The Incredible Basement of Manmotion

The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957
Additional blog post”

In 1950s America, cinema-goers saw an abundance of war films and films about people struggling to cope with the effects of the war. As the latter theme was often focussed on ex-soldiers suffering from PTSD, a term which didn’t exist yet, the issues tended to be buried in symbolism – such as Steele‘s ’emotional baggage’ in In a Lonely Place (1959) and the themes of mistaken identity or ‘trust no-one’ in North by Northwest  (1959).

Despite the extensive research and knowledge we now have of this disorder, it’s still important to note that PTSD is not always necessarily characterised by reliving traumatic events or having ‘episodes of rage’, as it is often stigmatised. Feelings of depression or anxiety associated with the war or coping with the integration into civillian life are perfectly normal symptms of PTSD. However in 1957, these kinds of ‘manmotions’ were not something that men were prepared to admit or discuss.

With emphasis on the importance to have a nuclear family and achieve the American dream, it’s understandable that returned soldiers could be overwhelmed by this new world of ‘normalcy’. In Jack Arnold’s 1957 drama The Incredible Shrinking Man,  these feelings are symbolised by Scott Carey’s (Williams) radiation-and-insecticide-cocktail-induced shrinking.

After spending a beautiful day out on the sea with his lovely wife Louise (Stuart), Scott is exposed to a radioactive cloud. Months later, he begins to shrink. At first there’s denial, then disbelief, and then a very real concern that the doctors won’t be able to fix him, all the while Scott is getting smaller and smaller.

Eventually, Scott shrinks to a size not much bigger than a finger. Or, a small cat’s chew-toy. One frightful morning, the beloved house cat turns on Scott, terrorises him in his doll house and chases him around the living room. Although he manages to escape by falling into the basement, he is too small to alert anyone where he is. So, naturally, his wife and family assume he’s been eaten by the cat and don’t really bother looking too hard for him. However it is here, in the basement, where the real underlying story happens.

The basement is interesting for two reasons. First of all, the basement in itself is notoriously a ‘male’ space. Especially in America, it’s often represented as the ‘man cave‘; a place where a man can go to escape from the rest of the house, the family, and adult responsibilities. The setting is already significant, it’s Scott’s final chance to save himself by retreating into this symbol of ‘manliness’.

Secondly, it’s also very commonly used in cinema as a physical representation of underlying emotions, memories or secrets. In a much more recent film for example, Jen Izaacson talks about the basement in The Babadook (2014) as a place where the Mother character keeps her ‘grief’, both literally and metaphorically. In our film, the emphasis is on the representation of the physical space of the basement and the unconscious repressed feelings Scott tries to deal with down there.

Once he realises he’s too small to climb back out of the basement, he begins to explore this strange, yet very familiar place. He fumbles across a box of knitting materials where he picks out some string and some pins. He takes these typically feminine objects and masculinizes them, turning them into weapons and supplies. Very quickly, the task at hand veers from an escape mission to a fight for survival. This tranquil domestic space becomes life threatening. In order to survive, he retreats into a primal state of being; having to fight off enemies, driven by hunger. Scott has accepted his fate, his life, and it’s in this animalistic manly state of being that he is comfortable in his own skin for the first time. “A strange calm possessed me. I thought more clearly than I had ever thought before – as if my mind were bathed in a brilliant light. I recognized that part of my illness was rooted in hunger, and I remembered the food on the shelf, the cake thredded with spider web. I no longer felt hatred for the spider. Like myself it struggled blindly for the means to live.

His journey in the basement is about returning to a soldier-like character, overcoming a series of threats. The first, domestication. This space, his underground prison, embodies the source of his anxiety about returning home. The second, escaping. He seeks refuge in a matchbox waiting to be saved by someone else and then eventually tries to get back up to the house himself. He doesn’t want to deal with these emotions, he wants to run away from them and continue pretending to be alright. And finally, rediscovering his sense of self. Drawing on infantile psychology, where one tries to find their place in a world much bigger than them, Scott is both literally and metaphorically experiencing that transition. He finds this place in the films conclusion where he comes to terms with what is happening to him and accepts his place in the world. “And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too.”

The PTSD and emasculation that soldiers often felt returning to suburbia after war was represented in 1950s cinema in a series of ways. Scott’s shrinking is symbolic of masculinity in peril, a ‘shrinking manhood’. It is only after he accepts  himself and his illness, the way that he is, that he is content.

 

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