Unhomely Cinema: Home and Place in Global Cinema

Unhomely Cinema: Home and Place in Global Cinema

by Dwayne Avery


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Representations of troubled and inhospitable domestic places are a common feature of many cinematic narratives. “Unhomely Cinema” explores how the unhomely nature of contemporary film narrative provides an insight into what it means to dwell in today’s global societies. Providing analyses of a variety of film genres – from Michel Gondry’s comedy “Be Kind Rewind” to Laurent Cantet’s eerie suspense thriller “Time Out” – “Unhomely Cinema” presents an engaging discussion of some of the most pertinent social and cultural issues involved in the question of “making home” in contemporary societies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783083022
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 10/15/2014
Series: Anthem Global Media and Communication Studies,New Perspectives on World Cinema
Pages: 148
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Dwayne Avery is a postdoctoral fellow at York University, Toronto. He received his PhD from McGill University, Montreal.

Read an Excerpt

Unhomely Cinema

Home and Place in Global Cinema

By Dwayne Avery

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2014 Dwayne Avery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-303-9



The Uncanny '90s

In 1919, Freud published, "The Uncanny," a brief essay that sheds light on the meaning of the uncanny by analysing the short stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann. In many ways, "The Uncanny" represents an odd work within Freud's impressive oeuvre. Though the essay focuses on Freud's new theory of psychoanalysis, especially the castration complex, it is hard not to read the essay as a cipher of the times, especially in light of important historical events, like the rise of modern industrial society or the horrors witnessed during the First Great War. This does not mean that the essay should be read exclusively as a cultural map of the times or a "historical allegory" of the surrounding political, social and technological environments (Castle 1995); nonetheless, Freud's exploration of everyday uncanniness, especially his fascination with contemporary technologies, like the robot-like automata featured in Hoffmann's story "The Sandman," provides a succinct glimpse into some of the dramatic social and technological changes associated with the early twentieth century. Even more fascinating is that, while the essay represented a minor work during Freud's time, "The Uncanny" continues to resonate with, even haunt, the contemporary imaginary, as the essay has become a monumental source of inspiration for a wide range of social and cultural theorists, from the philosophical works of Jacques Derrida to the literary criticism of Terry Castle. The importance of the essay even prompted the historian Martin Jay to refer to the uncanny as the master trope of the 1990s. Commenting on his personal experience with the repetitive nature of the uncanny (Jay was surprised that the proposed title of his essay on the uncanny had already been used by a New York Times reviewer), he writes:

I then came to realize that there was something strangely fitting in the fact that what I thought was an original idea was actually anticipated by someone else. For it is precisely the issue of the uncertain status of originality and the haunting of what is new in the present by the residues of the past that is my theme. The term that best captures that feeling is, of course, the "uncanny"

[...] which has become one of the most supercharged words in our current critical vocabulary. What, I want to ask, are the implications of its present power? Why now in the 1990s has the uncanny become a master trope available for appropriation in a wide variety of contexts? (Jay 1998, 157)

While Jay's observations about the "uncanny nineties" formed a cautionary tale about the overuse, even abuse, of the idea of the uncanny, especially within deconstruction theory, discourses on the uncanny continue to flourish within contemporary social and cultural theory. This is especially true for space-based disciplines, like architecture and geography, as the spatial disorientation associated with the uncanny has been used to explore critically the disjointed and jarring experiences related to postmodern, global societies. As Nicholas Royle writes in his highly influential book, The Uncanny, the uncanny is not only a common aesthetic experience that can be felt in so many modern works of art but, as a concept that shows how familiar and intimate places can suddenly become strange and disconcerting, the uncanny speaks directly to the meaning of everyday life in today's increasingly networked and technologically savvy societies:

