Trauma and Projection in Top of the Lake

29 May 2013 at 00:43 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

A still of the first frame from the title sequence of Top of the Lake. Image from Wikipedia.

The title sequence of the TV series Top of the Lake begins with a placid New Zealand lake, surrounded by jagged mountains and a gray sky. This peaceful image shifts as the animation depicts the lake overflowing into darkness. An elk bust tumbles into the depths of the lake, with the shadow of a fetus and a girl’s picture also appearing. This opening sequence clearly functions as a metaphor for the show, which depicts the investigation of the rape of a young girl in a small New Zealand town. Moreover, the title sequence also alludes to the show’s interest in unearthing past trauma, diving deep into the dark past of the primary character, Robin, to explore the impacts of past sexual violence and untold family secrets on the events of the present.

The seven part mini-series, co-written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee and co-directed by Campion and Garth Davis, begins with the attempted suicide of Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe). Following the incident, in which Tui submerges herself in the ice-cold water of the lake, a school nurse realizes that 12 year-old Tui shows signs of pregnancy. With the pregnancy likely the result of statutory rape, Robin (Elisabeth Moss) joins the police investigation as a specialist in sex crimes. After failed attempts to get more information from Tui, the young girl disappears into the wilderness around the lake. Robin persists in searching for Tui, but also finds herself revisiting her own history of sexual trauma. Through her relationship with Tui’s half-brother, Johnno, we learn that Robin survived a vicious gang-rape when she was fourteen, which resulted in a pregnancy that Robin’s mother forced her to carry to term. Robin’s experiences of rape, then, become as central to the show’s plot as Tui’s present circumstances.

Crime narratives often align the investigation of violent crime with the exploration of past trauma, especially when the protagonist is a woman. The most obvious example in film and literature would be Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs. In the scene below, we see Hannibal Lector’s astute analysis of Clarice’s psychological motivations for her search for a serial killer:

In the case of Clarice, her trauma is a motivation to help others in danger and, in the process, she works through her own trauma. Robin’s occupation similarly enables her to confront the same kinds of sexual violence that she herself endured.

Such narratives illustrate the ways in which some psychologists theorize that trauma victims use projection as a coping mechanism. Simply put, projection is a psychoanlytic term for the tendency to see in others what we most despise within ourselves; however, the concept was broadened by Carl Jung to mean “carry[ing] something over from one place to another” or “one form into another.” According to Bernard McKenna, “Applying Jung’s theories to the traumatized focuses attention to the way victims of violence project masks of protection (against dealing with trauma or against possible further trauma) onto their identities.” He continues that, “Trauma victims create what they consider to be an authentic identity from the chaos that was and is their trauma. In reality, that identity is simply a reproduction assembled from cues from their society’s history and culture.” McKenna describes how this masking process results in further frustration through “intrusions of trauma memories [and] compulsive reexposure to trauma.” In other words, the attempts of the trauma survivor to combat the trauma become a futile reaction formation.

Top of the Lake‘s Robin exemplifies these concepts, with her efforts to confront the traumas of others causing her to revisit own trauma. Specifically, Robin’s choice to become an investigator could be seen as a way to deny the trauma by assuming a different role within similar traumatic situation. In her cases, she is the authority and expert who can help the survivor. However, Tui’s case reminds her of her own trauma, and she interprets Tui’s situation through the lens of her own experience, believing that maybe Tui also had been gang raped. As a result of this projection, Robin misses clues that point another direction, failing in her assessment of the facts.

It is only after Robin is dismissed from the case and makes a major discovery about her own personal history that her her view on her identity becomes altered (I’m going to stay vague here to avoid too many spoilers). At her low point, Robin asks for help from GJ (Holly Hunter), a guru who attracts a group of women to an encampment on the lakeside. Below is a clip of GJ challenging Robin and the rest of the women to rethink their instincts:

This speech echoes GJ’s suggestion that “there is wisdom in the body,” since she encourages Robin to take care of her physical needs first before attempting to help others. Put another way, Robin must face her trauma, rather than rely upon her coping mechanisms.

Not long after this speech, Robin saves Tui and discovers the mystery behind her pregnancy. The series, it seems, suggests that Robin gains greater insight into Tui’s trauma once she’s able to confront her own experiences. Bernard McKenna states, “in order to recover from trauma, an individual must construct new personal and interpersonal structures of identification that incorporate the violent past into non-traumatic functions of everyday life.” In other words, recovery from trauma comes not from its disavowal but from accepting trauma as a part of ones identity in an authentic way.

