Sifting through crumbs and farts, it’s the narcissist with his peculiars, his hilarity – his particularity
In the summer of 2019, for a special screening at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, the film director Joanna Hogg took part in a Q&A session concerning her latest film the Souvenir, including questions from the audience. Topics ranged from the accidental casting of Honor Swinton Byrne to Hogg having her actors improvise their lines. The autobiographical aspects of the movie were also discussed, which has a sequel already filmed, due for release in 2020. And then, finally, a young woman in the front row obtains the roving microphone and asks the director to explain the meaning of the flies?
There’s a pause. Hogg looks slightly tense. It’s the last question of the night – her mind is already half out the door perhaps. The flies?
I wonder what was intended by the flies in the film?
Hogg squints. She mumbles. I’m sorry, I don’t understand?
The young woman breathes in and for a second time informs the director how much she enjoyed the film, and wonders what is represented by the fly in the kitchen. And also at the restaurant, where there are two flies crawling on the tablecloth. She wonders what the director hoped to convey?
I didn’t realise there were any flies, replies Hogg.
Oh. Plainly stung, but laughing gamefully at her over-appraisal, the young woman hands the microphone back.
‘Remove us from the arrogance of interpretation,’ warned Susan Sontag fifty years ago with an imperious slap. ‘Interpretation represents a dissatisfaction – conscious or unconscious – with the work and a wish to replace it with something else.’
So, the unintended flies mean nothing? The young woman watches too carefully, or is easily distracted.
In Marriage Story there are crumbs on the kitchen counter. As Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s marriage craters and crumbles, he sits watching in the cinema and grows agitated observing crumbs everywhere. The first sighting arrives at two minutes thirty seconds. It’s the middle of the film’s opening scene, the extended montage when each partner tenderly lists the other’s best features, ahead of the tummy drop moment of disclosure – that they’re splitting and the lists are part of a (failed) attempt to consciously uncouple. At which point Driver, star of Girls, BlacKkKlansman and Star Wars is shown at a New York diner, messily forcing down a hot sandwich in close-up.
Further into the movie’s opening third, Driver scarfs a slippery serving of roast chicken, standing up, while Johansson prepares to have his divorce papers legally served. This is not the first kitchen scene or the last one with crumbs. By now he is shifting in his seat. He sees the scraps and thinks enough, surely. He expects shortly to see the crumbs tidied away, subtly disposed of as a symbolic gesture of discontent contained. But as the friable couple tear into anger, the dreck stays in shot, without reference or response.
One hour and two minutes into Marriage Story, during an introductory meeting at Alan Alda’s low rent law office, there’s another kitchen moment as Alda, in the role of Driver’s avuncular divorce attorney, lays out his philosophy on breaking up. The scene threatens crumbs and then more crumbs. At this point in the narrative, the way he’s feeling about the mess is becoming a challenge. Shifting from uneasy to discomfited in his plush cinema seat late on a Monday afternoon, he has the urge to pierce the screen. He feels it strongly. To somehow force his hand inside the film and remove the detritus. Distracted by the crumbs, a train of dialogue rattles past he doesn’t catch.
It’s become normal to miss out on words at the cinema. The listening devices don’t always keep pace. Fast speech, accents, overlapping lines… it’s a jungle up there. He should limit himself to watching English language films at home, with the subs on; and stick to foreign movies on trips to the cinema. Accept that a subtitle-dependent life form is what he is. He can’t go for that though, making the switch-up official, settling instead for key plot points getting lost in the dark as narrative twists whizz past un-grasped. At the climax of Caught, James Mason races to the hospital to be reunited with Barbara Bel Geddes, the pair of them beaming in a happy state. The End title card flutters into frame and Gala is in shock.
The baby died?
Yes. Don’t you think that’s extreme?
I do. He shakes his head. Embarrassed for not knowing, for being clueless. So absorbed by the play of light and shade in the movie’s penultimate scene, seduced by the chiaroscuro of the hospital corridor, he missed the bombshell denouement.
As sound slips away, you evolve into another mode of watching, working more with the eyes, observing the camera closer than before. The way scenes are filmed. composition and design, focus, editing, everything that exists in the frame – this is his new favourite thing. At home, on TV, 1980s New Jersey is laid waste in Watchmen, nuked by a rogue superhero. A sole survivor is seen from high above, tracked as he walks through the flattened, smoking post-apocalyptic ruin.
