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Unhomely Cinema


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148 Pages


A novel reworking of Freud’s idea of the uncanny and its application to the study of cinematic domesticity.

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.

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



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Published 15 October 2014
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EAN13 9781783083039
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Unhomely Cinema


Anthem Global Media and Communication Studiesnaec mia vda ot s
understanding of the continuously changing global media and communication
environment. The series publishes critical scholarly studies and high-quality edited
volumes on key issues and debates in the field (as well as the occasional trade book and
the more practical “how-to” guide) on all aspects of media, culture and communication
studies. We invite work that examines not only recent phenomena in this field but also
studies which theorize the continuities between different technologies, topics, eras and
methodologies. Saliently, building on the interdisciplinary strengths of this field,
we particularly welcome cutting-edge research in and at the intersection of
communication and media studies, anthropology, cultural studies, sociology,
telecommunications, public policy, migration and diasporic studies,
gender studies, transnational politics and international relations.

Series Editors
Shakuntala Banaji – London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK
Terhi Rantanen – London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK


The New Perspectives on World Cinema series publishes engagingly written,
highly accessible and extremely useful books for the educated reader and the student
as well as the scholar. Volumes in this series fall under one of the following categories:
monographs on neglected films and filmmakers; classic as well as contemporary film
scripts; collections of the best previously published criticism (including substantial reviews
and interviews) on single films or filmmakers; translations into English of the best classic
and contemporary film theory; reference works on relatively neglected areas in film
studies, such as production design (including sets, costumes, and make-up), music, editing
and cinematography; and reference works on the relationship between film and the
other performing arts (including theatre, dance, opera, etc.). Many of our titles will be
suitable for use as primary or supplementary course texts at undergraduate and graduate
levels. The goal of the series is thus not only to address subject areas in which adequate
classroom texts are lacking, but also to open up additional avenues for film research,
theoretical speculation and practical criticism.

Series Editors
Wheeler Winston Dixon – University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster – University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA

Unhomely Cinema

Home and Place in
Global Cinema

Dwayne Avery

Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company

This edition first published in UK and USA 2014
75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK
or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK
244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA

Copyright © 2014 Dwayne Avery

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above,
no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into
a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means
(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise),
without the prior written permission of both the copyright
owner and the above publisher of this book.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Avery, Dwayne,
1977Unhomely cinema : home and place in global cinema / Dwayne Avery.
pages cm. – (Anthem global media and communication studies)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Home in motion pictures. 2. Fmaliies in motion pictures. le. .IT ti
PN1995.9.H54A94 2014

Cover photograph by Clark James, www.clarkjamesdigital.com

ISBN-13: 978 1 78308 302 2 (Hbk)
ISBN-10: 1 78308 302 6 (Hbk)

This title is also available as an ebook.






Introduction Unhomely Cinema
Chapter 1 An Unhomely Theory
Chapter 2 The Decline of the Family: Home and
Nation in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ThDee locae gu

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6


The Future Is behind You: Global Gentrification
and the Unhomely Nature of Discarded Places

No Place to Call Home: Work and Home in
Paul Thomas Anderson’s evoL h Drunk Punc
and Jason Reitman’s p U tinri ehA

The Terrible Lightness of Being Mobile:
Cell Phone me and the Dsiolacitnoo foH
Unhomely Revolt in Laurent Cantet’s iTem O tu









Going Home: The Problem of
Contemporary Film

Dwelling in

District 9 dcseicn yhcraeg film thae fictionsaeli deaw ter sn llcatilipoa s i
2009. Set in the volatile world of Johannesburg, South Africa, the film tells
the story of a group of insectoid aliens (called Prawns) that get stranded
on Earth when their spacecraft loses an important command module. Like
most space invader films, iDtsirct 9tisoppo sa :noi nlempsivetiraarlizes a uti
a group of inexplicable outsiders, the aliens form an imminent danger that
must be excised immediately by the humans; however, while siDcirt9 tllfos ow
this traditional narrative structure, its low-fi, even quotidian treatment of the
alien invasion distinguishes it from most contemporary science fiction films.
Unlike many high-octane sci-fi films, that all too often portray the aliens as a
formidable military force that is ready and willing to decimate the human race,
in Dic9t istrowers oflistic p yethconm litirarathinllth ene tasnanoina ges d gylo
are permanently sidelined. In short, there are no impressive intergalactic battle
scenes; no explosive displays of military technology and violence. Neither
are there any awe-inspiring scientific breakthroughs that allow the humans
to vanquish the aliens and save humankind. Quite the contrary, instead of
cunning and intelligent creatures, the Prawns are portrayed as pathetic beings
that are barely able to sustain themselves, let alone wage a massive assault on
the human race. When the humans enter the Prawns’ suspended spacecraft
near the beginning of the film, for example, what they discover is not some
futuristic shrine to the might of high technology but a disorganized and
malnourished alien population that is on the brink of death.
As a film free of any threatening aliens, iDtc9 tsirmelid ev :am aesac ftiraar n
how can an alien invasion film function without any invading aliens? If the
shock and awe of an intergalactic war is not the driving force of the narrative,
what kind of extraterrr nsweesrtai locflnci tiwe ov mllorste thrawrof ya ehT ?d
represents perhaps a first for the science fiction genre: instead of emphasizing
humanity’s military and technological prowess, instead of decimation being



