Our Place in the World


A little while ago, I was asked by the marketing manager of the University of Minnesota Press to write about The Misfits (USA 1961). The request coincided with the publication of Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves: The Misfits and Icons of Postwar America. The press wanted to give potential readers a glimpse of the book’s content and underlying themes. To help me get started, the marketing manager kindly supplied some questions, such as when and where did I first view the film, and what was my initial response? Struggling to recall these details, I began to think generally about my engagement with cinema. I had spent years writing about films, mostly in an academic context. Often, these were films that I felt deeply moved by. But I had never written about the role cinema played in my life, and how it helped me to make sense of the world. Thus, what started as a request to write about a film that I had already written too much about turned into something more personal. After sending the press my response, I went back to what I had written. I wanted to see if there was a way to link these reflections to broader issues concerning the experience of migration, the writing of film history and how the cinema helps us to assume our place in the world.


In “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” the Italian writer Italo Calvino recalls his experiences as an adolescent cinema-goer in Fascist Italy. These were the years when the cinema became a world, a world different from the mass of heterogeneous elements that comprised the narrator’s life outside the cinema, but a world nonetheless. The primary appeal of this world, Calvino claims, was its capacity to satisfy a fundamental need: “It satisfied a need for disorientation, for the projection of my attention into a different space, a need which I believe corresponds to a primary function of our assuming our place in the world, an indispensable stage in any character formation.”[1] The idea of using cinema as a means of projecting our attention elsewhere can be understood by all of us, regardless of where we are from or the types of films we watch. But for the children of migrants, Calvino’s description of the way cinema helped him to assume his place in the world has a particular resonance that I want to explore further. I will do so by talking about my own experience of migration and the way that cinema helped me to make sense of this experience.

I grew up in Newcastle, an industrial city on the eastern seaboard of Australia. Nearly all of my school friends were first generation Australians whose parents came from different parts of Europe to work in the city’s steelworks and related industries: Macedonians, Serbians, Croatians, Italians, as well as Greeks living in suburbs within walking distance to the steelworks. My own family’s situation typified a path followed by other Greek families that did not directly rely on the steelworks for employment: my father used the wages he earned from working multiple low-paid jobs to purchase a small fast-food business. Over the years, he successfully established and sold a number of these businesses. But while I was growing up, the shop he held for the longest time was located on the esplanade of the city’s main beach. Serviced by the city’s railway terminal and all the local bus lines, Newcastle Beach was a convenient destination for families, teenagers and out-of-towners from the NSW Hunter Valley. The beach also drew patrons from the old Royal Newcastle Hospital, perched on the hill above the esplanade, as well as the retail outlets located in the busy adjoining streets. The closure of these businesses and the increasing mobility of the population gradually stripped the beach of its large crowds.

But such were the crowds when I was growing up that, as soon as we had completed primary school, my sisters and I were required to work in the shop serving customers, many of whom we knew or recognized from school. It was only during the winter months, when business slowed considerably, that we were able to escape the embarrassment of working alongside our parents. In order to compensate for the winter slowdown, my father combined work in the shop during the day with a job cleaning train carriages at night, catching a few hours sleep in the changeover between the two. Permanently sleep-deprived and on-edge, he would be glimpsed, late in the evenings, getting ready to start the night shift that merged with a day spent serving customers and preparing food at the shop. Generally low-key and reserved in manner, his permanently sleep-deprived state made him prone to occasional outbursts of temper that were as surprising to his family members looking-on as they were to the customers at whom his anger was directed. Although they were nearly always provoked by some racist taunt, these outbursts served to fuel my resentment at having to work in the shop. It wasn’t the actual work that I resented. It was having my family life so exposed. In my mind at least, working in the shop denied me the privacy needed to fashion an identity free of my parents.

