The Curiosities of Confinement
A survey of suffocation in cinema, its pleasures and its pains.
In some of the first moments of Mark Rappaport’s winsome exploration From the Journals of Jean Seberg you see Jean Seberg’s first screen test. She’s seventeen and auditioning for Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan. The film was the actress’s screen debut and a highly publicized one at that. Preminger was known for buzz-making and the director had launched a public casting call half America’s actresses attended with crosses and pixie cuts. In the screen test, Seberg says she wants to be an actress “very badly,” and smiles with tangible charm. It’s bittersweet to see her hopeful, because you know in years to come, that seventeen year old will age and struggle to find work. Her philanthropy will get her on the FBI’s COINTELPRO list. And, one day, in Paris, she’ll take too many sleeping pills and be found dead in her car at the age of forty—like a worldly imitation of Marilyn Monroe. Rappaport animates Seberg’s diary with archival footage and every moment he reminds you she’s dead, making you aware that no matter how amuck the filmmaker runs, the one thing he can’t do is rewrite her history. So you’re boxed in—a feeling the film broadcasts with the narration: “I’m surrounded by a wall. An invisible wall made of memories.” The Rappaport/Seberg box is intriguing; it’s glamorous don’t get me wrong. You’ve never stepped inside this particular box, but like the viewers of Saint Joan, you’re “waiting impatiently for the crucifixion scene.” While that scene is so bright it’s suffocating, it’s also no future at all.
Confinement is an affecting thing to put in movies. In the old model of movie watching we willingly paid money to be a captive audience, and some films (ahem, Psycho) played upon that tangible reality. And confinement comes in many packages, indeed most moral stories have a built in “damned if you do” subtext to them, and most melodramas hinge their gravitas on a “rock and a hard place” brand of conflict. But that boxed-in feeling can’t exist without an awareness of freedom. Our modern paradox is that the “captive audience” model is officially optional. As evidence of this I watched most of the Fandor-based films in this article on my iPhone. I’m of the mind the more optional the theatrical environment becomes, even amidst all this 3D and 4D flashes in the pan, the more we’ll cling to cinema’s other confinements. They’re cozy, familiar, and perhaps more like our daily lives than the average post-apocalyptic zombie war. At least, as Chuck Klosterman described zombie battle (as a semi-mindless task akin to clearing your email inbox) you leave an undead body count to prove you’d done something. Even if that’s minor progress it’s still physical evidence of activity. I realize this smacks of hopelessness, or at least of unhealthfully low expectations. Stuck is stuck and any progress that lifts you from the box only carries you vertically through infinitely rising walls.
Take religion, and by “religion” I mean Catholicism. Religion and repression (a brand of self-inflicted confinement) are common bedfellows, and the way those two values are set against each other defines freedom (which is a fool’s errand anyway, because freedom is always sex). In the monastic crime dramas The Name of the Rose and Agnes of God a life of faith resembles a life of the mind, even for the “simple” Agnes. It could looks this way because sex proves you’re always an animal underneath. Su Friedrich’s Damned If You Don’t reworks the story of Black Narcissus (its own curious nuns subdued by stalwart British decency) with testimonies about real nuns “ruined” by accusations of lesbian “impropriety.” Also improper, Sister Lulu is mostly confined to a coffin, where one nun confesses the sordid liberties that got her buried. Of course death doesn’t always befall the naughty nun: Pasolini made nuns go wild in Canterbury Tales and, for the most part, Italian films turn nuns into a promise of softcore footage to come. Maybe that’s why the Japanese Pink Film Cloistered Nun: Runa’s Confession was shot in Rome. But the “penetration horror” Behind Convent Walls, which features little actual horror, might be my most accurate example of the paradox of pleasurable confinement. The film’s nameless nunnery is full of telenovela stars so horny they secret men through their basement and MacGyver firewood into dildos. Maybe the ingenuity is liberating but what you learn by seeing these women writhe against the Mother Superior, is that each expression of desire is as good as a step through the gates of hell. Every indecent rub on a pew is like a shove out the frying pan, into the fire. Yet all these nuns are of noble birth, so their poverty and piety is self-selected, making their convent look like a kind of nunnery theme park they can leave if they pay a fee. Maybe that tension is required for the sex to be any good.
