benign and otherwise, stage or backdrop or context, and at times even begins to blend with the narrator's consciousness: "But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it..." Much has been written about the story's portrayal of mental illness, and its role in the Feminist Gothic. It's an interesting contrast to Anderson's films - the first person writing does not allow for the same "communal witnessing" that Joseph has written about. Instead, there is a feeling of witnessing the mind's own machinations, as if the narrator is externalising the flight of ideas she seems to be experiencing, and embodying the wallpaper with these transient figures and moments. In turn, as the relationship with the wallpaper darkens, she begins to read its influence seeping back into the corporeal figures around her: "The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look. It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis, - that perhaps it is the paper! (...) I caught Jennie with her hand on it once (...) she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry - asked me why I should frighten her so! (...) I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!" She even begins to display an ownership of and a jealousy towards the paper and the things she perceives in it.
The Yellow Wallpaper is often described as a ghost story, or a Gothic horror complete with the typical distraught female protagonist and repressive male antagonist - "sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes, only one... she keeps still, she... shakes. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern - it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!"" - however, that is not perhaps the way it reads today, when terms like 'psychosis' are in everyday usage.
Michelle Massé has discussed the psychoanalytical dimension of the Gothic, claiming that "daydreams and neurotic symptoms are mechanisms of defence used to construct systems that satisfy basic desires while still letting us function adequately in the real world", which was cited by Coraline Dupuy in her writing about Kim Jee-Woon's 2003 film A Tale of Two Sisters (above, right) - an interesting work in terms of its attention to interiors as signifiers. She writes about his use of "colour-coding of the interior", claiming that it indicates that "the locus of anxiety in the film is the house itself" and "invoke(s) a sense of decay and stolen youth". These descriptions could equally be applied to other character-interiors such as The Overlook hotel in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining (above, centre), the almost abandoned apartment building in Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow (below, right and left), the school in Suspiria (below, centre), or the apartment building in J. G. Ballard's High Rise.
And what is it about certain interiors that so convinces us they have personality, agency, an agenda, a persistent history? Perhaps it is due to the unheimlich motifs which populate much of our literature, particularly in childhood (well, mine at least). But perhaps that literature exists because of this suspicion we have about a still interior. Perhaps, then, it is due to the amount of time we tend to spend in our own domestic environs at the age when imagination is forming and awareness expanding, creating a combination of familiarity and uncertainty as the physicality of our homes creeps into our growing perception of things outside our bodies, and coincides with the beginnings of our ability to understand things symbolically, and to understand the ideas of past and future. Alternatively, perhaps it is simply an instinctive mistrust of such man-made environments, that hangs over from the time before they existed.
And what are the ingredients of this suspicion, this feeling that a domestic interior may not be entirely benign? Is a yellow-papered wall enough?
Wes Anderson and the Theatricality of Mourning
The End of Me
Who Speaks, Who Listens, Who Acts
Physical Space as Indicator of Women's Position within Society
Altogether Independent: An Analysis of the Feminist Perspectives of Gilman, Cooper, Woolf and de Beauvoir
'Why don't you remember? Are you crazy?': Korean Gothic and psychosis in A Tale of Two Sisters
Come and Play with Us: The Play Metaphor in Kubrick's The Shining
Glossary of wallpaper terms
Tina Keane - Faded Wallpaper
Flight of ideas
Jean Piaget's Four Cognitive Stages of Child Development