Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation
Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler
This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.
Alone in the Crowd: Urban Recluses in US-American Film (Rüdiger Heinze)
Abstract: Filmic representations of urban solitude often depict it negatively; the urban recluse is a kind of threat to his or her environment. The reason lies in the particular constitution of urban solitude: because human contact is theoretically possible at all times and spatial distance minimal, the urban recluse is in a position of perpetual liminality.
1. Right Next Door: The Recluses Among Us
The bulk of studies of solitude, hermitism, and reclusion focuses on the withdrawal of a person to an isolated place like a hut in the forest, a cave in the desert, or some other place in the wilderness far away from urban hustle. To be sure, most critics acknowledge that solitude does not inevitably and exclusively mean significant spatial distance from other people; but most then go on to discuss – abundantly available – narratives of retreat into the natural wild. However, as Ina Bergmann points out in her introduction to this collection, reclusion and hermitism are also possible and indeed frequently practiced in an urban context. In fact, as she elaborates, both ‘natural’ and urban solitude have a long tradition. It is unsurprising, then, that at a closer look, US-American literature and fiction film should be full of urban recluses.
In fact, all of US-American literature is – and has been ever since it made sense to speak of ‘urban’ in an US-American cultural context – full of urban recluses. The short stories of Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Harold Brodkey, John Cheever, Richard Russo, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more regularly feature urban recluses, not to mention the countless pieces of detective, crime, thriller, or horror fiction. Better-known novels would be Malamud’s The Tenants (1971), Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Oates’ Zombie (1995) or, it seems, every other novel by Paul Auster. The list could be extended to include plays by Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, or Neil LaBute; poetry by Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, or Sharon Olds; and comics such as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan (2000) or the Sandman-series (1989–1996) by Neil Gaiman.
There are many more examples in US-American film of characters living a more or less secluded life in an urban environment and with a narrative that develops from the intrusion of the ‘outside’ into the mental and/or spatial reclusion of the protagonist. Entire genres more or less centrally feature an urban recluse: many ← 245 | 246 → superheroes keep their ‘private’ identity secret and live in urban reclusion when they are not out to hunt villains; serial killer films and other thriller-staples frequently stage an urban recluse as an unknown threat right next door. If we take into account minor characters, the number of urban recluses in US-American film multiplies.
Interestingly, though, filmic representations of urban solitude frequently tinge this form of reclusion negatively; quite often, the urban hermit is a kind of threat – not necessarily physical – to his or her environment and its particular social/political/moral order, or portrayed as a more or less sociopathic outsider, though not necessarily violent. The key reason for this lies, I argue, in the particular constitution and dynamics of urban solitude, which are significantly different from those of ‘natural’ solitude, even though they share fundamental features. Because human and social contact is theoretically possible at all times and spatial/physical distance minimal, the urban recluse is in a position of perpetual liminality, of presence and absence, much more so than the ‘natural’ recluse, who is not as conspicuously ‘present while absent’ (and vice versa) in a social environment. The effect of this difference between urban and ‘natural’ solitude is compounded by the medial and narrative demands of fiction film and the particular US-American cultural context.
Accordingly, in this essay, I will discuss the representation of urban recluses in recent US-American film. Specifically, I will analyze and categorize their visual representation; the particular kind and degree of withdrawal, especially where and how they live, which kind of society they withdraw from for which reasons, and the degree and quality of interaction with other people, if at all; its ideological investments and repercussions; as well as the narrative, medial, and generic embeddedness of the reclusion. The aim is to identify, contextualize, and categorize recurrent and prevalent types of urban reclusion in US-American film and their cultural historical significance.
2. What is the ‘Nature’ of Urban Solitude?
Although there are numerous different definitions of solitude, most of them share a fundamental understanding of solitude as the withdrawal and disengagement from other people for some time that does not, per se, say anything about its spatial realization, physical absence of other people, and emotional and social charge. For example, Philip Koch, in perhaps the most detailed discussion of solitude and related concepts, defines solitude as “a time in which experience is disengaged from other people” (27). Later, he replaces “time” by “state” (43). Frances Ferguson defines solitude as “cultivated as a space for consciousness in which the individual is not answerable to others” (114). Christopher Long and James Averill define ← 246 | 247 → solitude as the “disengagement from the immediate demands of other people” (23), a condition “in which a person is alone and unobserved but not necessarily separated by formidable barriers or great distance from others” (23). Svend Erik Larsen states that solitude is “an emotional state of singularity” (28), “of being absolutely detached, not just isolated from something specific or specifiable, but from everything in terms of space, meaning, value and identity” (27). Consistently, he distinguishes between ontological and emotional solitude. And Robert A. Ferguson asserts that solitude comes with a “different understanding of the self and its use of time and space” (1).
