The Door in the Floor vs The Ice Storm
In The Door in the Floor (2004) an intern works for a charismatic children’s writer whose apparent success hides a traumatic family event, and in The Ice Storm (1997) a family faces up to the consequences of infidelity and sexual experimentation. Both these stories examine family bonds, passive-aggressive behaviour, and dysfunctional relationships. Both stories feature Middle Class families who are distanced from one another by their inability to communicate about their feelings. These unspoken emotions manifest themselves negatively in: frustration, rows, depression, alcohol abuse, and sexual promiscuity. Ted Cole’s serial extra-marital affairs in The Door in the Floor provide comic light relief as well as reveal his inability to come to terms with his loss. Along with writing children’s books, sex is his distraction from reality. Sexual boundaries and taboos are broken, sex between people of different generations, and ‘key parties’ with ‘wife swapping’. Affluence has brought stress and boredom. The traumatic experiences in The Door in the Floor are personal ones, but the dysfunction in The Ice Storm emanates from a wider moral decline. Young adults watch Nixon on TV and put on a Nixon mask, while they play at being adults. The kids are struggling to fathom their roles in this disconnected world, meanwhile the parents are acting like teenagers – fornicating and partying in an echo chamber that massages their vanity, while also affirming their social status. They have so much, but they have given up so much to attain it. The story demands that a human sacrifice must be made before they can reclaim their humanity. Both these films are warnings, but they play the ‘warning story’ with an affection for the characters, turning the narrative into a darkly comic celebration of human resilience in the face of tragedy.
- Tidy your desk. It’s a given that before you can start any work you really do need to ensure you have a neat desk.
- Rearrange that stationary drawer, sharpen any pencils you might own, you know, that kind of thing. If you don’t own any pencils, now’s the time to pop out and buy some. An organised desk makes an organised mind. And, where there’s order, there’s work. But first you have to tidy up, right?
- Do that DIY job now! Don’t delay. There’s never a better time to start (and possibly only half finish) that critically important DIY job. Yes, you probably can varnish those oak shelves you installed five years ago, or re-grout the bathroom tiles. That’s weird, is there a crack in the wall? That wasn’t there before, was it? Good thing you spotted it, because it won’t take a moment to whip out the Polyfilla… and while you’re at it, why not repaint the room? What colour though? Yes, that’s a tricky one. You know, you probably should research popular interior decoration trends – colour schemes are important.
- Phone family, or a friend. You probably should annoy that sibling and find out what they’re doing now they’re back from holiday. Why not ring up a mate, to find out if they purchased that washing machine, the one they’ve been going on about for a while. You never know what might be happening. It’s good to keep in touch. Look out of the window. That’s what it’s there for. Something inspiring could happen at any moment. What’s that blue van parked there for? Uh-huh, someone’s moving furniture – looks like someone is moving in… or out. I wonder who that might be?
- Check your mobile device. If your phone hasn’t beeped for attention in the last five minutes, it’s probably a sign that you missed something important: you’d better check it now. This isn’t about FOMO, it’s simply a matter of good housekeeping, having the curtesy to reply to messages promptly, updating that app you never use, and critical things like that. Hmmm… the phone’s battery is at 96%… maybe you’d better recharge it, just in case? Admit it: you’re hungry. Probably the best thing you can do if you’re vaguely hungry is to check the fridge at least every 10 minutes. Who knows, something could have magically appeared inside since you last looked. I know, it’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible. Google it. It’s a pretty well known thing that if you’re unsure about facts, it’s super important to get them right. Mmmm… how big is the antarctic? And while you’re there, you might as well fact check a few other things. Who won the men’s Wimbledon in 1978? What’s his name…. it’s on the tip of my tongue. Ahh, this is so frustrating! Oh, yes, that’s it… Tennis? Which country invented it?
- Social media is not a distraction. You get really important updates that inform and educate you. Ahh, that’s a cute dancing kitten. Yeah, I get a lot of value from social media. Hmmm… that person from university I never got on with has messaged me. I’ll tell them how busy I am this morning.
- Beverages are your friend. Hot beverages, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, soup in a cup. Just stop what you’re doing – it can wait twenty minutes, can’t it? – and enjoy that beverage, maybe have another one? Hot outside where you are? Have a cold beverage, a soda, a refreshing juice, or an ice cold beer. Maybe you should sit in the garden with that cold drink, and look at the sky. Hang on. What are you doing in the garden when you could be at your favourite cafe… or in a beer garden? Okay, then? Just this once! Denial always works.
- Remember the golden rule of procrastination: always do tomorrow what you can do today. You know it makes sense, because there’s always tomorrow. But, then again, do you really need to do it at all? Hmm… that’s the real question.
- Beginners vs What We Talk about When We Talk about Love – It was only fairly recently that I bought Beginners, the publication of Carver’s original and unedited version of What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. I was intrigued. What did his manuscripts look like before Gordon Lish, his editor, got hold of them? Part of me was expecting to have my assumptions confirmed: editors clean up manuscripts, they alter the tone, polishing over the rawness, making a writer’s work more accessible, coherent – mainstream. The things I never understood about Carver’s work make sense now. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, an overly ornate title for a humble craftsman like Carver, comes from Lish. Carver’s own title Beginners makes so much more sense, in every way. Lish made it snappy and cool, but he also took away it’s common sense meaning.
- The 39 Steps (1935) is an intriguing film that encapsulates the paranoia and fear of a foreign power stealing British military secrets through devious means. Loosely based on John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), which introduced the world to the dashing hero, Richard Hannay, a stiff upper lipped, quick thinking, gentleman hero. It was clear in the novel, published in 1915 – set one month before the outbreak of World War 1 – how critical Hannay’s mission was: the shadowy foreign spy ring, operating in the heart of Britain, had to be thwarted, to stop Britain’s military secrets falling into enemy hands. Only four years after the release of this film, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, there would be another world war.