Nice crane shot, he mutters.
It’s a drone, says the Annoying Son. And all in one take. Did you realise?
Yeah, one take.
Must’ve been five minutes.
And a great dissolve.
He sighs with pleasure. I know. That too.
In contrast, the visuals for Marriage Story are lively but functional. Director Noel Baumbach keeps his two leads and the camera on the move to stop the chatty drama from getting stagey. In noticing the camera travelling, he misses another chunk of dialogue as more speech speeds past. It’s the latest loquacious outpouring from Adam Driver, whose character is fed way more screen talk than Johansson, which doesn’t seem fair for a he-said/she-said divorce narrative.
He wonders if maybe he doesn’t get along with Driver, but then he liked him as the poet busman in Patterson. No, he decides it’s the film definitely not the actor that doesn’t feel right. Usually he’s fond of Baumbach’s movies, but Marriage Story doesn’t shine through the flecks and the crumbs. A film director who started out so enamoured of the light touch of Eric Rohmer’s movies that he named his daughter Rohmer, this time round Baumbach grinds his gears aiming for something chilly, something Bergmanesque, a project where Scarlett gets a Bibi Andersson haircut, delivering in the process a comedy stuck in an awkward space, too snarky or sad to be fun.
He thinks this and yet typically Marriage Story has become Baumbach’s break-out work: brilliant, or herd sense, but everyone says they love the movie. Do none of the adoring see the crumbs?
Precisely one hour eighteen minutes of screen time, at a legal gathering of divorce lawyers and plaintiffs, pastries are served as a lunch menu is passed around. Driver and Alda take a sidebar in an adjoining office. Alda starts snacking, swiftly the conference table becomes scattered with nut shells and discards.
How could they leave all this mess? Did no one working on the production notice or think to clean up? Everyone enjoys a surface wipe. (They actually do.) It’s the only fun part of housework. Be it counter, table, or desk, the deft dispatch of dross guarantees a cathartic hit. Even coke fiends get a buzz Hoovering the crumbs.
It has to be the dross was left on purpose, packing meaning perhaps. Not so much a chunky preconceived thought, but the possibility for interpretation teased from a context of marital crumblings and mess. Luckily, he has a ticket to see Baumbach at a BFI Q&A, belatedly celebrating the release of Marriage Story. He could ask. Be brave. Be not afraid of public humiliation. He prepares to top the young woman from Curzon Bloomsbury by probing one of America’s leading film-makers on his grungy work tops.
But the great interrogatory event doesn’t happen. He has to skip the Baumbach screening when a last-minute change of plan leads to a property search up north. As he sets off early morning, pulling out of London under a dark December sky, the train borne through black space, braced for four days househunting in the new city, he draws up a checklist: things to consider at viewings, things he needs from a home, likes in a home, prefers in a home, appending a stiff reminder not to let the kitchen counters hold sway in his selection. The train manager announces arrival will be delayed by over thirty minutes; so he closes his eyes. When did he get so ridiculously tidy? How could he leave fastidious behind and not notice? To zoom through tidy freak, on past anal, and wake up steaming towards obsessive. But also, what is the original source of this tidy fixation?
Growing up, his dad had his feet up mostly and his mum was always busy. Under such terms, a tidy life is more efficient, and his mum insisted her kids stay ship-shape always. Several decades along, he continues to live the way he was raised, following routines inculcated at an early age. Although he understands that every time you rewind, the memories you bring to the surface are reconstructed. That the scenes you retain most strongly from childhood may contain fictional components. Yet he also knows he was required from infancy to manage things a certain way, the spick and span style, the correct fashion. Not just crumbs, tons of other neat works and tidy tricks. He only has to visit a sibling, put a drinks coaster half an inch wrong and experience the blowback, to confirm his version of the past is reliable and not a fabrication.
Some nights, alone in his kitchen, he sorts the recycling. He breaks down a small cardboard box to roll up inside a tin can, which then gets plugged snugly inside a cereal carton, along with the collapsed sleeve off a ready meal, plus the creased and folded trays that came with the apples, the raspberries, and the blueberries. As he carefully disposes of the waste in the most space-efficient manner, dutifully continuing to behave as programmed long ago, proving there is no such thing as free will – some nights, in the middle of all this effort, he imagines his mother is stood there with him in the kitchen, in spirit, looking over his shoulder, watching, smiling, encouraging, while maybe pointing out tweaks to improve on his method.
