Claire Marie Anderson
I am not a psychologist, and I have no intention of becoming one. I am not my own therapist, and to quote Salinger, I think, I can’t be yours. I write things, and I study Art History, which is what links the whole world together, no matter how many eyes glaze over when I repeat that statement. For many people, art–the creation or viewing of–can be therapy. This kind of art can be an experience or representation of personal and/or public value; it can be a development of an idea, image, thought or inquiry into human nature; an expression of one’s mental health; a line of dialogue within a broader discussion; an individual commitment to an issue and the spread of awareness; an expansion of philosophical debate; simply a diary entry; etc. etc. At a time when everyone is going through something, and through an unofficially therapeutic art medium which does not argue that someone’s something is better or worse than someone else’s, Netflix’s Homemade, a series of international short films made under and depicting COVID-19 quarantines around the world, beautifully expounds (in theory, at least) on the recurring, relative themes and emotions of our current collective, conscious conundrum. These films shine the most when one realizes their intertwining parallels of emotion and experience, parallels which obviously extend to all our lives at home right now. In this sense, they feel like lowkey lessons in art therapy rather than highly cinematic representations of style and form, and this, I now realize, makes a critical response (a.k.a. this essay) somewhat irrelevant. Regardless, Homemade is not perfect, but it still asks to be watched, enjoyed, and written about because of what it is; a big, messy art exhibit depicting the big, messy here and now through a variety of perspectives and moods.
On a pseudo-psychoanalytical level, the abstracted nature and format of many of the films, regardless of genre, casting, and intention, leads one to a perhaps unintentional allegory of the majority of our world’s current mental and emotional states. Nothing makes sense, and we try, through our own brand of 21st-century Abstract Expressionism, to either make it make sense, or accept our disillusionment and nihilistically gaze into the abyss. With this in mind, Kristen Stewart gives us a lengthy series of images sort of depicting how weird your apartment is when you can’t sleep. Rachel Morrison writes a letter to her young son while reflecting on her own childhood and showing us scenes from her family history. Natalia Beritstain tells a seemingly nonfictional story of a child almost home alone, finding momentary things to do around the house but never appearing completely pleased with them or herself. Ladj Ly shows a teenager reading manga, doing homework, and then taking a drone over Montfermeil, France. Rungano Nyoni texts his ex-girlfriend from the next room. Ana Lily Amirpour tries to give us Cate Blanchett, who tries to give us words of wisdom and comfort in abandoned LA. Each present brief, blurry glimpses of how they’re feeling right now; lost, sad, alone, angry, confused, scared, fill in the blank with all the other adjectives here. In other words, each presents us with a different abstract painting, some splattering like Pollock while others void like Rothko.
Other filmmakers try out domestic cinematic simplicity within the more logical spheres of narrative and plot. Maggie Gyllenhaal films her husband in an eternal-COVID apocalypse tale about a man mourning (let’s say) his wife, and the kindness of unidentified strangers. Sebastian Schipper plays music and cooks pasta for himself and his clones in an anecdote in re: the psychological tragedy of self-isolation. Sebastian Lelio writes poetry for the new age as a woman sings and interpretive dances around a kitchen, laundry room, and garden, eventually falling asleep as the rest of her country “wakes up”. Paolo Sorrentino plays with dolls and delivers an impactful, nearly political commentary on international human relations amidst the pandemic. Antonio Campo finds some kind of iPhone doppelganger horror in the midst of house-ridden boredom. Neither the aforementioned abstract forms, nor these more naturalistic landscape paintings automatically express the vibe of these days more reasonably or less realistically than the other. Rather, they reflect our individual and artistic responses to sociopolitical and personal stimuli, as well as the basic human need to create art under any circumstances. To see what others make, stylistically and ideologically, of the same themes and realities we are all sharing right now should be uplifting, in that it reminds us we are not really going through all this alone; not on an energetic level, at least. Homemade is a poignant artistic sharing of experience through a uniquely candid medium, and so what if it isn’t great?
OK, so yeah, overall, Homemade isn’t great. Often the films’ execution is choppy on more than one level–requiring, in a perfect world, a little extra time and a sharper hand at editing or writing, yet interesting to note that only a handful of performances suffer from the same constraints. As a result, several films that could have added to the list of historical reference points for how contemporary artists under pressure can and perhaps should work, get muddled in short run times that are still somehow too long, and confusing narrative distinctions between fiction and documentary that never totally feel intentional or otherwise. This all, of course, makes up another allegory of the times, and I think Homemade should be remembered moving forward with this in mind. One cannot argue that the massive worldwide uncertainty and despair so many of us have fallen into has absolutely contributed to how we are communicating and interacting right now with our feelings and thoughts, on the subject or off, through topical personal relations or artistic creations. All of this is valid, but to see it depicted through art pieces, not just social media posts, grants it a nobler cultural significance.
