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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On Moving House

August 2, 2020

A classic car, maybe a people carrier, crawls slowly up a dusty drive. The young family inside crane their necks to look at a large house, one that’s kind of old and a little creepy. The car comes to a stop, and the kids (maybe a dog too) burst out from the backdoors and go running into the house – screaming about which bedrooms they want. The mother and father stand, gazing up at the house, holding each other. ‘This will be a new start,’ one of them says and they both smile. 

How many times have you seen some variation on that scenario? I’ve seen it in about 100 horror movies. They’ve likely bought the house at some reduced rate, for sketchy reasons they don’t understand, but, because they’re facing financial hardship, they had no choice. After arriving, the father might become possessed and start chopping wood shirtless, or maybe the mother becomes ‘paranoid’ about all the spooky things that happen when she’s home alone. The youngest kid, the quiet one, might make a new invisible friend or start hearing things in the night. Then comes the demons, or the ghost, the serial killers, or the zombies.  

No wonder we find it all so stressful. Often touted as one of the most stressful life events, along with divorce, moving house can be a nightmare. To top it off, when we watch people move on screen, it never really ends well. The family in The Amityville Horror? Bad. The Conjuring? Awful. The Shining? Oh, boy. 

The Shining
The Shining (Credit: Warner Bros)

Since I’m on the precipice of moving house, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I might do if the place I’ve bought is haunted. I’ve had visions of myself, walking around the apartment in a chic grey turtle neck, being frightened by the slightest noise. Pulling back shower curtains or opening wardrobe doors with a quickness to see if there’s a demon hiding inside. Or waking up late at night and scoping out some disturbance in the next room while wearing delicate silk pyjamas. I’m thinking of myself as Sarah Michelle Geller in The Grudge, obviously. 

In actuality, it’s unlikely my new place is haunted. It’s in a building that was only built around seven years ago, and, to my knowledge, it isn’t on any ancient burial grounds. Yet, I could be wrong. I mean, how often do the families in those films insist the place isn’t haunted before they admit it to themselves? Anyway, the idea of a ‘haunted house’ has been around for centuries and was imbedded within gothic literature. Over time, that has expanded into the mainstream as houses themselves became, as Edwin Heathcote wrote in the Financial Times, ‘the embodiment of evil.’ He goes on to write that the success of this type of horror comes from the subversion of the home as somewhere safe. ‘Home should be a place of comfort and refuge,’ he writes, ‘its violation is a kind of mental rape.’ So, in the decades since those gothic stories – in which haunted houses were distant, creaky, places that were eerie and decrepit – we’ve moved towards the suburbs, the everyday home, the new apartment I’m moving into, as a place of terror. In short, you can’t spot a haunted gaff anymore. The ghosts could be anywhere, and they’re just as likely to be in that abandoned Victorian house around the corner as they are to be in a new build semi-detached on the latest development. 

The Amityville Horror
The Amityville Horror (credit: MGM)

It seems these horror films, which throw families into the midst of a ghostly nightmare after moving house, play on our fear of change? The idea of ghosts or demons might all be fantasy. Still, they represent the genuine fear of homeownership and the concerns about responsibility, permanence, repossession, house insurance, solicitor fees, burglary, choosing the wrong colour for the bathroom wall, and burst pipes that come after a purchase. The idea of owning something like a house or a flat is scary, and so it makes sense that horror films play on that fear by showing us the horrendous things that happen to these families once they’ve moved in.  After all, the genre is famous for tapping into our innermost fears and exploiting them in various ways. 

At the end of these films, the ghost is dispelled or the demon banished back into the depths of hell and, eventually, through some exorcism of the soul, I’ll send my doubts and fears packing too. I will grow into owning my own place, and it will all pass. Though, I’ll still have to keep an eye on the neighbours because, well, don’t get me started on Rosemary’s Baby… 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On ‘I May Destroy You’

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On ‘I May Destroy You’

July 18, 2020

What hit me first was how the title edits itself. The words appear as if typed on a screen, the blinking cursor at the end awaiting its next command. I May Destroy You. Quickly then, milliseconds before the title card disappears, the cursor backspaces and deletes the ‘you’. I May Destroy. Destroy what, exactly? You? Me? Everyone? Everything? This minor blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment speaks to what makes Michaela Coel’s 12-part BBC series the ground-breaking work of television that it is: it is in detail. 

