In the early to mid 1980s, in the modest New Zealand publication Alternative Cinema, three women filmmakers, at the very start of their careers, tried to figure out how to relate their feminism to their love of popular fiction, its stories, spectacles and genres. The women were Jane Campion, Gaylene Preston and Alison Maclean. Quite an Antipodean talent pool!
All three, in different ways and at diverse moments in their subsequent careers, have been drawn to hybrid inflections of the Gothic in cinema and, more specifically, the Female Gothic. This is a loose genre in which female characters face – often within dreamlike surroundings and situations – the archetypal male figures who prompt both fear and desire in them. In the works of these directors, whether The Piano (1993) and In the Cut (2003) for Campion, or Mr Wrong (1986) and Perfect Strangers (2003) for Preston, we see a bold mixing of forms and conventions: horror, mystery-thriller, art cinema and formal experimentation, underlined by ideas from feminist theory and politics.
Alison Maclean’s 14-minute Kitchen Sink, among the many highly Expressionistic and allegorical films made in the wake of David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) – and, like it, rendered in starkly contrasting tones of black and white cinematography – is an enduring highpoint of Female Gothic exploration in contemporary world cinema (it is included as an extra on the DVD of her 1992 debut feature Crush). Almost wordless (aside from some deliberately banal chatter that provides an everyday punctuation), it cleverly uses the low-budget production formula of “two people in a house”. But not only does it mine the feminist potential of this domestic setting, it also swiftly puts its premise through a series of intense transformations or metamorphoses, all of which stay true to the essential concerns of the Female Gothic. In the following analysis, numbers in parentheses refer to the shots as numbered in Richard Raskin’s shot list (PDF file).
On its broadest thematic or semantic level, we can observe the changes that are rung on the film’s central narrative idea. The strange creature identified in the credits only as Man (Peter Tait), whom Woman (Theresa Healey) digs out of a clogged domestic plughole, goes through a number of stark alterations in shape, size and nature. He grows from a foetus with already strikingly well-formed facial features (shots 22-57), to a hairy, King Kong-like adult-sized man (68). After he is lovingly shaved and trimmed – but also cut (84), which is a classic sign of female ambivalence – he appears ‘civilised’ (91). Shots 94 (her romantic gaze at his face) and 95 (zipping up his trousers) clearly tell us that, for Woman, this sudden gift of a handsome, adult Man is a handy object of desire.
However, we are then presented with a striking plot ellipse – having shared her bed with him (the night-into-day transition evoked in 97), Woman has again tied Man up in a white bag (100, 102). Maclean seems to be making here an ironic reference to the coy “maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t” temporal transitions typical of classical Hollywood films of the 1940s – often centring, precisely, around an ambiguity as to whether sex has taken place. (In true Old Hollywood style, Man seems to have remained chastely dressed throughout the night!) But the look on Woman’s face in 97 (as well as the symbolic clean sweep announced in the sheet-changing of 98) cues us, at the very least, into some regret or second thoughts on her part: it’s the Morning After dilemma so often hashed out in women’s magazines, TV soaps and film melodramas.
Of course, Woman is right to worry, for now that this emblematic male creature has been rejected and ejected, he becomes a figure of menace – someone who cannot be so easily controlled or disposed of. In a characteristic horror movie gesture (120-121), he grabs her hand. At this point, as a fight ensues (120-138), Kitchen Sink skillfully mimics the conventions of the action-thriller, with its quick editing and dramatic musical underlining. However, with the violence suspended, erotic romance again enters the picture, and they kiss (144-145), the circling camera again evoking movie convention. This swirl of ambivalent love and hate, so typical of Female Gothic, resolves itself in a surreal gesture (rendered in a simple but highly expressive special effect) that answers the initial tugging from the sinkhole: pulling Man’s neck hair appears to destroy his life. The film leaves us in medias res during this violent act on the woman’s part, which is effectively a kind of triumphant, Praying Mantis sex-murder.
Discovery, attraction, exploration, repulsion: as in so much Female Gothic, this Woman’s elemental actions (for the film has no individual psychology per se) are driven by curiosity, just as for the archetypal figure of Alice in Wonderland. That the film emerges from feminist concerns is evident not only in the Battle of the Sexes scenario it plays out, but also in the particular investment that Maclean makes in the domestic setting and its props. It is from the unglamorous, quotidian sink that the figure of both desire and menace emerges – quite literally, in the first place, as the type of mucky obstruction that irritates in daily life. Everything in the film involves everyday, domestic objects: pipes, taps, bathtub, tables, chairs. The only tokens of the world beyond are the intrusive phone call (55-62) and the little girl at the door (15-18) who offers (as in a TV game show) a “mystery envelope” – an ironic reference to the mystery-man stirring in his successive, envelope-like sacks.
