‘You could do a lot with this place’: film therapy during a housing crisis

Roberta climbs a grimy fire escape in Koreatown with uncertainty. Suspended laundry zigzags across an airshaft and reeking Manhattan sidewalks are tangible. ‘People live here?’ she inquires earnestly. In Susan Seidelman’s rendering of New York City circa 1985, they do. Her film, Desperately Seeking Susan, is a series of carefully composed frames, an authentic snapshot of the city. In her depiction of an island on the precipice of change, popcorn is still $2.50, magic clubs employ cigarette girls and lovers communicate through classifieds. The crosshairs of Seidelman’s charming comedy have captured a shifting landscape, one sliding further from the counterculture, where grifters and hustlers reign, inching closer to a decade now defined by excess and greed.

Once inside, Roberta scans cavernous loft occupied by Dez. ‘You know, you could do a lot with this place. There’s a lot of light!’ And she’s right. The converted warehouse has excellent bones too – timber floorboards and internal columns. The light Roberta talks of spills through the west facing windows, a golden blaze bouncing across the surface of the Hudson before ricocheting off the Empire State Building as the sun sets beyond New Jersey. Later in the film, artificial light blinks from the fish tank, washing Roberta in magenta and aquamarine. In living colour, she is rendered like a heroine from one of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. Even in the depths of her amnesia, Roberta, a housewife from Fort Lee, knows hot property when she sees it.

Indulging in cinematic spaces like this – loft apartments occupied by single artist types – is a salve amidst the current housing crisis in Australia. Dez, a cinema projectionist, eats Chinese takeout and swigs tequila on his rooftop. A saxophone wails from a nearby building and a gentle breeze plays with the soft tangle of his new wave hair. These viewing habits, the enthusiastic study of filmic trips, have become my guilty pleasure as I grit my teeth through another brutal winter.

The rental duplex I share with my boyfriend has a lot of light, too, and great bones, but it’s not built to withstand the extreme temperatures of a city that dips below zero in its coldest months and roasts over long summers. Through June, July and August, our breath is visible in the kitchen, the olive oil in our pantry coagulates and toilet water steams during use. We’ve taped bubble wrap to windows and fixed foil to walls to stave off the biting cold that snaps through the floorboards. Our efforts to stay mildly comfortable, are failures – the electricity bill defies belief. The Canberra Summer is equally grueling, as our bedroom becomes an untenable hellfire in the first months of the New Year. Our bi-annual request for air-conditioning is steadily ignored by our landlord. During the 2019 bushfire season, Canberra recorded the worst air quality in the world, forcing us to retreat elsewhere as our apartment filled with hazardous smoke for weeks on end. Still, our pleas went without notice.

Enduring these unremitting cycles provides motivation to hunt for property but that search usually ends in frustration as we snap our laptops shut – minds boggling at how much is beyond our reach.

Old houses in our neighborhood, like the one we hemorrhage our wages into, fetch well over the million-dollar mark at auction. Purchasing a townhouse in a nearby development, off the plan, will set you back about the same. An apartment above our local coffee shop recently sold for double that. No yard, no doorman, no views of water. Two million dollars for a few rooms in a neighborhood once populated with share houses and utilitarian student accommodation designed by Harry Seidler, now snatched at pre-auction for eye-watering sums.


Across state lines and in another dimension, the scrappy Susan (played by Madonna) sprawls poolside eating Cheez Doodles. After roaming the wallpapered corridors of Roberta’s house, she too is perplexed. People live here? Reclining in a chocolate brown tub, fully clothed, she eyeballs Roberta’s husband, the unnerved Larry. He delivers an anxious sales pitch that ultimately falls flat: ‘It’s one of our most popular items. You can install it in any bathroom and it increases the resale value of your house or condominium.’

Susan, who freshens up in public restrooms and whose belongings fit inside a suitcase the size of a hatbox, is bemused. ‘I didn’t say I wanted to buy one.’