With all my father’s energies and attention consumed by the demands of two full-time jobs, the task of parenting was left entirely to my mother. As well as making sure that we were properly fed and clothed, she had sole responsibility for setting the limits on our behavior, and ensuring that nothing we did reflected negatively on the family. She did this at the same time as she worked alongside my father in the shop. Apart from the occasional wedding or Greek-community function, my parents never went out socially. Their lives were totally consumed by the tasks of working and bringing up children. If this put a strain on their marriage, it did not manifest itself in the form of arguments or complaints about their life in Australia. Given the lack of other work options, there was simply no point. The pressure that affected my parent’s marriage came from something else that emerged as a consequence of their migration, something that was felt much more keenly by my mother than my father. For nearly all her adult life, my mother has experienced an abiding feeling of homesickness. I’m hesitant to use this term because my mother’s pragmatic approach rules out displays of self-pity or wallowing in regret. In her public dealings, she has always displayed a level of good humor far beyond the capacities of any other member of her immediate family. Indeed, from one vantage point, she is the epitome of what my schoolteachers used to call a well-adjusted ‘new Australian.’ Yet, at the same time, she has never waivered from the sense that her home is elsewhere. This bond is not easy to describe. Rather than a nostalgic attachment to the past, my mother’s homesickness takes the form of an instinctive connection to people and places maintained in the present tense. She lives her life grounded in the day-to-day realities of the world in which she moves, yet she also maintains an unbreakable connection to a world from which she is physically absent. Watching my mother as she read the tightly composed blue aerogramme letters that arrived every fortnight from my grandmother was one of several reminders that, even though this is where she lived, home, for her, was somewhere else.

In recent years, my mother has fashioned a life that is not uncommon to migrants of her generation: for roughly half the year she lives in Sydney with my father. For the other half, she lives in Cyprus in the house in which she grew up. This is the house that was passed on to her when she married and that was left in the care of my grandparents when she migrated to Australia. In place of her own children and grandchildren, in Cyprus she is surrounded by a vast network of siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews that constitute her extended family. With the death of my grandmother, she is now the family matriarch, the one responsible for hosting the Sunday gathering at which her brothers and sisters share a meal and, afterwards, sit on the verandah to chat and watch the lights of the cars and houses in the town below. On one level, then, the rupture caused by her departure for Australia has now been covered over. But rather than helping to overcome her homesickness, this double life has only served to make it more acute. This is because, regardless of whether she is here or over there, she is constantly aware of being always somewhere else. She remains, in other words, permanently attached to two worlds but belonging to neither. As she gets older, the long plane trip between Australia and Cyprus becomes harder and harder to manage. The physical toll of the trip is compounded by the way that, in the weeks leading up to her departure, the chronic insomnia that puts a check on her spirit and energy gets worse. “I can’t stop thinking,” she complains. Thinking of what exactly? People, relationships and places, both here and always elsewhere.

Recently, I have tried to understand how my mother’s displacement affected my own behavior. I was four years old when my family arrived in Australia. All through my childhood and adolescence, my recollections of the people and places of which she spoke were tenuous: the exterior of a house with large green double-doors, a field with small trees, a shiny concrete floor laced with fine cracks. Even with the assistance of the photo albums that my mother brought with her to Australia, these impressions were not enough to bridge the growing divide between my mother’s attachments and my own experiences. The world in which I grew up in Newcastle was vastly different from the one that shaped the characters and aspirations of my parents. Each day brought with it a new experience or issue that required a complex process of linguistic and emotional translation. After a while, it simply became easier to reduce communication to the most basic issues. This gave rise to a bifurcation in how I viewed my life: on the one hand there was the world in which I moved outside the family home, a world rich in new experiences, and on the other the world of my family, a world that relied on an adherence to a limited number of mutually-agreed principles. The unspoken function of these principles was to paper-over the vast gap that opened up between my own life and that of my parents. For a long time I believed that it was only by maintaining the separation between these two worlds that I could successfully move ahead with my life.

With our lives drifting further and further apart, the place where my mother and I found common ground was in the movies. I don’t mean that we shared the same tastes or spent hours watching movies together. My attachment to the cinema enabled me to draw closer—not to the actual world that my mother left behind, but rather to the homesickness generated as a result of her departure. Primed by my mother’s example, the movies helped me to understand what it meant to belong to a world whose fundamental condition is my own absence. In his book The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell discusses the nature of this absence. He contrasts the situation of a cinema-goer with that of a theater-goer. “The audience in a theater can be defined as those to whom the actors are present while they are not present to the actors. But movies allow the audience to be mechanically absent.”[2] The distinguishing feature of this absence is its “mechanically assured” character. “In viewing a movie,” Cavell explains, “I am present not at something happening, which I must confirm, but at something that has happened, which I absorb (like a memory).” (p. 26) Elsewhere, he asks: “What does the silver screen screen? It screens me from the world it holds – that is, makes me invisible. And it screens that world from me – that is, screens its existence from me.” (p. 24)

As a teacher, I often use Cavell’s comments to explain what distinguishes cinema as a medium, and why we should never see film as just another form of image. As someone trying to explain how cinema helps us to assume our place in the world, my inclination is to read Cavell’s remarks through the prism of my mother’s homesickness. As much as it served to disorient me, the cinema also enabled me to experience the world as something to which I am present through a state of absence. Thinking back, I’m inclined to believe that this is what my mother and I shared during the years when her homesickness was most acute, the years when she was left by herself while my father was working nights. The cinema became a way for us to share in the experience of a world preconditioned on our own absence. By making this experience appear commonplace or part of the natural order of things, the cinema helped me to bring our two worlds closer together.


