Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Another Earth

On Sunday night I was reminded that stories about domestic service can be found in unexpected places. Paid domestic work is strangely central to Mike Cahill's Another Earth, the story of a young woman called Rhoda and her journey towards redemption after she drunkenly crashes her car, kills a mother and child and bereaves a father.

Cleaning obviously acts as symbol for redemption in this film. Rhoda cleans furiously at the same time as the mysterious second Earth advances bringing with it the the possibility that a nicer, unsullied version of herself exists on the duplicate planet. But the act of cleaning is not only symbolic. Rhoda starts working without a written contract and only the skimpiest of verbal agreements. Her working conditions and hours are not monitored by the agency that she claims to work for. She proceeds nervously around the house, unsure about what she can and cannot touch, until the physical closeness with her employer tips over into emotional and eventually sexual contact. None of this strikes the viewer as strange because we accept that domestic work in real life is unregulated, informal and often emotionally fraught.

Perhaps even more interesting than Rhoda, however, is her ancient janitorial colleague Purdeep. Purdeep appears in only six scenes in the film and, like so many on-screen servants, is largely silent. One day, however, Rhoda turns up at work to discover that Purdeep has been hospitalised after pouring bleach into his eyes and ears. He did it, his replacement explains, because he couldn't bear to look at, or hear himself any longer.

Reviewers of the film have noted that Purdeep, like Rhoda, seems to be chasing absolution for some undisclosed sin in his past life. When Rhoda visits him in the hospital she appears to confirm this by tracing the word 'forgive' onto his palm. But the viewer is not given any clue as to what his crime could be. Perhaps, then, we should seek other explanations. Purdeep has spent his life cleaning up after others - perhaps his 'sin' is nothing more than a perceived inability to rise beyond the conditions life has granted him. After all, as Rhoda's employer says, 'nobody enjoys cleaning'.

This beautiful post on the film puts it best:

In humanity’s eternal war against entropy it’s cleaners, underpaid and ignored, who are the frontline troops, tidying up our mess, putting things straight and making it so we can live another day... Purdeep leaves you wondering, makes you worry, like that grain of dirt that escapes the sweeper’s broom, that bit of entropy that always gets away.

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