Human beings have an infinite capacity to adapt to the most adverse circumstances; what other animal can thrive in both the hottest deserts and the coldest mountains? Watching Room, I am disconcerted by how quick we are to normalize – and be desensitized by – even the bleakest of circumstances, but I am also cheered by the boundless strength of our species.
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I was 10 when I was first prescribed glasses. Putting them on for the first time was startling; suddenly, everything around me came into crystal-clear focus, but along with it came the disorienting realization that what I had known as my world was somehow false, wrong, incorrect. I didn’t have the vocabulary then to put into words the unexpected recalibration I had had to do, but now I would describe it as a sense of my reality – or what I thought of as my reality – itself having changed, and it took a while to get used to this new, “realer” reality.
Over the last few months I have felt the same drifting feeling, on a much larger, more prolonged scale. Everything I have experienced has been through the blue rectangle of light coming from my laptop. My entire world is condensed into the 1’s and 0’s of machine lingo, and projected to me through my computer screen. The complex equations of all my relationships are digitized and shot up to an all-knowing object in space, and then redirected to me. Making its way through so many layers of screens, like sunlight filtering through a canopied forest, how much of my reality is actually reaching me? How much am I processing? How much am I capable of processing after a year in isolation? Is the version of reality that is reaching me less “real” than all the ones I was experiencing before?
Room (2015) and its obsession with the nature of reality became apparent to me only when I watched it during the pandemic. Little Jack Newsome is born, and has spent his entire life inside the four walls of Room, a tiny shed in the backyard of his mother’s kidnapper and rapist. Room is the extent of his reality, Bed is the only bed he’s ever known, Spoon is the only spoon that he’s ever eaten with, Ma and Old Nick are the only people in his world, and his life. “There’s Room, then Outer Space, then Heaven. Plant is real but not trees. Spiders are real and one time the mosquito that was sucking my blood. But squirrels and dogs are just TV, except Lucky my dog that might be some day. Mountains are too big to be real, and the sea,” declares Jack. For him, Room is all he has ever known; anything that he knows outside of it is because he’s seen it on TV. He processes everything around him with the prototype he has seen on TV. Everything on TV, is, obviously, make-believe.
I find myself thinking of Jack’s definition of reality often these days. “TV persons are flat, and made of colors, but we are real, you and me,” says Jack. How much more “real” is an hour-long video conversation with my oldest friend, than watching a poker-faced news presenter reading out the daily death count? When I am experiencing both through the same pixelated screen, I find myself processing both realities the same way. When all that is real in the world is hyper condensed into an electronic board of light – like little Jack, for whom Dora is as real as the turtles he has seen on the nature channel – I too find myself thinking about the people in my life the same way I think about people on television. Is a reality not physically experienced not real anymore?
A side effect, or perhaps a symptom, of the limbo between real and artificial is a total and unexpected amnesia. Life before the pandemic is so faded in my memory that it feels, almost, like another lifetime, lived by another me. Memory is a strange thing, and the loss of it feels like rebirth. Like Jack, I feel like I was born in this reality, my mind struggling to connect to or even remember my previous experiences. Like Jack has only known Room, so have I, it seems, only known this life. In my need to remember, I rush to find myself in old comforts – a forgotten favorite book from childhood, a beloved song from teenage years – only to be surprised by their strangeness. While they dutifully evoke the same feelings they did then, the feelings themselves seem alien. In a tense and brilliantly performed scene, Ma finally tells Jack that Room is, in fact, only a very small part of the much, much bigger world, filled with trees and people and cars and animals and everything Jack has seen on TV. Suddenly, Jack’s entire reality is thrown into disarray, and he struggles to wrap his head around the magnitude of this information. I wonder if, when life goes back to normal (if “normal” is even conceivable), I would be reluctant to accept it. Whether I would be able to face the “realer” reality that I will be bombarded with, whether I would be able to process the “happen happen happeningness” of the world, as Jack puts it. Whether it will be possible to be moved by any experience compared to the airbrushed one I have been constantly exposed to on-screen. Whether I would long for the familiarity of Bed and Room, for it is, in the face of this trauma-induced amnesia, the only familiarity I know.
It is difficult to imagine a life that will not be tinted by the glasses of this experience. I am surprised by how quickly I let slip things that were once essential to the business of survival; I find myself confounded by very specific things. I am now startled even by the ring of the doorbell piercing though the largely opaque stillness. How does one gracefully ride an escalator without having to hold on for dear life? How does one climb into a car without appearing ridiculous? Things that were muscle memory before are having to be relearnt. Like Jack, who is as confused by stairs as he is by trees, the sheer immensity of the world and all the thoughts feelings things places people in it is sometimes terrifying.
