Weak and Wounded: “Session 9”, Work, and Insurgent Femininity

By Benjamin Noys |

“A Martian who hijacked the stock of the average video store would reasonably conclude that humans spent far more of their time engaged in sex than in work.” [1] Michael Denning’s joke probably needs updating. The Martian might rely on browsing the Internet to conclude the same today; although they might also reflect on all the work, gendered work, involved in most of that “sex.” There is a double invisibility: work replaced by sex, and sex work replaced by sex. This is why I want to discuss Brad Anderson’s 2001 “horror” film Session 9.

Session 9 is film that renders work visible. It concerns five workers clearing asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital outside Boston, and was filmed on location at the hospital, which was closed in 1982. The rush-job contract is agreed by the company owner, Gordon Fleming (played by Peter Mullan), and the film is staged during the week in which he and his team are clearing the hospital. The team consists of Mike (Stephen Gevedon), a law school drop-out, Phil (David Caruso), Hank (Josh Lucas), who is in a relationship with Phil’s ex-girlfriend, and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), Gordon’s nephew. The work is classically post-industrial: clearing the state-run asylum for redevelopment. This is industrial work – carried out by manual labor, also with machines, and dealing with life-threatening material – but work that paves the way for the end of work. The remnants of the past, state medical provision, are cleared-up and the work is precarious, contract-driven, temporary and finite.

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This is work done by men. The team of men is typical to the point of cliché. Mike, who is wasting himself in the work while he could have been a lawyer – the post-industrial profession; Phil and Hank, embittered and bored co-workers left fighting over the never seen girlfriend; Jeff, the newbie, cynically inducted by his co-workers into a pointless and dangerous job; finally Gordon, the decent owner/manager, driven to desperate measures by the pressure of the market and the need to “provide” for his wife and child. Work is visible, but gender is present as the structuring absence of male work. These are also white men. In the director’s commentary it is remarked that Peter Mullan, a Scottish actor, was often mistaken by audiences for Irish, also given the film’s Boston location. There is the trace of another history here: of “how the Irish became white.” [2] While the film’s director and co-writer are keen in their commentary to both disavow interpretation and tempt us with it, the film, I’ll suggest, offers a vision of the “last days of the American working class”; [3] Better, and more literally, it is a film of the very last days of the working class.

The visual style of the film, as revealed on the director’s and co-writers commentary, is heavily indebted to Stanley Kubrick, and more particularly The Shining (1980). As one of the first films to use High-Definition (HD) video, which gives a denser image, this is exploited with Kubrickesque long shots and tracking shots around the hospital. Similarly to The Shining, this allows the building itself to figure as stage and character, as site of contamination – both of the asbestos being cleared and of the haunting effects of the pain and suffering of the patients. In fact, as the accompanying documentary reveals, the actual Danvers Hospital was once a model institution of “moral therapy,” treating the patients relatively well, before declining into a “snake pit” as a result of overcrowding. The filming style also presents the camaraderie, always tinged with competition and hostility, of male work. The meetings between the men, as they work on the building, are often rendered from a distance, or in wide shots, which instantiates the proximity and distance of the male world of work.

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Gender is crucial to the film as a structuring dynamic of the instability of labor, with precarity “rising” into this male world of work. [4] As Aaron Benanav notes, since 1973 women’s employment has become more regular, while men’s employment has become more irregular. In the film this is figured in the insurgent threat and demand of femininity that men cannot or will not answer. Mike recounts that the asylum was closed not only due to the general closure of the large institutions, with the rise of neoliberal “care in the community,” but also for a more specific reason. The hospital had a long history of psychiatric abuse, especially lobotomies, but was closed thanks to a Satanic-abuse scandal. Patricia Willard, a young woman patient, reported being the victim of satanic sexual abuse by her family. Mike tells the story that, after the hospital was sued by the family, it was revealed that Patricia was a virgin.

