Karam: The Humans (2021)

One of the most tried-and-tested tropes of prestige theatre is the decline of a middle-class white American family. That’s also the subject matter of The Humans, and yet playwright Stephen Karam has such a gifted ear for conversation that he manages to reinvent the genre anew. He also has a gifted eye for cinema, since he doubles as director in the adaptation of his play, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2015. It’s difficult to think of a better recent instance  of transitioning from stage to screen, to the point where it’s often hard to imagine exactly how The Humans, as we see it here, could possibly play out on stage. That’s part of the achievement of the film, which in turn generates performances of a live theatrical intensity from its six actors, without ever making them feel stagebound, or constricted by the dialogue.

The film, like the play, revolves around a single family – Erik and Deirdre Blake, played by Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell, their children Brigid and Aimee, played by Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer, Erik’s mother Momo, played by June Squibb, and Brigid’s partner Richard, played by Stephen Yuen. Likewise, the action all takes place in a single space over a single night – Brigid and Richard’s new apartment, over the course of Thanksgiving. Since Brigid and Richard have just moved in, the apartment is devoid of all but the most rudimentary fixtures. In fact, Erik, Deirdre and Aimee are only seeing the apartment for the first time tonight, meaning there’s a subtle disconnect between the unity of the family and their alienation in this new space, which grows haunted as the evening deepens and darkens.  

To say this family is unified, however, is probably a stretch, since they’re all wrestling with their own issues, even if some of these take a while to emerge. Most dramatically, Momo is in the midst of dementia, and barely alive to what is happening as her wheelchair is moved from room to room. Erik and Deirdre are clearly having emotional issues in their marriage, but are also struggling economically, and in their professional lives. As if in a riposte to the dreams of upward mobility that animate the final season of The Office, the family comes from Scranton, where Deirdre has worked as an office manager for forty years (a fact that doesn’t seem to impress her younger bosses) and Erik has spent thirty years as a high school maintenance manager. Neither job has brought them much money, so they’re doubly worried when Aimee reveals that she has lost the partner track at the law firm where she works, due to a chronic colonic condition. Brigid, too, is struggling – she’s an aspiring classical composer, but she can’t get a grant – while Richard has emerged from a period of sustained depression.

All of those issues play out against the evacuated space of the apartment, which often feels set in the depths of lockdown, or amidst the desiccated spaces of a post-pandemic world. The play was actually written well before Covid struck, but there are all kinds of nods in its direction, starting with the first object that Aimee brings into the apartment – a giant cube of toilet paper. Pandemic aside, the apartment functions, more generally, as a cipher for an older kind of New York public sphere, one in which these kinds of buildings were genuine communities. That period has long gone now, as Karam suffuses this creaking building with the same eerie emptiness as Only Murders in the Building, creating a pervasive sense that, if other lives do indeed exist in this denuded space, then they are almost unimaginably remote.

Right from the outset, then, this apartment has a character and a complexion that precludes The Humans from feeling like a filmed play. It’s an unusual character, too, insofar as it consists mainly of the absences of homely fixtures. Rather than playing as a discrete space per se, this collection of rooms seems more like a decimated middle class sphere, a series of resonant voids, that are only differentiable by their various degrees of emptiness. At one point, the family gather around a series of potential wall colours, all variations on white and cream. While Aimee dismisses them as the same colour, the film inclines more towards Brigid, who distinguishes more precisely between their different shades of whiteness. That’s how the film often plays too – as an exercise in parsing a subtle spectrum of white tones, both visually and ideologically, in what eventually amounts to a vision of the last white family in New York City.

Karam adds more character to this space by fixating on its ancient fixtures – toilets, electricity, elevators and, above all, the pipes that guide the camera in its few extravagant mobile shots. This connective tissue harkens back to an older iteration of the building, when people were inextricably networked with their neighbours’ lives, although that period is also long gone, since the corridors, elevators and vestibules are utterly vacant, devoid of anything resembling a shared life. We only see a few elliptical and fleeting hints of other people, most of them from the main window in the apartment, which looks out into an inner courtyard. In the opening scenes, Erik observes a figure walking through the grimy glass, asks who it is, and is told that it must be the janitor, even though it looks more like a woman than a man. In another film, this might become the start of a deeper foray into the surrounding apartments, but we never hear any more about this walking figure, who remains as aloof and unknowable as the cigarette ash that trickles down from the apartment above, and that Erik mistakes for snow.

This window is also the only place that the characters can get mobile reception, and even then they have to lean right into the alcove, and twist their torsos into an uncomfortable angle, to get enough bars. As both a physical and digital portal, the window often reminded me of the connective tissue in the Wachowskis’ Bound, another film that takes place in an apartment complex, and features long tracking-shots across and between fixtures. Yet whereas Bound was released on the cusp of the digital revolution, The Humans takes us out the other side. The Wachowskis imagined physical infrastructure as the platform for digital connectivity, but by the time Karam’s characters come along, that digital promise has been subsumed back into the old fixtures, and indeed makes them seem all the more antiquated for it. The closest we get to that dream of connectivity is the ominous crashes that periodically filter down from the apartment upstairs, and the water stains on the wall, which represent the space at its most sentient, morphing and pulsing whenever Erik’s gaze lights upon them.

Since The Humans is such an infrastructural drama, the apartment resonates and converges with the characters in particularly pointed ways. As a maintenance manager, Erik is particularly sensitive to the quirks and tics of the building, which we initially experience mainly through his eyes. He also has another building project going on, a lake house back in Scranton, so he arrives at the apartment in full planning mode. Meanwhile, Aimee’s chronic colonic issues quickly collapse into the apartment, not just because she spends so much time in the toilet, which in turn intensifies the sound of the water system, but because the characters themselves seem to be stuck in the bowels of the building, subjected to strange digestive gurglings from unseen processes higher up. Similarly, when we hear one of Brigid’s pieces, it plays like a musical translation of the building, full of dramatic silent voids and staccacto stabs of sound, remarkably close to the more undifferentiated noise from upstairs.