the story’s ultimate point of culmination, the film delves into the far from
futuristic matter of population control, namely, the issue of how to manage the
film’s political refugees. As the film’s voice­over narrator proclaims, since the
aliens were unable to mount any kind of resistance against the humans, their
status on Earth became highly precarious. Branded as homeless refugees, the
Prawns were forced to live as outcasts in the city’s most violent urban slums.
Even worse, when the slums were no longer able to contain the aliens, District 9
(an extraterrestrial refugee camp located outside the city) was designed to
permanently house the undesirables. Subsequently, unlike many space invader
films that celebrate the sensationalism of war, in ictr9t Dsi atwhs ilpxedero si
the solemn and all­too­familiar geopolitical reality of forced migration, the
fact that for many exiled peoples, home can be an incredibly alien experience.
Released in 2008, rus roHummeSneres ta ylelomeh nctha amdr F ersia
meditates on a sibling rivalry that ensues when Hélène, a passionate and
culturally sophisticated matriarch, dies and leaves her vast country estate to
her three children. As the viewer quickly learns, for Hélène, the estate is much
more than a home, much more than a family heirloom to be passed down to
future generations; most importantly, the house is a shrine to the cultural and
artistic life of France. Housing the artistic achievements of her late uncle (the
home is littered with his paintings, sculptures and furniture), the home is a
symbol of national pride, a testament to the greatness of French cultural life.
When Hélène dies, however, the fate of the home becomes uncertain. While
Frédéric, the eldest son, wishes to keep the estate and use it as a summer home,
the other siblings propose to sell it on the open market. After all, since Adrienne
spends most of her time between New York and Japan and Jérémie has taken a
new job in China, neither of them feels that they would ever use the home. As
Adrienne comments, “The house doesn’t mean very much to me anymore –
France either.” Living and working all over the globe, Jérémie and Adrienne
represent a world of geographic promiscuity, a contemporary condition
wherein rapid mobility and transience has transformed the home from a local
and embedded place to a network of sites that are traversed in time. Hélène’s
home, steeped in the rich heritage of its local surroundings, is simply too
cumbersome for their jet­setter lifestyles. Subsequently, while Frédéric pleas
with his siblings to keep the home in the family, his plan is ultimately rejected.
The home will be sold. And while some of Hélène’s domestic artefacts end up
in a French museum, where they provide some reference to the artistic legacy
of her uncle, her wishes are rejected, as the home’s status as a space of cultural
memory is jeopardized by a world of transnational capital.
Clearly, tci 9Drtsiand ou H rsSuermmfilm tradfferent v re yidleno gotns. itbio
However, while both films utilize different genre conventions (sci­fi vs.
melodrama, political satire vs. art house, etc.), they share this feature in