Note that all of these definitions characterize solitude as a mental state of more or less willing disengagement from the world and other people, while none of them necessitate the literal absence of other people (‘being alone’) or spatial distance (‘being isolated’). On the contrary, a “person can experience solitude while in the presence of others” (Long and Averill 23), or “[o]ther people may be physically present, provided that our minds are disengaged from them” (Koch 15). Moreover, as Robert A. Ferguson, Koch, and Bergmann emphasize, solitude does not inevitably go hand in hand with loneliness since it is often a “sought condition” that is experienced as liberating (Ferguson 1; see also Koch 15). Even where it is involuntary, it may be “deliberately constructed” (Koch 18). In other words, all of these definitions on principle allow for urban solitude (even if many of them do not expressly say so), and none of them require a retreat into the wild – what I have been calling ‘natural’ solitude. In fact, in his detailed discussion of solitude, Larsen points to the long tradition (Kierkegaard, Descartes) of being alone in a “densely populated place.” He calls it a “social paradox” that “crowded modern urban life, paradoxically and inevitably, generates solitude as in a desert” (25).
Furthermore, we have to be careful to distinguish solitude from related but incommensurate terms such as isolation, aloneness, privacy, and alienation. Koch defines isolation as a state of “being separated from other people” that is “not easily overcome” (34), but that is not necessarily lonesome. He defines privacy as a state with “no unwanted observers of one’s rightfully reserved thoughts, words, activities” (37). Lastly, he points out that the concept of alienation derives from a Marxist critique of the estrangement of people from other people and from society as the result of economic processes (43). It becomes clear that the terms/concepts of isolation, loneliness, aloneness, and privacy, while all potential correlatives of solitude, are not identical to it.
Most importantly for my argument, solitude is never complete (Cahir xiii), but rather dialogic and ambivalent. Apart from this, “the mental experience of solitude is ineluctably as social as any other psychological experience” (Long and Averill 22). ← 247 | 248 → If we understand solitude as the more or less voluntary (mental) disengagement from other people for some time, then the preposition already entails some kind of negotiation and articulation (in the semiotic sense). Solitude requires a “permanent negotiation between need for the other and an opposition to the other” (Larsen 29–30) and is only one side of the oscillation between the “contradictory states of isolation and community” (Cahir xiii). There is, thus, always an ambivalent connection between solitude and the social world (Long and Averill 21). This interplay is a “recurrent subject through all of American letters” (Cahir xiii).
If this is generally true for solitude, it is all the more so for urban solitude. As I have argued above, for the urban recluse, human and social contact is theoretically and easily possible at all times, and the spatial/physical distance from other people is minimal. The urban recluse may also observe his or her surroundings and the social life of other people. Moreover, an urban context is, contrary to a wilderness context, fundamentally ‘social,’ its inherent potential for (desert-like) isolation notwithstanding. For urban reclusion to make sense, these urban spaces must be populated, so deserted cities (e.g. after an apocalypse) are not considered here, because they turn into deserts. In addition, they must be populated by humans, not vampires or zombies or some other such species. In other words, films such as I Am Legend (2007) are not included into this consideration. One does not ‘withdraw’ from zombies or vampires, one runs from them, and one does not refuse ‘interaction’ with them, one simply does not want to be eaten.
As a consequence, the urban recluse is – much more conspicuously and knowably so than the natural recluse – simultaneously present and absent, both mentally and physically, and thus in a position of perpetual liminality (as conceptualized by Victor Turner in his landmark study The Forest of Symbols, 1967) and potentiality. While I would hence agree with Larsen that solitude is a construction of the respective context, I would disagree that this turns it “into a readable sign we can interpret” (30). On the contrary, I would argue that the urban recluse is a signifier whose signified constantly eludes us, turning it into a sign we may want to (or feel compelled to) read, but cannot as long as liminality is upheld. This raises the interesting question of what the narrative attraction of urban reclusion is, in which there is little or no inherent interpersonal conflict (Roorda xiii), but instead constantly deferred signification and a high degree of ambivalence. This is a crucial issue for narrative fiction film, which, I argue, it deals with in particular and revealing ways.