The uncanny, then, is not merely an "aesthetic" or "psychological" matter [...] its critical elaboration is necessarily bound up with analyzing, questioning and even transforming what is called "everyday." This applies not only in relation to issues of sexuality, class, race, age, imperialism and colonialism – so many issues of potentially uncanny otherness already evident in the nineteenth century – but also, for example, in relation to notions of automation, technology and programming. There seems to be a general acknowledgement that our lives, our experiences, the coming and goings within and all around us are increasingly programmed. Such is in part the very meaning of "globalization." (2003, 23)

Much of this introduction is dedicated to navigating through this new social-political understanding of the uncanny; however, before exploring the meaning of the contemporary uncanny, and its relationship to my theory of the unhomely, it is wise to return to Freud and his initial assessment of the uncanny. For while Freud's psychoanalytic musings on the uncanny have been the principal source of inspiration for most discussions of contemporary uncanniness, it is what he rejects in his definition that matters most to my ideas on the contemporary unhomely.

The Freudian Uncanny

"The Uncanny" represents an early interdisciplinary encounter between psychoanalysis and literary criticism. Indeed, while Freud's central aim was to show how the eerie and creepy feelings associated with the uncanny could be explained through psychoanalysis, especially the subject's libidinal economy, the essay can be viewed as an important mode of literary criticism. Focusing on the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Freud observes that the author's depiction of weird and uncertain situations (strange automata, waxwork figures, mental illness, epileptic fits) brings the reader into direct contact with the haunted spaces of modernity. Freud, of course, was not the first person to align Hoffmann's stories with the uncertainty of the modern world. In 1906 Ernst Jentsch published "Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen" (translated as "On the Psychology of the Uncanny"), an essay that, for Freud, mistakenly situates the uncanniness of Hoffmann's stories in terms of intellectual uncertainty. That is, whereas Heimlich, or the homely, represents a familiar world in which the subject knows what to expect and is in command of their perceptions and surroundings, the uncanny arrives when the subject is confronted by the unfamiliar. As Freud (1919) writes, "On the whole, Jentsch [...] ascribes the essential factor in the production of the feeling of uncanniness to intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one's way about in. The better orientated in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it."

For Freud, Jentsch's definition is unsatisfactory. "Naturally not everything that is new and unfamiliar is frightening," writes Freud. "Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny." Freud then sets out to provide his own detailed, albeit contradictory, definition of the uncanny. In the first part of his definition, Freud turns to linguistics, noting the rich and polyvalent ways in which the uncanny has been defined. In Latin, French, English, Greek and Hebrew, Freud observes, the uncanny is repeatedly associated with a wide range of meanings and associations – from ghoulish and frightening feelings to actual haunted houses – and cannot be reduced to a case of intellectual uncertainty. Furthermore, while numerous languages provide vivid and eclectic accounts of the strange experience of the uncanny, it is the German language that, for Freud, offers the most nuanced account. Citing the entries for both Heimlich and Unheimlich in Daniel Sanders' Ergänzungs-wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache, Freud writes:

Heimlich, adj. I. [B]elonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc. [...] (b) Of animals: tame, companionable to man [...] (c) Intimate, friendly comfortable; the enjoyment of quiet content, etc., arousing a sense of agreeable restfulness and security as in one within the four walls of his house [...] Note especially the negative "un-": eerie, weird, arousing, gruesome fear: "Seeming quite unheimlich and ghostly to him." "The unheimlich, fearful hours of night [...]" "These pale youths are unheimlich and are brewing heaven knows what mischief." "Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained [...] secret and hidden but has come to light." (1919)

As the densities of these two entries indicate, the uncanny is a multifaceted term that is deeply connected to home. On the one hand, Heimlich, or homeliness, refers to the capacity to create an intimate and cosy domestic life; here, space is rendered meaningful through a bourgeois ideology that emphasizes the "privacy" and "security" of the home's interior. This is the "tamed" home, a mode of dwelling that differs sharply from some "wild" exteriority. On the other hand, Unheimlich, or the uncanny, represents the negation of comfort and security; it is the impossibility of finding home; the uncanny home is a strange and eerie place where the supernatural haunts the dweller; it is a place that abounds in unspeakable horrors and secrets. But, most importantly, the uncanny home rests on repetition; the uncanny is that which should have remained secret but returns when the dweller least expects it.