Occupying this parallel universe, albeit temporarily, Susan fights the duality of her desires, understanding the value in comfort, but innately recognizing its trappings. Toying with Larry’s suburban sensibilities, she smirks, pulling a joint from inside her boot and sparking it, ‘I could get used to this.’

Not too far from Koreatown, south on 6th and west along 14th, lives Alex Forest, a literary editor brought to life by Glenn Close. She lives alone in the Meatpacking District – an neighborhood named after its chief industry, infamous for its BDSM clubs. Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction is perhaps responsible for singlehandedly disrupting the all-American family ideal with one of cinemas most enduring sequences. Upon its release in 1987, the phrase ‘bunny boiler’ was swiftly cemented within the pop culture lexicon. Now approaching its thirty-fifth anniversary, the movie deserves revisiting not only to appreciate its pitch perfect direction, but to lust over its ageless production design too. Contemporary thrillers rarely feel so tense, or look this good.

The apartment, a hazy oasis in monochrome, is brilliantly contrasted against a shadowy backdrop: scorched hallways that open onto cobblestone streets, animal carcasses swinging from meat hooks and bin fires that burn with ominous ferocity. Inside, diffused light casts Alex in atmospheric texture. Ceiling fans spin overhead and dark hardwood floors offer an illusory weight to her floating sanctuary. Whitewashed walls (in brick and timber cladding), eclectic furniture, and the soft glow of lamplight, render a cozy pre-industrial aesthetic. Aside from the exercise bike in chrome and white, installed like a Jeff Koons sculpture by the bed, this bubble of singledom has largely bypassed the garish trends of the decade. Instead, it borrows ideas from a timeless look-book favored by curator and collector Sam Wagstaff, whose expansive penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue boasted exposed beams, spotless white floors and potted avocado trees. In this humble homage, cast iron columns prop the ceiling and glass partitions, remnants of its working-class history, divide the bedroom and living spaces. The bathroom, which features prominently in the alternate ending, also offers a two-toned vignette. Walls of white ceramic envelope the claw-footed tub. Classic penny tiles pave the floor. Sheer curtains billow in timber window frames.

As developers and governments work doggedly to squeeze us into mid- to high-density micro-apartments at unattainable prices, it’s hard not to covet this holistic hideaway. Before the axis of her world tilts beyond repair, it’s easy to imagine Alex at home, cooking spaghetti sauce at the floating kitchen island, fixing one last vodka tonic as she scans another manuscript. She inhabits her sanctuary with ease, dressed in oversized white cotton t-shirts and that off-the-shoulder dress. And her home is a sanctuary – not only from the chaos of her working life – but the brutality of her psychological hinterland. Home is where she sweats away the anguish and agony on her exercise bike, silencing the white noise of her mind with Madame Butterfly. This carefully curated scene of domicile is a medicinal maneuver, not only designed for aesthetic appreciation, but essentially, as a soft place to land in an unrelenting world.


‘We could put our bedroom upstairs and that will leave us with all this space!’

‘For what?’

These are Sam and Molly, the couple responsible for turning the pottery wheel into an obscene instrument of foreplay in the 1990 film Ghost. They are also the poster couple for gentrification as they renovate a disbanded apartment in a burgeoning neighbourhood still clambering from its shadowy history. From here, the echoes of downtown artists still register amidst the lingering AIDS crisis.

Established ceramic artist Molly as an eye for detail and understands the fundamental role space plays in life and work. Imaginary grids are drawn as she mixes colour palettes in her mind, matching lilac doors with buttercup walls and glass bricks. She gazes into the near future, instinctively aware of what waits beyond the horizon – a world where room to move, to live and flourish, even breathe, might not be as readily available. She’s almost apologetic in response to Sam’s question, ashamed by her aspirations, her longing. Unable to articulate this base desire beyond a couple of words, she flashes a quick smile and shrugs: ‘Just … space.’

The days of snapping up the worst house on the best block, or a disbanded apartment in an old building, are over. With urban housing affordability now critically unattainable we’ve been encouraged, like many, to adjust our expectations, to be less picky, to look further afield. When scrutinising our options – to commute, to uproot, to compromise –we’ve discovered bedsits in outer suburbs going to auction and fixer-uppers exceeding the expectations of the most hardened real estate agents. Dreams of happening across a ‘renovators delight’ in a pocket still awaiting discovery now only exist on that intangible plane of fantasy and desire, inside celluloid imaginings.