That, in its way, speaks to the conversations that have evolved around sexual assault. What’s in the detail? The small pieces of DNA that disappear so quickly, the intricate specifics of the assault, and how it all comes together in the mind. The memories of those who have been assaulted are so often questioned, the details of a story might change, and deniers latch onto that as a sign of deception. The fallibility of memory is weaponised against survivors, and the societal shame attached to it used to discourage those who might want to speak. 

In I May Destroy You, Coel plays Arabella, a young writer trying to finish her second book. As her deadline looms she pulls an all-nighter but, when inspiration doesn’t come, she heads out and meets up with some friends in a local bar called Ego Death. It is there, in that cunningly named bar, that Arabella’s life is altered when she is spiked and sexually assaulted. Over the next eleven episodes, Arabella reckons with the trauma of the assault and explores the boundaries of consent. When is it given? In what circumstances is it taken away? How can it be manipulated? In this journey, Coel leaves no stone unturned as the show explores ‘stealthing’, withholding information, rape, and so much more while delving into those commonly discussed ‘grey areas’, which was something that hit hard with me. 

I May Destroy You
I May Destroy You / CREDIT: BBC/HBO

In January of 2014, when I was living in University halls, I met up with a guy from Grindr. We were both back on campus earlier than anyone else, and we struck up a conversation about how quiet the city was without the throngs of students piling into clubs and bars. He suggested we meet up for a cigarette, for some in-person conversation to fend off that post-Christmas isolation. 

Outside my halls, we smoked together. He talked about his friends, most of whom were international students and weren’t due back in Liverpool for another few weeks. He hadn’t been able to afford to go home and so spent Christmas alone in his halls. He became emotional – talking about how hard it had been and how much he’d missed being with people. This was his first time living away from home and each day seemed more laborious than the last. 

He asked if I wanted to go back to his halls. They were a short walk away, and he needed to piss but didn’t want our conversation to end. I agreed under the understanding that I wasn’t going have sex with him – something that I felt I needed to say because we’d met on Grindr. He smiled, sweetly, and said he understood. 

I May Destroy
I May Destroy You / CREDIT: BBC/HBO

In his room, I sat on his single bed while he pissed in the small en-suite bathroom. When he came out, he sat down next to me and said he was grateful that I’d met up with him, that he was feeling so much better. He put his hand on my leg and slowly drew it up my thigh, and I froze. It dawned on me that I’d taken him at his word and foolishly not told anyone where I was going. No one knew where I was and, from what he’d told me, his flatmates hadn’t yet returned. 

He reached over, took off my glasses, then leaned in to kiss me. I made no effort to receive his kiss, my face remained utterly still,  but that didn’t seem to bother him. He kept on pushing, slowly asking more of me – not with words but with his hands, rubbing against me, unbuttoning my jeans – and because I was afraid, I didn’t stop him. 

I knew that what had happened wasn’t within the realms of acceptability. As I got in the lift afterwards, I knew I had been taken advantage of. I questioned everything he’d told me. Was he really alone? Was it all a ruse? Had he actually spent Christmas surrounded by loving family members?  Mostly, I felt stupid and, when I played it back to myself, I saw how it would sound to others. I met a guy on Grindr and did sexual things with him in his bedroom. What did I think would happen? I felt, though I hadn’t seen it yet, I understood that deleted ‘you’. I May Destroy… my relationship with sex, men, and intimacy. 

I May Destroy You
I May Destroy You / CREDIT: BBC/HBO

I told a few friends what happened in the weeks that followed, but it was so hard to find the language to convey how it made me feel. Outside of that, I rarely talked about that night but watching I May Destroy You has allowed me to revisit it over and over. I’ve thought a lot about Terry, played expertly by Weruche Opia, who enters into a threesome that seems liberating only to realise it wasn’t quite as it seemed. She didn’t have all the information when she consented, and thus the consent she gave was rendered moot. I’ve thought a lot about Kwame, brilliantly brought to life by Paapa Essiedu, who is assaulted on a Grindr hook-up and feels immense shame about it – which is fuelled by the response of the police. I’ve considered Theo, a teenage girl abused in various ways, lying about an assault at the hands of another black male student. I’ve wondered about the ramifications of Zain’s exposure as a rapist and his scope for redemption. 

