Burning Down the House

I watched myself burn in mother!  I watched all of us burn.

Important Note: There are many different readings of mother!—none of which should you read about until you’ve seen this magnificent piece of art for yourself.  So, before you have a look at my take on the film, please, do yourself a favor and go watch it!  It’s a difficult experience, but you will be richly rewarded.

~

As the credits for mother! rolled, I cried.

I felt my heart pounding and blood rushing to my head.

I had no doubt what I’d just seen.

This movie was made for Me.

Flashback. 

I’m seven years old, on a road trip to the coast with my mom.  Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, a lesser-known British Invasion import, croons from the car’s cassette player.  Four hours of driving and that tape was all I wanted to hear.

Why does the sun go on shining?
Why does the sea rush to shore?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
when you don’t love me anymore?

The thing I remember most about that trip, besides voluntarily drumming those pop-drenched lyrics into my brain, was that I started asking questions.

“Why does a song about delivering milk sound so forlorn?”

“What does it mean for a door to swing both ways?”

“Why would ‘two silhouettes on the shade’ inspire such a huge overreaction?”  (My mother maybe danced around the answer to this one.)

I learned that “pine” wasn’t just a tree and “Henry VIII I Am” is about a whole lot of nothing.

I don’t know why this drive and this album opened up the floodgates.  Maybe because the stretch of highway we travelled was flat, boring, and endless.  Maybe my mother’s excitement at getting to listen to her favorite album on repeat encouraged me.  Whatever the reason, I started asking questions.  I came to the realization that works of art are not just inert blocks of text or sound or color that exist in a vacuum.  They’re made up of meaning, innuendo, context, and bias.  They reshape themselves when viewed from different perspectives.  They live.

Flash Forward.

Breathless me in the movie theater.

Patti Smith crooning those familiar words over the credits in her slightly alien drawl.

Words so familiar they’ve been growing unnoticed like moss in the caves of my unconscious.

I wake up in the morning and I wonder
why everything’s the same as it was,
and I can’t understand—no I can’t understand
why life goes on the way it does.

I’d been mulling over the idea of starting a blog for months.  I felt a primal urge to create.  To send words out into the universe. 

But what did I have to say?

I made a list of my interests.

Food.
Travel.
Movies.
Poetry.

It sounded like a dating profile.

I dug deeper.  Feminism and creativity sounded like common threads.  But was I really an expert?  I suppose I’ve been both a woman and creative my whole life.  Not to mention an English Major in college.  We’ve established I have a habit of asking questions.  Every good article starts with a question—either answered or unanswered. 

Why was I still so self-conscious about taking the next step?  About putting my questions and answers on display for everyone to see?  Why was I so worried if my offerings would be “worthy”?

This is exactly what Jennifer Lawrence’s character finds herself asking throughout mother!.

Her husband is a poet, famous for one magnum opus.  Her skill is in restoration, and her current project is the massive, meandering Victorian they share—although she repeatedly calls it “his home.”

Her intimate relationship with every floorboard and piece of molding is one of the primary sources of horror in the film.

We see her pride, the warmth and life force she feeds the house.  She tests different shades of plaster.  When she finds the right one, we zoom in through the “flesh” of the wall and see a pulsing, glowing bundle of cells.

A fetus.

She, like all artists, is mother to this work.  And, like a child, it’s fragile and incomplete. 

Vulnerable.

This is its natural state, mid-realization.  If a painter walks away from an unfinished painting, and someone carelessly bumps into the wet surface, it could easily smudge, ruining hours, perhaps days of work.  If a novelist is distracted mid-scene (much like I just was, by my cat begging for more water in his water fountain) it might take hours to find her train of thought again (thankfully, not the case in my situation).  Whole character arcs could be lost.

Thus is born the real powder keg.  The violence done to her work and to her by her husband’s careless ego.

In contrast to his wife’s motherly creative impulse, he creates like an impetuous child.  With his possessions and mood and environment just so, he sprawls naked on the floor with pen and paper.

Never mind this door slamming, throwing around of furniture (and his wife), and ignoring absolutely everything he doesn’t want to hear.

Because Jennifer Lawrence’s character values his creativity, she patiently balances mothering her own creation with mothering him.  When the house is quiet, and their life relatively uncomplicated, this is workable—emotionally fraught, but workable.

However, his ego draws turmoil to the house, and before long, he and the sycophants he surrounds himself with are all throwing themselves around the house like toddlers, with no respect for his wife’s property or agency.

It’s his house, and she lives in it—even though she’s building it around him with her own two hands.

Even when they create something together—a baby—it’s violent.  He throws her against the wall in anger before the impulsive tide of his mood shifts to passion.

There is also a deeper violence at work here: the violence of devaluation.  In the time of #metoo, it should be no surprise that Aranofsky takes on the theme of a woman’s work being valued less than a man’s.  The husband wrote a single, physically miniscule book, and later in the film, a single poem on a single piece of paper. 

He is, quite literally, worshipped.

Jennifer Lawrence’s character has rebuilt a burned house from a pile of ashes.  She has planed floors and plastered walls and braced countertops.  She has created the entire structure in which they live.

She is ignored.  Scoffed at.

Her creation is mangled and destroyed like so much paper, crumpled and thrown on a fire.

And, in the end, so is she.

It brings to mind the figure of Joan of Arc, who was by many accounts a very capable military strategist and a hero in the Hundred Years’ War.  She is at least partly responsible for France’s victory in this war.  However, the voices of men shouted down and discredited her accomplishments as heresy. 

Just like the film’s mother, she was burned.

As I said before, the film has many potential meanings, but I believe one of them is that this cycle of violence against women is perpetuated continuously.  There are numerous cycles of violence, apology, and forgiveness followed by more violence within the film, and the film itself is cyclical, moving from burned house to burned house, with fuel for the fire hiding beneath the foundation the whole time.

This film is basically a two hour #metoo.

Why did I think it was for me?

When I questioned my own blogging motives, discredited my “credentials,” I did myself violence.  There was a voice in my head not unlike Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in the film, constantly changing the subject from my creative pursuits to the things society says I “should” focus on. 

I was burning down my creative house before I’d even moved in.

The house I’d been building since I was eight years old.

I feel called to ask why that is.  Why we’re stuck heaping this abuse upon ourselves and others over and over again, even though we’ve seen the results many times over.  Destruction of lives, careers, countries.  Why can’t we be more like the mother?  Why can’t we treat our relationships and other human beings like new creations to be nurtured?  Just like the song that played over the credits, we should all be wondering why the sun is still shining, with all the hate and destruction being perpetuated.  As women, we have to ask why, if we have any hope of calling attention to—and someday stopping—the cycle of emotional, physical, and cultural violence. 

Even if the beginning is messy.  Even if we can’t stop the house burning down one more time.  We can rebuild it, but before we do, we can point out our hearts lying in the wreckage and perhaps inspire a few more people to stop and think about the damage.

These are the houses we all have to live in.

Ceridwen

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