In other words, Karam converges the downward mobility of the characters with the decay of the apartment, and in doing so, whittles down middle-class space to its primal components. Midway through the film, Erik and Richard have a talk about tunnels, caves, holes, and other structures so primal that people could shut their eyes a thousand years ago and see much the same thing when they as we do now. Every now and then we see the film from an alien perspective, halfway between Erik and the camera, that collapses its images into these same primal structures. At these moments, the film seems to be depicting projections on the back of the eye rather than actual objects, as all the infrastructure of middle-class life melts into air, falls back into a more cosmic history of human fallibility. Deirdre makes sense of this by way of an article she reads in Scientific American, which explains there are no solid objects, since even tables (they are sitting at a table as they discuss this) are just oceans of electrons.

Since there is so little in the way of objects in the film, and those objects are themselves liquefied, Lol Crawley’s cinematography plays a major role here. The opening scenes are largely lit by the drab winter light from the interior courtyard, which, combined with the grimy windows, makes it difficult to tell whether it’s day or night (or how much of the Thanksgiving evening has proceeded, forcing us to keep track of time through the procession of dishes). At several points, Richard uses his iPhone to project a fire onto the wall, but this just adds an eerie edge to the cold light, which gets dimmer as the film process, but in such a subliminal way that the action is unfolding in near-total darkness before we fully realise it. At the same time, Karam tends to stay distant from the action, which is often framed by the small gap in a door, or a small slice of mirror. Much of the film takes place in these small slivers of space, like shattered shards of lives and stories that once dominated the big screen, but don’t have the confidence to take pride of place now. In that sense, The Humans often feels poised halfway between big and small screen experiences – quite literally, since the action frequently only takes up about a third of the screen, framed by the looming aporia of middle-class life.

After a while, this produces a vaguely apocalyptic ambience, although this emerges as subliminally as the darkness falls. Early on, Deirdre gives Brigid a statue of the Virgin Mary, and asks her to keep it in a safe place, while observing that apparitions of the Madonna have started becoming more common in West Virginia. Later, when the light goes out, Richard pulls out a hurricane lamp, explaining that he bought it in anticipation of a sequel to Superstorm Sandy, while warning Brigid that “you’re in a Zone A flood zone.” Finally, Richard tells the family the story that gives the film its name – that humans are simply the bad dreams of aliens. As such, humans are incapable of any sustained dreams of their own, let alone the American Dream, which fragments into so many surreal nightmares of middle-class fixtures, from Erik’s recurring ice cream dream, to Richard’s recurring refrigerator dream. Memories of these dreams puncture the conversations so sharply and incongruously that they seem to be occurring in real time, collapsing sleep and waking into a melancholy sombience, while populating the building with dream-objects, half-remembered visions of how life should be.

Over time, this apocalyptism blooms into a more overt horror of downward mobility, figured in garishly vivid ways. At one point, Deirdre accidentally wanders out of the apartment and into a Freddy Krueger-like janitor’s closet that seems to be the source of all the mechanical rumblings that we see in the film. Later on, Erik recalls the first time he ever visited New York – on September 11, 2001, when he brought Aimee to her first job interview, on the lower levels of the World Trade Center. She was far enough down to escape unharmed, while Erik only escaped because her interview was too early for him to visit the Observation Deck, meaning he spent the morning exploring the city instead. The family’s bid at generational mobility has never got beyond this moment when the entire downward mobility of the country echoed around them, much as the apartment itself often seems to be still poised in the strange evacuated vistas that surrounded the Twin Towers in the aftermath of the attacks.  

True to the title, then, The Humans feels like we’re witnessing the end of a certain strand of the Anthropocene, the last relics of what constituted mankind according to the American Dream. The final bastion of that dream, as Erik continually reminds his family, is family, so it’s shattering when he reveals the trauma that has been lurking beneath the entire Thanksgiving conversation. Just before he and Deirdre are about to leave, he reveals that he’s been fired, he’s sold their house, he’s in debt, he’s lost his pension, the family savings are depleted, and he’s working at Wal-Mart just to survive. Unable to process that revelation, the apartment descends into a darkness so deep it barely registers when Brigid retreats, briefly, to the rooftop, where Erik gives her the only advice he has left – to keep breathing. By this stage, the film is more a tactile than a visual experience, a series of visceral textures beneath the inky blackness, like the murmurings of Aimee’s large intestine, which we learn has to be removed, or the toy pig that the family seal in a bag, and smash with a hammer, in a weird Thanksgiving ritual. If the apartment is embodied, then this last act takes up deep into its viscera, immersing us in the internal organs of the middle class dream as they wither and die.

Finally, one by one, the family head downstairs, leaving Erik alone in the apartment. At this point, the film comes full circle with the pandemic, as Erik seeks out his iPhone with a torch (the only two sources of light) and the crashes intensify upstairs, in a mirror image of the denouement of Host, the only film to be shot on Zoom during the US lockdown. Similarly, the film comes full circle with the play, as the camera pulls back to a theatrical tableau, the two stories of the apartment now visible in cross-section, to show us how this final scene plays out on stage. It’s a remarkable final transition from cinematic to theatrical language, taking us back to the older time of the theatre even as the pandemic allusions project us into the present, and leaving the characters suspended, despairing, without a time to call their own.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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