3. Urban Solitude in Fiction Film
The medium-specifics and narrative demands of (conventional) fiction film inevitably shape its representation of urban solitude. As a medium, film typically creates ← 248 | 249 → a three-dimensional fictional visual world, a space into which the audience looks through the frame of the shot as if through a window – at least that is the illusion. As a fictional narrative, film typically portrays transformation, conflict, and more often than not interpersonal relations (even if the ‘persons’ are animals or objects), all of which are usually resolved through some kind of closure. In these respects, it would seem that fiction film is less than ideal for the representation of urban hermits. Their solitude tends to be represented as predominantly spatial, focusing on the visible rather than the mental disengagement. In terms of narrative, most films spend little screen time on the actual solitude rather than on the backstory and the transformation and gradual renouncement of this solitude in the direction of the (return to the) social. Consistently, the liminality and ambivalence of urban solitude are eventually resolved through one of several possible closures. To make the liminality and ambivalence more palatable and ultimately ‘readable,’ films frequently employ genre frames such as the superhero who hides his ‘real’ identity, the serial killer who lurks in the shadows of the big city, the sage whose wisdom needs reclusion and who inspires the coming of age of an intruder, etc.
In other respects, fiction film is actually very well suited for the visual representation of urban solitude, because it is multimedial, and because its form can easily generate disjunction and conjunction at one and the same time. For one, mise en scène and cinematography can create a frame which places the urban recluse in immediate proximity and yet stark separation from society, highlighting simultaneous presence and absence. And second, sound, lighting, and editing may convey mental disengagement within even the shortest sequence. Thus, fiction film not only has an assortment of means to stage the liminality and ambivalence or urban solitude in general, but also to stage it in a host of different ways without resolving it. Theoretically, it could do justice to the many facets and aspects of urban solitude without imposing closure.
In effect, however, the majority of films stage the retreat from the social within an urban context as the result of a traumatic experience, as something that is mostly unwholesome, and as a state that should eventually and ideally be overcome. And while there are numerous different films that represent urban solitude in a variety of ways, it seems to me that most of them follow two ‘meta-narratives:’ the urban recluse as threat and the urban recluse as benevolent sage.
In the threat-version, reclusion means that the recluse is uncontrollable, unknowable, hard to discipline, and yet always close, always potentially present. He or she is a threat to society or to a particular part or members of society. The question, of course, is what or who exactly is threatened. This type appears in uncountable horror movies as a psychopath and/or serial killer, most notoriously in Seven ← 249 | 250 → (1995), The Collector (2009), Creep (2004), Maniac (2012), and so on, but also as a more positive vigilante figure who threatens and sometimes even actively fights an immoral order/society, for example in Ghost Dog (1999), The Equalizer (2014), or The Brave One (2007). Typically, at the end, either the old order is reestablished or a new, ‘better’ order installed.
In the sage-version, the recluse is an enlightened genius, a potential mentor, ‘unspoiled’ by the toils and compromises of social life, a site and source of superior insight and knowledge. The narrative in these films usually has the recluse ‘disturbed’ by another member of society so that the recluse, at first reticently, interacts again, ultimately to become a productive (usually transformed) member of society, or at least a happier (paradoxically more ‘social’) recluse. The ‘disturber’ is also transformed and enlightened. Typical examples are Smoke (1995), The Man Without a Face (1993), The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), and Finding Forrester (2000).
Notice that the sage can also be a threat to a certain order, and that the psychopath may also be a kind of sage. Because they share their reclusive position and its ontological, epistemological, and phenomenological consequences, they also share its fundamental function and signification upon which the filmic representation rests.
