New Rose Hotel and the epiphanic flashback

25 09 2014


New Rose Hotel explores what happens when genre clichés are expanded to their breaking point. Eventually, they become surprising and expressive devices. Their generic origins are forgotten and their traditional contours disappear. In this case, Abel Ferrara uses the epiphanic flashback trope: a pivotal moment of recollection in which the protagonist, thinking back on previous scenes, links together clues he or she failed to recognize before in order to finally solve a mystery. This happens, to give just one example, in the recent Argentine Oscar-winner The Secret in their Eyes. However, these epiphanic flashbacks typically last one or two minutes. They serve a functional role, giving viewers a sense of what the protagonist is remembering. The protagonist views his or her own story as if he or she were an outsider, an audience member like us, and this role reversal or out-of-body experience is emphasized by the fact that the memories on display usually consist of past sequences from the actual movie. Which means that the protagonist remembers him or herself in the third person.

Ferrara subverts this convention in two ways: the epiphanic flashback lasts almost twenty minutes, becoming a dreamy, fragmented, nonlinear dive into subjective space; and the repeated sequences are not quite so: old scenes are seen from new angles, others are shortened or extended with new footage, and new scenes illustrate what had previously only been suggested in dialogue exchanges. This lengthy, stream-of-consciousness review of events is so meandering, so interminable (compared to similar moments in more traditional movies) that it transforms into a poetic representation of longing, disappointment, and remorse. The protagonist (played by Willem Dafoe), a kind of con artist who specializes in corporate intrigue, may or may not have been conned by the very woman he hired to do his dirty work (a gorgeous Asia Argento), who was also his lover. His recollections piece together the enigma, often ironically, as he realizes that he may have been the victim of the exact deception he meant to perpetrate himself.

The fact that he remembers himself in the third person, as is typical of epiphanic flashbacks, becomes a joke or wink. He has spent much of the running time surveying videos of his prey, so that he now observes himself as once he spied on the subject of his failed con, trying to understand, to look for revelatory details. His identification with the character on the screen – the scientist in the hidden camera footage – is now complete, as he transforms into the body in the video feed, appears in the movie in his mind as the main character, which of course he has been all along for us. More effectively than The Matrix, it restates the Baudrillardian notion that everything has become a simulation, that representation is simply presentation since the original referent has disappeared, leaving only the shape on a screen. A powerful notion in a film about con artists, who simulate for a living, so that, more than people, they are fictional constructs, always seen by others, perpetually watched, any sense of identity slippery and fugitive. What is at stake, in the protagonist’s retrospective disentanglement of the plot, is the degree of his loneliness. Having lived a life dedicated to deceit, as either the offending or offended party, he now finds himself utterly alone, the only people he can talk to figments of his ghostly, echoing remembrances. That his flashbacks occur inside the titular New Rose Hotel, comprised of tiny cabins stacked one on top of the other like storage containers – a monument to spiritual and physical isolation, a bestiary of lonely people ensconced in private boxes – only reinforces the potentially fatal and horribly anguished path his mind and body have taken. Has he found a tomb for himself at the New Rose Hotel? And are his flashbacks the life that flashes before his eyes at death’s door?




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