Notes on Beetlejuice
February, 2015: Serious snowed-in-apartment-claustrophobia, the author on her couch Netflixing through a particularly grim winter; accompanied by copious amounts of Omega-3's and hot yoga in a desperate bid to stave off the firm handshake of seasonal depression. Oh what do we have here? It's Beetlejuice.
High on nostalgic anticipation, we're skimming above a New England village, cruising with the camera along a paralysed Main Street, and finally resting on a massive farmhouse. It's here we realize: the New England village is in fact a facsimile, a scale model of itself. Now that the shot is fixed, we can see the seams in the green turf, the glue joints of the facade. The feeling is one of wonder—and of horror, as a wolf spider crawls atop the tiny house and destroys any lingering confusion over scale and order.
The plot, of course, is this: Geena Davis and Alec Balwin are saccharine-sweet newlyweds, obsessed with restoring their massive Victorian farmhouse. And then they die, becoming domestic ghosts; Geena is back to home repair, and Alec resumes work on his vast, scale model of the house and the town in the attic. But posthumous bliss doesn't last long—the house is sold to Catherine O'Hara and Robert Goulet, two boorish New York capitalists who move in with their teenage goth daughter, Winona Ryder. A gleeful Postmodern renovation commences. Horrified, yet too cute to properly haunt the newcomers out, Geena and Alec must enlist a mercenary.
Betelgeuse markets himself as a "bio-exorcist"—which in 2015 is a bio-terrorist—a mercenary summoned from the underground when the values of a colonising force threaten the natural resources of the previous tenants and/or disrupts their version of order and moral certainty. Betelgeuse lives in Alec's model cemetery but he is looking to get out, to be invited into the full-scale, where he can terrorise and womanise. In their desperation to evict the house's new, aesthetically-threatening tenants, Geena and Alec become grave robbers, shoveling through layers of foam and cardboard to exhume Betelgeuse's tomb. The spaces of the house-house and the house-model become blurred as Betelgeuse, Alec and Geena move between the miniature and the 1:1. The dark intricacies of the miniature shadow-world have been invisible to Geena and Alec, but now as ghosts—and by definition inhabiting a confused, liminal space—the new reality of the house-model becomes slowly revealed to them: from manic yet harmless hobby-object to shadow world.
The house in Beetlejuice is a mesh through which the living and the dead bump into each other. Nearly the entire film is staged within its walls, yet the floor plan is obscured. It is a 19th Century Victorian farmhouse in Connecticut, a Potemkin facade in Vermont, a series of unconnected sets on a soundstage in Los Angeles. "There is no flow," the corporate PoMo decorator says dismissively as he wanders through.
This conflict between model and full-scale, between facsimile and reality, anticipates the colonisation of digital practices into the physical realm. "I can't remember if I know that guy from real life or from Grindr," my friend whispers while we wait in line for coffee. In her essay "Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?" artist and theorist Hito Steyerl proposes that we allow this slipperiness to leak out of representation and into our at-scale relationships, with the realisation of a post-social, media-sharing economy. "If one can share a restaurant dish JPEG on Facebook, why not the real meal?" Steyerl asks. The peer-to-peer becomes to 1:1.
In Beetlejuice, it is only Winona Ryder, the disillusioned teenager, who can surf between these spaces, which are in fact a single, heterogeneous mesh. Like internet-proselytising children in the early 90s, installing dial-up internet service software onto the family PC, Winona Ryder deciphers the unknowable without pausing to even consider it. She talks to ghosts, it’s NBD. Translating between the dead and the living with the flexibility of a digital native, only she can negotiate between the conflicting desires of the mesh.
Is Winona Ryder the architect of the post-internet age? Not a preservationist, nor an aesthete, but a surfer—browsing her territory and patching between conflicting signals. In a spatial post-internet, innovation is not about mining nostalgia or aesthetic newness, but about cultivating the flexibility to weave them together as slippery and conflicting subjects—ecology and structure, tumblr memes and viral terrorism—to create not pastiche or even harmony, but critical resiliency. At the end of Beetlejuice, a truce is reached: the house, always mutable but newly understood as resilient, can accommodate all those who subscribe to its expanded values. The haunting is called off, Betelguese, the un-citizen, is airlifted to Guantanamo Bay or some other hell; Winona Ryder, a true surfer now, learns to levitate. And the ripped-off-Tschumi-esque false facade? Regrettably, that shit had to go.
Colleen Tuite is a writer, designer, and co-director of GRNASFCK, an experimental landscape architecture studio. She lives in New York City.
Image: Luke Painter, PoMo Reno (Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice). Ink on paper. 18"x 15". 2013.