common: both films use the figure of the disrupted and precarious home to
depict a contemporary world where dislocation and homesickness are ever­
present. In short, both films evoke the contemporary unhomely, an experience
of dislocation and disorientation that can be traced back to Freud’s seminal
writings on the uncanny. Like the Freudian uncanny, the unhomely refers to
the unnerving way in which the familiarity of home can quickly become alien,
precarious and foreboding. The unhomely refers to the ungrounded feeling
that no place is like home; no home is a place of settlement. In ictr9t siD,
the unhomely emerges through the film’s exploration of the problem of
forced migration, as the Prawns’ extraterrestrial dislocation echoes a perilous
geopolitical world wherein many must flee in order to escape the uncertainty
of war, natural disasters, famine and racial conflict. Like many victims of the
contemporary diaspora who must make a home on someone else’s terms, the
film shows how for many exiled peoples home can be quite alien. It’s not just
that the Prawns are subject to brutal surveillance techniques and forced to live
inside a state­sanctioned ghetto – homesickness is not simply the product of
the geographic dispossession of home – the unhomely is equally about lost
connections in time. Colonization, writes Pierre Bourdieu (1990), represents
a form of collective forgetting. Forced to occupy alien territory, severed from
their cultural roots, the Prawns are stripped of the homely comforts that come
from living in a shared past, from the collective habits that give meaning to
everyday life.
In uoH sruSremmare lac itt noer sluutely surrhe unhom eaw yanuodn sht
undermined by global motility. For Adrienne and Jérémie, Hélène’s home
is simply too French, too provincial, too entrenched in the past to support
their exceptionally mobile lives. Unlike Hélène’s conception of home, which
is firmly rooted in the cultural life of one’s native land, home for Adrienne
and Jérémie is always elsewhere, always some unmoored place in today’s
increasingly networked societies. But perhaps what is most striking about this
film about sibling rivalries is the serene way in which the process of globalization
dismantles and disunifies the home­land. The issue of globalization,
especially the unimportance of local art and culture, is not depicted through a
sentimental retreat into nostalgia. France is not painted as a lost cultural world
that is colonized by brute global processes. Everything seems destined to be
this way. The uncle’s artworks are merely remnants of a bygone age that has
been eclipsed by international products, like Jérémie’s prized Puma shoes or
Adrienne’s Japanese tea sets. Capitalistic change is simply the order of the day.
Indeed, while Frédéric protests against his sibling’s plans, he hardly becomes
impassioned about the ordeal. Instead, the dismantling of the home seems
inevitable, as if abandoning the home were a passing event in the lives of the



This book explores the meaning of the cinematic unhomely. More
specifically, I argue that reading the cinematic unhomely is a multifaceted
experience that takes us into the heart of what it means to live in today’s
global, technology­driven societies. Confronting a host of film genres and
narrative conventions, I hope to show that the home is not merely the
backdrop or container for so many unsettling film narratives, but is a vital
concept and place that can teach us much about living amidst the precarious
conditions of globalization. Indeed, as a concept that indicates the disruptive
and disorienting nature of contemporary space, the unhomely offers the
perfect trope for investigating the intersection of contemporary narratives
and the uncanniness associated with postindustrial, global societies. As Rob
Wilson writes, “The uncanny all the more circulates in the global technologies
of postmodernity […] haunts them, gives them a new or exploratory efficacy
in the aesthetic mapping of the real, however broken or incomplete the
languages or frames.” (2003, 38)
Wilson’s observations about the return of the global uncanny are apt.
Within the past few decades, the uncanny has become a supercharged concept
within cultural studies, as the idea has been applied to anything from literary
criticism to architectural studies. However, despite this overflowing of uncanny
studies, very little has been written on uncanny or unhomely cinema, a strange
omission, given the way the cinema has a strong history of documenting and
producing disturbing places. In fact, one could easily compile a comprehensive
taxonomy of uncanny or unhomely films and their place within the history
of cinema. Just think of any horror film, for example, and what you will
encounter is some kind of disturbing, unnerving or eerie mode of residence.
The horror genre is built, if I may use this word, on a foundation of aberrant
modes of habitation. Then there is the melodrama. As a genre that focuses on
the conflicts, crimes and passions that exist within the archetypal middle­class
home, the melodrama is the cultural form cxe elleecnarp e taht demonstrates th
home’s vulnerability to an assortment of internal and external intrusions. One
could also call upon the dark and sinister places of the American “noir” films
of the ’40s and ’50s. The homes in these films are not only depicted as stark,
inhospitable places but their uncanniness speaks to the fallout of much larger
geographic spaces, like the city or even the nation.
The cinema is undoubtedly filled with a plethora of weird and uncanny
spaces. But what differentiates my work on the cinematic unhomely involves
my sociogeographic reading of cinematic unhomeliness. That is, instead
of looking at films that feature weird, strange and fantastical places, my
analysis excavates the unhomely nature of everyday life, the uncanny
practices, technologies and spatial environments that are associated with
contemporary postindustrial societies. Like Homi Bhabha’s postcolonial


