Monthly Archives: June 2011

House / Home Screening Series No. 4: The Haunting (1963)

USA/UK • 112 minutes. 

Some Incidents in the Rational Investigation into the Paranormal

“A deranged house is a pretty conceit […] People are always so anxious to get things out in the open where they can put a name to them, even a meaningless name, so long as it has something of a scientific ring.’”
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Harry Houdini’s mournful search for his mother

Starting in the 1920s, Harry Houdini began his quest for the supernatural routed in pure sceptical reason. According to novelist E.L. Doctorow, Houdini was ‘one of the last great mother lovers, before Freud pulled the rug out from under him. Distraught by her death in 1913, Houdini began a ceaseless search for a legitimate medium in order to ease his grief. His friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was irreparably damaged when Houdini published his expose of psychic charlatans and hacks, A Magician Among the Spirits. Conan Doyle, dedicated public head of the Spiritualist movement, chose to believe that Houdini’s magician’s eye for a uncovering a sophisticated ruse was in fact the work of an advanced medium. Houdini and his wife agreed they would use the codeword ‘Rosabelle believe,’ to prove that she was communicating with his spirit on yearly séances. These séances continue to this day, though the phrase has yet to appear.

Karl Zener’s cards

The Haunting’s Theodora is lauded as having correctly guessed 19 out of 20 playing cards in a remote viewing exercise. In the years preceding the film’s release, psychologist Karl Zener had been conducting a series of experiments into the possibility of extra-sensory perception using a card deck of his own devising. The Zener cards depicted a wave, a star, a circle, a cross and a square. Although Zener’s test provides fair scientific parameters for ascertaining psychic abilities (null hypothesis, reproducible conditions, control studies), proof of psychic ability has yet to be proved using this method.[1]

The possible origin of the haunted house

The American Journal of Ophthalmology of 1921 describes a haunted house of archetypal purity. Their contact Mrs H. reports, ‘Some nights after I have been in bed for a while, I have felt as if the bed clothes were jerked off me, and I have also felt as if I had been struck on the shoulder. One night I woke up and saw sitting on the foot of my bed a man and a woman… Sometimes, after I have gone to bed, the noises from the storeroom are tremendous…. G told me that in the middle of the night he woke up, feeling as if someone had grabbed him by the throat and was trying to strangle him. G Jr. did not wake up all night but the muscles of his face kept twitching, as if someone was continually pinching him.” The end of these apparitions and disturbances comes with the discovery of an unserviced furnace that is spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere and causing asphyxiated hallucinations. [2]

Jackson certainly knew of such explanations (‘“There are people who will tell you that the disturbances I am calling psychic are actually the result of subterranean waters, or electric currents, or hallucinations caused be polluted air.”’), but the novel and the film amplify the concept of the return of the repressed that is implicit in the idea of haunting by making it not only the past that is haunting the inhabitants but also irrationality. The characters behave in a reasonable fashion – no mindless splitting up or needless creeping along deserted hallways here. Dr Markham assumes both the scientist role and the horror fans’ position: jaded but ready for confirmation if it is there. Without cheap tricks or superficial explanations, the viewer is forced to confront the reality of the supernatural. ‘You may not believe in ghosts, but you cannot deny terror!’


[1] An online version of the test is available at Your correspondent showed himself to be 16% poorer than could be expected by chance alone at guessing the selected card.

[2] An audio version of this story is at


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House / Home Screening Series No 3 – Playtime (1967)

(Shown on 13th June 2011 at Birkbeck Cinema)

France • 124 minutes.

Playtime has the psychology of a horror film: it at once demonises and fetishises its subject – Modernist architecture. Although often described as a satire, Jacques Tati clearly held a greater ambivalence about modern architecture than this would suggest (‘I am not against [it]. I only think that as well as the permit to build, there should also be a permit to inhabit.’). The lengths to which the French director went in creating and venerating Tativille –  a full scale city set outside Paris that included a working lift, its own power plant and multi-storey edifices, and which brought Tati to bankruptcy – would not be imaginable as an act of spite. It is only with half a smirk that Tati chorally heralds the first appearance of one of his Mies Van De Rohe-style constructions.