This is the power of Coel’s writing; she explores her subjects without judgement. She leaves room for a viewer to consider what is presented and for them to examine themselves in relation to it. The root of the show was her own experience with assault, and that truthfulness has extended to allow Coel to work from a place that is both radical and empathetic. 

I May Destroy You is bold television; in fact, it might be the boldest. I am already comfortable writing that is the best show of 2020, and there are still five months left. It has, for me and likely many others helped reframe and contextualise experiences in a way that only art can. It has also opened up space for discussion, forgiveness, and light. It also speaks to the broader debate around consent that began with this show and Normal People and will continue with the release of Promising Young Women, and I Hate Suzie later this year. Hopefully, this is a sign of the tide turning. 

In episode eight, entitled ‘Line Spectrum Border’, Arabella walks out into the ocean, seemingly to kill herself, but at the last second, she reappears. She is reborn. She sheds the choices she’s made and the trauma she’s been through and emerges as a different woman. That is precisely what Coel has done to the landscape of television – remade it. Be wary of those who enter post-I May Destroy You; it is an entirely different world. 

I May Destroy You is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Change

Read the rest of the How Film Changed Me series

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On Survival Without the Cinema

May 3, 2020

My first memory of the cinema is the mezzanine. Looking down at rows of empty seats, the art deco fixtures of a time long gone, and all of it lit up by the blueish light from the screen. I was with my Grandma watching a re-release of The Little Mermaid, my hands gripped the brass bar in front of our seats, my knuckles turning white. I was around five years old. 

The local Odeon, now transformed into a cultural hub in my hometown, was a place I longed to be. I craved its dusty theatre and shabby, rundown lobby. As a teenager, when loitering around the city centre, specifically outside McDonald’s, as was the social convention, waiting for someone to invite you to a party that night, I used to try and convince my friends that our money was best spent at the cinema. We could catch an afternoon screening and still be out in time to find out which of our friends older siblings might buy us booze for that night but, they didn’t take to it. 

I would have similar debates with my Dad, a man who thought of the cinema as an extravagance. To him, it was a place you go when it’s cold or raining, or as a special treat. He saw no sense in spending bright summer days cooped up inside a multiplex when the country parks and the great rivers of our nation were all free and readily available. We argued about it all the time. I begged to spend two hours in the dark instead of doing anything remotely ‘outdoorsy’, and he would not entertain it. I always lost this battle, if you could even call it that. I once wrote him a letter explaining, in ten bullet points, why we had to go to the cinema to see The Incredibles that weekend so I could complete a primary school homework assignment on reviewing. He wavered, unsure if it really was as necessary as my scribbled plea made out. That Saturday however, turned out to be one of those cold, rainy, days and so, mostly because of nature, he gave in. 

The Long Day Closes, dir. Terence Davies / Credit: BFI
The Long Day Closes, dir. Terence Davies / Credit: BFI

When semi-independence reared its head around sixteen, and I got my first job at a retail chain, I spent every weekend (and most of every payslip) at the cinema. Myself and three friends formed a small troop of cinemagoers who would forgo some of the adolescent evening festivities in favour of film. Our taste was, well, to be polite, mixed. We saw The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on opening night, Revolutionary Road one blurry Sunday afternoon, The Strangers on a dark night that would make us terrified waiting for a ride home, Inception in a packed theatre, and Australia on an icy New Year’s Day. We saw whatever was new that week, with no real idea about reviews or aggregate websites. It was just the three of us, joined by the mutual love of cinematic escape. 