Ultimately, it is another instance of everyday curiosity, occurring upon a body no longer coded as a projected romantic or erotic ideal – Woman’s fixation on Man’s pesky little, sticking-out hair follicle – that brings the emotional cycle traced by the film to an abrupt but satisfying close. There is also a subtle transition between this start and end: Woman’s distracted fixation on her own hair (47-48), which evokes the psychological condition of trichotillomania or compulsive hair pulling.
Maclean surely had a classic of cinematic Female Gothic, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), in mind when she plotted the découpage of Kitchen Sink. [PS: Three decades later, Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist (2021) relays the same debt.] The film stages a rigorous war around the classical point-of-view structure that we intuitively know so well, as spectators, from many horror films and mystery-thrillers. The opening phase (shots 1-45), lasting 2.50 minutes, is firmly anchored around the POV of Woman, first at the sink, then at the front door, and finally as she extracts the creature from the hole. Although the camera set-ups showing her at the sink (a first set-up is cut to form shots 2 and 9; the second set-up gives 4, 6 and 8; while the set-ups for 11, 13 and 15 appear only once each) vary, the extremely insistent return to an almost identical framing of the sink (1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 and 14) establishes this image, in emotional if not strictly literal or realistic terms, as a POV vision from the character’s eyes.
Shot 46, 2.50 minutes in, marks a decisive turning point in the formal structure. As often in the films of Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento or Brian De Palma (to name only four master practitioners of the hybrid mystery-thriller-horror form in cinema), subjective POV structures, such as the one just traced in shots 1-45, exist mainly to be inverted, shifted or broken – i.e., in order to allow some turning of the tables between characters, with all the symbolic and allegorical potential this carries. In 46, the woman is no longer, as it were, in control of the camera’s gaze; it detaches itself from her, approaching her ominously from behind. This shot will be ultimately answered or completed – fulfilled in the terms of a figural analysis – by shot 142, in which a similar camera movement approaching her from the back ends up being coded as a POV from Man’s perspective, a shift cued by his hand at last entering the frame. (Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson often use this technique.) In-between is a transitional point in this arc: shot 103 (a set-up carried over into 105, 107 and 108), also from behind Woman as she bathes.
The interruption or disruption to the woman’s control of the POV which begins in shot 46 segues into a plot device that carries the same function: the call away from the bath to the telephone that begins in shot 55 and continues until 62. This is a classic thriller trope: think of the shower taken by Harrison Ford thirteen minutes in Polanski’s Frantic (1987), allowing an occlusion of sound and vision to take place that boldly signifies the unseen moment of his wife’s off-screen kidnapping. In both cases, something monstrous – literally, in Kitchen Sink – occurs in the elided off-screen space, thanks to a deliberately unreal telescoping of time.
The interplay between Woman and Man in Kitchen Sink is properly and profoundly psychoanalytic – the Freudian level is often avowed and foregrounded in Female Gothic, with many films in this tradition, from Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) to Whispers in the Dark (Christopher Crowe, 1992) taking off from a literal dramatisation of the analytic situation. In the Woman’s eyes, and in her compressed experience as rendered here, the Man wheels through a number of identifications or projections: baby, adult, lover, attacker. This fluidity or instability of psychosexual projection is a hallmark of the Female Gothic. It is also, of course (and as in Gaylene Preston’s work) a heightened, wry comment on the behaviour of actual men in real-life relationships, flip-flopping from childishness to aggression, desire to indifference, sensitivity to brutishness, animalistic to civilised, in their intimate dealings with women.
But Maclean’s version of Female Gothic is also finely tuned into the ambivalence of all this from the woman’s viewpoint: she enjoys (for a time) nurturing the male ‘infant’ – he is a passive toy, putty in her hands – just as she is erotically attracted to the ‘bad boy’ animal within him. It is precisely the point at which such intimate attraction suddenly clicks over into life-threatening violence – a violence that echoes, beyond this one figure, the ideology of an entire patriarchal, male order – that is so well captured in Kitchen Sink. And, for a change, Woman gets to win the struggle.
Shot List (PDF file) (compiled by Richard Raskin with the authorisation of Alison Maclean, originally published in Short Film Studies, 2012)
MORE Maclean: Jesus' Son
© Adrian Martin April 2011