Homemade was composed of 17 filmmakers and human beings from around the world who were commissioned to make 5-10 minute films as individual artists’ statements regarding the extremely timely comparisons and contrasts of our simultaneous experiences during COVID. I find myself answering my own question of ‘Why?’ as I write this essay (or is it, one might say, my own topical artist’s statement?) on a selection of half-made Netflix shorts in the following manner. I am telling you about these only sometimes impressive pieces because they remind us what art is for in times when movie theaters, museums, galleries, and stages–the places you usually go to for your in-person, immersive art fix–have gone dark. We make movies at home when we can’t collect a crew in a studio, because our need and ability to make movies is not confined by physical space. That need and ability are led by the desires of our minds and souls, not our bodies, and (if you’ll forgive my mystic streak for a moment) those incorporeal objects within us are exactly that, incorporeal . Google the definition for the word, read through its Wikipedia page, and you’ll find that it doesn’t just mean possessing no physical body, but it also represents the statement that we, as well as the thoughts we think, the words we say and write, and the art we make as extensions of ourselves, do not only exist in the historical, social, literal sense. The contemporary art and art historical world may even argue with its scholarly predecessors that art is, by its own nature, incorporeal, because a painting or sculpture is definitely a physical, corporeal object, but it is also an incorporeal idea; image; thought, preserved corporeally in pigment or clay. Filmmaking from home feels, to me at least, like another interdimensional art medium attempting to transcend itself, and maybe the purely relative artistic success of Homemade is just a reminder that we are only at the beginning of this brave new modern age of art and cinema. It’s a thought that is beautiful and threatening, and potentially too wacky to ever really work itself out; but so is life right now.
It just so happened that the week I finished watching these short films, I also finished reading a certain sensational 20th-century psychology book, originally published 1967, called I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris, M.D. The book discusses something called Transactional Analysis, a supposedly all-inclusive self-help technique involving the constant self-analysis of one’s Parent, Adult, and Child; the three ages of man which theoretically exist within every human being, and which can be utilized all together with Adult leading the way to create consistent, healthy emotional responses to our everyday interactions, and help us recognize the consequences of our long term choices.
With Transactional Analysis, we are taught that everything we say inside of every interaction we have with others exposes to the world who we are being controlled by at any given time. Roughly speaking, our Child rules our emotions and our tendencies toward illogical desires, while our Parent judges and avoids those desires in favor of the more practical in life (job, home, marriage, etc.). For example, always predicting the worst in people and things is considered a sign of a strong Parent, while those of us who tend to rely on our emotions instead of our actions are ruled by Child. People who allow one part of their being to overrule the others will not, according to Dr. Harris, be able to grow up, and will remain unable to deal with the many inconsistencies, disruptions, and unfair proceedings they will inevitably encounter in life. But if one can use Transactional Analysis to merge and tame these two fundamental aspects of one’s upbringing, then they can successfully live the rest of their lives as fully-functioning, rational Adults, making logical life decisions and fulfilling all the duties of a well-rounded human being.
This theory, however potentially confusing, complex, or overly analytical, is definitely food for thought in a day and age when our emotions and psyches can switch gears completely on the daily, or even hourly, mainly due to events that we feel we have no control over. If we couldn’t deal with our feelings about everything before COVID-19, how the hell are we supposed to do so now–and what will we do after? Transactional Analysis, among other emotion-controlling psychiatry techniques of yesterday and today, may or may not be a good answer.
I bring up I’m OK, You’re OK in this weird film essay because it continues to linger behind my thoughts of Homemade. Since so much of art, almost especially cinematic art, is sometimes critiqued and understood on purely emotional aesthetic levels, I realize that this little, dingy mustard first- or second-edition paperback with the big bold capital letters asking me upon every close, “ARE YOU OK?”, comforted me as these films did, flaws of either be forgotten. You probably can’t agree with Dr. Harris that every problem in the world can be solved with a single technique, especially in 2020, just like you can’t disagree that these films could most certainly have been better with more time and higher production values, but–not to sound old and repetitive–it all makes you think. It makes you think about what we’re going through right now, individually and globally. It makes you realize that indeed, even in the midst of all of this, we are still human; we are still growing and learning about ourselves and others; we are still, as always, capable and in need of creating and viewing art; and maybe WE ARE NOT OK RIGHT NOW, but WE CAN BE OK AGAIN.
Keep art alive. Make more of it, and cherish what’s already there. Try to be OK. We’ll get there eventually.
Claire Marie Anderson is an Art History student, writer, actress, director, and artist from Houston, TX. Her prose and poetry has previously been featured in KAIROS Literary Magazine, Vagabonds, Bridge Eight, The Decadent Review, The Showbear Family Circus, and Internet Void, and her audio plays have been produced by Cone Man Running’s War of the Words podcast.