The anxiety that surrounds confinement often feels ephemeral, but its basis is usually pretty concrete, just often hard to quantify. The hopelessness of post-Communist Russia looms like a cloud in My Joy, but the film’s conflicts demonstrate that the fringes of society are about to threaten the mainstream. It doesn’t help that their law enforcement makes the Wild West look like a police state, but the film suggests this corruption predates the change in government. My Joy is an interesting double feature with 2004’s immigrant drama After Freedom, in that both are about life after a hard won “liberation.” Regardless, both films describe traps—even in secular climes these conflicts cloister, and in both cases, a quiet middle class existence is the heaven earned by those who purify their souls in the hell of poverty.
During his life, Nicholas Ray said a lot about his relationship to the concept of home; read it was the number one subject of interest to Americans so he focused on it particularly. If you look at his domestic dramas, they’re all about the tenuousness of the middle class. Bigger than Life has James Mason working as a cab driver after teaching a day’s classes to keep the family afloat—he’ll herniate before he loses that house, and that hernia is nigh. Rebel Without a Cause thinks there’s more truth to “found family” scenarios than traditional nuclear families and The Lusty Men makes white picket fences seem faulty and interchangeable (and therefore cheap). But inside the familiar notion of the white-picket fence is a kind masochism: a longing matched by the captivity that facilitated it. I just saw a low-rent potboiler called Lost Lagoon that would make a great double bill with Ray. In it, a guy struggling to pay his life insurance premium is lost at sea and washes up on a small island in the Bahamas. A lonesome inhabitant saves him—a girl who planned to start a resort there with her grandfather, but wants to go ashore for work now that grandpa’s dead. Both stranded, the man recovers from his shipwreck and the girl falls for him. The dramatics are subdued (in part because the acting is better described as “acting”). The man returns home and overhears his wife talking about his death with nothing that resembles sadness. Their marriage was contractual, hadn’t he known? So he goes back to the island, builds the resort with the girl and then…the insurance agency finds him. He has to choose the life he built with this girl over the one that built him miles away. He’s the opposite of a self-made man and that secure house in the suburbs is a place of obligation without reward or incentive.
Class tensions aren’t quite as concrete or as terrifying as basic money trouble because that confinement is an anxious product of the urge to fit in, which is pretty easy to dismiss. A black comedy like Costa Gavras’ The Ax proved the middle class attains financial stability when its members cast off the shackles of their own morality—the bigger knife is the bigger advantage in the jungle or the conference room. It almost bears no resemblance to The Trap, in which the survival of one man’s son rests on his ability to kill his benefactor’s business competitor. One life for another is a bargain akin to slavery.
I suppose, thinking back on Journals of Jean Seberg, stories of “inner life” should be confining, though that expectation may be too literal. The landscape “in his head” sounds like a pretty small space to navigate. But there’s also something inherently liberating about journeying into the theoretically bottomless depths of the self. Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is soaring. Edvard Munch is among the most complexly limitless movies imaginable. Maybe we can only feel infinite possibility when diagnosing the genius of accepted “greats,” but when looking at the petty exploits of the aspiring geniuses, we see just how small their pond needs to be for them to endeavor a swim. Art House laughs at the inventive and slothful—the students who only create when cloistered and rent-free. (In it, Greta Gerwig has a chinchilla!)
And this summer in theaters, Bong Joon-ho’s post-apocalyptic class war Snowpiercer launched Judgment Day entirely inside a train. Strangely it was not as claustrophobic as being in an actual train, but maybe it wasn’t trying for that. Anyway, I hear I can watch it on my phone. Maybe on my next BART trip because that might be funny.