Monday, February 13, 2012

Bad For Business: The Innkeepers

Ti West has been receiving much praise for his haunted hotel film The Innkeepers starring Sara Paxton as Claire, Pat Healy as Luke and Kelly McGillis of Top Gun fame as an actress-turned-psychic Lea. Like all great films, The Innkeepers can be understood on a number of levels; my primary interest is the political/historical, but before we can get to that, we really need to take a fruitful diversion into the land of psychoanalytic doubles (The Innkeepers opened last weekend in select theaters, but you can view the film on Amazon.com instant videos now; it's really the last five minutes or so that makes the film worthwhile, but it carefully constructs itself so it can deliver a good ending).
Madeline O'Malley is the woman who was jilted by her fiancee on her wedding day so she hung herself in the honeymoon suite of the Yankee Pedlar Inn sometime before the 1860s (I haven't been able to get an exact date yet). Madeline is the psychoanalytic double for Luke because he has a crush on Claire and when, after they have been drinking, Luke tries to tell Claire how he feels about her, Claire abruptly changes the subject, hence, jilting him. When they go down into the basement, and sit in the dark, Claire says that she sees Madeline right behind Luke and she's getting closer to him, then Luke gets up and takes off; Madeline being behind Luke means that they are inhabiting the same plane, or space;  that freaks out Luke because he doesn't want to become like Madeline, i.e., a jilted lover. When Madeline "comes after" Claire at the end, Madeline is "mad" and seeks revenge upon Claire for what she did to Luke.
Luke (Pat Healy) and Claire (Sara Paxton) at the front desk of the Yankee Pedlar Inn where a lot of the story takes place. The owner of the Inn is on vacation in Barbados; Luke and Claire just manage the front desk, and Luke is a bit of a nerd and computer tech, kinda. Claire just doesn't seem to have really anything going on for herself and that comes out when Lea Rease-Jones arrives who, according to Claire is really famous. When Lea asks Claire what she's doing with her life, Claire doesn't have an answer and this is important for the rest of the film.
Is there anything else to back this up?
The old man.
He's the last guest to check into the hotel and he insists on going up to the third floor, after it has all ready been stripped of all furniture and linens, to spend the night there. When Claire realizes that she and Lea need to leave the hotel, she runs up to the third floor to tell the old man that she's leaving and finds a letter beginning, "My darling, this is where our life together started," and, looking in the bathroom, she finds the old man, in the bathtub, naked, gashes all over his arms and the tub full of blood. What does this have to do with Luke? Luke and Claire met at the Yankee Pedlar, that's where their life together started. When Clarie hears the piano playing earlier and it terrifies her, she runs up to Luke's room and gets him out of bed. He tells her that she can stay in there with him, but when he turns around and she sees him just in his underwear, she changes her mind. This parallels to the old man's nakedness.
The old man, the last guest, after his suicide. Another dimension to verify the "love angle" between Luke and Claire are the songs used in the film: Let Me Love You, Breaks My Heart, Paper Roses, Cold November, Blood Relations, Become the Night, Light of Your Life, Cherry Tulips and Don't Go (Away).
When Luke and Claire get drunk, Luke starts to pour out his feelings for Claire the way the old man poured out his blood and, just as the old man did it to himself, so Luke does it to himself as well. Importantly, in the picture above, when Clarie sees the old man standing behind her at the top of the stairs, that's where  Luke has been standing behind her earlier (pictured below). But when Clarie falls down the stairs and goes deeper into the basement, she turns around, and sees the old man holding his arms out to her just as Luke is holding himself out to her. When Claire locks herself into the wood cellar and there is the banging on the other side of the door, we think it's the old man, but learn a few minutes later that it was Luke, calling to her trying to help her, so this switched identity on the audience (we think it's the old man but it's Luke, but it doesn't matter because they are the same) re-enforces that the old man is another psychoanalytic double for Luke.
Luke will sit that beer can down right there at the top of the stairs. When Claire is there alone, the can will fall down by itself, then she will turn and see the old man standing there and fall down the stairs likewise. There is a scene where Clarie takes out the trash, and this could be analogous to her "dumping" Luke because the bag leaks, the way Luke "leaks" how he feels to Claire. Claire's difficulty in getting the bag into the trash can is her emotional and psychological difficulty in dealing with Luke's confession to her, just as she didn't want to deal with the girl at the coffee shop talking to Claire about her boyfriend; while the audience likes Claire, she's not heroic in any sense of the word.
What about when Clarie is in bed and Madeline is beside her?