reading of the uncanny or Anthony Vidler’s architectural assessment of
modern uncanniness, I am interested in how the Freudian uncanny can be
appropriately reformulated and extended in the wake of the new conditions
of globalization. As such, instead of exploring haunted houses, spectral forces,
ghosts or eerie monsters, in my analysis the unhomely is as much about the
shared anxieties that arise from living in a borderless world as it is about the
disappearance of the body in the fleshless spaces of information; to encounter
the unhomely is to witness the proper spaces of the nation unravel into the
multilateral flows of the network society. In the age of instant connectivity, the
unhomely arrives in the dissolution of the boundaries of work and leisure. In
short, the unhomely represents a crisis of spatial boundaries, a phenomenon
that is all too common in today’s globalized, geopolitical environments.


Chapter 1 provides a theoretical overview of the concept of the unhomely.
While the concept of home has been employed in numerous fashions, becoming
anything from a sign of the nation to the politicization of gender and the body,
I argue that images of disrupted and fragile homes offer poignant metaphors
and themes for assessing the geopolitical nature of contemporary societies,
especially the way global motility alters a place­based definition of home. To
contextualize my use of the unhomely, I begin with a brief overview of Freud’s
notion of the uncanny – a term that indicates the way the subject can suffer
from an attack from within, as the familiar spaces of the home become the site
for an unruly and indeterminate encounter with the return of the repressed.
I then go on to provide an overview of my sociogeographic reading of the
unhomely, especially the way precarious domestic spaces pertain to an analysis
of film genre and narrative.
In chapter 2 the unhomely will be explored in terms of Krzysztof
Kieślowski’s The Decalogue. Airing first in Poland during the late 1980s, The
Decalogue has gone on to receive critical acclaim, becoming one of Kieślowski’s
most important fictional works. Not only did the series initiate his move
away from the documentary film but it also became the first of a series of
international works that reflected the new globalized cinematic practises


For the most part, my analysis focuses on the unhomely nature of contemporary
cinema; however, at times, I include brief references to other kinds of media, like
advertisements and television. o leaecDeuhgTott ih surel ,sa it is rpernese atsexn ptcen io
the subject of an entire chapter. While the series aired initially as a television miniseries,
it is most often treated as a cinematic event, especially since many of the episodes were
featured at various international film festivals. For this reason I have chosen to analyse
the series as a form of cinema.



associated with video technology. But while The Decalogue has attained much of
its critical attention from the series’ explicit biblical themes and metaphysical
issues, I argue that what is really at stake in The Decalogue is a poignant social
critique of the geopolitical changes affecting modern Poland as it verged on
the brink of a capitalistic revolution. In short, I argue that The Decalogue’s
representation of home provides an extended metaphor for the nation and
its precarious place in a new global order. This reading can be found in
Kieślowski’s decision to set the entire series in a desolate apartment complex in
suburban Warsaw. Whereas in socialist times modern architecture represented
the glory of industrial technology and the ideological might of communism,
in The Decalogue this utopian dream has been replaced by an unhomely world
plagued by greed, crime, violence and uncertainty. At the same time, while
the apartment complex evokes the failed legacy of Poland’s socialist past, the
unhomely also points to a nation on the verge of change. This is revealed in
the form of various recurring material signs, such as passports, international
money orders, personal computers, airports, television screens, telephones,
Western consumer products and advertisements, which show how the solidarity
of Poland’s national identity is challenged by new geopolitical processes.
In chapter 3 the unhomely is tied to the process of global gentrification,
especially the effect urban beautification projects have on the development
of urban collectives and the public sphere. Specifically, the unhomely will
be analysed in terms of the role media (namely, architecture and old video
technologies) play in the construction of collective memories, especially the
stories people tell themselves to create a sense of belonging. My central film of
analysis will be Michel Gondry’s comedy iK eR dnniweBdse S . aetunroa d rise
of decaying and abject spaces in Passaic, New Jersey, Gondry’s film tells the
story of how two amateur film directors attempt to save a local, run­down
video store by creating lo­fi remakes of some of Hollywood’s most successful
blockbusters. Interestingly, while Gondry’s representation of gentrification
provides a fairly standard reading of the way the preservation of architecture is
tied to collective memories, it is his exploration of how outdated media can act
as the ground for new ways of dwelling together that offers new insight into the
role obsolescence plays in contemporary consumer societies. By resurrecting
the obsolete world of analog media (the film collective relies on outdated video
technologies to make their “local masterpieces,”) Gondry insists that public
participation in media production does not depend on the latest technological
gadgets; rather, community building can be created through the resurrection
of old media technologies and practises.
In chapter 4 I look at how the films L vo e DchnkruunPand pUi nthe Air
represent the changing nature of work in the mobile society, especially how the
rise of the twenty­four­hour worker blurs the boundaries between the spaces