When I lived in London in my early twenties, that escape became crucial, a tool to wield against the loneliness that comes with large cities. As long languid winter nights passed by, as taxi cabs waited, and bike messengers whizzed past, gliding through puddles made of endless rain, I would want to be anywhere other than in the city. The two hours I was able to spend in a different life kept me sane, kept me from giving in to the crushing isolation that felt so heavy. I would leave reality and enter into strange the German humour of Toni Erdmann, the escapist pleasure of La La Land, the close tension of Personal Shopper, the dark, sexy magic of God’s Own Country, and the beautiful calm power of Moonlight

La La Land, dir. Damian Chazelle / Credit: Lionsgate
La La Land, dir. Damian Chazelle / Credit: Lionsgate

Yes, my love affair with the cinema has been a long one, and it is, and likely always will be, my favourite place to be. So, during this period of lockdown, it’s been hard to focus, to find any kind of experience to replicate this absent one. So far, the only thing I’ve taken solace in is that the last film I saw in the cinema pre-lockdown was Portrait of a Lady on Fire and, with its French restraint and love blooming in relative isolation, it feels like a fitting final film. 

Of course, it’s not possible to recreate that cinematic experience at home. It’s too light out, the cat walks in and out of the room having a sneezing fit, and my housemates check their phones, send texts, or scroll on twitter while we watch. I am not innocent of this either, distraction happens so easily when not communally frowned upon. Last week, we made some microwavable popcorn and gobbled some store-bought sweets while watching a new release, available via streaming, but it couldn’t quite live up to the classic cinema experience. Still, it added a little zest to watching a new film at home and new releases are still coming, though at a slower pace. 

Maybe this pandemic will alter how we think about film distribution, now that it’s somewhat levelling in terms of access. I find it hard-pressed to imagine any of the chain cinemas near me, who favour larger blockbuster fair near exclusively, would screen Eliza Hittman’s starkly subtle polemic Never Rarely Sometimes Always, yet it’ll be available to rent from May 13th. The same goes for BFI Flare’s ‘online festival’, making up for the cancelled event, including Sam Feder’s essential documentary Disclosure or Liza Xi Xiang’s regulated and mesmerising A Dog Barking at the Moon. These were all films that would likely have required considerable travel and money, on my part, to see. That’s if they screened near me at all. 

The Shape of Water, dir. Guillermo del Toro / Credit: Searchlight Pictures
The Shape of Water, dir. Guillermo del Toro / Credit: Searchlight Pictures

There are cinephiles, the urban city types, who love to talk about male auteur filmmaking, who consider the likes of Netflix to be the ‘death of the cinema’. Even prominent name directors like Steven Spielberg find the streaming sites to be a real thorn in their arty sides. Except they don’t look at the reality; most people don’t have access to arthouse films on their doorstep. Leveller’s like Mubi, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, and others have made it a great deal easier for most people but is ease even the issue? What it comes down to for most people is money. So many people are priced out of the cinema-going experience, with tickets well over £12 these days and travel to be considered too. If you can rent a film at home, for £15.99 and three or four of you can sit down together, snug on the sofa, at watch together for around £3.99 each, who’s to say that isn’t the best option? 

Sure, I love the cinema. I love it more than eating a good meal, more than getting the weekend papers and reading them in bed. I love it more than fish and chips on the beach in some seaside town as the sun sets, more than napping, more than finding a tenner you didn’t know you had in your jeans pocket. Hell, I love it more than sex. I would even go as far as to say I love it more than good sex, than mid-blowing sex. It’s a vital part of my identity, of my routine, and, like so many other things right now, it’s not available to me. 

It’s a great privilege to be able to go to the cinema regularly, as is the ability to miss it. People who are worried about job losses, financial hardship, or the vulnerable groups who are most susceptible to this virus have more substantial things to worry about during this pandemic. That this is one of my more significant issues with lockdown is a symbol that, really, I’m not all that affected. 

When lockdown is lifted, and businesses reopen will I be heading to my local cinema with bells on? Yes, I will but maybe the way I approach it has changed. Last week, my housemates and I split the cost to rent the new Juliette Binoche thriller, Who You Think I Am and the South African military drama Moffie (both on Curzon Home Cinema). We’ve never done that before but liked both films and paid around £3 each to watch them. So, I couldn’t help but wonder*, maybe it really is time for us to reassess our viewing habits? 

*Sorry, it’s the first column, and I couldn’t resist. 

Also Read: The Problem with the role of ‘The Wife’ in movies like ‘Dark Waters’

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