This works towards the idea of Madeline identifying herself with "the jilted," because a few scenes earlier, Clarie is jilted by Lea in Lea's room after she makes Claire feel dumb. Clarie, after just being jilted herself, should know better than to jilt Luke, but she does it anyway. When Lea tells Claire (after Lea has brought out the pendulum for the first time) that there are "three of them in the basement" and there "was a terrible mistake," the three of them are Luke, Claire, Madeline and the mistake is Luke's feelings for Claire. Why does Claire jilt Luke? Possibly because of the porn sites that she finds on his laptop, that Clarie doesn't feel his feelings for her are genuine, but when Luke compares Claire to his mother and sister, that shows that  his feelings are true and he cares deeply for her. Then why does he leave her there by herself? Maybe it's that Luke's sobering up and realizing he's been jilted when Claire sees Madeline behind him and he needs to revive himself. (If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comment form at the bottom of this post).
Kelly McGillis as Lea, an actress turned psychic/healer in The Innkeepers. When she first jilts Claire, she later makes up to her and offers to help her. Lea holds a crystal pendulum which swings back and forth when she's communicating with the dead. At one point, Lea tells Claire that the spirits want to live, which hearkens us back to Poltergeist when the same thing was said there, but also because Luke questions Lea at the end about her knowing what was going to happen, we can take this to mean that Luke wants to live by expressing his feelings for Claire instead of pretending that he doesn't have any feelings for her. When Lea warns Claire not to go into the basement, it's a psychoanalytic warning, because in the basement are the lowest of our passions and animal instincts, so when Claire and Luke go in the basement, she's finally realizing how Luke feels about her and so is Luke.
Now, the political and historical reading of The Innkeepers.
We never learn anything about Madeline O'Malley's fiancee, only that he jilted her on their wedding day. Given her Irish name, we should be thinking of the immigrants coming to America in the mid 1800s looking for a new life, just like Madeline looking for a new life with her husband. (After Madeline hung herself, the owners of the inn decided it would be bad for business if anyone found out, so they hid her body for three days in the wood cellar adjacent to the basement and then tried to smuggle her out; the towns people found out and forced the inn to shut down. It wasn't opened again until the 1860s when people started seeing Madeline's ghost roaming the hotel and it has stayed since).
The ghost of Madeline O'Malley as it appears to Claire in the basement. When Claire "tells the story" of Madeline in The Innkeepers, it's to a little boy, and that's important, because that's who we, the audience are supposed to take it:as little children, but it also symbolizes how Claire herself has taken it. It's an interesting juxtaposition, because it combines the oldest modes of story telling--the oral tradition--with the most modern and advanced, the Internet site Luke has built to document the events and instances they have recorded. The story of Madeline O'Malley then is also the story of the Yankee Pedlar Inn and in turn, the story of America. The old man can be taken as the exact opposite of Madeline: he made a living in America but now there is no place for him because, in the game of capitalism, it always has to be the newest and best, not the old, so he can be seen as an old market (an old way of doing life or an old way of doing business) that no longer has any use in the country and he realizes it.
If Madeline, like many immigrants coming to America in the 1880s looking for a new life, symbolizes those who didn't find that new life, if Madeline O'Malley is the opposite of the Statue of Liberty, for example, a ghost of unfulfilled dreams and promises, then the Inn, going out of business after successfully operating for over a century, indicates the troubled economy--the soul of America--and the hauntings of the Yankee Pedlar Inn is the haunting of the American economy of those who can't wed themselves to the American Dream. Importantly, it wasn't until the 1860s, the Civil War in America, when Madeline's ghost started to be seen.
The basement is full of interesting things, specifically, lamps. Symbolically, the lamp should be understood as that which will "illuminate us" and, when Claire and Luke first go into the basement and the main light shorts out, that symbolizes that Claire doesn't have the "lights on" in understanding what it is she is doing.
Two possible references is one, to the slaves who were being freed but, like Madeline, couldn't find a way to earn a living and get a slice of the American pie for themselves, and two, because immigrants, especially the Irish, not being able to find work, would often be hired by the wealthy to fight in the Civil War in their place.  Many immigrants then, like Madeline, were being "locked in the woodshed," or locked into the lowest class of American society in the lowest servile jobs and forgotten about. Because this is where Claire dies, and we know that she doesn't have a job to go to after the Inn's final closing, Claire becomes a part of this cycle just like the immigrants and Madeline herself.
A Ghost Story For the Minimum Wage. Minimum wage can be called its own ghost story because those who earn it are there but not really seen to be there, their economic status doesn't earn them any respect from others. It's also for those employers who generally pay their employees minimum wage and as the wage continues to increase, what will happen to their ability to pay their employees, especially when Obama-care takes full effect and they have to pay those expenses in addition to what they are all ready paying. The Innkeepers offers a glimpse at bad capitalism, poorly trained workers and the American Dream over the last century and what has happened to it in the last couple of years.