Personally, I worry that such discourses place an even heavier burden on the survivor in addition to the trauma itself. The effort to heal proves hard enough without film, television, and self-help gurus criticizing the ways in which women (and men) process sexual trauma. At the same time, I appreciate a series like Top of the Lake for acknowledging the complex ways in which sexual assault shapes identity long after the initial trauma.

Image taken from

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Undermining Auterism #4: The Fallacy of Artistic Intention in Room 237

16 May 2013 at 00:03 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

Room 237 may be the first documentary of its kind. The film explores fan readings of the seminal 1980 horror film, The Shining, by combining the footage of the films of Stanley Kubrick with the voiceover explanations of five fans explaining their theories. Each reading can be supported, but some pieces of evidence feel like Rorschach ink blots, and all five theories rely heavily on the concept of the auteur. Ultimately, Room 237 fascinates more for the ways it reveals the reading practices of fans than for any great light it actually shines (no pun intended) on the text itself.

The five narrators each explain a theory about the underlying meaning of The Shining. Two theories align the bloodshed in the film with acts of genocide, with one fan claiming that the film is about Native American genocide and the other arguing for the Jewish Holocaust. The third reading connects the text with the myth of the Minotaur, while another fan suggests that the film can be read as Kubrick’s admission to staging the Apollo 11 moon landing. The final reading argues that the film grapples with sexuality and, like all of the other readings, points to images of repression to forward its case.

The interpretations on display in Room 237 vary greatly in terms of validity. The Native American genecide reading may be the most plausible due to the Overlook Hotel’s western decor, lines of dialog (“White man’s burden!“), and the hotel’s location upon an Indian burial ground all lending credibility to the concept. The minotaur reading also seems valid due to the actual labyrinth featured in the film and the formal similarities between the tracking shots within the labyrinth and the Overlook Hotel. The scene in Room 237 certainly supports the reading around repressed sexuality; however, I’m less convinced by the Holocaust argument and find the Apollo 11 theory laughable, as these two readings rely primarily upon minutiae, rather than upon plot points.

Therein lies the fascination of Room 237: all five fans point to incredibly specific details from the mise-en-scene as clues for their solution to the puzzle that is The Shining. Everything from a can of Calumet baking powder, to a German typewriter, to an Apollo 11 sweater becomes a sign hinting at much deeper meanings within the text.

A still from The Shining which features the Calumet baking powder can. Image taken from

Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater. Image from

The most absurd examples of hyper-attention to detail include a viewer who insists that a cloud resembles Stanley Kubrick’s face, another who compares a skiing poster to an image of a bull, and my favorite would be the paper tray that looks like a phallus. These examples require the keenest attention of the reader to have noticed such abstract uses of the mise-en-scene. They demonstrate who viewers interpret details creatively to support a unifying theory of the film.

Such specific, detailed readings also rely heavily upon assumptions about filmmaking that overestimate the artistic control of the director in the crafting of a film. The fans describe the pains taken by Kubrick in the placement of objects, and while it’s true that such details can be significant, the idea that the director has control over all of these specifics overlooks the fact that film requires collaboration: art directors, costume designers, set directors–all take part in the decision-making process. In a film of The Shining’s complexity, there are just too many details for all of them to have been intentionally chosen by the director.

One of the fans acknowledges the fact that artistic intention may be difficult to argue but claims that intention doesn’t matter when it comes to postmodern film criticism. This is true–fans give meaning to the text with their readings, regardless of what a filmmaker might intend to convey (think queer readings of The Wizard of Oz). My favorite example of fan appropriation from Room 237 would be the the screening of The Shining with the film running backwards superimposed on top. See the trailer for that screening here:

By superimposing the reversed version over The Shining, fans demonstrate the power of synchronicity and the symmetry of narrative. For me, this use of the text proves far more interesting than the tenuous possibility of an all powerful director placing objects in front of the camera to communicate a message. For this reason, Room 237 as a whole is more compelling as an exploration of fan appropriations of text, rather than its elucidation of The Shining‘s overarching meaning. It demonstrates that the viewer, as much as the director, creates meaning when reading a film.