Just how different the filmic representation of urban solitude is from its sibling, the filmic representation of natural solitude, despite their shared foundations, is put into relief when we consider for a moment how natural solitude is usually rendered in fiction films such as Cast Away (2000), Into the Wild (2007), or Wild (2014). Here, a lot of screen time can be spent on the actual solitude, not only because the natural landscape can be exploited for breathtaking – often sublime – wide-angle extreme long shots (visually suggesting liberation, freedom, and voluntary disengagement more easily than the image of a confined space, if that is the aim of the film), but also because nature can become the second protagonist and a source of ‘interpersonal’ conflict. Just like in films about urban solitude, genre frames often prefigure the narrative of natural solitude films. These narratives, however, are substantially different: the natural hermit is neither a threat nor a sage but usually someone seeking enlightenment and liberation from the constraints of society (thereby occasionally becoming a sage). Where they are stranded, as in Cast Away, they typically seek their return to the safe and much more comfortable haven of civilization, even if their re-integration is bumpy. Liminality and ambivalence in these films occur mostly when the natural hermit returns to society, if at all, and they often last for a short time only before being resolved. Thus, while liminality and ambivalence form the core of urban recluse films, they are much less significant in natural recluse films. ← 250 | 251 →
4. Urban Solitude in Finding Forrester: Recluse as Threat – Recluse as Sage
I have chosen Finding Forrester as an example because it contains elements of both the urban recluse as threat and as sage. It is also an almost prototypical example for the filmic staging of urban solitude. The recluse figure in this film is an elderly white writer who has not published any major work for decades, but whose debut novel once made him instantly famous. Among a series of newer tenement buildings on Manhattan Island, he lives on the top floor of an older apartment building, which he never leaves. No one in his – predominantly black – neighborhood knows who he is, but everybody seems scared of the unknown recluse among them. The other protagonist is a young black teenager who, it becomes clear, is not only an extraordinary athlete but also – unknown to everyone except his family – a brilliant student who reads and writes a lot and is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious private school on the basis of his intellectual and physical talents.
Dared by his friends, the boy illicitly breaks into the recluse’s apartment one night, is discovered – and scared to death, one might add – by its owner, and forgets his backpack with all his notebooks as he flees the building. Up until this point, the film might very well be a horror movie; the recent Don’t Breathe (2016) is based on a similar premise. The writer browses through the boy’s notebooks, apparently finds his writing worthy, and taunts the boy back to his apartment, where they very slowly begin to build a cranky but obviously warm-hearted friendship. Over the course of the film, the writer teaches the boy to hone his talents, while the boy teaches the writer to go out into the world again. In the end, the writer dies, but not before having left his apartment for good as well as having finished his last book, to which the boy is supposed to write the foreword. This is a very abridged summary. The film contains various subplots and complications. In many ways, though, the film is a fairly conventional and straightforward coming-of-age story, albeit a double one: not only the boy, but the writer, too, experiences a kind of awakening, in which he makes peace with life before dying.
As I have stated above, the film, for the most part, almost prototypically stages the main characteristics and dynamics of urban solitude, both narratively and visually: liminality, ambivalence, and contrast/oscillation of presence and absence, and of disjunction and conjunction. The writer lives in an apartment building among other people in what is obviously a densely populated urban neighborhood. While he never goes out and is never seen, and, consequently, is an unknown entity to his neighbors, he does observe the outside and his neighborhood through binoculars. In a way, he is thus participating in their lives, if only passively. Also, his neighbors clearly know that he exists, although they do not know who he is and what he does. ← 251 | 252 → As a result, he becomes a kind of ghost, a haunting absence and potential threat, metaphorically as well as in the Derridean sense. This contrast is exacerbated by the fact that he is old, white, educated, and affluent, as we later find out, while his neighborhood is predominantly young, black, poor, and without higher education. The contrast is also visually staged by juxtaposing the old building the writer lives in with the newer tenement buildings that surround it.
This initial set up is developed by the narrative. When the boy and the writer first meet, it is in the darkness of the apartment and under less than favorable circumstances: after all, the boy has just broken into the apartment. When we first see the writer, we see him from the perspective of the surprised and frightened boy: a (justly) outraged and ferocious man. But we also see, despite the darkness, massive amounts of books everywhere in an almost labyrinthine arrangement of rooms. This is, of course, no coincidence. In terms of cinematography and mise en scène, the apartment is shown as a dark, strange, and confusing space for the boy, who certainly did not expect a library, befitting of what we might expect of a recluse. One could argue that the apartment is almost cave-like. Even when the writer and the boy first meet during the daytime, the atmosphere is still ambivalent: the apartment is dark, the writer acerbic – though not violent – and sarcastic. He plays with the boy’s, and the audience’s, anticipations and stereotypes by insinuating that he might be a homosexual, a pedophile, and a racist.