Now would be a good time to talk about Claire and her character.
Her hair is very short, in the razor blade cut style, which symbolizes her thoughts: she's not a deep thinker, and this comes through in the film. Her fingernails have old polish on them (a very clever character builder device). Usually, fingernails are a sign of pampering by women and to have their nails done is a sign of their upper-class status. In Claire's case, it's obvious she hasn't cared for her nails in a long time, and the chipped polish indicates a lack of concern for her beauty.
Claire in the laundry room doing an EVP recording where she doesn't hear anything.
The only time, in fact, we see Claire concerned about how she looks, is after she has sketched a drawing of Madeline and she asks Luke if he thinks she's prettier than her but as Luke goes on, she loses interest in his answer. This brings us to the hole in Claire's jeans: the legs symbolize our will, so the hole in her jeans means that there is a hole, or something missing, from her will and that could be plain old ambition: she never talks about what she is going to do with her life or even her next job after the closing of the Pedlar. That there is something missing from her will is additionally emphasized by her not wearing socks with her tennis shoes (again, something is missing). 
Claire in the banquet room making a recording when she first hears the piano music and woman's voice. It's not in the laundry room where she hears these things, that would be a sign of the lower class, rather, it's in the banquet room which is a sign of upper class status and an event (wedding, funeral, graduation, anniversary, some sort of celebration).
Claire, like the Inn itself, exemplifies bad capitalism: nothing is being done to market it. Claire doesn't appear to have any marketable skills to take her to a new job, and no ambition to get skills, and the owner of the Inn doesn't seem to have any desire to market the haunted aspect of it to draw in business. By the way, it's mentioned at the start that the owner is on vacation in Barbados; who else do we know that is supposed to be in charge but always on vacation? Whoever he is (and Luke does refer to the owner as "him") he prefers seeing the Inn become a parking lot rather than remaining open another century. And that century marker really holds out a valuable business barometer; of course, there are fat and lean times in capitalism, there have to be cycles to it, but this is the first cycle our credit score has been downgraded and consumer confidence about the America Dream seems to be at an all time low.
Luke in the front desk area. Like Claire, Luke doesn't really seem to have any skills either; he can set up a website, but it's not very good and even he knows that but isn't changing it, and his customer service skills are so poor he can't even remember to put towels in the bathrooms. Over his left shoulder, on a piece of white paper, is the note from the owner saying that he's not to be disturbed, if something happens they are to "figure it out."
What about the ending?
The ending is like another famous haunted hotel film: The Shining.
Like Jack (Jack Nicholson), Claire and Luke can't afford to stay in the hotel where they work. At the end of The Innkeepers, when the door to the room where Claire had been staying slams shut and ends the film, two things happens. First the door slams shut, meaning that Claire has been "shut out" of the upper class to which the Inn has historically catered to. We can be confident of this because of a painting in that room, The Blue Boy by English painter Thomas Gainsborough. The Blue Boy represents material wealth and luxury, and that is an aspect of American life that neither Claire nor Madeline will ever get to share in because it is sealed off from them.
A copy of The Blue Boy hangs in Claire's room.
The second thing that happens is: the door slams shut. Just as Claire is locked out of the upper class so she is locked into the lower class, she is sealed into the lower class as in a tomb. Part of the American Dream is not being bound to the class into which you were born, but Americans have economic mobility as a freedom and being born and sealed into a lower class was a terrible curse in many countries early immigrants who came to this country sought to escape for themselves and their children. Has that ended? Instead of being called The Innkeepers, the film could be called The Dream Keepers, but just as the Inn is shutting down, so has the dream seemed to come to an end.
In conclusion, The Innkeepers carefully constructs, with parables and images and mere suggestions, numerous readings and possible understandings of the film, the script providing us layers and layers just like the many staircases in the Inn going up and down. On the political and historical level, it seems to be saying that today, we are being haunted by the mis-leading promises like immigrants in the mid-1800s, and facing a civil war about where the country is headed and whether it can get there (in relation to the Civil War era the film invokes, we should also remember My Week With Marilyn that invokes it, as well as Spielberg's upcoming film Lincoln and Tim Burton's production Abraham Lincoln the Vampire Slayer). A ghost story for the minimum wage is one more in the election year films that we will see examining where we have been, who we are and where we ought to go.
The lock begs the question: what has been locked? Who has been locked out, what have they been locked out from and who locked it? One may also ask if something is being kept safe by being locked up, but given how locks work in the film, I don't think that's where The Innkeepers is trying to lead us.