But is it really his mum watching over his shoulder – or a rogue piece of himself observing the rest of him fussing? During a winter visit to his parents, he contemplates his mother’s vast collection of Tupperware laid out across two long kitchen shelves on the back wall, nested in descending dimensions like Matryoshka dolls. He takes down and starts to unstack the largest pile. His mum swings around sharply and looks at him, more curious than critical. Why are you doing that? He shrugs. See if it can be stacked better, I guess. She smiles. Do you need all these?
Yes, she says, I do. She laughs. And all of you should just let me be.
She says recently one of his sisters started rearranging his mum’s kitchen and tried removing the Tupperware. You don’t need them! she said, wagging her finger at her mother. They just gather dust! And do you know what she did? She put it all in the recycling. Can you believe it? (He could believe it.)
His mum was not for ditching. She insisted her daughter bring it all back. The inter-generational tussle resumed, however, when his sister pitched her mum’s plastic porridge scoop in the bin, saying it was surplus, that the de-cluttering had to start somewhere.
She must’ve known the scoop was a hollow gesture. Soon as his sister departed for home, as her car disappeared round the bend, his mum retrieved the item from the bin. This woman, who at the front end of her life was patted on the head by Hitler – in a pram, as a toddler – is descending the downslope of her lifespan squabbling over a porridge scoop.
The contested scoop is what it is, just a detail, one he might not have mentioned. But the details they linger on, squat and intractable in his head, awaiting further inspection. Objectively, he tells Gala, he recognises how the minutiae may be received as tedious, but that this is how he is built, it’s the way his brain works. Yes, she says, I understand. In recent times he has come to appreciate that the finer points carry weight, dull maybe, but conceptual – the infra-ordinary, wrote Georges Perec, the opposite of the extra-ordinary: An ‘interrogation of the quotidian’, flushing out common things to ‘rescue them from the mire’. Gala smiles, says, Yes, she knows about the infra-ordinary.
Way back when he wrote about pornography, his mind would wander and he’d catch himself eyeing-up background details. Scoping the decor, not the fucking, the long beige sofa, the ziggurat rug. Forget the oral sex, how about that smoke glass coffee table, or the faux-marble kitchen island? He felt guilty for lacking focus. Only later did he theorise the commonplace as having a higher power.
The historian Keith Thomas spent an academic lifetime sifting the run of the mill for nuggets, noting it all down and becoming infamous in his field for having envelopes stuffed with reference slips for every ethnological snippet under the early modern sun. Thomas was so granular he wrote a detailed study on farting; concerning the early modern manners and morals encoded in the conventions of breaking wind. Thomas concluded that farts – such toxic winds ‘dangerous to hold in, but hazardous to expel’ – were not always simply gases from our returning pipes, but phenomena carrying social weight. A fart could be an expression of disrespect towards authority, an insult, a weapon, or a curse. But also an escaped parp might be construed as proof of weakness, a lack of control by an undependable character at the mercy of an unstable body. Thomas concluded that early modern farts exposed the serious underside to humour, that what makes us laugh may also be a cause of anxiety.
As he comes back from his parents toilet, returning to the kitchen, his mum has the back door wide open, even though it’s freezing, flapping her hands with vigour, shooing the air outside into the garden.
What you doing?
She tells him she farts a lot. Matter of fact. She thinks it’s the pills for her lumbar pain. He says she should blame the dog. She laughs. She cracks up. She finds this so funny it seems genuinely that the idea has never occurred. Advanced deep inside the third age, so deep it’s possibly her fourth age, his mum is palpably winding down and is no longer the fastidious potentate of her imperial years. He notices many breaches and deviations from the old regime. An egregious divergence is that his parents don’t own a toilet brush. He wants to ask them what happened, why not, and how it feels to live without a toilet brush?
|A White Plastic Toilet Brush Set|
But also, equally, we might ask, how does it feel to live with a toilet brush? How at ease are we with this scrubber on a stick? Flashback to an interview with John Pawson in the early 1990s, with the minimalist architect asserting with feeling – more feeling than you expect from a pared-down type – that the biggest interior design challenge we face is figuring out where to store a push bike in the average home. He wonders about that though. Do minimalists have the toilet brush licked? The scrubber on a stick may do good work, but is an ugly beast and a cache of hygienic dread. He finds he replaces his loo brush regularly, soon as the white bristles darken. But that’s a lot of plastic. We may feel strongly that anything anywhere close to a toilet basin acquiring just a hint of brown is scary, something to be immediately discarded, while also realising that we can’t continue this way. The oceans are sick from all the plastic. We need a new bathroom protocol.