It is only in the course of the narrative that the contrasts and ambivalences turn out to be irrelevant and indeed productive. Ironically, the boy is also an outsider and a kind of recluse. None of his friends know that he is brilliant and that he writes. Various shots show him alone in his room reading, disengaged from his surroundings. In fact, then, two different kinds of urban recluses meet and help each other through their shared love of literature and writing, which obviously – and that is one of the messages of the film – can overcome any kind of boundary and difference. Visually, this is accompanied by the apartment getting brighter and brighter and by long shots providing orientation around the initially confusing space.
Ultimately, and somewhat predictably, both writer and boy are transformed over the course of the film. The writer writes again, as we find out in the end, which is important because writing is an act of communication and participation. More importantly, he finally leaves his apartment, and we see him cycling through the crowded city on his way to publicly read a story in order to help the boy out. The point could not be more obvious: through the friendship, he becomes an active and productive member of social and cultural life again and can die in peace. With regard to the boy, he changes in that he – also publicly – embraces his intellectual talents and liberates himself from the expectations other people have of him. He, ← 252 | 253 → too, becomes a productive and, more importantly, integrated member of society. What we have here is the perfect ending for a coming-of-age story.
The message, it seems, is that reclusion and solitude may be productive and acceptable for some time, even necessary for reflection. The film thus reiterates the idea that solitude is a “basic condition for individual and cultural self-reflection as an ongoing process, shaped as an imagined and constructed platform for a creative human contemplation of la condition humaine” (Larsen 26). But ultimately, temporary reclusion should be overcome because in the long run, participation in the social life is healthier, more auspicious, and more productive. Thus, the initial liminality and the ambivalence that the film sets up in the form of urban solitude are dissolved – indeed resolved – and the contrasts sublated. Therefore, while the film stands in the long tradition of American individualism understood as the right to solitude and privacy, in the end it supplants this idea by staging liberation through solidarity.
5. Urban Solitude Will (Usually) Not Hold
This kind of transformation narrative and its resolution are fairly typical of a majority of US-American films that have urban solitude as a central theme or which contain urban recluse figures. If the recluse is staged as a threat, this threat is removed and order reestablished. Alternatively, the necessity for the threat – some immoral order – is removed and a new order is established. In this case, the recluse ‘may live,’ but usually willingly withdraws somewhere else, presumably to continue his or her fight against the immoral order. If the recluse is staged as a sage/genius/mentor, reclusion may continue but is regularly alleviated by the adoption of a new mentee, which, in effect, ends the liminality and ambivalence of the reclusion because it has become functional and readable. It is arguable whether we can still speak of reclusion in this case. Alternatively, the reclusion ends through the reintegration of the recluse into society or his or her – reconciled – death. In some cases, the genre frame demands that liminality be upheld in order to allow for serial continuation. Reclusion here needs to continue because it is an essential feature of the protagonist. A good example of this would be the recent The Dark Knight-trilogy (2005–2012) by Christopher Nolan.
All scenarios share the idea that independence and self-reliance, liberty and privacy, which Bergmann identifies as typically American values in her introduction, only remain powerful and viable if they remain perpetually liminal. In the majority of cases, the social compact ‘wins,’ either by colonization, integration, or death. In the context of a discussion of privacy, Karsten Fitz and Bärbel Harju point out that, ironically and claims to the contrary notwithstanding, there is more of it, not less, ← 253 | 254 → and that the public sphere is invaded by private matters. The result is, they argue, “the decline of the public sphere through its permeation with private matters, a lack of reticence, and a more general privileging of emotion and therapeutic sensibilities” (5). In light of this, the predominant representation of urban solitude – which, after all, is premised on the right to be alone – in fiction film as a state that should eventually be overcome for the sake of the social appears particularly fitting. If we agree that “more intentional solitude in society and, yes, more loneliness … might not only be inevitable in the modern world, it may be a good thing” because it allows for a “sense of perspective” (Balcom 276–77), then this is bad news indeed.
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