1BR. 2019. Directed & Written by David Marmor.
Starring Nicole Brydon Bloom, Naomi Grossman, Alan Blumenfeld, Giles Matthey, Andrea Gabriel, Celeste Sully, Jerry Ying, Hailey Giles, Calyton Hoff, & Curtis Webster.
Epicenter / Malevolent Films
Drama / Horror / Thriller
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS.
Father Gore got a chance to see David Marmor’s debut feature 1BR during the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. This horror-thriller comes along at a great moment in time, when individualism has never been more at threat from the failings of community, whether here in North America or across the pond in the United Kingdom and Europe.
Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) is a young woman moving to Los Angeles, hoping to live the artistic dream. She’s left behind a troubled, non-supportive family. What she finds in the big city is a sense of belonging on a place where others are chasing the same dreams. Although her new life starts to take a dark turn once the apartment building she moves into reveals itself as something altogether sinister.
Part of 1BR is an exploration of identity and community in a general sense, specifically through how the apartment building Sarah moves into takes on elements of Sigmund Freud’s Uncanny. Another aspect of 1BR goes further below the surface, attacking post-9/11 ideologies and the patriarchal attitudes that took over in the wake of American devastation. Certain communities based around shared identity are a positive force. The community in the film, based on obliteration of identity— not unlike certain political movements over the past few years— are a negative force that want nothing more than to destroy the individual in the name of political comfort for others.
Sarah’s journey is a microcosm of how everyone feels when they uproot themselves from their hometown and move someplace else, particularly when going from a small town to a big city. Leaving a town where you grew up is a detachment, severing you from a piece of your identity. Simultaneously, moving to a new place is also like gaining a new sense of identity, so that even while you lose something from home you’re gaining something by creating a new home, too. More than that, we want to belong to a community, just the same as Sarah wants to get to know the people in her building and tries to assimilate into the apartment building. But we likewise want to carve out our own niche, even in a sea of other citizens among a city. Sarah’s move puts her in this liminal space, where the entire reason she left home was to break out on her own and become something that wasn’t an identity determined by small town logic or her family, yet she’s come to a place where she wants to also fit with the crowd.
Something that makes the experience more difficult in moving to a new place is the Uncanny (capitalised just to distinguish this as Freud’s concept, not the common definition of the term) notion of home. Sarah goes through this in the apartment building. There’s an inherent, fundamental Uncanniness to apartment buildings. It’s meant to be one’s home and, at once, you’re surrounded by strangers— even the friendliest tenant doesn’t know the WHOLE building. There’s a familiar quality to the building because it’s where you have an individual apartment that clearly delineates your home from the rest of the building. There remains an unfamiliar essence in the building, because the rest of it, outside the walls of your individual home, is strange.
Sarah feels the Uncanny intrude on her when she’s in her apartment alone, as the eyes and ears of surveillance watch her. The name of the place itself is Uncanny in a sense: Asilo Del Mar translates to something in English like ‘asylum of the sea.’ Within the actual name of the building there’s a contradiction, suggesting it’s not an apartment building, or a home, it’s really an asylum, where the individual apartments stand in for padded cells. Although Sarah feels at home, she can’t shake the nagging sense that this is still NOT her home. The viewer actually feels this Uncanny sensation watching Sarah experience the eeriness of her apartment. It isn’t until the first reveal of what’s actually happening that the viewer can definitively say there isn’t a surreal quality to the building and Sarah’s not just going through a psychological break.
“Are you ready to do what you’re told?”
The man running the show in the apartment building where Sarah lives— a guy called Jerry (Taylor Nichols)— is actually running a cult disguised as a normal community. He works off the ideology of another man, Dr. Charles D. Ellerby, who wrote a text called The Power of Community. They’re opposed to individualism because of how the post-modern world creates only isolation, made worse in the 21st with the proliferation of the internet and the advent of smartphones, social media, and other technology. Ellerby sought to create community as a way to obliterate all individualism.
This kind of ideology is less about safety / comfort for all and more about the comfort of the ruling class. This is why, in everyday society, we see the white, straight, Christian perspective dominate and assert itself as normal, pushing anything else (LGBT / POC rights, et cetera) to the fringes as abnormal and positioning it as something to oppress and repress. It isn’t coincidence that tenants in 1BR‘s building are effectively crucified to the wall when they don’t subject themselves to the dominant ideology of Jerry’s cult. This act is, symbolically, a violent reinforcement of patriarchal Christian rule.
Sarah’s life as a whole has been a rebellion against a litany of patriarchal figures, from her father to Jerry. One of the major ways we see the patriarchy upheld is how Marmor’s film focuses on an act of female subjugation. Sarah isn’t just accepted into a community, or turned into a sheep, she’s literally given away to a man. She’s treated the way women in other hyper-patriarchal cultures are, in that Jerry— a kind of surrogate Jim Jones father to Sarah— marries her off without consent. The community, and its father, have transformed her into little more than livestock. She’s branded like cattle, or a sheep, along with the others. Worst is how the patriarchy continues without one man needing to be the eternal figurehead. Ellerby died years ago, then Jerry took over, and after him there’ll be more to take his place.
THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A MAJOR SPOILER FOR 1BR‘S ENDING(!!!)
Another unsettling aspect of the apartment building’s cult is the way its ideology mirrors elements of post-9/11, George Bush-era policy. In one scene there’s a line that sounds chillingly like rhetoric used to hawk the Patriot Act: “We‘re our best selves when we know our neighbour is watching.” This reeks of the ‘if you see something, say something’ attitude the Bush administration hoped to instil in its public. This still hasn’t gone away under Trump, either. There’s a suggestion at the end that this community is far more vast than one building, as if to say the entirety of America’s urban landsape has become one of these communities, or at least it’s spreading. That image is difficult not to connect with the spread of Trumpian ideology, which has reached up here into Canada, too. Sarah runs and runs, looking for a way out of the cookie cutter neighbourhood of boring, identical apartment buildings. The scary part lies in not knowing if there really is an exit— same as the way it feels for many riding out Trump’s administration.
Sarah’s journey is a tense thrill ride submerged in a claustrophobic environment. People will likely compare aspects of the film to Rosemary’s Baby, for the way it projects anxieties of modern living in apartment buildings. Others might liken it to different anxiety-inducing films that take place in apartments. 1BR is unique unto itself because of its focus on the perils of community, specifically one brutally controlled by various white patriarchal figures.
Father Gore looks at film through critical theory. That’s not necessarily everyone’s preferred way of experiencing cinema. Doesn’t change the fact that 1BR can be read as a timely piece of fiction seeking to tear down a homogeneous idea of community as something everybody needs to conform to through a total rejection of identity. Right now, we’re seeing white patriarchal political movements across the world, not only in America with Trump, seeking to shut down discussions involving identity politics. Marmor’s film is borne of a moment in history where a false sense of community among angry people threatens us all, to the core of our identities, and the struggle Sarah goes through is our struggle against forces that want us to either conform or be destroyed.