|perchance to flush|
Is all this toilet talk what Mark Fisher meant by ‘the solitary urinal of male subjectivity’? For sure, it isn’t what Nietzsche had in mind digging into disgust for The Birth of Tragedy. Specifically, Nietzsche puts Prince Hamlet’s revulsion under close attention, deciding that the young man’s bewildering delay over avenging his father’s murder is less about a lack of nerve, and more a case of existential nausea and moral disgust. Hamlet can’t deal with life as he finds it ’cause it makes him sick. Not the state of his kitchen counter, not the loo brush, but due to a conviction that however he acts, whatever he does, he can’t fix a universe that’s got out of joint.
With the world not how he wants it to be, Hamlet seeks refuge in his mind. There is this feeling, not uncommon, that sometimes the world is not enough. Back home from Marriage Story, it’s early evening. Silent and sleepy, he takes off his shoes, walks to his bedroom in his socks and opens the door without the slightest noise. He lies down on the bed, staring at a tiny dark spec on the ceiling.
As he prepares to luxuriously drift from the parameters of the day, he turns his gaze out through the window, at the clouds moving across the moon, while listening to the sound of a child running along the corridor outside his flat. In the pre-modern era, the term corridor actually meant a person and not a space. The corridor was a courier, a messenger, often an individual in a hurry. As the child’s footsteps recede, the click-clack of heels come into range, a click-clack he associates with Gala’s arrival, but she’s not coming his way tonight. All hypnagogic by now, his thoughts cloud as his head starts to blur.
The good news with evening sleeps is he doesn’t chuck himself out of bed like can happens at night. The bad news about evening sleeps is he remembers what he dreamed. Try telling someone your dream and usually they are pretty bored. We listen to your story, but we weren’t with you teetering at the edge of the high tower; we were not chased by a giant kiwi fruit the wrong way up the motorway, like you were; or went to work with no trousers or underpants, like you did. We dream alone. And yet here he lay, going under, watching himself from the ceiling.
Looking down, he finds his left big toe, the one without a nail, is painted bright blue, as he segues to walking down a street in the northern city, heading towards his new home. It is the aria segment of his dream cycle. He has completed this walk only three times in reality, but already it has become imprinted in his brain. He strides along past the parade of eateries and shuttered shops, the quality outlets – the cheese store next to the fishmonger, the upscale bakery, three cafes and a yoga hut. The Tunisian restaurant, the live jazz venue, the candle and card shop, the refill store and the specialist wine merchant over on the left after the first turning. Then head past the Thai on the corner to the Victorian terrace facing the park; and do a right into Pastureland, were the pavement slabs have cuneiform carvings and there’s a trail of a rice spilled from someone’s shopping.
It is darker down his new street as the street lamps bend together and the roofs and the sky bunch and lean in. By the time he gets to the new house the street has been swallowed up in grey night. He shuffles up to the gate, across the yard to the front door, waiting to go inside. Would this house, this home, be definitive at last, when you could argue all those that came before never ever made it?
His dreamstate seems deeply sceptical, for as the door swings open and he floats inside, no longer using his feet, he enters another interior altogether. This is not my beautiful new house, this is not my thoroughly new life.
The home from the estate agent brochure has been replaced by the one he lived in twenty years ago, once upon a time in another life. Lucidly he observes himself not confused as he goes from room to room. Remembering it all with a photographic fidelity, he glides up the stairs, covering the floor plan as if conducting an inventory. And down again, noting the yellow walls, the stripped wood in the box room with the cylinder shade, the large green flag stones in the kitchen, the blue fridge that wobbled, the green door leading to the cellar.
The cellar. The dream turns clammy as the familiar dread rises. He hated that cellar. He resisted going down there after dark and would only visit under duress, with a large torch, heart in his throat. The new place also has a cellar. Homes often become freighted with subterranean dread, we don’t know whether to excavate or ignore. But before he can follow that thought, his dream spins him back south again, returned to his London bedroom, just in time for the Annoying Son to arrive – dropping down at the foot of the bed with a light plonk.