Interestingly, though Freud begins his treatment of Jentsch's definition by evoking the diverse connotations connected with the Unheimlich, in the end he betrays this complexity by reducing the uncanny to a single psychoanalytic framework. This contradiction can be found in the way Freud reduces everything related to the eerie world of the uncanny to the "return of the repressed." So while Freud's initial inductive method unleashes a plethora of ideas, experiences and concepts, in the end he reduces the uncanny to the "castration complex," especially the subject's inability to keep at bay various unconscious thoughts, memories or desires. This is evidenced explicitly in his interpretation of Hoffmann's story, "The Sandman." Whereas one might contend that the creepiness of the story involves the protagonist's inability to determine the authenticity of a range of automata, for Freud, everything in the story points to the same threatening possibility, to the subject's unconscious fear of castration. "We shall venture," Freud writes, "therefore, to refer the uncanny effect of the Sand-Man to the anxiety belonging to the castration complex of childhood." Thus, while Jentsch identifies the story's strangeness with "intellectual uncertainty," especially Nathaniel's inability to determine the veracity of the robot-like beings, Freud offers a more temporal reading of the play between familiarity and unfamiliarity: the uncanny emerges in the story when something that should have remained repressed (Oedipal desires) returns to haunt the subject. The uncanny hinges on the possibility of the return of those repressed desires contained within the interiority of the family home. Subsequently, while the home is supposed to represent a safe haven that safeguards the dweller, in Freud's estimation it is the home itself that can surprisingly become the dreadful site of an uncanny return of the repressed.

From the Uncanny to the Unhomely

Unlike Freud, who rejects the semantic polyvalence of the uncanny by reducing it to a single psychoanalytic framework, my reading of the unhomely uses the rich, symbolic landscape of home to navigate through a wide range of uncanny territories. The symbolic reach of the unhomely is, quite simply, too wide and complex to be "tamed" by reductive definitions. As Homi Bhabha writes, the unhomely "has a resonance that can be heard distinctly, if erratically, in fictions that negotiate the powers of cultural difference in a range of historical conditions and social contradictions" (1992, 142; emphasis added). The unhomely, like Freud initially uncovered, represents a dense terrain of connections and experiences that go well beyond the psychology of the family hearth; it covers the emotional, political and cultural landscapes of everyday life and in its complexity abounds in contradictions, becoming anything from an actual place that haunts the dweller to a virtual space of political change. In short, the unhomely relies on what Dowling and Blunt call "the multi-scalar."

In their book Home, Dowling and Blunt argue for a pluralistic, dispersed and open conception of dwelling. The home does not embody a single setting or emotional connection, but is a multifaceted territory that comes to exist only through its connection to other social relationships, emotions, time periods and places. In other words, domestic places are multi-scalar. As they write, "A second spatiality of home is that home is multi-scalar. Much of the literature on home that we have reviewed [...] focuses only on the dwelling and/or household. In contrast, for us senses of belonging and alienation are constructed across diverse scales, ranging from the body and the household to the city, nation and globe" (2006, 27). Incorporating many scales, the unhomely is not simply a haunted space of repetition that takes us into the family home but marks a series of interconnected territories: the home may embody the interiority of the self or it may cut across the entire fabric of the nation; it may cover the life of a neighbourhood or the history of a single building. As Dowling and Blunt continue, "Feelings of belonging and relations with others could be [...] stretched across transnational space, or located on a park bench" (2006, 28). From a multi-scalar perspective, then, no home is ever an island, but an interconnected and porous territory that opens itself up to a wide range of locations, connections, imaginaries and social relations.