- In a corrupt world where the law keepers are receiving kickbacks from criminals, and the cops are terrorising small businesses for protection money – every law enforcement officer is on the take, or accepting money that has derived from illegal activities. In such a world, it takes an extraordinary hero to fight against the complacency, incompetence, and the systematic abuse of power in a rotten police force. In Serpico (1973), that man is Frank Serpico. Serpico was released in 1973, sandwiched between the classic Italian mafia films The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather 2 (1974). It presents a positive image of a working-class Italian American who is struggling for social justice – for what he believes is right – as opposed to the criminal families in the Godfather stories who murder one another for personal power and family vendettas. In the Godfather series, whole families are in it together, tacitly compiling with those directly involved in murderous rivalries and feuds. Unlike them, Serpico is on his own, he is one man against the system, and his girlfriend cannot take the emotional stress of being in relationship with a morally scrupulous man, dedicated to his work, who could be hospitalised or killed at any moment.
- The Shining (1980) begins with stunning aerial shots of a yellow Volkswagen Beetle travelling along a mountain road, and doom laden classical music suggesting that something disturbing will happen. The story doesn’t dwell too much on the setup, which purposefully ladles on the foreshadowing, alerting us to the distinct possibility that Jack Torrance is an unstable wildcard, and that his son, Danny Torrance, is a peculiar child. First, the job interview for the position of winter caretaker is heavily referenced with dire warnings about a previous caretaker who went crazy from cabin fever, and, second, his wife’s meeting with a social worker reveals that Jack injured his son’s shoulder one evening, after he’d come back from a drinking session. Even as they drive up to the hotel, Jack seems distant to both his wife and child, coming across simultaneously as patronising and short tempered. (He later reveals that he experienced a disturbing sense of deja vu during the journey.) The film climaxes with Jack’s full blown insanity, or demonic possession (take your pick), and he pursues them with an axe. In the final shot the camera slowly zooms in on a black and white photograph, hanging on a wall in the hotel, reaffirming to us that the whole event has a spooky supernatural context. The origin of the evil force in the hotel emanates, we previously learnt, from a Native American burial ground that was disturbed during the hotel’s construction. This scenario seems a little cheesy for a Stanley Kubrick film, because it’s straight out of The Amityville Horror (1979).
- In The Girl on the Train (2016), Rachel Watson – a divorced, alcoholic – becomes obsessed with a woman who she watches as her train passes the woman’s house. The story covers themes of reality and illusion, and suppressed memories. The audience discovers the true nature of Rachel’s situation in parallel to her self-awareness. In this respect it follows a similar pattern to other repressed or lost memory psychological dramas, such as Memento (2000), and Insomnia (2002) where the protagonists come to terms with their own behaviour.
- In the Night Garden is a television show aimed at infants between one and four years old. It takes place in a magical sunlit garden inhabited by an assortment of weird and wonderful characters. Each episode centres around a specific story featuring one or more of the characters, often involving some type of journey, process, or discovery – and each episode ends with the characters being tucked in their beds ready for a good night’s sleep. Although every one of the characters are unique and exists in the world and interacts with others in their own way, the other characters are unconditionally loving and mutually supportive.
- The film Barton Fink (1991) is something of an enigma: the main character, a playwright, Barton Fink, is applauded by the critics of his new Broadway hit, but, after being snapped up by Hollywood, and living in a claustrophobic hotel, his creativity – and sanity – disintegrates. The story is, broadly speaking, a metaphor for creative angst; how big business, in this case Hollywood, destroys the artist’s spirit. The crux of the film is really about the writer’s journey into the abyss, incorporating a collage of references and influences, and spicing things up with dramatic distractions. Unable, or unwilling, to commercialise his film script Barton Fink descends into a nightmare journey, which culminates in his inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. He ends up ‘inside’ the picture of a woman sitting on a beach (which is hanging on the hotel wall). The problem is that we can’t take anything for granted, because he is an unreliable narrator – it’s unclear how much of the story is a figment of his imagination.
- THX 118 explores a bleak future set in an accelerated technocracy where the state controls everything, yet it’s barely able to keep pace with itself. The state is a self-perpetuating process; an end in itself. The population has to be medically sedated to pacify their behaviour and maintain productivity. Emotional feelings, love and relationships, are socially deviant activities that must be eradicated. Physical needs are catered for at a functional level: sexual needs by holographic pornography and masturbatory-devices; spiritual needs by a state ‘religion’ and automated confessionals.
- Robert Laing, the central character of High Rise, works as a lecturer in a nearby medical school. Suffering from a post break-up malaise, Laing wants a quiet place to anonymously recuperate. We meet him on his balcony (a flash forward, three months after moving into the high rise), barbecuing a dog’s hind leg: obviously, something traumatic has happened, and he has ‘lost it’. Laing personifies the literary hero: vulnerable, reflective, an observer – other people do things to him. Dredd is the Hollywood action hero, a Dirty Harry-esque policeman of the future: tough, resilient, and emotionally closed off (literally, because we never see the face behind the helmet) – he does things to other people. Although very different personalities, neither of them change during the narrative: Laing goes insane but seemingly fails to discover anything apart from his ironic appreciation of the conveniences of modern living, which the high rise provides. The modernist tower blocks, integral to both plots, are metaphors of a complete society, with all the amenities one requires. In High Rise the architecture of the building has ‘poisoned’ its inhabitants, contributing to their demented behaviour.