Everything but the kitchen sink

Andreas Kakiou Halskov

Perhaps more than anything else, the kitchen sink remains to us a symbol of the quotidian, denoting such broad concepts as 'normality', 'sanity' and 'order'. It is an emblem of everyday life, and - in all its clinical anonymity - a site for 'the generic' rather than 'the individual'. A faithful reminder of the objective and of the real.

Even in cinematic terms the kitchen sink appears to us as a signifier of the commonplace, known in the fifties and sixties for its depiction of everyday working-class life (a British genre fittingly named "kitchen sink realism") and also acknowledged as a site of the quotidian in recent Danish cinema. (Bordwell & Thompson: 454-55).

However, in Alison Maclean's much acclaimed short film, curiously entitled Kitchen Sink (1989), the sink referred to in the title signifies neither normality nor classical realism. Here the sink - around which the film's narrative is spun - rather serves as a vivid site for the subjective, the symbolically charged, the perverse, and the grotesque. In short: the surreal.

At once a fantastic Pygmalion-like tale (about a woman falling in love with her own creation) and at the same time a densely layered collection of pseudo-Freudian images and expressive noises, Maclean's film is as difficult to comprehend as it is aesthetically pleasing. Kitchen Sink is flooded with potential meaning - touching upon such general dichotomies as man/woman, human/machine, life/death - all of which seem equally and simultaneously pregnant.

Two types of short film
In all its ambiguity, Maclean's film can (perhaps dubiously so) be described as a bastard child of the classical narrative and that which Tom Gunning has famously coined 'the cinema of attractions'. (Gunning: 826-27).

Thus, at the risk of oversimplification, we may envision two different general modes of short film, one of which can be described as a 'condensed classical narrative', and another one defined as a series of loosely connected shocks (or curiositas), as seen most explicitly in experimental films. Never definitive, these two modes (of the short film) may interchange in different ways and appear in various mutations. To be sure, these modes are best described as binary opposites in a continuum - one condensed from the classical three-act structure, another seemingly derived from the early attractions of the silent era (displaying circus acts, exotic animals, dramatic stunts etc. as opposed to dramatic storytelling per se).

An example of the first category, the Danish short film Valgaften (1998) essentially resembles a condensed version of the classical drama - with a brief establishment of the plot and the protagonist (Act 1), followed by a dramatic development (the main character's frenetic wish to get to a voting place), eventually leading to an "irrevocable act" (our main characters' unexpected display of racism) (Act 2,3). (Bordwell: 28-29). Here - as in many short films - the entire stretch of film is comprised of the central elements of the second and third act in a feature film, reducing the establishment to the utmost important information, and completely eliminating the lengthy resolution of the feature.

Compared with Anders Thomas Jensen's award-winning short film, Kitchen Sink can hardly be described as a condensed classical drama. Indeed, the film is not without a certain dramatic structure (a cyclical narrative, as it were), but the nature of Maclean's narrative is so illogical and surreal as to completely evade classical narrative transparency as well as viewer identification.

Instead Maclean's film forms a loosely narrativized version of the jumbled, irrational aesthetic known from different experimental films, most evidently Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's surrealistic masterpiece Un chien andalou (1929) and later films by such directors as David Lynch (The Grandmother [1970], Eraserhead [1977]), Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo [1989]) and David Cronenberg (The Fly [1986]).

"A minefield of metaphors"
Whereas as the classical film forms a causal chain of logical set-ups and pay-offs, Maclean's film rather forms a shocking 'disruption of the commonplace', by having a monstrous fetus materialize from the drain pipe in our main character's aforementioned kitchen sink (not unlike Eraserhead).

Unlike the fixed, transparent meaning of the classical (short) film, Kitchen Sink, in fact, displays a vivid complex of potential meaning.

Thus, in an interview made by Richard Raskin in 1998, Maclean herself describes the film - in almost Kafkaesque terms - as "a story about metamorphosis", essentially envisioning the film as a "minefield of metaphors". (Cited from Raskin 1998).

Not unlike the infamous "eye" in George Bataille's grotesque, surrealistic Histoire de l'oeil (1928) - whose potential meaning shifts throughout the novel - the different physical objects in Maclean's film become floating signifiers.

The drain in the kitchen sink - at first a concrete physical object - soon changes into an abstraction of an evident vaginal character (as the hairy man is 'delivered' directly from the sink). The hair in the sink, in equally Freudian measure, closely resembles an umbilical cord. And the garbage can, into which the fetus is originally thrown, thus becomes an obvious abortion motif.

Certainly, even the surreal, Pygmalion creature (that evolves from the fetus) also takes on an abundance of potential meaning: is he an Oedipal son-turned-tragic-lover, a Frankensteinian monster, a cybernetic creation, or merely a mental projection of our main character?

Such questions are never answered by Maclean's film, and instead they serve as disorienting, complex images (or cinematic moments of dépaysement, as it were). These polysemic phenomena are endlessly disturbing, yet realised as independent moments of astonishment through Maclean's vivid low-key-lighting, her grainy (almost tactile) black and white images, and the visceral, pseudo-organic clanging on the soundtrack.

Eventually even the hair on the strange creature's (Peter Tait) neck becomes a complex, polysemic image. Or, 'a hair of an abstraction', to put it in almost Lynchian terms.

As the woman (Theresa Healy) - indeed, known to us only in such vague, generic terms - grooms the hairy, man-like creature, she stumbles upon a neck hair somewhat different from the rest. Intrigued or repulsed by it, she touches the (now strangely phallic) hair ever more intensely, eventually killing the creature in an eerily orgasmic resolution (certainly, 'orgasm' is called the 'little death' in French).

The heterogenous - final remarks
In this way Maclean's film is a vivid, surreal display of what Bataille has coined the heterogenous - that which has no fixed meaning, that which cannot be entirely assimilated, and which is therefore normally rejected by homogenous society.

If the classical film is a structured, homogenous sequence of events, in which every object serves a fixed dramatic and narrative purpose, Maclean's film is about those elements and images that are not easily understood according to any strict, narrative logic.

In her attempt to cultivate the hairy creature - in order to make him more man-like and less heterogenous - the woman decides to eliminate a neck hair from the male creature, which ironically turns out to be necessary for his very survival (reminiscent of scenes in Tsukamoto's Tetsuo [1989] as well as Cronenberg's The Fly [1986]).

The ending of Maclean's fantastic tale is, therefore, tragic, but its shocking imagery and vivid use of lighting and noises may be an infinite source of astonishment. Or, as Bataille would say: "sometimes attraction, sometimes repulsion" (Bataille: 142).

Cited works:

Bataille, George. "The Psychological Structure of Fascism", in: George Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Translated by Alan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985: pp.137-60.

Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Bordwell, David & Kristin Thompson. Film History: An Introduction. Second Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Gunning, Tom. "An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator", in: Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen (ed.), . Fifth Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999: pp. 818-32.

Raskin, Richard. "An interview with Alison Maclean on Kitchen Sink", 11 April 1998; reprinted in the present issue.

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