To emphasize the multi-scalar nature of the unhomely, I have decided to forgo a more linear or progressive line of argument. There is no single image, theme or location that is taken up by this book; rather, each chapter anchors a set of separate, but loosely related issues and processes connected to everyday life in contemporary global societies. As such, the unhomely will be used as an umbrella concept that enables a number of distinct processes, locations and emotions to be brought together under the same conceptual roof. For example, whereas in chapter 2 the unhomely is used to explore the way urban architecture has been used to represent the health and vitality of the nation, in chapter 3, I look at the new realities of postmodern labour, especially the way mobile forms of connectivity allow work to seep into the domestic sphere. While the main themes explored in these chapters differ dramatically, using the figure of the unhomely allows them to be seen as different processes within a larger social dynamic. Furthermore, though my corpus of films do not belong to a unifying tradition or genre, this multi-scalar approach can help find common ground among an extensive range of films that would, under traditional film analysis, be treated separately.

Unhomely Space

The unhomely is, undoubtedly, an eclectic experience. However, this does not mean that there are no common threads or themes that weave together the many scales of the unhomely. Quite the contrary, while the unhomely gives shape to so many different experiences of contemporary inhospitality, one of its principal characteristics involves the inability to clearly demarcate boundaries. The unhomely, whatever form it may take, is a phenomenon that rests on problems in spatial borders and boundaries. In Freud's analysis, this problem was expressed poignantly through the idea of the uncanny interior. In the stories of Hoffmann, the house, that supposed site of refuge or protection, a cure even against some menacing outside, can suddenly become frightening and unnerving, as the dweller comes face to face with the castration complex. Within the larger gothic tradition, however, Freud's focus on the uncanny interior represented an exception rather than the rule. As Anthony Vidler writes, in the gothic imaginary the interiority of the house was more often viewed as a place of refuge than a threat, as the home's private boundaries became the only viable way to excise an external intrusion (1992, 3, 4). Writing about the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Vidler writes, "[...] the house provided an especially favoured site for uncanny disturbances: its apparent domesticity, its residue of family history and nostalgia, its role as the last and most intimate shelter of private comfort sharpened by contrast the terror of invasion by alien spirits" (17). According to Vidler, these "alien spirits" often referred to an assortment of middle class anxieties, especially the bourgeoisie fear of the rise of the new working classes and the modern industrial city. However, what interests me here is not what the threat represents, but where the uncanny is located. While the Freudian uncanny centres around the dreadful qualities of interior space, the unhomely for Vidler can be situated on the outside, as various unwanted social groups or institutions come to represent those "alien spirits" that aim to take possession of the private sphere.


Excerpted from Unhomely Cinema by Dwayne Avery. Copyright © 2014 Dwayne Avery. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Unhomely Cinema; 1. An Unhomely Theory; 2. The Decline of the Family: Home and Nation in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Decalogue”; 3. The Future Is behind You: Global Gentrification and the Unhomely Nature of Discarded Places; 4. No Place to Call Home: Work and Home in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” and Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air”; 5. The Terrible Lightness of Being Mobile: “Cell Phone” and the Dislocation of Home; 6. Unhomely Revolt in Laurent Cantet’s “Time Out”; Conclusion; References; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This thoughtful, engaging book highlights the enduring preoccupation with concepts of home in modern cinema. ‘Unhomely Cinema’ is a delightful work which moves film studies towards productive engagements with psychoanalysis, urban geography and social history.” —Will Straw, Director, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, Montreal

“‘Unhomely Cinema’ delivers a powerful reading of today’s global cinema of precarity. Avery’s concept of the ‘cinematic unhomely’ provides a bold new model for understanding how contemporary film registers and reacts to the displacements and dislocations that define everyday life in the modern world.” —Andrew Burke, University of Winnipeg

“As attentive to problems of mobility, scale and time as it is to place, ‘Unhomely Cinema’ inhabits the house of contemporary narrative cinema with great care. Through Avery’s sharp eyes, we glimpse new ways of dwelling in the most uncanny of places.” —Edward Schantz, McGill University, Montreal

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