While clearing the hospital Mike uncovers a series of tapes of therapy sessions with a patient, Mary Hobbes, who was suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). This obviously references the famous case of “Sybil,” subject of a 1973 book by Flora Rheta Schreiber and a 1976 film. The original case has proved typically controversial, with accusations that “Sybil,” real name Shirley Ardell Mason, was not suffering from “dissociative personality disorder,” as MPD is now categorized, but hysteria or a physical illness; whatever the truth, which is impossible to ascertain, Sybil, as book and film, was a powerful cultural articulation of child abuse and the fragmentation of the personality. Sybil’s “alters,” her alternative personalities, embody, or enter a body, as the multiple figures of “femininity,” from the optimistic teenager to the maternal, with two male “alters”: both, interestingly, carpenters and handymen. The identification of masculinity with craft labor echoes uncannily in Session 9.

In Session 9 Mary has three “alters”: the princess, childlike and innocent, Billy, who “lives in the eyes,” and Simon, who hardly speaks. Mary’s fragmentation is focused on an incident which occurred on Christmas night in Lowell 22 years before the sessions, involving Mary and her brother Peter. Parallel to the revelations that emerge from Hank listening to these sessions, we also have the confession by Gordon that he is estranged from his wife after he hit her when she accidentally knocked a pot of boiling water on his leg. Gordon’s frequent calls to his wife in the film have not been signs of care, but attempts to apologize. The film’s portrait of masculine work is sensitive, even neutral, managing not to romanticize the camaraderie or the exclusion and fear of the feminine. Instead, with its “distant” view of the characters moving through space, in work and on breaks, it probes these fears and anxieties surrounding the absent feminine.

Eventually we learn that since entering the hospital, Gordon has been “possessed,” or has suffered a breakdown. In one of the first scenes he hears a voice say “hello Gordon”. That is the moment of his collapse. Unknown to us, after the boiling water incident Gordon murdered his wife and child. Throughout the film he is “calling” his dead wife, and the images we see of his wife and child are memories or hallucinations. While the work continues day-by-day, Gordon embarks on a new killing spree, first lobotomizing Hank, before going on to kill Phil, Mike and Jeff in a final rampage. The film leaves it open, to a degree, whether Gordon has gone mad or, somehow, been possessed by the genius loci of the hospital, or Mary’s murderous alter Simon, who killed Mary’s brother and family. The film ends with Simon’s voice, over an image of the hospital, saying “I live in the weak and wounded.”

The film, in this something like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), is an affair of men: men meeting, men talking, men working, and, finally, a man killing men. Women are voices, in the case of Mary Hobbes, and images, in the case of Gordon’s memories or hallucinations of the wife and child he has killed, viewed from a car across the street. Women are “pressure.” The implication is that Gordon’s madness is the result of the pressure on him to provide or the “invasion” through the voices that possess Mary Hobbes, or both. Finally, Gordon is identified with the “weak and wounded,” with femininity, in the figure of Mary Hobbes. This identification is made visually as Gordon adds photographs of his family to the wall of Mary Hobbes’s room, which she had covered with images of her family and various other drawings and scrawling. Gordon has been “absorbed” by the hospital.

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In Session 9 it may even be doubted that women exist, outside of being figments of male desire and fear, which is to say surrogate men. As this is a film that takes place through men, in the minds of men, perhaps even in the mind of Gordon, this banally “monstrous masculinity” lacks a capacity of justification. We are left with the clichés of the image of masculinity in collapse, and the deeply equivocal identification with femininity as the sign of the “weak and wounded.” The insecurity of precarity is answered by the “security” of incarceration, with Gordon the last and only patient of Danvers State Mental Hospital. The prison-house of class, that “working-class vibe” the film’s writer reports seeking in their choice of actors, leaves no place to go except, perhaps, into a recognition of the impossibility of that “vibe.” It’s perhaps too obvious that a film about the very last days of the American working class, the white male American working class, should be a horror film.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Fiona Price for invaluable discussions concerning Session 9.

 

Works Cited

[1] Michael Denning, Culture in the Age of Three Worlds. London and New York: Verso, 2004. Print, 91-2.

[2] Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. New York and London: Routledge, 1995. Print.

[3] Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: the 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York and London: The New Press, 2010. Print.

[4] Aaron Benanav, “Precarity Rising.” Viewpoint Magazine. June 15 2015: https://viewpointmag.com/2015/06/15/precarity-rising/. Digital.

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