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Intersectional Identies in Pariah

5 May 2013 at 18:27 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

I’m a coming-of-age kind of girl. No film genre gives me greater pleasure than that which explores the pleasures and pitfalls of adolescence. Boys, girls, straight, gay–I love filmic representations of this tricky developmental stage. It’s no wonder, then, that the recent DVD release of Pariah, the feature-length debut of writer/director Dee Rees, caught my attention. The film stands out within the coming-of-age genre for its sophisticated representation of identity, with race, sex, gender, class, and sexuality complexly portrayed in the story of Alike, a Brooklyn teenager who struggles to reconcile her homosexuality with her family’s conservative conceptions of gender.

The trailer provides a nice overview of the conflicts within the film:

Externally, Alike struggles to meet her parents’ expectations, while internally, Alike spends the film trying to determine how best to express her identity. We see Alike trying out different scenes and expressing her gender and sexuality in different ways through art and fashion. Her mother, Audrey, encourages her to present herself in a more feminine manner, despite Alike’s desire to dress in more masculine cloths. Audrey also expresses disapproval over Alike’s best friend, Laura, requiring Alike instead to spend time with a coworker’s daughter named Bina. Alike initially gives Bina the cold shoulder, but gradually, the two bond over music, art, and Alike’s confessional poetry. Their friendship becomes romantic but turns complicated when Bina suddenly disavows her feelings for Alike. The remainder of the film focuses on Alike’s coming out to her parents and the fallout of that confrontation. While the ending of the film may not resolve all of the external conflicts of Pariah, the final moments leave you with a sense that Alike struggles less internally, more confident now in her identity as a young, lesbian woman.

Let’s be clear, though: Pariah not only focuses on sexuality, but also race, class, and gender, taking an intersectional approach to identity. Intersectionality, defined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, assumes that you cannot isolate the various characteristics of your identity, but that each facet your identity inflects the others. A straight man experiences masculinity in a different way than a gay man would; a black woman experiences her womanhood in a different way than a latina woman; the examples go on, but the point is that no identifying characteristic can be isolated from all others, but rather, they coalesce into a complicated interstices that is who we are and how we experience the world.

Pariah illustrates this concept beautifully by contrasting characters’ experiences. Alike and her best friend, Laura, provide one such contrast. While the two both take on a more “butch” presentation of gender as part of their lesbian identities, Laura’s experience within the black lesbian community differs dramatically from Alike’s. When the two regularly visit a lesbian club together, Laura appears more comfortable in these surroundings than Alike, who seems uncomfortable in the raw club environment where the expressions of sexuality are very overt (see the trailer for examples). Part of this difference between the girls seems to be in personality, with Alike clearly more introverted than the extroverted Laura.

But the girls also differ dramatically in terms of class, with Alike’s family firmly in the middle-class and Laura’s is more working-class. So, even though both girls’ mothers reject them, they experience their exile in different ways: Laura must move in with her sister, barely scraping by financially but able to earn her GED, while Alike joins an early college program at UC Berkeley. As a result, the class-based opportunities and means impact the survival strategies that each girl develops.

Gender also complicates representations of identity within the film. Alike’s more masculine presentation seems to alarm her mother, Audrey, as much as her sexuality. Bina, in contrast, effectively evades detection because of her conventional femininity. To be clear, Bina never identifies as a lesbian in the film, but her affection toward Alike suggests at least some genuine same-sex attraction. In short, Bina’s femininity gives her the privilege to more freely explore these feelings without punishment from her parents. It’s also her femininity that enables her to so easily disavow her attraction to Alike–she can more easily slip back into a traditional, heterosexual identity, as evidenced by a brief suggestion in the film that Bina reunites with a boyfriend shortly after her tryst with Alike. Gender, then, becomes as important to Alike’s difficulties with her family as does her sexuality.

Yet, race is another important factor in the film. The filmmakers draw from a long literary and film history of black “queer” artists, a fact signaled by an opening quotation from an Audre Lorde poem. Rees acknowledges the importance of this literary tradition in her own development, saying “I immersed myself in Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison — all this womanist literature,” and that “reading made me feel like I was OK, like I wasn’t alone.” Pariah, as a result, is rooted in a black womanist ethos.

Pariah‘s willingness to explore race, sexuality, gender, and class, makes it more than just a coming-of-age coming-out film. It reminds the viewer of the interesectional nature of identity and the challenges of being true to yourself in a similarly complex world.

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