Molly’s response about space may strike us as flippant or whimsical, but the stress of overcrowding in contemporary settings – high-rise towers and sprawling satellite suburbs, both void of basic infrastructure, absent of community and green space, lacking in connectivity – are additional layers requiring serious consideration in this mad climate. Molly might be wedged into a throbbing metropolis, a city that never sleeps, but her Soho loft hums in muted pastels as daylight streams through grimy windows. Geometric patterns are projected across towering walls and recessed down lights illuminate framed artworks. Molly is in possession of a discerning eye, an eclectic sensibility. Tripod desk lamps sidle up to modern sculpture and Spanish colonial woodcarvings sit against a backdrop of Bristol blue glass bottles; the overall effect is an apartment that walks a line between home and showroom– a studio space that is simultaneously comfortable and commanding.

Midway through the film, sitting atop the floating staircase, Molly slumps against the mezzanine wall, legs splayed. She rolls a mason jar holding an Indian Head penny, a pre-renovation remnant from Sam, ‘for luck’ (he has since been murdered). Wrestling grief, Molly mimics the distraught Alex – propped by the white bricks of her bedroom, sending distress signals into the ether through the flickering of her bedside lamp. Inside their solo temples these women, tormented by men, crumble in isolation: a cold comfort in trying times, but a morbid luxury in the context of here and now.

In the original script, Molly was supposed to hurl the jar at a wall, her rage manifest in the shattering glass. Instead, Moore nudges it over timber steps, where it’s smashed into tiny shards – the hopeless symbol of a life in pieces. The gravity of this small scene is epic, as she hovers in silence overlooking her habitat – an unboiled Alessi kettle on the gas cooker and Japanese apple pears uneaten. Her home has become a still life arrested in time; a passive curatoreum waiting patiently while she drags herself from the wreckage of despair.

The opening frames of Ghost depict the apartment as a yawning tomb. a hidden treasure awaiting discovery. It’s a dramatic contrast with the closing sequence, which presents Molly’s sphere of influence as a living organism – an interior capable of transcending its inanimate self. The apartment literally assists in her escape from Sam’s killer: ladders, scaffolding and exposed beams offer slight getaways inside a neighbouring property – another vacant lot harboured within this downtown building, further illustrating abundance and availability. Enormous windows responsible for so much light eventually shatter, skewering Carl in a grisly death. Like Alex Forest’s apartment on the far West Side; a safe space offering momentary respite from turmoil. Molly’s investment ultimately saves her, and suddenly that throwaway line about space really begins to agitate. Home can be many things – showroom or humble abode; lofty and light filled, rambling or ordinary; but the security provided by ownership is the motivating factor driving these base desires – aspirations of freedom, agency and option. Benefits afforded to few, getting fewer. Molly hasn’t only secured herself something precious and beautiful, she has found a fortress: a home that doesn’t punish but protects.

Her response to Sam in that opening scene is aspirational in tone, or maybe just smug. All that height and room was, after all, a possibility worth reaching for and. more pointedly, a possibility available to them because of their privilege. Access and opportunity no longer feel attainable in an age where we’ve lurched well beyond a tipping point – landing in a world where space will never again be ‘Just … space’.


Samuel Townsend

Samuel Townsend is a Canberra-based writer and artist. His work has been featured in Overland, Rip Publishing, Creative Road and BMA magazine. As a 2020 funding recipient for ArtsACT, he is currently working on a collection of essays that explore the humour and horror of high school as a queer teacher.

More by Samuel Townsend ›

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  1. That’s why they call it the ‘dream factory’ Samuel.
    Although, with all the pro war propaganda they spew out, it’s more like a nightmare assembly line.

  2. Fascinating parallels Sam..let’s hope basic human needs and dignity can challenge expansive quests for luxury and greed – thank you!

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