Those who are traumatized measure time as a Before--if they are able to recall one, or willing to invent one--and an After. It's sometimes instructive, After, to look back to the Before. The week before, a film called The Glass House was heralded in the nation's metallic, hivelike cineplexes. It did not appear, however, until the week after. Its delay was not strategic, but part of a random pattern; it had originally been slated for release much earlier in the year. It's a film in Hollywood's primitivist mode--which is to say, its dominant, and maybe its only, one. It is innocent, simple, sleek, violent, trivial, eager to please, if uncertain how to do so, and complicated, if decidedly without self-consciousness. A filmgoer probably couldn't watch it, now, as he might have during the long days of its deferral. But it tops the box-office charts.
The film features four miniaturized cataclysms. Three of these are formally identical, and in the field of Hollywood movies, highly representative: a portentous prelude, a blunt, sensational impact, typically seen from above, and a lingering aftermath. Fast-motion, sudden crash, slow-motion, stylized flame, pendant rubble, inert detritus, sometimes suspended in freeze-frame. End.
One of the four cataclysms, however, is not like the others. In the initiating event of the plot, the parents of a high-school girl named Ruby (Leelee Sobieski) are killed in a car accident. We see this event in a series of elliptical, color-saturated, oblique shock-cuts. In its techniques, the sequence implies some psychological insight. The event is presented as shocking: Someone, somewhere, is traumatized by it. Maybe we ourselves are meant to be, or to imagine that we are, but because the filmmakers' techniques remain unmoored, we don't know whose psychology is being examined, or referred to here. Such techniques--and they're everywhere--retain their footing in fantasia while claiming a higher ground in realism. Trauma must be faced, not turned away from.
When Ruby is later informed of the deaths of her parents, she swoons, and distorting lenses convey her oblivion, the filmmakers' having glimpsed--on AMC perhaps--a scene or two from Hitchcock's Notorious. By the end of the movie, though, Ruby is reborn as an avenger, and as she mows down her victims--fast-motion, crash, slow-motion, rubble, blood--those images of her parents' death return. This time, though, the images are clearly hers. And, a hot-blooded vigilante in the making, she's working them through; her rage is just. The first crash is a trauma. The other three redeem it. A crash for a crash. The uneven ratio in this case--one to three--suggests that the best revenge outweighs the worst trauma.
Trauma, in one form or another, is probably the most deeply embedded subject of popular entertainment, even of Hollywood's putative escapism. It is what we want to escape from, presumably, but all we have to escape into. The post-traumatic retrenchments of the Hollywood regime in these last weeks have left a film like The Glass House unaffected, and for that reason it's a perfect illustration of the principle. It's what is left--a moratory sign of the innocence we can now claim to have lost. But even a film like this, bereft of sophistication as it is, attests that innocence was never really there to lose. It acknowledges baldly the function of Hollywood movies, to mediate trauma, and to stoke it.
In the first scene, for instance, Ruby watches a slasher movie in a mall theater with her girlfriends, a cadre that harks back to Clueless. The movie they're watching looks for all the world like last month's trauma-fest, Jeepers Creepers. We notice that while Ruby's girlfriends recoil, then laugh, Ruby herself, chomping popcorn, remains unmoved. When the movie does make her jump, she's quicker to recover and to laugh than the rest of them. She doesn't take horror seriously enough; the kids in Jeepers Creepers didn't either, until it was too late, and they were duly punished, even though they were never so inaptly lighthearted as the Scream rat-pack. But later in the film, we see Ruby once again in the position of spectator, watching traffic-fatality films in driver's-ed class, and this time she can't take it. She breaks down, humbled. The inevitable lesson has been learned, and it's for her own good. Only then, after she's trained herself to know the worst, can she kill, and therefore survive.
Orphaned, Ruby and her little brother are taken in by a couple who are old friends of the parents. They're cosmopolitans--one's unmistakably European, though he seems to be trying to hide it--who live in a baroque postmodern house on a Malibu cliffside. The husband runs a transit company (whatever that is), and the wife's a doctor. Despite their high standing, they quickly prove to be sinister reflections of the dead parents. The logic of the plot, though not unpredictable, is difficult to fathom. It's not the cause-and-effect logic of rationality, though that is the logic Hollywood has always coveted and never been able to achieve, with one steadfast foot in realism and three (its being a quadruped) in fantasia.
Neither is it, really, the logic of dreams. It's a literalist's logic. The house is made of glass, for instance, and the people who own it are named Glass; and the story pursues a stolid procession of plot points that work out a simpleton's idea of intricacy. The simpletons have had a look at Rosemary's Baby--and, to judge from the house, a still or two from North by Northwest as well--so either conspiracies or paranoias abound, with little to choose between them. In one scene, Ruby drives dramatically through a metal fence, and in the next, the fence is back together again, unfazed. This is the logic of ineptitude, not at all incompatible with rationality, or dream. But as a whole, the logic is that of trauma: both irrational and literalist, dreamlike and steadfast.
What seems most striking, in the imaginative landscape of this movie, is that house. Half of it, the half facing the canyon and the ocean, is made of glass, and the film's imagery, often seen through glass, alternates transparency and translucency. The other half, facing the road, fortresslike, is made of steel. The architects must have thought the side giving on to sky would not be vulnerable. Even the film knows better. It's about the precariousness of home. The kids lose their parents, must take flight, must save themselves, because those charged to protect them will not (The Night of the Hunter lurks in the background here). At first, they're awed by the Glass House. It has a "home gym," a "home theater," and, as one of them exclaims, "You never have to leave it!" The old American dream of individualism was to own a house; the new one, of isolationism, until recently, meant never having to leave it. So much for the ideal of a humane collective life. But the movie exposes this exclamation, in any case, as false. They do have to leave it.
Before, it seems clear, this house was the kind we might have expected, even wanted, to see blown up. We saw the house it's clearly modeled on blown up, notoriously, at the end of Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, in 1969. Many of us disliked that explosion, despite its grandeur, since it was staged by a non-American who appeared to criticize us. But we have, all the same, robustly enjoyed many such spectacles since then, explosion being a dominant image of modern American culture. No doubt, in demanding such images, in demanding that they look, and indeed be, real, we have sought to master trauma. In fact, the house is not blown up in this movie, but several vessels of steel and glass are. At least one big truck and four cars, probably more, over many takes--material objects sacrificed to the inanity of this film, in a kind of ritual revenge upon the realm of the material. Maybe we'll learn to crave such spectacle less, if we recall that vulnerable glass and impenetrable steel are, at root, congruent elements: dust or ash.