In an uncomfortably familiar sequence, Jack encounters one of the few living things he has seen in his life, a rat that strays into Room. Jack stares at it in childish wonder, a feeling almost bordering affection, as the rat gravely peers back at him. “He was a live thing, he was real!” he screams in anguish, when the poor animal is swiftly killed by his Ma. Indeed, the crow that conscientiously caws outside my window every day seems more present, more actual to me than my dearest friends. At a time when touch, expression, and intimacy are outlawed, what does it mean to be human? Our status as social mammals, dubious at the best of times, is now downright dangerous. We rely on each other to stay tethered firmly to the ground, each an anchor to keep the people in our lives from drifting away into the vast nothingness of existence; but the ties that bind us to each other are painfully dependent on physical contact. Most things that cannot be said in words are said by the simplicity of touch. In its absence, I feel not unlike Jack and Ma, screaming into the void of their Skylight, ostensibly crying for help, but actually just yearning to be heard by someone, anyone. Jack holds on to his Ma’s dislodged Bad Tooth when he escapes Room, the only bit of her that is tangible and real. Room explores through two actors in a box what Nolan and his fanboys try to explore through multimillion-dollar graphic design: what we perceive to be absolute reality is only ephemeral, as translucent as a moth’s wings and as fleeting as a life well lived.
In the opening shots of the movie, Ma and Jack’s entire daily routine plays out, and the monotony of it feels like every day from the past year. Get up, clean Room, cook, exercise, play, back to Bed again. Expertly handled by director Lenny Abrahamson, the claustrophobia of Room is a third character, tangible, menacing but familiar, ever present. Abrahamson holds his characters in uncomfortable close-ups, every emotion amplified and every noise ricocheting off the too-close walls and persisting in the tiny shed. Room is also an exploration of the nature of space, what it means for human beings to be trapped in a confined, unchanging place, and the meanings we associate with the spaces we inhabit. “We are never anywhere but here,” murmurs Ma, in a despondent moment. The violence that takes place inside Room is always present, it is impossible for her to even temporarily escape the scene of her abuse. Every conflict, every depressive spiral, every brutal violation, stays in the air, thickening the atmosphere and closing the walls in around Ma tighter and tighter until she plans a risky, desperate escape. Even the echoes of a loving lullaby sound haunting in the enclosed space, each childish scream sounds visceral. A difficult watch even in ordinary times, Room has become almost unbearable to watch in the pandemic. As the suffocation felt by the characters mirrored mine, I could only flinch and hold my breath.
What is perhaps the most jarring, but simultaneously also the most comforting, aspect of Room is the seeming normalcy of Jack and Ma’s lives. Violence and trauma simmer under the placidity of their everyday lives, but on the surface, they could be taken for a completely normal family. Jack’s childhood is almost like every other child’s, his response to a toy car similar to any other boy his age. There is something universal about people, no matter what experiences we go through and the lives we lead. Even though Jack has no idea how other children his age behave, he is just like them. “I want another story!” screams Jack angrily; “No! This is the story you get!” shoots back Ma. Jack refuses to believe that there is a world outside Room, and Ma struggles to make him understand the new reality she has now put in front of him. But Ma herself is discomfited by her mother’s acceptance of her own story, as she comes back to find out that her parents are divorced, and her mother is leading an unremarkable suburban life with her new husband and his dog. The trauma of having lost her only daughter for seven years is invisible, but it is always there, a low, throbbing, painful hum punctuating her life. Human beings have an infinite capacity to adapt to the most adverse circumstances; what other animal can thrive in both the hottest deserts and the coldest mountains? Watching Room, I am disconcerted by how quick we are to normalize – and be desensitized by – even the bleakest of circumstances, but I am also cheered by the boundless strength of our species.
The Skylight on the ceiling of Room is in frame multiple times during the course of the movie, illuminating Ma’s face as she looks up, sometimes in despair, but most times in hope. It is her only connection to the outside world, the only thing that keeps her from forgetting, the only way she can recognize the passing of time. It is all her hope, pinned onto a square piece of blue. Skylight is a symbol of want, of the eternal longing for a better life, of the undying belief that even the darkest times pass. It is a reminder of everything that keeps us alive, forging ahead, even when all odds are against us. It is the reason we choose to wake up every morning even when the last bit of hope seems illusory. Skylight is the light at the end of a long, dark, seemingly endless tunnel, it is the last bit of beauty in a bleak gray world, it is the razor-thin shaft of sunlight pouring into a coal mine. I found my Skylight several times in the past year, in the unexpected rekindling of a cherished but forgotten friendship, in the rediscovery of an old passion, in the anchoring comfort of family, in the kindness of strangers. While trying to maintain my rapidly loosening grip on reality, I have found solace in unlikely places. Finding a childhood photograph brought joy, and some semblance of memory; as did attempting a new recipe. Writing has become a harbor, it is a warm, welcoming cocoon, beckoning me like warm sunshine on a cold winter’s day. Remembering who I was is still a long way off, but in the meantime, I have my own Skylight.
Experiencing Room in this specific moment of history is cathartic and life affirming. It gave me the language to express the swirl of foreign thoughts that I have had this past year. It helped me make sense of the terrifying chaos, a log to hold onto in the torrential sea of circumstance. Room gives me hope, in myself, in the human spirit, in the bonds of family, in the reality that I choose to keep living for.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.