If I were forced to link these recollections to a specific set of viewing experiences, I would turn to the American cinema. When I was growing up, it seemed that only American films were screened at the cinemas or on the local TV channel. (It is more accurate to say that, in general, I simply chose to ignore the films from other countries. Even the Greek films that were screened in the church hall and that my mother insisted on taking us to when we were very young were viewed with one eye closed and half asleep.) The limited nature of my early viewing history makes me cautious about connecting the period I am discussing with my current activities. But as I think about the past, I’m struck by the way the films that I now write about are so clearly populated with people and characters from somewhere else, people on the move, or newly settled. I’m thinking, of course, of The Misfits and its collection of displaced characters: Gay (Clark Gable), Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe), Perce (Montgomery Clift) and the hapless Guido (Eli Wallach), the character most clearly connected with the immigrant experience, and the one who, at the end of the film, has the least to show for his troubles. The dramatic settings of The Misfits are a million miles from the suburban neighborhoods of my adolescence, but something about the restlessness of the characters in this film connects with the material and psychic circumstances of people whose experience of home is inescapably ambivalent.

When I started to write about The Misfits, I was less interested in the film itself than in the Magnum images taken on the set of the film, their history and relationship to other images of actors. Understanding these images would, I believed, help me to understand larger changes in postwar cinema. Also implicit in my engagement with these images was the desire to understand how cinema-going connects with a broader terrain of experiences and associations. (The epigraph I used in the book, taken from Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, is a wonderful description of this interaction between cinematic images and the images in our heads.[3] ) Now that the book is finished, I find myself returning to this initial impetus, conscious of the need to place my own experiences in the picture. By explaining how the cinema came to shape my own place in the world, I hope to better understand the myriad other ways cinema contributes to a process of “worlding.” These brief reflections are a belated attempt to find a way to write about this process and the contexts, relationships and histories that define the interaction between cinema and our everyday lives.

This account of cinema’s functioning might be regarded as too subjective to have any value as scholarship: about individual films I only offer vague impressions; about the conditions that determined their production, even less. In compensation, I do describe a way in which the cinema can interact with large-scale movements in population – not in general, but in a specific sense. We need to know about these specific cases, just as we must have access to more general information about who went where and when. As someone deeply interested in the ontology of cinema, I think we also need to find ways to connect the work of writers such as Cavell to the social and cultural issues that shape the lives of audiences. Forging these connections helps us to understand ways of being in the world that are commonplace yet difficult to describe. Broadly conceived, this project belongs to film history, but it also prompts us to give more nuanced consideration to the way in which film history is usually written. It is an approach that has the potential to lead to new understandings of cinema’s capacity to shape our engagement with the world as well as to new ways of writing this engagement. For me, writing in the shadow of my mother’s homesickness, a key component of these histories is the experience they offer of a world defined by my own absence.


[1]The Road to San Giovanni, trans. Tim Parks, London: Vintage, 1994, 38.
[2] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, enlarged edition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979, 25.
[3] “You looked at Gay Langland and thought Wasn’t he once Clark Gable? You looked at the blond Roslyn and thought Wasn’t she once Marilyn Monroe? You looked at the battered rodeo performer Perce Howland and thought My God! He used to be Montgomery Clift. These are people you knew when you were a kid. Gay Langland was a bachelor uncle of yours; Roslyn Tabor was a friend of your mother’s, a small-town divorcée. Small-town wistfulness and lost glamour. Maybe your father was in love with Roslyn Tabor! You’ll never know. The rodeo performer was a drifter, sad-eyed, skinny, with a ruined face. You’d see him in the early evening outside the bus station smoking and casting ghost-eyes in your direction. Hey: do you know me? These were ordinary Americans of the fifties yet mysterious to you because you knew them long ago when the world was mysterious and even your own face, contemplated in a mirror, in for instance the cigarette vending machine of that bus station or in the water-specked mirror above a lavatory sink, was a mystery never to be solved.” Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde: A Novel, London: Fourth Estate, 2000, 670.

Created on: Sunday, 7 November 2010

About the Author

George Kouvaros

About the Author

George Kouvaros

George Kouvaros is Professor of Film Studies in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW. His most recent book is Awakening the Eye: Robert Frank's American Cinema (Minnesota UP, 2015).View all posts by George Kouvaros →