Trap, Nest or Cage: Domestic Enclosures in Film

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by Melanie Reed

No matter who we are, we all need shelter, and our shelter choices and options make up the very fabric of society. The inherent contradiction is that in addition to needing protection from the elements, we need both connection with, and protection from each other. Given these needs, our choices and options for domicile-sharing define family and our choices and options for neighbors define community. This leads us to consider the distinction between “house” and “home,” summed up in such phrases as “home is where the heart is,” and “home is where they have to take you in.”

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Most films include some type of domestic enclosure, but few films examine this element as anything more than a setting for a plot. But in Mark Singer’s 2000 documentary Dark Days, these settings are the plot. This film examines a community of makeshift homes in an abandoned underground section of a New York railway system. As a notable example of grassroots engagement, Singer, who had never made a film before, acquired production help from the subjects themselves, which also gave him better access to their surroundings. Although the project’s mission was more muckraker journalism than art, Singer’s fresh approach to filmmaking creates an effective cinema-verite effect, and in an interesting combination of the two, Amtrak’s mid-production decision to evict the residents was incorporated into the film’s energy and promotion, ultimately resulting in the “happy ending” of housing vouchers and new apartments for the tunnel residents and numerous film awards for Singer.

But beyond this creative and gratifying example of social awareness in action, Dark Days can be examined more deeply as a sociological study. For most people, having stable family and/or employment enables the financial and emotional maintenance of a conventional home. But family dysfunction and/or substance abuse destabilizes this foundation, to the point where family members separate and income decreases or stops. At worst, this leads to day-to-day nomadic urban survival. Most of the tunnel dwellers had hit this kind of bottom, to the point where their move down to the tunnels was actually a kind of move up. These scavenging, repairing, repurposing and adapting denizens can be seen to be as creative as the filmmaker in making a viable product from ignored detritus in a hidden setting – the rats, limited light and absence of plumbing balanced by the relative safety, freedom, absence of bills, community, and ability to have one’s own “house.” I would like to suggest that none of these people are trapped; rather they’ve created a nest. But our sequential glimpses of these nests are all too similar to the act of looking at a series of cages – from our own, more high-end cages.

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The family in Ursula Meier’s 2008 Swiss drama Home also makes use of an abandoned trafficway. This family seems much more comfortably nested, but their nest becomes a cage and then a trap. In an opposite structure to Dark Days, where the bulk of the film is devoted to showing the original “nests” and only a small part to the theme of change, Home devotes all but the first scenes to an escalating series of encroachments and subsequent adaptations.

This five-person family has chosen to live in a remote house next to an uncompleted highway. We later learn that they’ve been there ten years – the approximate age of their youngest child — and that Marthe, the mother, may have agoraphobia issues. But perhaps as a result of supporting one fragile member, this family has grown more tightly and creatively knit: compensating with a playful collective energy that includes rollerblade hockey in the road, watching TV from a couch in the yard, engaging in nude water fights, and hanging out in the bathroom in various degrees of undress. But this idyll ends with the juggernaut of the highway work trucks, which initially blot out the film’s frame altogether and then appear in a phalanx, trailed by their uniformed workers.

The escalating encroachment/adaptation structure has been used so many times in horror films that it often doesn’t surprise us. However, this is not a horror film, but rather a convincing “out of the garden” condensation and examination of urban encroachment. As city dwellers, we must all make some kind of adjustment to noise, danger, pollution and inconvenience. But how much can each of us tolerate, and what if it keeps getting worse? Although each family member of “Home” reacts differently, their actions all move toward extreme, desperate measures, as the conditions that allowed them to live freely and peacefully change to restlessness and constriction.

Eventually, the family fractures horribly, and is only able to come back together after its most fragile member finally gives back her family’s love by transcending her condition for their safety. Unlike Dark Days, which leaves the tunnel dwellers with better homes but a broken-up community, “Home” underscores the “home is where the heart is” theme, as the family members realize that their communal closeness, once predicated on helping one family member feel comfortable, must be redesigned for all of them. As the family jointly leaves their tortured house with no possessions, they are closer than they ever were before. This film deservedly won the Swiss Film Prize for Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Emerging Actor.

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Julian Polsler’s 2012 Austrian-German drama The Wall, based on the 1963 fictional diary-style novel by Marlen Haushofer, presents us with a “caged nest” enclosure, with shadowy trap overtones. While visiting friends in a remote Austrian hunting lodge, the unnamed female narrator remains behind while her friends drive to the village – from which they never return. When she walks to the village to find them, she encounters an invisible wall, behind which she glimpses a neighbor couple, frozen in time and apparently dead. It dawns on her that this must be some kind of new global weapon that somehow missed one section of the valley.

The theme of solitary survival – often used as a metaphor for man’s metaphysical predicament – is not an unusual one. But a number of factors make The Wall unique. The setting calls for neither urban scavenging nor bare-bones wilderness survival, since the narrator has a well-equipped hunting lodge, a cow, fertile land, a gun to hunt with, and a rather large range of resource territory. But despite these advantages, she struggles constantly with loneliness and the fear that she is trapped – conditions that she must fight as persistently as she maintains her food supply. Like Dark Days, The Wall serves as a sociological study of forced self-sufficiency, but in a solitary rural setting.

Though the acting and camerawork are both excellent, the film’s plot is secondary to the voiceover diary excerpts that poignantly, poetically, and philosophically describe the narrator’s process of trying to find new ways to live in the world, in a kind of cross between Walden and Robinson Crusoe. Beset by constant anxiety, she is only able to relax in a summer hiatus in a neighboring meadow with beautiful open views – a place where she feels so “integrated with a greater community” that she fears she is losing herself. These themes of connection and disconnection continue as we see the animals that surround her become her community, each evoking different kinds of resonance, and she writes about herself as both aligned with and separated from these animals in a kind of mixed blessing and tragedy. Much is made of her perpetually happy and loving dog, who is perhaps even better than human, and his presence and absence drives much of both her attitude and actions, including her writing, which serves as a method to come to terms with her grief.

Towards the end of the film, she feels a vague paradigm shift, indicative of a readiness for some new phase of her life, and writes, “there is no impulse more reasonable than loving. It makes life more bearable for the loved one and the loving.” As in Home, there is an awakening to the importance of connection, irrespective of environment. But in The Wall, this awareness transcends both specificity and human form, enabling the narrator to walk through the mental bars of her cage, even though she can’t walk through the wall.

Melanie Reed is a writer, artist, dedicated Scarecrow volunteer and devoted fan of all forms of visual and literary stories.

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