Tati’s love for the environment stems from its pliancy for physical comedy (Playground would have made an equally apt title). Playtime is a training course for spotting the absurd in daily life. By submerging jokes within a wider frame and asking the viewer to edit and notice, to find parallels and coincidences, reappearances and reversals, it coaches us in scraping back the thin veneer of seriousness that hides the absurdity of all things. Instead of looking at Tativille as an expensive production design, we should look at it as a cheap star hire. What we  glimpse as a throwaway set will reappear twenty minutes later from a totally unexpected angle and to our shock, only feet away from where we’re now positioned. The uniformity of the set allows Tati a wonderful spatial elasticity.

While Tati’s craft is in producing gags of mechanical complexity, the devices at their best have the flair and immediacy of life itself[1]. The actions in the film are usually held at a lifelike distance: we might see a pratfall through a window and not hear the sound. The naturalistic grace further extends the message of the ridiculous in every day life. Only a third of Playtime’s running time is spent in leisure (the perhaps overly-extended restaurant scene) but Tati’s spirit brings play into all spaces. While Hulot himself isn’t always centre-frame, by the time we reach the ronde/roundabout in the final scene, we see his spirit has overcome the Modernist austerity.[2]


Unlike other physical comedians where the mishaps are the result of their incapability, Tati’s pranks have an inevitability that demonstrates that the environment itself is at fault, not the man. The arbitrary and incompatible ordering of space is what Tati’s chaotic spirit strikes against. Although Playtime is seldom about the home, it provides, by negation, a subtle portrait of the qualities that the home provides. Warmth, comfort, privacy and repose are not to be found in Tativille. Not a moment passes in which the inhabitants are not so stunned by the modernity of their home that they must leap up to marvel at it. Even the chairs sigh, gasping at your effrontery of taking a moment’s rest.

Tati’s two technological shifts in this film emphasise his intentions.  Tati’s 70mm widescreen format allows for a panorama of human interaction. This broad view often shows the disconnection that technology creates. From a high angle, we can see the clerk answer a call with a piece of data that is within inches of the person requesting it. Similarly, a wide shot shows four families watching the same programme, separated only by a wall.

As always with Tati, there is highly creative use of sound, but this time with full stereophony. A genius for rendered sound is on display (the sound of the balls traveling along the electric broom handle, the click of heels down a vast hallway) but more importantly, the localized sound possible with stereophony allows Tati to focus attention within the wide frame (he considered the close up an inelegant practice). Watching with ears open becomes necessary as the viewer is often at a loss for the visual centre of the frame (Tati riffs upon this indeterminacy by creating a proliferating cast of pseudo-Hulots). The creator of the soundless door opines that his firm are ‘the first to study silence,’; Tati himself is just such a  student. By almost erasing dialogue, Tati’s prevents us from focusing solely on the speaker. It is this visual democracy that makes Playtime such a humane and hilarious delight.

[1] The instant in which The Royal Garden’s roof collapses is one that requires rewatching.

[2] ‘In the first part of Playtime, I direct the people to follow the architect’s guidelines. Everybody is filmed as if moving in straight lines and feeling prisoners of their surroundings. Modern architecture would like typists to sit straight, would like everyone to take themselves very seriously. In the first part of the film, the architecture plays a leading role but gradually, warm, contact and friendship as well as the individual I defend, take over this international setting and then neon advertisements make their entrance and the world starts to swirl and it all ends up in a merry-go-round. There are no more straight angles at the end of the film.’ Jacques Tati

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The Telephone Booth

Two great scenes about an obsolete object: the telephone booth. Private and public clash really well here and build an unspoken tension.

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House / Home Screening Series No 2 – Grey Gardens (1975)

The second of our screening series happened last week and was enjoyed by many. My familiar Peter wrote the programme notes this time and I hope he’ll post them in the next few days. In the meantime, here are two letters from about the ladies in question:

Little Edie berates Walter Goodman for claiming they were exploited by the film.

Phelan Beale berates Big Edie for her spendthrift ways (‘I am glad you have the house in East Hampton, as it is in tip-top repair…’).

The next screening is Jacques Tati’s Playtime on the 13th June. All the other details are as above, except that we’ll be screening it with Peter Greenaway’s H is for House.

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