The Annoying Son has gone back to being seven. But an unconventional seven who has taken up smoking. For this strange rendezvous in dreamland, he sits there puffing away, fumes rising from his poor little nose and mouth, saying, Where are we, Dad? Where is my Lego?
We’re home. We moved in when you were thirteen.
Where’s my Lego?
It’s in the garage.
He looks sad.
You stopped playing. You broke up all your models.
I said I’d still play Lego when I’m twenty.
You said thirty.
The Annoying Son gets up off the bed. Where’s the garage? He leaves the room.
He jumps up and follows. I kept your mini-figures. They’re in a Tupperware under the bed. Must be worth a bit.
But his young son steams ahead, getting out of range, fading fast. He loses sight of him at the turning. He wants to follow, but is blocked, and continues on alone down a winding blue carpet embossed with gold pointers. The carpet draws him on through an airport duty-free zone, then onto the kitchen department at Ikea, as his lively dream series ends in work surfaces.
|a wood falls down on the Essex Borders|
Across the weekend, out on the Essex Borders, ‘Home’ is the lead item for discussion. Home. Property. Location. Relocation. A complex debate in search of a settlement as they sit across the dining table at angles. Gala’s fingers chase specks and crumbs across the wood as she gathers up her thoughts. She tells him what she thinks while repeatedly sweeping the crumbs into the palm of her hand. Jumping up out of the chair suddenly, she tosses the debris down the kitchen sink. He’s actually not making this up – forcing the narrative to fit today’s thematic thread. No, Gala’s after the crumbs. She loves a surface sweep; as we all do.
At this late stage, the nagging idea lurking at the edges for some while, whispering in his ear, presses a bit harder, hoping to become conscious and undeniable – that the infernal crumbs mean more than just their essential crumminess; existing as stand-ins for other things too complicated to get into. Yes? – No. He doesn’t want to be that person any longer, deciphering your life all the time, existence decoded. Now that he can’t hear well, now he has stopped doing the meaning at the cinema, maybe this could be his new way all over.
It’s not easy cancelling the habit of a lifetime though. Breadcrumbs spilled across the table might be read as the disruptive, rogue force of things not sorted. Typically, our first close encounter with disruption (or change) is shock. But once we rebalance and ask what happened, we start to tell a story. Despite the problem of other minds, we all broadly agree that finding a narrative encourages the divided brain to reconcile and simmer down.
Are crumbs some unfinished business set to keep on returning until he deals? In a worsening narrative, the specks might revisit no longer as proxies, but in their real form as psychic monsters. Is that the lesson? His eyes follow Gala as she goes over to the fridge, peering inside, hoping for inspiration.
His gaze lingers, then shifts away, tracks left and travels onwards through the open kitchen door, across the hallway to the forgotten front room. He contemplates the vacuum cleaner lying abandoned in a heap between the window seat and the Christmas tree. Like it just died there; or the Hooverer was abducted mid-housework. Last week, the vacuum cleaner could be found stranded on the landing outside the bathroom door. Recently it was curled up in a ball halfway up the stairs. Sometimes he sees it piled against the shoe shelves inside the front porch.
He asks about it often being on the move. He looks into her eyes, brown and vital. And then to her lips. Which say that the Hoover doesn’t have a home.
There are times, no really, when all this self talk can feel a bit extra. So let’s go larger again reaching for high-end literature for amplification. In Swann’s Way, Proust describes the young Marcel’s exasperation as he struggles to make sense of the world around him. He can’t hold on to or fathom the meaning of things. The sensory impressions of the physical world ‘seemed to be concealing, beyond what I could see, something which they were inviting me to come take and which despite my efforts I could not manage to discover.’ The experiences that moved Proust ‘seemed so full, so ready to open, to yield to me the things for which they themselves were merely a cover.’
There’s a reason we have metaphor. How could we not interpret the world? To glean what we can from what we read or listen to, the films we go see, the way we are with each other, the clouds as they slide past. To explore the words, the dreams, the flies, the toilet brush, the crumbs.
On the Sunday morning, they get ready to go down to the woods again and onwards into town. After breakfast, as he rinses out at the sink, Gala says wouldn’t it be great if they found a solution to coffee grounds? They are such a chore. It’s true, he says, a real bother. Do you have your Oyster? Yes, she replies. In fact, she says she knows its exact whereabouts. Her Oyster is currently in the lining of her coat, along with a lost fiver; suggesting a hole in your pocket isn’t always a bad thing.
|Warhol Hoovers up|