of work and home. I begin by showing how under modern work conditions
thehome represented a necessary safety zone that helped workers deal with
the usnd ithsol iatrH .yteic ,revewoe a whil goodburden and stressa sscoaiet diw
home life was seen as the reward or payoff for participating in capitalistic
work, in recent times the home has become contaminated by the ubiquity
of work. In short, both films explore what Brian Massumi (1993) refers to as
postmodern labour, a situation where the division between leisure time and
work dissolves. I argue that this breakdown leads to an encounter with the
unhomely. Two central themes will be explored that highlight the unhomely
nature of contemporary work. The first involves changes to consumption. In
both films, domestic consumption is no longer seen as a reward for work but
is depicted as a kind of work in itself. This is evidenced in the way both films
look at how ubiquitous consumer loyalty programs, like air miles promotions,
represent a new kind of labour, wherein leisure time is preoccupied with
searching for consumer deals. The second theme involves the notion of the
mobile home. By emphasizing protagonists that are obsessed with work and
have very little need for traditional domestic spaces, both films show how more
space­bound definitions of home are ill equipped for dealing with a world
of perpetual movement. In its place, the films insist that mobile homes – a
transient form of home that is designed for people on the go – are the best
alternatives for a society obsessed with speed and migration.
Chapter 5 explores the unhomely in terms of the melodramatic theme of
infidelity, especially the domestic hardship that comes about through cheating
husbands. Traditionally, films about infidelity are analysed in terms of the
melodrama’s sensationalistic and emotionally charged exploration of morality,
desire and repression. My analysis looks at how the unhomely provides an
allegorical map of the structural and spatial changes brought about by the
shift to a mobile technosociety. My principal film of analysis will be Feng
Xiaogang’s eCPhonell fo egasu yadyrevee thw hot aksootal ahtrdmali y fam, a
mobile technologies alters the communicative dynamic of the home, especially
as cell phone practices emerge as sophisticated tools of surveillance that can
conceal and disclose pertinent information about the dweller. The primary
conceptual tools for this chapter come from Ned Schantz’s (2003, 2008)
notion of the Ideal Hollywood Telephone – an ideological apparatus that
envisions telephone technologies as providing perfect and transparent forms
of communication. The “ideal phone,” in brief, represents the patriarchal
desire to minimize uncertainty by controlling the circulation of information.
However, while eCP llnehoheir tpmc otrtnot los hslo w eh oowmn metiela tw
mobile lives, the prospect of noiseless communication is shown to be an
impossible fantasy, as the disruptive figures of contingency and coincidence
destabilize the certainty and stability of home.




Chapter 6 provides an analysis of Laurent Cantet’s eerie suspense thriller
Time Outa ,htmeia nehm snt njoit co tha filmt nOo ehdna .5 teap 4rs oeschf ne
hand, the film explores the fragile nature of contemporary work, especially
the rampant fear of unemployment. This is evidenced in the desperate and
pathological measures Vincent, a middle­class, unemployed middle manager,
takes in order to retain his role as the patriarchal head of household. As the
viewer quickly learns, Vincent has not been promoted to a new prestigious job
in Switzerland, but has taken to an aimless life of driving recklessly around
the French countryside. Unable to deal with the monotony and dissatisfaction
of modern work, Vincent’s precarious life on the road is designed to provide
him with a much­needed time­out. I argue that Vincent’s detour away from
the home provides an evocative image of the “risk society,” especially the
ways in which permanent job insecurity threatens the safety of the domestic
sphere. On the other hand, the film explores the social ramifications brought
about by the push for greater forms of migration and mobility. Like the male
characters in Phl eonleCs’g ma efod cepetion hinges on ho ttylibi ais,in Vntce
remotely control the home from a distance. However, by unhinging himself
from the safety net of the family, Vincent’s mobile life ends up pushing him
further away from his family, to the point where the home is transformed by
an uncanny case of déjà vu.
A concluding chapter will provide a summary of the main themes addressed
in the book.